Gun Review: M1903A3 Rifle

With lessons learned from the Civil War, the US military needed to replace their aging stock of muzzle-loaders with a modern metallic cartridge-feeding long-arm. The solution came in the form of the Norwegian Krag-Jørgensen, reclassified by the US military as the M1892-99. If you’re familiar with the way modern paint-ball guns are fed, you have a rough idea of the hopper concept used by the Krag. Free floating rounds were placed in a magazine well on the side of the rifle at a slight incline. As the user worked the bolt, it extracted the spent round and a fresh round rolled into the chamber. The Army used this weapon exclusively in both the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. But he Krag’s overly-complex design was basically outclassed by the Spanish military’s imported German Mausers. That’s because . . .

The Mauser’s use of stripper-clips and new ‘spitzer’ or pointed bullet made them load faster and shoot flatter. This advantage became painfully apparent during the assault on San Juan Hill where 750 Spanish troops held 6,600 US regulars until Gatling gun and mobile artillery support were brought in. Pretty impressive, given that conventional military wisdom at the time determined that it took 2.5 attackers to rout each defender.

Still reeling from this tough lesson, the United States Ordnance Department determined that the US military needed to replace the antiquated Krag-Jørgensen rifles with a modern Mauser type. Their solution: simply “borrow” the Mauser design and chamber it in 30-06. They say imitation is the purest form of flattery, but Mauser Werke was anything but flattered by the US Ordnance Dept’s imitation Mauser. They filed suit in the early 20th century and the US government was forced to pay royalties to Mauser Werke.

The new design was adopted in 1903 and so was called the M1903, better known as the Springfield ’03. The Springfield featured a plethora of impressive features that were state of the art for its time. It loaded from a 5-round stripper clip, featured a reinforced locking lug, and a flip-up ladder-sight for long distance volley fire. It also featured an infamous magazine cutoff switch that allowed officer’s to restrict a soldier’s rifle to single-shot loading.

Infantrymen were instructed to load the magazine to capacity, and then engage the magazine cutoff. They were to utilize single rounds and switch the cutoff to the off position to use the remaining reserves in an emergency. This in practice, like many World War I tactics/strategies/policies, was pure lunacy.

Throughout World War I, the soldiers in the trenches had complained that the Springfield didn’t make an ideal raiding weapon. In response the 1903 Mark I was deployed. It was virtually identical to the original ’03 with the addition of a small cut in the left side of the receiver that acted as an ejection port for the Pederson device. The Pederson device was essentially a modified Springfield bolt that changed the gun into a semi-automatic, magazine-fed pistol-caliber rifle. Unfortunately, the design proved unreliable with an utter lack of stopping power and was quickly scrapped.

When the US entered World War II the USMC landed on Wake Island with 1903’s. Shortly after the beginning of World War II production of the 1903 was abandoned and the 1903a3 was rolled out. The primary differences between the two were the iron sights. The 1903 used a barrel-mounted complex ladder sight that folded down into an emergency leaf sight. This was expensive both in terms of cost to produce as well as time to manufacture. The 1903a3 utilized a simpler aperture sight mounted at the rear of the receiver which had the advantage of being far more rugged as well as increasing the rifle’s sight radius.

In the post-war years surplus Springfield ’03A3 rifles were very popular civilian hunting weapons. The strong Mauser action used by the Springfield meant that chambering them in more powerful calibers was completely safe. Better yet, they were cheap at the time. Rifles still in the packing grease from the factory cost under $20 when a new Remington bolt-gun would run $100 or more. Unfortunately their popularity has also contributed to their current scarcity. With so many guns rechambered or sporterized by thrifty huntsmen, unmodified 1903a3’s are currently at a premium. (Especially the case now that the CMP is officially sold out of them for good.)

So, how does this old warhorse stack-up against modern hunting rifles? While she’s no Weatherby or Browning, she is built like a tank and sports some very easy to use iron sights. Chambered in 30-06, the 1903A3 isn’t lacking in firepower or versatility; anything on four legs in North America can be gotten with the venerable 30-06, especially when paired with a modern hunting bullet.

I recently participated in an impromptu military rifle match where my Springfield and I were pitted against M1A1’s, M1 Garands, and AR-15’s. Our targets were lined up at 100 yards where we shot from 3 firing positions; unsupported off-hand, sitting supported, and prone. The course of fire required 30 rounds fired 5 at a time with a reload once per string at a standard NRA 100 yard target. I managed to take 1st place by a narrow margin that was aided in no small part by the Springfield’s inherent accuracy and generous sight radius.

The target speaks for itself. While utilizing Greek military surplus 30-06 out of a 60+ year old rifle, she still held her own against “vastly superior” modern weapon platforms. At 8 ½ pounds with its 24” barrel the Springfield may not be the best choice for close quarters combat (especially while sporting a 16” bayonet). But the rifle’s not as ungainly as you might think.

The only problem with using a bolt-action gun without optics as a SHTF or survival weapon lies in its inability to rapidly engage multiple targets. If I were stalking hogs with 30-06, I’d much rather be lugging around a Garand. There is certainly merit in having removable magazines, but the lines of this old beauty would have been ruined.

The 1903A3 is well-balanced and points like an over-under shotgun. I wouldn’t feel under-gunned if I grabbed one in a SHTF situation due to the plentiful nature of 30-06 combined with the rugged Mauser action. Not to mention the heavy 30-06 round’s ability to zip through heavy car doors and Kevlar tends to negate all but the heaviest of cover when you really need to root out the most stubborn zombies.

Ratings (out of five stars)

Accuracy  * * * * *
The Springfield is an old war horse built for optimistically long ranges, no surprises here.

Reliability  * * * * *
Bolt-action rifles don’t tend to jam. This is no exception.

Ergonomics  * * * *
I have almost no complaints about the rifle other than the safety’s location, on the back of the bolt.

Value  * * * * *
Depending on what you happen to pay for this remarkable piece of history you’ll only have to wait a few years for the value of this rifle to rise.

Overall Score  * * * * ½
A very solid rifle that would be at home in both the trenches of the Somme or your favorite deer stand.

 

42 Responses to Gun Review: M1903A3 Rifle

  1. avatarJoseph says:

    When I was a kid my dad bought me an ’03A3 from Sears for $10.00. They had a barrell full of them at the gun counter. Yep…Sears sold guns back then ( late 50′s). The fad at the time was to “sporterize” them by cutting down the stock and refinishing it, which I did. I later sold it for about $25.00. That thing was the most accurate gun without a scope that I’ve ever seen.

    If I’d have known then what I know now I’d have bought ten of them and left them untouched.

  2. avatarPaul says:

    Thank you for an excellent article! I bought a 1903 (not A3) recently because it’s the kind of gun my grandfather carried in the trenches in WW I. I love shooting it — solid, easy to sight, accurate, with beautiful action. I’ll be shooting it in competition next weekend, up against the latest AR-whatevers, and I’m confident that I’m at no technical disadvantage. It’s wonderful to shoot with a piece of history. Thanks again!

  3. avatartdiinva says:

    The Springfield was the first rifile my father, a pre war regular, shot in the Army. In terms of accuracy he felt it was better than the M1. Back in the day you qualified at 500 yards. You go 1000 yards with an 03 and a scope. A better test for your impromtu match would have at ranges up to 500 yards. Springfield Armory would find a ready market if they started making ’03a3s.

    • avatarJeff O. says:

      This is a FANTASTIC idea.

      I don’t care who starts making them, just do it.

    • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      There’s nothing wrong with the Springfield (or Mauser), but there are a number of redundant safety features on them (which were predicated on early case failures with the new smokeless powder) that aren’t really needed any more, but which add mightily to the cost to machine the bolt and receiver.

      For a newly manufactured Springfield action, trigger group and bottom metal… I’d reckon on paying about $1500. Then you’d need a barrel, stock, sights, etc.

  4. avatarLemming says:

    You know what’s weird? A generation from now there will be a nearly identical article about Mosins.

  5. avatarTTACer says:

    I remember watching “Gallipoli” in a history class and the professor explaining that the officers would take the soldiers ammunition away before they went over the top to discourage them from stopping and shooting before they got to the Turks’ trench. Now that is what I call leadership.

  6. avatarRKflorida says:

    Had racks of these for all the boots at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. This was in 1963. Carried, drilled with, but never shot. Learned the 16 count manual of arms and how to hold this weapon at arms length until your arms were trembling.
    Wish I had one of the thousands that were so casually treated back then.

  7. avatarAharon says:

    Good piece that covered history and a gun to own.

  8. That was a very well done article, and summary. I own two 1903A3s and enjoy them very much. You did a good job on the history of the variants on the 1903 platform.

    Ironically, just this weekend, YouTube, for reasons known only to YouTube, featured a short video I made shooting the Garand and 1903 and it was a featured video on YouTube, attracting, so far nearly 120,000 views.

    May I post some of your comments in the video description section? I’d link directly over here, but not sure how to do that in YouTube which is pretty hesitant about web address embedding. I might add an annotation to the video though pointing people here. Think I’ll do that.

    Thanks.

  9. avatarMike in NC says:

    Way back in high school, our JROTC program had a room with a few hundred de-militerized M1903′s for drill. Even back then I felt sad that all of those 1903s had been butchered (welds sealing muzzle, chamber and bolt face). By the way, those were stored on a high school campus down the hall from the 50ft range used by the rifle team and for the annual marksmanship qualifications. Can’t imagine there are many public schools with that sort of setup these days.

    • avatarForrest says:

      Every year my highschool has a survey where we vote for new sports, I always vote for a rifle team and archery. I don’t expect anything from it though, there are probably only 5 other kids that also vote for it.

  10. avatarJoe Grine says:

    Thanks for the review. Good shooting, BTW!. I own two WWII-era Remington 1903a3′s, both in really nice condition with minimal throat and barrel wear. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, they are not “correct” because although the stock cartouches are WW II era, they were made by Smith Corona. I think I paid about $600-650 a piece for them – which seems to have been the market price at about that time.

    • avatarMandy from AK says:

      If you do a little research on the rifle you will find that Smith-Corona manufactured quite a few 1903a3s during WWII. That’s actually the manufacturer of mine so I dug into it when I bought it. I was looking for a hunting rifle in 30-06 and I couldn’t have chosen better. Mine has a sporterized stock, fortunately for me for shooting since I need a higher comb to get a good cheek weld, but it is definitely not original for the gun.

  11. avatarvirtualjohn says:

    A really good article about a really great gun. Now I’m curious to see the ‘Pederson device’. I don’t believe I ever have.
    I would love to have an A3. I’ve shot my brother-in-law’s and it is an extremely accurate weapon. It is far more accurate than my old eyes.
    I love .30 calibers. My SHTF gun is still my Garand. I just can’t cozy up to AR’s. My all-round hunting rifle is a .300 Win Mag. Like I said, I love .30 calibers.

  12. avatarKevin T says:

    lol thanks for the review 4 days after i buy one and am in the middle of my silly CA waiting period to pick it up. Its a Santa Fe cast receiver and surplus parts put together in the 60s, but as long as it works, the main collector value for me is in the type of rifle rather than the particular rifle itself and its personal history. Thats why i got it so cheap ( for california) $550

  13. avatarLTC F says:

    I had no idea they’ve gone up so much in value. I bought mine for $150 at a gun show in Fayetteville NC back in 1989. It was stolen when my apartment got broken into (I was young and stupid, didn’t have a safe back then) but the Fayetteville PD recovered it about a year later. One of my favorite military rifles of all time.

  14. avatarNCG says:

    I think I would take one of these over a Garand (I’d rather have three of each, of course). Why my ancestors didn’t buy these and stash them away, I don’t know. Maybe I can learn from their lack of foresight.

  15. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    The 1903/A3 has also been used as a platform for higher-end sporter rifles, especially by the gunmakers Griffin & Howe. Here’s an example:

    http://www.sitemason.com/files/fdi6ze/VMR48bL.jpg

    another example:

    http://www.gunsinternational.com/Griffin-Howe-Springfield-Custom-7MM-Mauser.cfm?gun_id=100223660

    and another:

    http://www.gunsinternational.com/Griffin-Howe-Springfield-30-06-Kornbrath-Engraved.cfm?gun_id=100218727

    I’d take a 1903/A3 in a second over a modern Rem700.

    • avatarJames Grant says:

      Very cool I was under the impression that the vast majority of custom rifles were based on Mausers of various makes, although I guess, technically the Springfield is a Mauser-action.

      good into, and awesome looking rifles in that link.

  16. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    One more comment on 1903A3′s:

    During the height of WWII war production ramp-up, as an expediency measure to crank out more rifles in less time, 1903A3′s were made with two-groove barrels (as opposed to the original four grooves). I have a two-groove A3 and it shoots into an inch at 100 yards quite handily with modern sporting ammo. The two groove barrels are favored by some cast bullet shooters over the four groove for reasons I won’t belabor here.

    Both the 1903/A3/A4 and Mauser 98 are worthwhile additions to anyone’s collection, and both make excellent starting points for high-end custom rifles.

    • avatarDave G. says:

      I have a 1943 Remington manufactured 03-A3 that I think is all original, it has a 4 groove barrel and is in excellent condition. I took it to the range once, placed 5 turkey steel silhouettes at 300 yards, hit 5 out of five and then said “no need to shoot this anymore, it’s too accurate”. My friend has a 2 groove 03-A3, his father was a gunsmith who (unfortunately by today’s standards) sporterized dozens of 03′s and a quite a few 03-A3′s, who told me that nobody wanted 2 groove guns, but in reality, they were as accurate or more so than the standard 4 groove guns. I’ve only seen about 2 or 3 over the years, but I will say that you are lucky to have one.

  17. avatarSanchanim says:

    Thank you James for the article.
    Well thought out, a lot of history, and makes you want to get one!
    Hey for a rifle of that age to shoot that well, that is amazing.

  18. avatarDICK REILLY says:

    great article.
    ..I picked up my Smith-corona in 1958 while stationed at Eilson air plane patch in Alaska.This was one of a few hundred that were sold for$17.00,as was the .45 I picked up at the same time. We washed off the cosmoline with triclo and both firearms still perform exceptionally well.Not long ago, and with iron sights,I hit a golf ball at 100yds

  19. avatarRalphie says:

    I have two 03-A3′s. One is a Remington and the other one is a Smith-Corona. I regularly hunt with my 03-A3. I shot a nilgai in Texas with the Remington. I’ve also used the 03-A3 on countless jack rabbit hunts. It’s also a great rifle for shooting coyotes. These are great guns. The 2-stage trigger breaks cleanly and they balance nicely. I’ve read that the front sight is one of the rifle’s weaknesses. Perhaps, but I’ve never had an issue with the front sight on either 03-A3. Some say that the 2-groove barrels on most of the Remington rifles are not that accurate, but I can squeeze out a 2″ group at 100 yards with hand loaded ammunition. The P-17 Enfield is an incredibly tough and well-built battle rifle, but it is heavy and a bit on the ugly side (I have one made by Eddystone), but the 03 and the 03-A3 are truly handsome rifles. Thanks for the great article.

  20. avatarJay Haw says:

    I have been offered a “Rare” ’03 it was very early production model, all seem factory done from Rockisland but it has a 20in barrel, all else seems straight up factory. I can find no info on this variant. So do I have find? or some really good gunsmith work?

  21. avatarD Spraggins says:

    Readers are cautioned to avoid relying heavily on the proper configuration of the M1903A3 image at the top of this post.

    The sling is threaded through the stacking swivel (open-loop piece on front band), instead of where it should go (closed loop on lower band). The regulation swivel is missing.

  22. i aquired a Springfield 1903 “Sporter” model .30-06, (NOT SPORTERIZED), years ago, for $35.00 at a garage sale. I thought it was sporterized, but upon disassembly, I noticed the barrel band was machined and fit around the lower stock and barrel perfectly. This rifle never had handguards. I got out some reference manuals and there was the picture of my rifle. It is VERY RARE. only a few hundred made! Back in the 1920s, if you wanted a Hunting Rifle in .30-06, this was your ONLY choice.. EVERY PART in Her is Machined STEEL and Hand Fit. The magazine floor plate underside is Jeweled. Every part in the original Lyman sight is machined steel. The barrel has flaming bomb proof, dated 6-16. It is slicker and smoother than anything currently made. She still shoots great. The Elderly man I bought it from, said his brother used it to shoot Grizzly Bears and camp meat in Alaska with it Durring Construction of the Alaskan Hwys, from ’20s-’50s. I believed him, as it only has 20% blue, but no pitting. It is a Great Rifle, and dont plan to part with it. The stuff they come out with now, and for the last 30 years ago is Junk(you pick the brand). My rifle is a classic example of, “They Dont Make Things Like They Used To” Sad!!!

  23. avatarJoseph D. Smith says:

    Well I’ve wanted an A3-03 for sometime and saw a couple at a local gun store. The barrels were clean but the rifling looked shallow. Are they chrome lined and just appear shallow? Even the bolt and receiver’s Parkerizing looked new. Love to have one but I want to be able to shoot it for awhile.

  24. avatarBrink says:

    My Dad was on the 3rd wave in the invaison on Okinawa. +30 days he found a 1903, in average condition. He kept the rifle, and later sportatized in 1950, an avid hunter he hunted on Fort Lewis and always carried the 1903. I was 14 when I shot my first buck on Fort Lewis. I attended a local Military school for 3 years, and entered High School. That year was my first hunt in 3 years. My Dad did’t have the 1903, he was shooting a Remington semi auto carbine, he had sold the 1903 to a retired buddy. I just knew I would inherit that 1903, but it didn’t happen.In 1970 I was on active duty in the 50th state. The territorial guard/National guard was selling off 1903′s I aquired one for the price of 36.00, a lower serial number example with the Hatcher hole in the receiver. I own 3 1903′s and enjoy them very much.

  25. avatarGeoInSD says:

    I inherited an M1903A3 that my father had sporterized himself. It had a real nice and smooth action. Accurate. Unfortunately, it was stolen in a burglary of my house during my college graduation. My firearms stolen was my graduation present. Fortunately, the insurance company paid me replacement cost. That is when I learned that quality firearms hold their value. They are like gold in that respect.

  26. avatarsteven says:

    My son and I have inherited a Smith-Corona 03-a3 from his great grandfather. Initially, most of the info I needed to know what type of gun was obscured by the scope mount. When further inspecting, found that it is a smith-corona o3a3 that has been sporterized with a fajen stock. I own several guns and would love to take this one to the range and fire it, but am concerned about whether it is safe to fire. When operating the bolt action, it seems extremely “wiggly” when pulled back as far as it will go. Admittedly, i know little about mauser-style bolt actions and would like to know if this is fairly normal with these guns or there is cause for concern. Thanks.

    • avatared says:

      Think I saw that on “I Have This Old Gun” on Outdoor Channel, wiggling when it’s all the way back is normal as long as it’s tight when the bolt’s closed. IIRC

  27. avatarPhilllip says:

    Have you never heard of a trapdoor Springfield? Those were the rifle between the muzzle loaders and the Krag and there were plenty of trapdoors in Cuba!

    Name the court case between Mauser and the US govt… Tired of looking yet? That’s because there never was one, the author just repeats wrong information. http://www.milsurps.com/showthread.php?t=15846

    As mentioned above, the sling is attached to the stacking swivel, the proper sling swivel is missing. I guess they did that to keep the upper band from falling off since it’s retaining screw is missing.

  28. avatared says:

    Of course in today’s legal environment, it’s hard to believe Mauser didn’t sue.

  29. avatarDalton says:

    I’ve got a 03a3 I’m thinking about gitting rid of. The main problem is the stock. Email me at daltonmanuel16@yahoo.com if your interested. I can send pictures. Just needs some tlc.

  30. avatarSurculus says:

    @ Philllip: beat me to it! I was about to list the oversight of the Trapdoor Springfield in the article. There were also other “trial” cartridge-repeaters prior to the Krag-Jorgensen, as well as the Lee Navy [which was contemporary to the Krag, and a superior rifle in most respects, from period accounts.]

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