February 25, 2016
By Garry James
There are those who, with some justification, consider the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield to be the most beautiful bolt-action military rifle ever issued. This opinion has considerable merit — but aside from being sleek and stylish, the 1903 Springfield is also, beautifully made, reliable, rugged and accurate.
The fit, finish and design of the rifle was of a quality unknown in today's military arms. It was produced in government armories by truly skilled workmen who, despite the fact that it was intended as general military issue, still took pride in the product they turned out.
The "Springfield" as it came to be called, was actually a follow on from another beautifully-made arm, the .30-40 Krag Jorgensen. To be fair, there was no difference in the inherent quality of the two arms, simply one of design. The Krag was an oddball Norwegian bolt-action with a unique side-mounted magazine that could not be clip loaded. With the emergence of other fine foreign and domestic military rifle designs, the Krag became virtually obsolescent from the time it was issued. A replacement was obviously necessary.
What finally emerged in 1903 was a handsome five-shot bolt-action that employed a variant of the '98 Mauser action. Actually, it was something of an improvement over the Mauser Gewehr 98 in that it was shorter and a bit easier to handle. The finish of the gun was exquisite with most parts highly polished and blued.
Initially, the 1903 Springfield was chambered in a new .30-03 caliber. The cartridge employed a rimless, necked-down case with a 220-grain round-nosed bullet that left the muzzle of the 24-inch barrel at some 2,300 feet-per-second (fps).
Though the round was certainly adequate for military work, when the Germans adopted a superior pointed spitzer bullet in 1904, the Americans followed suit with their own version that had a 150-grain cupro-nickel-jacketed bullet that boosted the older round's velocity by some 400 fps. The famed .30-06 was born. Existing guns were altered, and all new ones were chambered in the updated round.
Also, the original 1903 Springfield was equipped with a integral rod bayonet. President Theodore Roosevelt took one look at the flimsy setup, had a fit, and the guns were altered with a shorter stock and more traditional front band that incorporated a stud for a 16-inch-bladed knife Bayonet.
By 1905, the 1903 had achieved its familiar look.
From the beginning the 1903 Springfield was highly thought of by all who used it. Despite the name "Springfield," some 345,779 03s were also manufactured at Rock Island Armory, though this was just a small portion of the almost a million and a half rifles that were originally turned out between 1903 and 1927
The Model 1903 Springfield was an adaptable arm. Many were turned to sniper use during the Great War using an elaborate Warner-Swasey scope, some were stripped down and fitted with extended 25-shot magazine for air service in observation balloons, and others were set up to take a curious semi-automatic repeating mechanism designed by John D. Pedersen, but it was made too late for use in WWI. There were also .22 trainer and target variants.
Too, the Springfield proved itself to be an excellent match rifle, and several different versions were set up from the early 1920s into 1940. Even though the 1903 Springfield was replaced by the M1 Garand semi-auto in 1936, when the U.S. entered World War II, a simplified, parkerized version of the '03, called the Model 1903A3 that used many stamped parts was manufactured by Remington and Smith-Corona. While most 'A3s never saw combat, scoped versions of the rifle, the 1903A4, ended up being the principal U.S. sniper rifle of World War II.
There's an old saying to effect that the Mauser was a hunting rifle, the Enfield a battle rifle and the Springfield a target rifle. My guess is that thousands of those American soldiers who were issued the '03 and took them to Mexico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Europe and The Pacific were more than happy to have such a rugged, hard-hitting "target" rifle in their hands. Most certainly in the case of the '03, beauty is as beauty does.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine