The U.S. military got a comprehensive education in sniping during World War I. Troops at the time were shooting Springfield Armory M1903 rifles equipped with either the 1908 or 1913 model Warner & Swasey (W&S) telescopic musket sights. Dismal in performance by today’s standards, these sights represented the best technology of the times. Both had an odd sight offset and a mounting system that made it difficult for the shooter to put accurate rounds on target.
While only two models of W&S sights saw action during World War I, there were other telescopic sights in use within the military’s competitive shooting teams, and a few of them were in testing to be fielded. With the W&S sight offset issue solved, the Winchester A5 and Winchester Model 1918 scopes showed great promise. However, as soon as World War I ended, the military halted further funding, testing or fielding of these fine scopes.
The next time sniper rifles and optics hit the military’s radar was in March 1941. The U.S. wasn’t involved in World War II yet, but the war was already raging in Europe. The United States Army Ordnance Department made design improvements to the M1903 rifle and awarded Remington a contract to produce them. On September 11, 1941, Remington received its first order to produce 208,000 M1903s with a specified rate of 1,000 rifles per day. On November 24, 1941, the production order was increased by another 74,000 rifles, and on December 13, 1941 it increased again, by another 100,000.
By October 1943, most M1903 rifle orders would be modified to specify an M1903A3 variant, and by early 1943, the Ordnance Board gave Remington orders to begin production of the M1903A4 variant.
The U.S. military was short on sniper rifles, and there was little thought or selection given to their design. The A4s weren’t much more than a M1903A3 rifle, except that they were modified to accept a commercially available telescopic sight. They had a scope mount attached to the top of the receiver, the front sight was removed and a pistol grip stock, similar to the M1903A1, along with a modified bolt handle was incorporated to allow the bolt handle to clear the scope when cycled.
In the rush to field sniper rifles, the first wave of scopes were purchased right off the shelf from W.R. Weaver Co., the 2.5X Model 330C. That same scope was later purchased under a military contract as the M73B1. (The two only differ in external markings.) When the M73B1 scopes were unavailable, Lyman Alaskan scopes were pressed into service. Unfortunately, very little is known about the Lyman scopes or the actual quantities issued. Additional 2.2X scopes were provided with the M1903A4 during World War II and they included the M81 and M82. The M81 featured a crosshair reticle and the M82 a post reticle.
While the U.S. Army was busy issuing scoped M1903A4 rifles in massive numbers, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) adopted a different approach. Up until about 2009, Marines took sniping much more seriously than other military branches, with a proven sniping program. Regardless of their small numbers, today’s U.S. Special Operations community enjoys better funding and superior equipment than both Big Army or the USMC. As a result (and in my opinion), U.S. Special Operations currently turns out a better-trained and better-equipped snipers. Still, the Marine Corps was the uncontested world sniping champion for World War I and II, and in both Korean and Vietnam.
Part of the reason the Marine Corps sniping program was so successful was their willingness to invest the time and effort to build each issued rifle correctly. When World War II began, USMC sniper rifles came from the Marine Corps shooting team armorers. Each rifle started life as an ’03 match rifle built to incredibly demanding standards. Marine Corps rifles had hand-selected barrels and each saw a star-gauge before being built by the most experienced, best-trained Marine armorers of the Precision Weapons Section (PWS).
So-called “star-gauged” barrels have a bit of a mythical status among ’03 aficionados, but all that means is that an armorer ran a gauge through the bore to check the condition of the rifling prior to assembly. Many ’03 experts, including author Lt. Col. William Brophy, were skeptical of the star gauge’s effectiveness. In Brophy’s opinion, “To interpolate between one one-thousandth-inch graduation to read the gauge to the ten-thousandth of an inch was somewhat guesswork.” I, like Brophy, am skeptical that almost every barrel rolling out of Springfield Armory in the early 20th century was so consistent — down to the ten-thousandth of an inch — that the gauge couldn’t detect any differences between the barrels.
Star-gauge trivia aside, Marine armorers were tasked to build the shooting team rifles and, if they were anything like their modern-day counterparts, Marine snipers knew their occupation well. Brig. Gen. Van Orden, USMC (Ret.), told Lt. Col. Brophy that the Marine Corps rifles were built to National Match (NM) standards by the U.S. Marine Corps Depot of Supply Activity in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Van Orden said that the Marine depot had been building rifles for the competitive shooting team for years, and that their rifles were every bit the equal to Springfield Armory’s match rifles.
All USMC M1903A1 sniper rifles bearing the 8X Unertl scope were easily recognized by the fact that they were built on 1903A1 rifles and not the A3 or A4 models. USMC rifles also have the handguard professionally modified to accept the larger objective bell of the Unertl scope.
While original M1903A4 or USMC M1903A1 scoped rifles are becoming harder to find among collectors, it’s now easier than ever to source better-than-original glass to help replicas appear identical to those rifles carried by snipers in World War II. Hi-Lux Optics currently offers three period-correct models that would be at home on a M1903A4 and the USMC M1903A1 sniper rifles.
The Hi-Lux Difference
The Hi-Lux Malcolm M73G4 is a 2.5X scope that is externally identical to the Weaver 330C and M73B1, but with two differences: It has slightly more magnification (2.5X instead of 2.2X) and is marked with “USMC Scope M73G4, Hi-Lux Optics.” The Hi-Lux Malcolm M73G4 has a fine crosshair reticle and is optically superior to the 1940s scopes. Advancements in lens composition and coatings are what give the M73G4 a huge advantage over what was originally issued.
Tube Diameter: .75 in.
Elevation Adjustment: 60 MOA, .5 MOA per click
Windage Adjustment: 60 MOA, .5 MOA per click
Reticle: Crosshair, fine
Length: 11.8 in.
Weight: 8.3 oz.
Eye Relief: 3.54 in.
The Hi-Lux Malcolm 2.5X M82G2 is another scope that would be historically correct if mounted to a M1903A4. These scopes came later in the war and featured post reticles. Like the M73G4, they are optically superior.
Tube Diameter: .75 in.
Elevation Adjustment: 80 MOA, .5 MOA per click
Windage Adjustment: 80 MOA, .5 MOA per click
Reticle: Crosswire, 3 post
Length: 11 in. (12 in. w/ sunshade ext.)
Weight: 12.9 oz.
Eye Relief: 3.5 in.
While the early World War II-period Marine Corps rifles wore the M73B1 scope, later rifles had the 8X Unertl. How many of these scopes made it into the field is unknown, but paperwork from October 1943 documents a late shipment of 350 Unertl-topped rifles. (To this day, the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions would still like to know where they are located.)
The Malcolm 8X USMC sniper scope is also a recreation of what the Marines were pining for in October 1943. It has a fine-wire reticle and is a near-clone of the Unertl, a scope the USMC put in service for World War II.
Tube Diameter: .75 in.
Elevation Adjustment: 12.5 MOA, .25 MOA per click
Windage Adjustment: 12.5 MOA, .25 MOA per click
Reticle: Crosshair, fine
Length: 23 in.
Weight: 1 lb., 5 oz.
Eye Relief: 3.15 in.
All three Hi-Lux scopes are Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) approved for vintage sniper matches. I’m thankful that Hi-Lux continues to offer these scopes, not only because of the improved performance, but because they allow for preservation of the originals.