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.

 

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56 Responses to Gun Review: M1903A3 Rifle

  1. 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.

    • It’s interesting to wonder sometimes what Sears could have been if they had more aggressively pursued the outdoorsman market. The companies which dominate the space today, such as Cabelas, Gander, and Academy, have all struck major success within the past 20 years. Sears had plenty of opportunity to exploit this market, but for the past 25 years they have been screwing up at every turn. Nowadays their store is downright depressing to visit. I went there a few weeks ago to purchase a vacuum cleaner (they are the only major chain to carry bag filter vacuums) and there were literally more employees in the store than customers. If only they had continued targeting the sports and outdoors market, and not divested their financial subsidiaries, their fortunes might be much better at present.

  2. 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. 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.

    • 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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    • 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.

  14. 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.

    • 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.

      • I too have a 1903A3 4 grooved barrel my dad says he used it in urban areas without a scope in the field he used a scope he was a sniper during WW2 would u know the value of it

  15. 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.

  16. 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

  17. 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.

  18. 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?

  19. 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.

  20. 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!!!

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

    • 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

  25. 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.

    • Most lawsuits don’t go to trial. You have a poor case, you settle. the question is, did Mauser wind up getting royalties?

  26. @ 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.]

  27. The cutoff is not to fire single shot, it is flipped on so that no soldier could close the action on an empty chamber. The rounds feed up and are chambered by the bolt, untill the magazine is empty, then, the cutoff being on, the bolt is stopped by a notch in the magazine follower. I was the armorer in our company of the California Cadet Corps, 1967 – 1968.

  28. I have an old 03-A3 Springfield, two groove that I received in 1978 with no wood or stock accessories.
    I promptly ordered a very plain (straight grained) blank stock from Brownell’s (I think) and went to work making a very attractive sporter.
    I had connections with Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif. since having been a student in the gunsmithing lab and was able to get the bolt “bent,” the barrell turned down smooth, the action drilled and tapped for scope base and blued to a near “Black” semi-gloss finish. All that cost me probably a thousand dollars worth of tools, but they were old tools I no longer have use for. I fit, glassbedded, and finished the Walnut stock with twenty hand rubbed coats of “Tru Oil” which I hand rubbed with pumice and oil to bring out a really beautiful glassy smooth finish. Mounted with it’s 3-9 x 40 Nikon scope she is a pleasure to show and is on the mark at 150 yards.
    I studied under Mr. John Wise in Susanville from 1965 to 1971 when I moved away. All I ever took were the machineshop classes. One hell of a lot of fun!!! roger

  29. That “Tru Oil” was hand rubbed after every seven coats. Lots of hours and “elbow grease.” roger

  30. I have had a few 1903a3 rifles, and I now have another with a chamber and 4 groove bbl that are factory fresh. I enjoy shooting this rifle and its’ predecessor the 1903……

  31. I am a country Gospel singer/songwriter, so my web page doesn’t reflect guns, however I am a huge proponent of or our 2nd amendment. I own 2 beautiful M-1 Garands, and just recently bought a 1903A3 ( which I have not had the privilege to shoot yet. The Garands are the sweetest rifles I have ever shot ( right on the money at 100 yards and probably more) from what I’ve read, it would appears I am in for an even sweeter treat with the 03 A3, can wait to fire that “Baby” “Keep your powder dry” and God Bless you and our country. Frank M Diehl

  32. I am blessed with a sport conversion 03a3 which I inherited and went out to really to see what it would do this past weekend. Shooting Remington 180 gr PSP at 100 yards I managed 2 – three shot 1/2″ groups using a 4X weaver – the trigger is a little stiff – I’m going to pull it completely down – clean and polish all trigger surfaces to try to make the pull consistent. Beyond that I may swap the scope for a 3-9 to give my tired eyes a little help. It is a pleasure to shoot

  33. Think there are seven in the safe, great rifles. There is also an unissued one in there, unfired, except for a proof round.

  34. Nice looking rifle. A couple of comments, though. The sling attaches to the sling swivel, not the stacking swivel. Also,the mounting bolt for the barrel band appears to be missing. Sling swivel appear to be from a 1903 rather than an 03A3. Its a simple replacement with the correct band and swivel to make it more original and valuable. There are differences between the Remington and Smith-Corona. Make sure you have the correct one.

  35. So, I’m a History Education major, and consider myself an milsurp enthusiast but by no means an expert and I would like to ask a question to people that probably know more about this rifles wonderful history than I do. I am reading a text book for the class I am helping out, and in the book there is a diagram that shows a American WWI soldiers’ equipment, and of course the rifle was the ’03. They had a comment I have never heard before and I’m fairly certain that it is dead wrong but thought I would give this due diligence. On the rifle there is a text box and it says this word for word: “the appearance of the Springfield rifles fooled the Germans into thinking that the Americans had machine guns”. Now my assumption is whoever wrote this specific part of the book was getting the ’03 mixed up with an M1 Garand, but like I said before, just wanted to see what everyone else had to say about this.

    P.S. Yes I know a millennial that is into guns! Shocker right? (No I’m not feeling the Bern by any means)

    Thanks!

    • Zack; There is on way in H— anyone could mistake a 03 for a machine gun, certainly not the Germans. Your assumption can only be correct. I own 2 03-A3s, 2 M1 Garands and 2 M1 carbines, I can reload my M1 Garand in about 2.5 sec. and that is slow, but I am 74 years old. At the beginning WW-2 most countries were using and trained on bolt action rifles and you can see why the M1 could have been mistaking for a machine gun but not the 03.
      I am glad to see that you have joined us old guys in the ownership of guns. I will not hold it against you for being a millennial, you can not help when you were you born, Please don’t join the college students in a CRY IN, just joking.
      Young people make fun of us old ones but when we were their age we had real problems to think about. The Draft, 4 years in the army, the Cuba/USSR problem, the death of JFK, keeping a job to stay in school ( No Student Loans ), and don’t forget Vietnam. Stay safe…. Ron

  36. Mine is from 1918, and is the old ’03 with the ladder rear sight. Mine is configured like a Marine WWII rifle and is in that serial number group, but the barrel had been replaced with one from 1943. The action is glass smooth and the trigger is very good. I can see why some Marines kept their ’03’s even after the M1’s became available to them…I owned a Garand myself and I prefer the ’03, too.

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