More On One Of The Most Well-Documented
Rifles In US History
By Holt Bodinson
Over the 42-year life of its production (1903-1944), the Model 1903 Springfield became the most chronicled service rifle in American history. The literature covers every facet of the rifle from detailed illustrations and descriptions of the machining of each part of the rifle to the reluctance of the Marines to trade-in their Springfields for Garands in the early phase of the Pacific campaign.
Having owned and studied 1903’s ranging from the earliest Springfield’s through the end-of-era Remington’s and Smith Corona’s, I made it a habit of jotting down notes of the more interesting facts about the rifle that caught my attention as an aid in collecting and shooting them. Here, then, are a few items from my notes derived primarily from Hatcher’s Notebook by Maj. General Julian S. Hatcher and The Springfield 1903 Rifles by William S. Brophy.
Dates and serial numbers matter. Springfield Armory 1903’s with serial numbers below 800,000 and Rock Island Arsenal 1903’s with serial numbers below 285,507 are suspect as to their metallurgy and safety. These so-called “low numbered” Springfield’s exhibited two possible flaws: brittle receivers and bolts due to forging temperatures not being adequately controlled and sub-contracted barrels with slag inclusions and seams in the metal or brittle, burnt metal at the breech end from being “bumped up” or “upset” without adequate temperature controls.
The first was a personnel problem. The men conducting the forging process were reluctant to adopt pyrometers and instead relied on their skill, eyesight and experience in judging heat temperatures at the furnace. When the use of pyrometers was finally enforced, Hatcher reports, “It was quickly found that the ‘right heat’ as judged by the skillful eye of the old timers was up to 300 degrees hotter on a bright sunny day than it was on a dark cloudy one.”
The second problem, bad barrels, was the product of hastened wartime production in which components, like barrels, were sub-contracted and adequate inspection procedures throughout the production process were not followed or simply ignored.
General Hatcher documented 137 accidents with the 1903 Springfield between 1917 and 1929. Of these, low-numbered Springfield’s were involved in 135 of the incidents.
Holt’s last Springfield? Probably not! But this Remington
M1903A3 outshoots some of his scoped sporters.
The nature of the accidents were: Burst receiver (68); Blow back (23); Burst barrel due to obstruction (21); Burst barrel due to weak or seamy metal (13); Burst barrel due to burnt steel (10); Hangfire while operating bolt (1); Nature of damage not stated (1). Injuries included loss of eyesight (3) and serious/severe wounds (6).
Reading over the analyses of these failures, it becomes evident most were due to either defective ammunition which ruptured at the head and released high pressure gas into a poorly heat-treated receiver or due to an obstruction in the bore which created an over-pressure. While those Springfield’s had withstood 70,000 psi proof loads, their brittle actions could not withstand unique types of shock.
Were all low-numbered Springfield’s ticking time bombs? No, in fact, the Ordnance Department decided to keep-in-play low numbered Springfield’s that had been issued and were performing without incident while also deciding not to issue any more and to reserve unissued stores for wartime emergencies.
The tragedy is those old, case-hardened, low numbered, Springfield’s are the slickest Springfield’s ever made. Their actions are buttery smooth, just like a Krag, but current owners would be advised not to shoot them.
Hatcher observes both Springfield (serial numbers 800,000 through 1,275,767) and Rock Island (serial numbers 285,507 through 319,921) adopted a double heat-treatment process which “gave them a hard skin to withstand wear, together with a relatively soft and highly tenacious core, which gave them tremendous strength and resistance to shock.
These are the strongest and best receivers and bolts… receivers with the double heat treatment could not be broken with the highest proof loads that could be made up for this caliber, namely 125,000 psi.” Following the double heat-treatment period, both Springfield and Rock Island adopted 3-1/2 percent nickel steel for bolts and receivers, but lost was the buttery smooth feeling of the Springfield action, which was now described as being “sticky.”
How slim can a 1903 barrel be? Hatcher continues “I collected some first-hand information by turning a Springfield barrel to 1/8-inch wall thickness and firing it with regular and high pressure cartridges. As the results were not visible, I turned the barrel down so that it was only 1/16-inch thick over the chamber. It held three regular service cartridges perfectly. I then put in a 75,000 psi proof cartridge which blew a piece out of the side of the chamber.”
Sensing the United States would be drawn into WWI and that there was a need to document the manufacture of the 93 or so parts of the 1903 Springfield for possible future sub-contractor reference, the Ordnance Bureau in 1916 commissioned two mechanical engineers, who were also associate editors of the American Machinist journal, to write the book, so to speak, on the exact machining processes needed to produce every 1903 part from the receiver to the stacking swivel. The resulting reference, Manufacture of the Model 1903 Springfield Service Rifle by Colvin and Viall, is one of the most fascinating books in firearm’s literature with hundreds of perspective illustrations and pages of text documenting the fixtures, cutters, speeds, feeds, coolants, gages and personnel required in building the Model 1903 as well as information on the Lewis, Vickers and Model 1909 machine guns. After looking at the machining set-ups (It took 11 operations to produce a single, front sight blade), you begin to appreciate why WWII-era Springfield production demanded the use of stamped parts. This reference book is still available through the internet in either a small or large format. Buy the large format. The picture shown here is from the Wolfe Publishing Company’s 1984 reprint edition.
Elegant but labor-intensive machined parts such as the
triggerguard and floorplate (top), barrel bands (middle) and
nosecap (bottom) were replaced by stampings during WWII.
The Sight Micrometer
The Model 1903 dominated big-bore competition for decades, and competitors needed a tool to make precise, repeatable changes to the elevation settings of the sight slide. The most successful design was P.J. O’Hare’s sight micrometer with 1/2-MOA click adjustments. The micrometer simply slipped over the sight staff and engaged and adjusted the sight slide. It was simple, precise and repeatable. Today, there’s even a more refined Vernier model available from the Buffalo Arms Co.
Well, maybe it’s not going to be my last, but my current Remington M1903A3 is hands down the M1903 I shoot the best. It’s the peep sight I’m sure, but its 4-groove, 1943 dated barrel is a hummer as well. With 46.0 grains of IMR 4166 I got 5/8-inch groups at 100 yards. It’s a winning combination of Hodgdon’s new, copper fighting IMR 4166 powder, a Winchester primer and a Sierra 168-grain MatchKing. Frankly, this Remington M1903/A3 and the IMR 4166/Sierra load is so accurate, it’s spooky.
Hatcher’s Notebook: A Standard Reference for Shooters, Gunsmiths, Ballisticians, Historians, Hunters and Collectors, by Julian S. Hatcher, foreword by Ned Schwing, ©1985, hardback, 6×9 inches, 656 pages, 50 illustrations, 75 b&w photos, $99.95, ISBN: 9-7808-1170-3505, Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Rd., Mechanicsburg, PA 17055, (800) 732-3669, www.stackpolebooks.com
The Springfield 1903 Rifles, by William S. Brophy, ©1985 hardcover, 624 pages, 1500 photos & diagrams, $99.95,: 8×11 inches, ISBN: 9-7808-1170-8722, Stackpole Books
Buffalo Arms Co.,
660 Vermeer Court, Ponderay, ID 83852,
Hodgdon, IMR & Winchester
6430 Vista Drive,
Shawnee, KS 66218, (913) 362-9455
Henry Street, Sedalia, MO 65301,