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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
September - October 2002
Volume 34, Number 5
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 203
On the cover...
The Marlin Model 1894SS is outfitted with a 2.5x Weaver scope and the Model 1894CBC .38 Special features a color case finish. Rifle photo by Stan Trzoniec. Aoudad sheep photo by George Barnett.
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Officially, the service life of the Model 1903 Springfield came to an end in 1935 when the semiautomatic Garand was selected to replace it. However, if the “Mills of the Gods” grind slowly, government mills, when faced with unexpected problems, hardly grind at all. As it turned out, the Garand, the now-familiar M1, was a much more complicated rifle to manufacture than anyone had anticipated. Before any wheels could turn, a great deal of time was consumed designing and making the jigs and tools required to produce it. In the meantime, our small army kept right on training with and shooting the reliable but suddenly obsolete bolt actions.

When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and invaded the Philippines, the ‘03 swung into action, and it wasn’t until the Korean War sputtered to a close in the 1950s that the old Springfields fired their last shots in anger. Exactly when the Marines turned in their 03-A4 sniper rifles isn’t known, but that spelled the end of the rifle’s service life, the longest, to the best of my knowledge, of any U.S. model issued since 1776.

What set the 03s apart from other service arms was the genuine affection so many of the troops felt for them. Ever see anybody pat the stock of an M1? Or an AR-15? Me neither. I saw plenty of 03-toters do it though - and unashamedly too.

Several uncles of mine, who served in the First World War, made no secret of their respect for the rifle. During the Second War, I was constantly surprised at the number of old hands, non-coms mostly, who managed to hang onto their 03s long after their units had been issued M1s.

In addition to those produced at the two government facilities, Springfield and Rock Island, Remington Arms began turning them out toward the end of 1941. At first, it manufactured the standard Model 1903 - 348,085 of them, as a matter of fact - but in keeping with the old company’s tradition, its engineers immediately began figuring out what changes they could make in the basic design that would enable them to lower costs and increase production. The result of all that pondering and plotting was the Model 1903-A3.

I can still hear the hoots and groans that greeted the first sight we had of A3s. Nose and stock bands were stampings! So were magazine followers, trigger guard/floorplates and buttplates. Worst of all, some barrel exteriors still bore milling marks and were rifled with two instead of four grooves!

Before the war ended, Remington churned out more than a million A3s. Rifles were also manufactured by Smith-Corona, 236,831 by the time the shooting stopped.

Although nobody mentioned it at the time, the switch to A3s saved 11 pounds of steel per 100 rifles, and what was even more important, production time was cut to 50 percent of that needed to complete one of the old 03s. Those Remington engineers earned their pay when they dreamed up the A3s.

As much as some hated to admit it, A3s proved just as reliable and almost as accurate as the 03s. About the only significant difference between the two was the fact that two-groove barrels didn’t last quite as long as the four groovers when armor-piercing bullets were fired through them. That was a cheap price to pay for lower production costs and increased production.

My experience with 03s dates back to 1942. Since then, every known variation of the marque, including the Match and civilian models as well as a Griffin & Howe sporter, have passed through my hands. All, without exception, were accurate; with the aid of the issue iron sights, they would group five shots in 1.5 to 2.5 inches at 100 yards from the bench. An A4 sniper model, with its Weaver 330C (2.2x) scope anchored in Redfield Jr. mounts clustered five-shot strings from 1.25 to 1.5 inches. In Korea, Marines mounted 8x and 12x scopes and gave them high marks in combat.

Two 03s remain in my possession: a Mark I produced by the Springfield Armory in 1919 and an A3 manufactured by Smith-Corona in 1943. To make sure my memories of their accuracy were factual, both rifles were taken out to the range recently. Their magazines were stuffed with handloads featuring Speer 150-grain boat-tailed softpoints backed by 54.0 grains of W-760 and touched off with Remington 9 1/2M primers. Velocities, clocked 8 feet from the muzzles, averaged 2,660 fps from the 03 and 2,663 fps from the A3 - pretty close to the speeds of GI rounds clocked in the past. Extreme velocity spreads of 10 rounds sent over the Oehler’s traps ranged from 33 to 39 fps.

At 100 yards, from the bench, four, five-shot strings huddled in 1.5 to 2.0 inches from the 03 (sighting through the tiny aperture) and 2.0 to 2.25 inches from the A3 - and keep in mind this shooter’s eyes are well-used.

Mark I 03s are easy to identify. The legend “Mark I” is stamped on the forward receiver ring. In addition, there’s a small ejection port (1.3 inches long) machined in the left side of the receiver’s bolt channel. The sear slot is lengthened too. Those modifications were performed to permit the rifles to accept what was called the Pederson Device.

Invented by J.D. Pederson, a well-known and highly respected arms designer during the first part of the last century, it consisted of a semiautomatic body/chamber that could be slipped into an 03’s receiver in place of the bolt. A 40-round magazine slipped into the top of the Pederson action. The unit’s cartridges looked like pistol rounds and were slightly more than an inch long. They featured 80-grain roundnosed, .30-caliber bullets that clocked around 1,300 fps from the 03’s 24-inch barrel.

Created with World War I’s trench warfare in mind, the device gave each soldier so armed a semiautomatic rifle, capable of delivering 40 bullets as fast as he could pull the trigger. Since the little missiles were lethal for several hundred yards, any infantry outfit so equipped could lay down a fearsome and deadly barrage, one that could break up an enemy charge or reinforce an attack of their own.

Although Pederson’s brainchild was approved and produced in numbers, World War I ended before any could be used in combat. The exact number manufactured is subject to argument, but 65,000 of them were placed in storage in 1919. Twelve years later, 64,873 of them plus sixty million rounds of ammunition were destroyed. As always, a few of the gadgets escaped the crusher and found their way into collectors’ hands. Years ago, I had an opportunity to examine one but never saw it fired.

At least 101,775 03s were listed as Mark Is. According to its barrel markings, mine was assembled in December 1919. Records indicate that Mark Is were manufactured as late as 1920. As numerous taxpayers have noticed, it often takes longer to stop a government program than it does to get one started.

It was often alleged that 03s were designed and built by target shooters. There’s probably some truth to that charge. Take the sights, for instance: That rear leaf is adjustable for both windage and elevation, graduated from 200 to 2,850 yards and equipped with an aperture .05 inch in diameter. Apparently, the sight’s creators envisioned combat as a leisurely, relatively long-distance affair with 03-armed infantrymen braced in rock-steady shooting positions and blessed with plenty of time to judge range and wind, set sights accordingly and make each shot count. Hence the slender, relatively fragile and completely unprotected front blade - and the painfully small aperture.

With time no problem and in good light, I’ve recorded a fair number of 1.25- and 1.5-inch groups with such sights - from the bench, of course. Nonetheless, it’s an extremely slow sight to use in the field, too slow for combat and almost impossible to see through if there isn’t plenty of light.

The rear sight on the A3 is much more practical. Also adjustable for windage and elevation, its range graduations extend from 200 to a more reasonable 800 yards. Mounted on the rear of the receiver, it is closer to the shooter’s eyes and, best of all, protected by stout guard wings on each side. Its aperture is .1 inch in diameter, enabling a rifleman to align sights and target quickly. Moreover, the aperture’s field of view is generous enough at combat ranges to permit a decent lead when shooting at moving targets. Although A3 sights probably weren’t produced with the care lavished on the 03’s, it is certainly a far superior battle sight.

Most 03 stocks were shaped from black walnut. Other woods of similar quality were used during World War II. Stocks were dyed with logwood stain until 1928 when that step was eliminated as a cost-cutting move. Logwood-stained stocks are easy to spot, thanks to their reddish hue.

Most 03s feature the Type S stock, a plain-jane design with no pistol grip. Type C stocks flaunted pistol grips. A few early Remington-made 03s sported C stocks, but the vast majority were reserved for the Match and Sporter Springfields. Eventually, A4 sniper rifles were fitted with them too.

Most 03 stocks were a shade too short for anyone taller than 5 feet, 6 inches - at least, they were in warm weather. When temperatures fell and extra layers of clothing were added, those old rifles fit more comfortably. Length of pull, the distance between butt and trigger, ran from 12.5 inches to 12.75 inches. That same dimension ranged from 12.8 inches to 13.3 inches on A3s I’ve been able to measure.

Weights of 03s ranged from 8 3/4 to 9 1/2 pounds, depending on wood density. Probably 90 percent of those checked personally were right around the 9-pound mark.

They were exceptionally well-balanced rifles. Loaded with five rounds in their magazines, balance points are just about where barrels screw into receivers. Perhaps because their weight is distributed so evenly, they are natural pointers and exceedingly steady-holding. If you ever get a chance to shoot an as-issued 03, try a few rounds offhand. You’ll be surprised at how well, and how often, you can hit with one of those veteran bolt actions.

Critics ridiculed the two-piece firing pin and insisted Springfield actions simply weren’t as smooth operating as Mauser 98s. Granted, the firing pin’s design, supposedly an economy measure, wasn’t the action’s best feature, but as far as manipulation is concerned, every 03 that has come my way, GI and sporting, worked beautifully. Bolts opened, slid back and forth and locked with a minimal amount of urging. Chambering and ejection were always positive and problem-free.

If memory can be depended on, though, 03 triggers were characterized by excessive travel, giving them sort of a mushy feel. That isn’t true of the two in my rack. Whether somebody worked on them before they came my way or they just saw enough use to wear everything in properly is anyone’s guess. Both are easy to control and blessed with match-grade let-offs. Pull weight on the Mark I varies from 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 pounds; that of the A3’s from 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 pounds.

There are still plenty of 03s and A3s around, but most have shed their GI stocks and hardware. Springfield actions and barreled actions have served as the basis for thousands of sporters. It’s a rare gun shop that doesn’t have a few in its used rifle racks. Undoubtedly the most famous are those turned out by the old firm of Griffin & Howe. Former President Teddy Roosevelt took one along on his favorite African safari and had a high opinion of both rifle and cartridge. Needless to say, that kind of publicity didn’t hurt the 03’s reputation.

After World War II shuddered to a close, our government decided to sell off the 03 inventory. The Director of Civilian Marksmanship, with the help of the National Rifle Association, began advertising them around 1947. A3s sold for $51.85. Those I saw appeared unfired. Later, in 1961, “Unclassified” A3s were offered for $14.50 – that’s correct: $14.50. The meaning of “Unclassified” was never really made clear to me. Each rifle was declared safe to fire, and again, those I saw looked as though they had never been issued. Everyone who purchased one of those rifles seemed more than satisfied with them. I don’t ever recall hearing any gripes about functioning or accuracy.

A surprising number of those old service rifles are still on semi-active duty. They can be seen on the shoulders of American Legion and VFW color guards most every national holiday. For some inexplicable reason, some have had their metallic parts chrome-plated, but beneath those glittering exteriors, they are the same old 03s and A3s that came to this country’s rescue so long ago.

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