September 12, 2017

The Old Rifle Still Has Admirers

From the "Basic Field Manual, U.S. Rifle,
Caliber .30, M1903," published in 1939.
"Put the sights up to eight hundred, hold a yard left for the wind . . . "

Because of some ongoing research of mine, I perked up a few years ago when gun blogger and writer Tamara Keel, then employed at a gun shop in Knoxville, Tenn., announced that there was an M1903 Springfield, caliber .30-06, in the shop — from an estate, as I recall — at a reasonable price.

I contacted her, made payment arrangements, and soon it arrived at a pawn shop in Florence, Colo., for the federal firearms transfer.

Unwrapped, I found it slathered in Cosmoline preservative grease, a clue to its story.

I looked at the receiver, which proclaimed "US Springfield Armory Model 1903" with serial number 954801. A little web searching revealed that that serial number was assigned in 1918.

And someone had used a knife (bayonet?) point or nail to scratch a large "AK" on both sides of the stock." A doughboy of the Great War? Arthur Kennedy? Arnold Karlson?

And it had that way-too-complicated pre-World War One rear sight, with (count them) four different sight notches or peep holes, including the "battle sight," which is calibrated to 547 yards, says the later 1939 Field Manual  (not 500, not 600).  The rear sight itself is calibrated for a maximum distance of 2,500 or 2,700 yards, depending which notch you use. That is sort of like having a car speedometer that is calibrated up to 200 mph.

But as I disassembled and cleaned the parts with gasoline (and the stock with ammonia-based oven cleaner), the rifle's origin story took a different turn. I fell down the collectors' rabbit hole.

For instance, the straight-wristed stock came before the pistol-grip stock (and the intermediate "scant" stock, which was the straight version re-cut to a semi-pistol grip). Right? Not exactly. There were seven different models of the straight stock. Collect the whole set.

What I possessed, I discovered, was a "Franken-rifle." At some time circa 1944, someone sat at a bench or by an assembly line in an American arsenal, rebuilding service rifles. A World War One-era Springfield receiver came from this bin, a World War Two-production Remington bolt from that one, a Remington magazine from another, a brand-new High-Standard barrel was threaded on, and the whole attached to a used rifle stock, bearing the initials AK. (The stock itself lacks the finger grooves common on early models, so it might be early 1940s production.)
Early and later 1903 Springfield stocks, with and
without finger grooves. (National Park Service)

So forget "Arnold Kennedy" of the American Expeditionary Forces of 1918. This rifle was an "arsenal mutt."

Maybe "AK" had not needed his rifle anymore. Consider this photo from the Guadacanal campaign of 1942-43. Two Marines, after the shooting has stopped in their sector, have stacked abandoned Springfield rifles on one of the island's beaches amidst other debris of war.

These rifles presumably would have gone somewhere for servicing; then they would have been re-issued or placed in storage. The Springfields were issued throughout WW2 to combat zone troops other than infantry — artillery crews, combat engineers, Signal Corpsmen, and the like.

My rebuilt rifle went into storage — and stayed there until it was purchased (through the Civilian Marksmanship Program?) but never unwrapped and cleaned.

I took my rifle to the my club range (maximum 200 yards) and shot it. The action was smooth as butter, and the accuracy was good if you remembered to hold low on a bull's-eye target. I considered making it a "deep woods" hunting rifle, but as sure as I did that, I would be in a situation where I needed my scoped rifle, so I never carried it afield.

Over Labor Day weekend, however, I found myself down at the Whittington Center shooting complex in New Mexico, where the rifle ranges go out to 500 meters (the high-power silhouette range), and where the target everyone wants to hit is the White Buffalo silhouette at 1,123 yards (1027 meters).

And I hit it, using a modern .300 Win. Mag. rifle with a scope.

Yet there I was, surrounded by synthetic stocks and powerful scopes, but everyone wanted to try the M1903.  Dylan M., who served with the Marines in Afghanistan just a few years back, picked it up, dropped into a military kneeling pose, and would have made the shooting instructors of 1939 happy.
Dylan M. shoots the M1903.

My old friend Galen Geer, himself a former Marine of the Vietnam era, was also shooting it. After a little while, he looked downrange at the White Buffalo, did some calculating based on my ballistics table, and selected the open battle sight, the one calibrated for 547 yards. Then he took a solid bench-rest position

Holding "six buffaloes high" and, as the song says, "a yard left for the wind," he fired. Nothing. He fired again. Nothing.

On his third shot, Dylan and I looked at each other.

"Did you hear something?"

"Maybe — not sure."
Galen sights in with Dylan spotting.

Galen fired a fourth time. A second later came a definite "tink" from down range.

If you're not a shooter, that might not sound like a big deal, but hitting a target more than a half mile away with no optical magnification and eyes no longer young — that's something.

I think I need to go back and do it again myself — with the Springfield.


.45ACP+P said...

There is much love for these great old "wooden" rifles. Anyone who would like to learn how to shoot them well, should check out "Project Appleseed".

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aesop said...

And if you fire it wearing just an ordinary shirt, with the standard issue steel buttplate, you'll gain a whole new appreciation for the sturdiness of WWI doughboys.

You'll also understand why they tended to wear a t-shirt, wool shirt, blouse, and greatcoat, back in the day.

But there had to be a certain satisfaction in seeing what you hit go down, and stay down.

Chas S. Clifton said...

You would think that having been on the track team one year in school, I would know that one-half mile = 880 yards, and hence the White Buffalo is more than half a mile away, not merely more than a quarter mile. Thanks to the now self-deleted commenter for reminding me.

Also, I re-did the video, hoping that the new upload works better.

Old 1811 said...

The "battle sight" was calibrated for 547 yards because 547 yards is 500 meters.

Chas S. Clifton said...

@Old 1811

That is true, it is 500 meters. On the other hand, you don't see the American military c. 1900 employing metric measurements. After all, the rear sight is graduated in yards.

And settling on 500 meters as a "battle sight" seems to me to reflect some Colonel Blimp-type officer's memories of banging away at the Comanches on the Texas prairie thirty years before. It's not what you need in the jungle of Guadacanal.

Aesop said...

A quick look at ballistics programs suggests a 500m zero with standard 150gr. .30-06 gives you a max ballistic climb of about 20 inches.

Ignoring windage effects, if you aim at a person's belt buckle (center mass) with that zero, at everything from muzzle to 500m you deliver a mortal hit, particularly everything between 300-500m.

As for Col. Blimp, have a look at the distances involved at Kettle/San Juan Hill in Cuba, a scant 5 years before the Springfield's adoption (and which campaign was no small impetus for going with a Mauser clone bolt-action to begin with).

Guadalcanal and even the Caribbean jungle campaigns of the 1920s-30s were decades in the future in 1903, and a small kerfluffle in France one might recall came betwixt the two.

Chas S. Clifton said...


It's true that the outnumbered Spanish did some shooting with their Mausers at San Juan Hill. (The gods must have loved Teddy Roosevelt, since the Spanish did not pick him off when he got ran his horse into the barbed wire.) The dismounted US cavalry troopers trudging up those open slopes would have been in deep doo-doo had they not been covered by the Gatling guns – and the Spanish knocked out one of those.

But the Blimpishness of the original rear sight is made clear by the adoption of the much simpler and more soldier-friendly sight on the 1903A3, wouldn't you say? It was graduated only to 800 yards, and I really doubt that anyone employed that setting much away from the shooting range.

Woody Meristem said...

Many, many years ago my father bought a 1903A3 made by Remington from the DCM. It was subsequently "sporterized" with a turned down bolt handle and a new safety to clear a scope and a replacement stock. I've got it now and how I wish it was in original condition. Friends had the A$ version that had been made for use by snipers with a turned down bolt handle and a scope mount -- those were beautiful rifles.

Firehand said...

On that rear sight and 547 yards:
If what I've read was correct, that sight was designed with the 1903 cartridge in mind, which fired a 200-grain roundnose bullet. When they went to a slightly different case throwing a 150-grain spitzer at higher velocity in 1906- thus the '.30 Government '06' cartridge- they didn't redesign the sight for the different trajectory.

So what put the original load on at 300 yards put the new load on at 547.

Chas S. Clifton said...

These are some of the cartridges that Firehand is discussing, in particular, number 2.

From the NRA "Shooting Illustrated" site:

"Originally, the 1903 Springfield was chambered for a round that almost immediately became obsolete—the .30-’03—even though at the time it was heralded as an improvement over the .30-40 Krag. But, it used the same 200-grain, round-nosed bullet with a rainbow trajectory that sacrificed range and accuracy. The .30-’03 also built up excessive chamber pressures and, hence, recoil.

"In 1906, the Springfield’s caliber was changed to what has become one of the most famous cartridges of all time, the .30-’06 Sprg. Designated “Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906,” it fired a 150-grain spitzer bullet (changed to a 172-grain boattail in 1926), which left the barrel at 2,800 fps.

"This revolutionary new cartridge necessitated a slight redesign of the rifle, which included changing the rear sight to compensate for the flatter trajectory. The flip-up battle sights were optimistically calibrated for 2,850 yards. With the leaf down, the sight was set for 525 yards [not what the Army manual says, but near enough]."