Rare M1903 Springfield Rifles
By Joel Kolander
U.S. military arms are hot collectors items right now. M1911 prices are rapidly increasing, M1 Garands are being scooped up at a frantic pace, and many folks are developing an appreciation for the bolt actions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Krag-Jörgensen is a fine bolt gun by any standard, the M1917 is smooth as silk, and the M1903 is an American classic. It’s funny to think of these three bolt actions being “American” rifles, given that none actually originated in the United States, but their quality and history have endeared them to collectors and shooters alike. Not to mention that they can be collected at almost any price point and in numerous variations. Today, we take a look at four rare variations of the trusty M1903 service rifle appearing in our February Regional Firearms Auction – a massive FOUR day event offering more than 10,000 firearms.
“It was originally chambered in what?”
When the M1903 was originally produced, it used a built-in ramrod bayonet and was chambered for .30-03 cartridges. No, that caliber is not a typo. Approximately 74,000 had been produced when in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt put a kibbosh on the rod bayonet stating in a January 4, 1905 dated letter to the Secretary of War, “I must say that I think the ramrod bayonet about as poor an invention as I ever saw. As you observed, it broke off as soon as hit with even moderate violence. It would have no moral effect and mighty little physical effect.” Thus, on May 5, 1905 a new bayonet was adopted, cleverly titled the Model 1905, with strong similarities to that seen on the Krag-Jörgensen rifles the ’03 was to replace. Unfortunately, this also meant that existing rifles would have to be converted to remove the existing hardware and have the new bayonet lugs, sights, and handguards implemented. This change resulted in very few surviving rod bayonet examples, making them a welcome prize to any collector fortunate enough to own one. However, the changes for the ’03 were not yet finished.
The round nose, rimless, 220 gr. .30-03 cartridges (a.k.a. .30-45) were experiencing numerous difficulties: inaccurate at long range, produced high pressures that were hard on the bore, and were relatively slow compared to its European counterparts. These issues were quickly remedied by reformulating the powder to produce less harmful pressures, shortening the cartridge by .07 inches in the neck (some sources say .1 inches), and utilizing a lighter (150 gr.) spitzer bullet. Thus, the “Cartridge, Caliber .30 Model of 1906” was born, known today simply as the .30-06. However, the shorter new rounds could not be fired accurately in the larger chamber designed for the .30-03, so the rifles were again called back to arsenals for an overhaul. Author of The Springfield 1903 Rifles Lt. Col. William S. Brophy correctly summarizes, “As fine a rifle as it turned out to be, it surely had a shaky and complicated start in life.”
The example offered by RIAC this February has escaped arsenal alteration and maintains its .30-03 configuration as well as its rod bayonet. Besides prototype and developmental models of the M1903, this rifle represents the very earliest of its configurations.
An Increase in Firepower
As recent as our previous auction (December 2017), examples of M1903 with 25-round magazines installed can still be found. Most notably present on the Air Service rifle and those adapted to utilize the Cameron-Yaggi trench periscope, these fixed magazines replaced the standard 5-round internal magazine. Author and collector Bruce Canfield (from whose collection this gun comes), notes in his book U.S. Military Bolt Action Rifles that,
“…there is evidence that the 25-round extension magazines were also intended to be issued with standard ’03 rifles for trench warfare purposes. This is supported by a statement from General Julian S. Hatcher that the extension magazine was ‘…made up in fair number… in response from the front-line infantrymen…’ during the war. However, it is doubtful if many (or any) ’03 rifles equipped in front line use during the First World War.”
It is this author’s conjecture that these magazines saw as just as much use in the Air Service rifles (910 produced) and Cameron-Yaggi trench rifle (12 prototypes made) as they would have in regular service rifles – in other words, not much. These magazines come with their own host of problems and very little benefit. Ordnance documents do state that 25 Air Service rifles were tested by the infantry to see if the increased capacity magazines would behoove troops on the front, but the results for said testing are not available as of this writing. However, it is reasonable to assume that if the 25-round magazines were tested in Air Service rifles for ground troops, that the same magazines would have also been tested in standard issue M1903 rifles. After all, if the magazines can be used with existing weapons, making as few modifications as possible, that would be an attractive option to the Ordnance Department.
That said, it is likely that unless specifically mentioned in a yet unearthed Ordnance Department document, the number of standard rifles using these magazines, even on a probationary basis, will not be known. The rifles that may have used them would have converted all too easily back to their former configuration, and unlike the Air Service rifles, would leave no tell tale hallmarks of its former life.
This rifle is part of the Bruce Canfield Collection and has appeared in his books U.S. Infantry Weapons of the First World War and U.S. Military Bolt Action Rifles.
Reach Out and Touch Someone
A standard M1903 rifle fitted with a M1908 Warner & Swasey Musket Sight was the primary U.S. sniper rifle used in World War I. Unfortunately, the 2.5-pound M1908 W&S sight made the rifle unbalanced, required an awkward shooting position, and occasionally suffered from a suction-cup like effect of the rubber eyepiece on the shooters face. Not to mention that they were prone to moisture and debris entering the scope. Thus, their production was limited to 2,075 as procured by the government. They were replaced prior to the United States entrance into the Great War by the improved Model of 1913, as seen on the rifle offered here. While the improvements were suspect in their effectiveness, the U.S fit 3,014 Springfield rifles (not Rock Island Arsenal rifles) with the M1913 W&S telescopic sights. Many more sights were produced but never installed on rifles nor issued. Rifles required the installation of a dovetail bracket to mount the scope which was numbered to the rifle upon installation.
Service in World War II
“A true 1930’s production M1903A1 service rifle is one of the rarest variants of the ’03 genre, and original examples are quite elusive,” states Canfield. Made for only a brief period during the late 1930s, these were the first M1903 rifles to use the new Type C stocks with their distinctive pistol grips and lack of finger grooves. First adopted in 1929, the Type C was initially used for National Match rifles but was so popular with its users that it eventually replaced the old Type S stocks once that supply depleted. To be a genuine M1903A1, several differences can be noted from a regular WWII-era Type C stock; most notably M1903A1 stocks are generally slimmer and bear different inspection stamps. Their production at Springfield only ran from 1929 to the late 1930s so a proper serial number can also be important in correctly identifying these rare collector firearms.
Making this M1903A1 even more rare is the fact that it is a USMC (United States Marine Corps) Sniper rifle variant. After several considerations for a sniper rifle during WWII, including the Winchester Model 70, the M1903A1 won out. Snipers and brass alike both wanted a match quality rifle, so many began life as National Match rifles or were upgraded to that configuration. These were eventually topped with an 8x Unertl scope marked “USMC-SNIPER” contained in a green micarta carrying can as seen in these photos. Only minor modifications were required to be made to the rifle, and they were pressed into use as late as the Korean War, eventually phased out for the M1C Garand by that conflict’s end. Approximately only 1,000 of the Unertl scopes were ever purchased to be mounted on these Marine rifles, making them a rare collector’s treat.
This rifle also comes to RIAC courtesy of the Bruce Canfield Collection and is pictured in his books The Illustrated Guide to the ’03 Service Rifle and U.S. Military Bolt Action Rifles.
These four examples only scratch the surface of this versatile rifle that found itself pressed into service in myriad ways during its six decades of use by the U.S. military. Its variants, accessories, configurations, and accessibility endear it to collectors almost as much as its reliability, accuracy, and durability endeared it to the men who carried it into battle. Don’t miss these and dozens of other highly collectible U.S. military arms in Rock Island Auction Company’s February Regional Firearms Auction held February 15 – 18.
Brophy, William S. The Springfield 1903 Rifles. Stackpole Books, 1985..
Canfield, Bruce N. An Illustrated Guide to the ’03 Service Rifle. Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2004.
Canfield, Bruce N. U.S. Military Bolt-Action Rifles. Mowbray Publishers, 2010.