Saturday, May 12, 2007

Springfield M1903 Mark I: American Icon.

The United States Army was slow to field a breechloading repeater, the single-shot "Trapdoor" Springfield M1873 proving adequate for the needs of a military that was mostly involved in Indian fighting. By the early 1890s, however, the need for a new rifle was apparent and after an open trial the Krag Jorgensen rifle was settled on, being adopted as the M1892. Within six years it would see its first test in combat.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the first time that armies equipped with the new smokeless powder magazine-fed rifles faced each other. The Spanish army was equipped with the M1893 Mauser, a thoroughly modern design, which featured Mauser's stripper clip loading system which allowed a soldier to strip five rounds into the magazine at once from a disposable sheet-metal clip. This contrasted sharply with the Krag, which required the soldier to dump loose rounds into the magazine; an easy thing to fumble on a two-way rifle range. The Mauser was also stronger, and fired a higher velocity round, which gave it a flatter trajectory. The Krag's action was incapable of taking the pressures involved in firing the newer, faster rounds. Despite winning the war, the US Army immediately began seeking a replacement for the Krag Jorgensen.

ABOVE: M1903 Mark I, photo by Oleg Volk.

After studying captured Spanish rifles, the United States adopted the United States Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903. It was destined to be an icon; of all the myriad weapons produced at the government arsenal over its many decades of operation, when one says "Springfield", it is understood that one means the M1903. The '03 was a radical departure from the contemporary military practice of issuing a long rifle to infantry and a short carbine to cavalry; it split the difference with an overall length of roughly 43 inches, and the same rifle was issued to all branches. This was the same course Britain took with the SMLE in 1904; Germany didn't follow suit until the introduction of the kar 98k in 1935. The early rifles had a flimsy, fiddly rod bayonet and a simple, sturdy tangent sight like that found on the Mauser. These were quickly replaced with a sturdy sword bayonet, and a fiddly, complex rear sight more at home on the manicured ranges of Camp Perry than on a chaotic battlefield.

LEFT: Complex Springfield rear sight was windage adjustable, and marked out to 2,850 yards. The lower peep in the example is set at 800. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Service in the trenches of World War One showed a need for a higher volume of fire than could be delivered by the bolt-action rifle when clearing trenches or suppressing enemy fire during the dash across no-man's land. A hasty secret program resulted in a device that would replace the bolt of the Springfield, allowing the rifle to fire semiauto pistol cartridges from a 32-round magazine. Known as the "Pedersen Device", rifles meant to use it are marked "Model 1903 Mark I" and are easily distinguished by the oval port cut in the left side of the receiver to allow the ejection of spent shells.

RIGHT: The ejection port for the Pedersen Device. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The M1903 was one of the most beloved service arms in US history. It was the primary rifle of our troops for thirty three years, and served on long after that as a sniper rifle or in rear-echelon roles. When it was replaced by the M1 Garand in the 1930s, resistance to the change was fierce, and the new rifle met with a level of scorn that not even the M16 faced. Over a million Springfields have gone on to become hunting rifles, family heirlooms, and collector's pieces in the US, and original examples in good condition are demanding ever more stratospheric prices on the collector's market. A Mark I with the correct stock and barrel (which the rifle in the photos does not have, more's the pity) can bring in excess of $2,000, while even a homely WWII-era '03A3 is rapidly becoming a $500 proposition. A joy to shoot and a joy to look at, no collection of American militaria is complete without one.

Timeless lines. Photo by Oleg Volk.


JPG said...

Excellent, Sis. You said quite a lot in a short, informative article, and Oleg's illustrations are outstanding. There are myriad details in the story of the "oh-three rifle." Not the least of these is that the 1903 was the platform upon which the .30'06 cartridge--now entering its second century--was launched.

For those whom Tams has inspired to seek more information, E. C. Crossman's Book of the Springfield, 1932, is a good place to start. Actually, subsequent editions are more valuable, in that they go into The Rifle's contributions in WW-II and later.

This was a really worthy topic for the reappearence of The Arms Room. Please, don't make us wait another five months for the next. ;)


PS-- Yes, I've seen the revision on the Commission '88 rifle, but I wouldn't have seen it if I weren't such a loyal reader of your other blog.

Jonathan said...

Great post. The Pedersen Device sounds fascinating. I'll have to read more about it. I've linked this blog and have been waiting for a new post.

Joseph said...

Great post, Tam...and super photos by Oleg.

mkelly said...

I just got a 1903A3 from CMP. It's a WWII Remington.

If can find a mint or near mint barrel from the same year, will it increase the value of the gun or will it stay the same?

Tam said...

Depending on how closely the finish matches the receiver and the date matches the weapon, it could slightly increase the value.

Gewehr98 said...

Thinking about sending a certain 1903A4 to Oleg for a short-term photo opportunity, myself...

Justin said...

I have something of a sad tale to tell: Back in the 50's, my grandfather got a couple of rifles from the NRA (or the CMP, I'm not sure) One was a P-17 Eddystone, and the other was a 1903 MKI. The Eddystone is pretty much as issued, except for some of the extra wood on the front of the stock.

The tale of woe is on the MK I. Before sending the rifle to my grandfather, the original sight was removed, the stock semi-sporterized, and the receiver drilled and tapped for a Redfield rear peep sight.

Still, both rifles are darned accurate, and have gotten me into collecting classic military rifles.

Justin said...

Ooops, forgot to mention: Matching barrel and receiver on the mark 1. Receiver marked 1918, barrel marked SA, 6-18, A. Still shoots better than I can.