The M1903 Springfield Rifle


The M1903 Springfield is the longest serving rifle in the US military. It was used from 1903 through the 1970’s. Although it was replaced by the M1 Garand in 1936, it continued service in the Korean and Vietnam wars as the sniper rifle of choice. In the 1970’s it was used on Navy ships to destroy mines.

The Springfield is a bolt action rifle meaning that the shooter has to manually operate the bolt.

… I thought the 03 was a monster! The recoil was so strong. If you didn’t hold the rifle tight like we were taught, it would bite you …

Tom Bartelson, USMC


The Krag-Jørgensens Rifle

The need existed for a better weapon during the Spanish-American war (1898). At that time, the model 1892 and 1896 Krag-Jørgensens was in use by US troops proved inferior to the M93 Mauser with which the Spanish were armed. The M93 had a faster loading speed and greater range. At the battle of San Juan Hill, 750 Spanish regular troops armed with the M93 Mauser inflicted 1400 US casualties in minutes because their weapons outranged the US rifles.

The US War Department received the experimental rifles and cartridges in August 1900 and these were passed to a board of Ordnance officers at Springfield Armory for evaluation that October. Among their recommendations were that the magazine be designed so that cartridges would be staggered – making the magazine shorter and thus eliminating the need to extend below the stock – and that the cartridges be rimless to allow them to be loaded more easily from the clips.

On February 16, 1903, a board of US Army personnel was convened at Springfield Armory to evaluate the new rifle. Officers were drawn from cavalry, infantry, and Ordnance, while NCOs who were skilled riflemen were detailed to assist in firing and demonstrations. After initial firing tests, officers visited Army posts around the USA to demonstrate the rifle and receive comments from the troops. Various small recommendations were made and on June 19th 1903, the new rifle was recommended for adoption as the “U.S. Magazine Rifle, Cal. .30, Model of 1901.”. An initial batch of 5000 rifles was produced. After this, mass production started and 400 rifles were produced per day. To increase production, several experienced workers were transferred to Rock Island Armory. By January 1905, 100.000 rifles were produced to equip the US regular army. Several improvements were made in the years to come such as a new bayonet design and a new rear sight. Rifles already in use were recalled to have these changes applied.

The introduction of the M1903 Springfield also introduced the new, more powerful cartridge, the .30-06. This would become the most successful cartridge ever used by the US military.

Patent Problems

In early 1907 the US Ordnance Department faced a claim from the German Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken Aktien-Gesellschaft (DWM) company, alleging that the .30-06 bullet infringed their patent. The Ordnance Department refused to recognize the claim, resulting in a suit filed by DWM’s US representative on July 18th 1914. Germany entered World War I before the suit could be heard by the US Court of Claims and it was set aside as a consequence. When the USA entered the war against Germany resulting in the suit being dismissed by the US Attorney General. The matter was not over, however, as on July 2nd 1921, a tribunal that had been appointed to settle claims against the USA ruled that DWM should be awarded $300.000 plus $112.520,55 in accumulated interest. Thus, the USA paid the German company for the bullets it had fired at German soldiers during the war.
It had been determined as early as 1904 that five Mauser patents were infringed by the M1903 rifle and two by its clips. A contract was signed on May 5th 1905, in which it was agreed that Mauser be paid royalties of 75 cents per rifle and 50 cents per thousand clips until a total of $200.000 was reached. Payments were made only on rifles and clips manufactured subsequent to the agreement, and the total of $200.000 was reached in July 1909.

World War I variants

M1903 World War I Sniper Rifle

As the United States entered World War I, various improvements were made to improve a soldier’s effectiveness. The first had an M1918 telescopic scope mounted. It was slightly offset to ensure the rifle could be clip loaded from the top. Several variants of scopes were tried but because of the side mounting, aiming the rifle proved difficult. To improve the usability for a sniper version, a silencer was mounted as well.

Cameron/Yazzy Rifle

One of the more interesting M1903 rifle developments during World War I was the design of rifles that allowed the infantryman to remain behind cover in his trench yet still engage the enemy. Various attemps were made such as the Cameron/Yazzy Trench Rifle, introducing a 25-round magazine extension to prevent the need for constant reloading and the Guiberson rifle. Both proved impractical because of slow reloading.

The most successful device was the Perdersen Device which turned the M1903 Spring into a semi automatic weapon. Development started in 1916 and the prototypes were demonstrated to the US Army. The Army was so impressed that Perdersen was sent to France to demonstrate the weapon to General Pershing who immediately requested 100.000 ‘Perdersen Rifles’. A further 500.00 rifles were requested for 1919 but when the war ended in 1918, the order was reduced to 65.000 rifles.

The M1903 (modified) and the M1903A3

The M1903 (modified) was produced by Remington and started in September 1941 and was virtually the same as the M1903 produced by Rock Island Arsenal. Various changes were made to reduce costs and increase production time. The Smith Corona Typewriter company was contracted to produce an additional 100.000 rifles. The M1903 modified was deemed inferior to the M1903 because of quality cuts, less experienced Remington personnel and worn out production equipment. As of May 21, 1942, the M1903 (modified) was approved for full production at both Remington and Smith Corona as the “U.S. Rifle, Cal. .30, Model 1903A3.” Production was cancelled by February 1944 because production of the M1 Garand was preferred.

The M1903A4

The M1903A4 Sniper Rifle

During wartime, there was a need for accurate rifles to supply US snipers, who entered World War II without a sniping rifle. The rifle was designated the “M1903A4 (Sniper’s) Rifle” and was identical to the standard M1903A3 except that it had a 2.2× telescopic sight instead of iron sights.

The Springfield in Combat

The M1903 was probably first used in the Philippines in 1907 although there are no official Army records confirming this.

If not earlier, the M1903 was almost certainly used during the battle of Bud Bagsak against the Moros in June 1913. In this four-day battle, US troops occupied front-line positions so close to the enemy that troops were endangered by hurled spears from the Moros, as well as from Moro sniper fire, though accurate fire from the M1903s in the hands of the US Regulars and Philippine Scouts suppressed the sniper fire to some extent. Eventually, the Moro rebels were defeated in bitter hand-to-hand fighting. In 1914, the Springfield also saw action during the landings at Vera Cruz Mexico.

A big misconception is that the M1903 was primary weapon for the US fighting in France during Worlfd War I, this was not the case. There was an enormous shortage of rifles so the rifle most used was the M1917 Lee Enfield.

After World War I the M1903 remained in Service until it was replaced by the M1 Garand. During World War II due to shortages of Garand’s, the M1903 Springfield remained in use.

Even after World War II, the M1903 remained in service primarily as a sniper rifle.


The M1903 Springfield ranks as an important weapon in US military history. It was the last generally issued bolt-action US service rifle, and it was the rifle with which US troops entered World War I, though more were eventually armed with the M1917 Enfield than the M1903 Springfield. During its time it was generally conceded to be the most accurate military rifle in the world. It continued in service during World War II to make up the shortfall in M1 Garand production. It served in World War II and Korea – even Vietnam – as a sniper’s rifle.

The M1903 Remembered

The M1903 is widely used by re-enactors, collectors and sports shooters world wide. It has become famous because of Steven Spielburg’s Saving Private Ryan.

An Airsoft Replica of the M1903.
The M1903A4 In ‘Saving Private Ryan’

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  1. Pingback: US M1 Garand / .30 Service Rifle - History Revisited

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