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.