The Springfield ’03 And P17 Enfield
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino
When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 the country was woefully unprepared. The US Army didn’t have fighter planes, artillery, machine guns or even enough rifles to arm the great number of infantrymen needed. In much of the preliminary training, recruits had to carry broomsticks instead of rifles.
The standard American infantry rifle was the US Model 1903 usually called Springfield because of the government-owned armory in which it was designed. The ’03 was an integral box magazine-fed turnbolt with 24” barrel and weight of about 8.5 lbs. And, of course, its chambering was .30-06.
Ironically, the ’03 was a blatant knockoff of Germany’s standard Gewehr 98 designed by Peter Paul Mauser. In fact, Herr Mauser sued the US government for patent infringement and won his case. American cartridge designers even borrowed the basic casehead design of Germany’s late 1880s vintage 7.92×57 (8mm in America) military round for first the .30-03 and then the .30-06.
Matters even went a step further. The .30-03 at first used a 230-gr. roundnose bullet. When Germany introduced the pointed spitzer bullet circa 1905, it caused the US Army to switch its 1906 design to feature a 150-gr. spitzer as well. And that’s what we went to war with in France.
The US Model 1903 was the American Army and Marine Corps standard when entering World War I.
Someone at Remington or Winchester had a grand idea. Instead of them tooling up to make
Model 1903s, they adapted the British-designed Pattern 1914 (bottom) to American needs
and produced millions of US Model 1917s (top).
Despite its borrowed design, Model 1903s were built to the best of Springfield’s (and later Rock Island Arsenal’s) impressive quality standards. Woodwork and metal finishing of ’03s — made until the production crunch caused by Woodrow Wilson’s hurry to join Europe’s war — has been said to rival the quality of contemporary American sporting rifles.
Model 1903s didn’t shine only in cosmetics. Their ability to put a bullet in close proximity to the last one fired is legendary.
Naturally, battle sights were meant for young eyes. They consisted of a ladder-type open rear with elevation graduations to 2,700 yards, with a fine blade front sight. When the ladder is up a tiny peep aperture also comes into play. As military thinkers of those days felt that rifle combat would be at great distances, the battle zero for Model 1903s was 547 yards!
The government-owned facilities could not possibly manufacture enough rifles to arm America’s armed forces, so the nation’s industrial might pulled political fat from the fire. Winchester Repeating Arms and Remington Arms Company — along with Remington’s Eddystone subsidiary — managed to produce 2.2 million rifles in just a little over two years.
But they were not Model 1903 Springfields! Indeed they were not even of American design. They were an idea from Great Britain. It seems before war broke out in Europe in August 1914, British ordnance officers determined they too needed a “Mauser-design” military rifle. It would also be of turnbolt, integral-box magazine design with a few British twists. Instead of the firing pin being cocked on the bolt opening, it was cocked when the bolt was closed. Also the Brits felt bolt operation was speeded up if the bolt knob was right above the trigger. This resulted in a dog-leg-shaped bolt handle.
And perhaps most importantly, the Brits wanted a rear peep-sight arrangement. In fact the rear sight contained two peep apertures. One for a 300-yard battle zero and when the ladder was raised; one adjustable for elevation to 1,600 yards.
Front sights were set inside protective ears (remember this was a time of bayonet fighting) with there being available 11 different blade heights for zeroing. Naturally the British wanted this new rifle chambered for their rimmed .303 cartridge.
Aside from Springfield, Winchester Repeating Arms and Remington Arms Company,
Remington’s Eddystone facility also produced Model 1903s.
Without sufficient manufacturing facilities for this rifle — named Pattern 1914 — the British approached Winchester and Remington. This was when the Eddystone facility came into being. At those three factories over 1.2 million P14s were made.
When American ordnance officers approached the heads of these companies about also producing Model 1903s, someone with extreme common sense said, in effect, “Why don’t we just adapt the British Pattern 1914 to accept rimless .30-06 and get busy right away making rifles for the United States.”
The resulting Model 1917s had 26″ barrels and weighed one pound more than ’03s. Both rifles’ magazines were fed with 5-round stripper clips but a slight benefit of ’17s was a sixth round could be pressed into their magazines that had been designed for thicker .303 British cases.
More Model 1917s saw World War I combat in the hands of US Army infantrymen than Model 1903s, but the relatively small US Marine Corps detachment in France stuck with ’03s.