A Second-Generation Springfield — The M1903A3

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #Guns #History
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A Second-Generation Springfield — The M1903A3

November 30th, 2021

6 minute read

During the first two years of the Second World War, America remained neutral. While the military forces of combatant nations around the globe continued to grow, the U.S. Military remained a surprisingly small force.

America’s military planners were gradually equipping U.S. troops with modern weapons, like the semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle, but no one was ready for the sudden, massive need for combat rifles after the Pearl Harbor attacks. By early 1942, the Arsenal of Democracy was ready to go to work and respond to the Axis threat with an unprecedented level of innovation and production.

Soldiers on patrol in Burma with M1903A3 with M1 grenade launcher
The lead soldier on this 1945 patrol in Burma is carrying the M1903A3 rifle equipped with an M1 Grenade Launcher. Image: NARA

Born from a WWI Hero

After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Wake Island and the Philippines in December 1941, the ranks of the U.S. Military swelled dramatically. Stocks of existing M1903 rifles were quickly depleted to train and equip America’s fighting men. Meanwhile, production of the M1 Garand rifle (officially adopted in 1936) was still ramping up to meet demands.

1903A3 rifle shot from experimental gas protection system
The M1903A3 rifle shot from inside an experimental chemical weapons cover. Image: NARA

Remington had taken over M1903 production during September 1941, using well-worn tooling originally from Rock Island Arsenal. It was quickly apparent that the old tooling was wearing out, and that M1903 production needed a quicker, simpler, and less expensive solution. Many of the high-quality milled parts, so familiar on earlier M1903 rifles, began to be replaced with stamped components. Classic walnut stocks with finger grooves gave way to utilitarian straight-line stocks.

Rifle training in the Southwest Pacific Area during 1944
Rifle training in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) with a M1903A3 rifle during 1944. Image: Author’s collection

As the number of tiny changes mounted and the wartime production pressures grew, U.S. Ordnance decided to discontinue production of the M1903. Consequently, in May 1942, the new version of the Springfield Rifle was ready for production, and the U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903A3 was born.

A New Battle Sight

Before the M1903A3, the Springfield rifle featured a precision rear sight mounted atop the barrel. While an excellent design, this sight was considered a bit too far forward and away from the shooter’s eye for maximum effectiveness, particularly in combat. To remedy this while simplifying production, the “03A3” was given a simple aperture (peep) sight, made of stamped metal and mounted on the back of the receiver.

Soldier with rifle grenade launcher on Springfield M1903A3
This M1903A3 rifle is set up to fire the M9A1 anti-tank Rifle Grenade. Image: NARA

The new aperture sight was positioned closer to the eye and proved easier to use. It was also similar to the sight on the M1 Garand—providing greater familiarization for troops likely to use either rifle in combat.  The new sight was popular with the troops, allowing the rifleman to quickly and easily acquire and reacquire the target. For marksmen, the M1903A3’s effective range remained at about 1,000 yards with the .30-06 cartridge. For the average soldier, the new sight kept him on target at more realistic combat ranges of 200-300 yards.

Emergency Concerns

As the war continued, machining and finishing operations continued to be abbreviated. The 03A3 barrels were simplified by replacing the original Springfield four-groove type with two lands and grooves. To preempt fears that this change to the barrel would affect accuracy, 03A3 rifles were often shipped with documentation that the two-groove barrels did not represent an appreciable decline in effectiveness.

Soldiers with M1903A3 rifle near Castleforte, Italy in May 1944
The M1903A3 rifle outside of Castleforte, Italy during May 1944. The men are setting up a portable generator to power loudspeakers. Image: NARA

Occasionally, the modifications created solutions to problems with the original design. This was the case with the 03A3’s stamped cartridge follower, as its rounded edges were less likely to catch on the bottom edge of the receiver where it joined the magazine box. Also, the 03A3’s stock furniture parts were produced from stamped metal. In the end, replacing complex machined parts with more affordable and simple stampings had no impact on the rifle’s functionality, only on its cosmetic appeal.

A New Era

In the early part of the 20th century, small arms manufacturing offered a healthy dose of the gunmaker’s art, coupled with the recent advances in firearms technology. During the desperate days of World War II, combatant nations were faced with the harsh realities of mass production, influenced by the urgency of imminent invasion and shrinking finances. Several all-metal small arms, like the British Sten SMG and the US M3 SMG, were produced to address the issues of quicker production and lower cost.  Troops often derided them for their “utilitarian” looks (a polite way of saying ugly), but they worked well, or at least well enough on the battlefield. 

An M1903A3-armed MP guards supplies aboard a DUKW amphibian coming ashore at Le Havre, France during February 1945
An M1903A3-armed MP guards supplies aboard a DUKW amphibian coming ashore at Le Havre, France during February 1945. Image: NARA

Famous rifles like the Mauser, Arisaka and Mosin-Nagant all witnessed changes to their once elegant manufacturing standards. The same was true with the M1903A3 Springfield rifle. Ordnance men of the time were often horrified at the “decline” in manufacturing standards, but ultimately the decline in beauty didn’t make the weapon any less effective.

In Combat

There has long been a misperception that the M1903 rifles were simply used for training during World War II.  In truth, the Springfield rifles, including the M1903A3s, played a significant role as combat weapons. While there more than six million M1 Garand rifles made, their distribution to American combat troops was often uneven, well after the M1 was in full production. Many Marine and Army units fielded a combination of M1 and M1903 rifles well into 1944, and many combat engineers, artillerymen and MPs carried the Springfield rifles until the end of the war.

U.S. MPs with M1903A3 rifles
U.S. MPs armed with M1903A3 rifles during an Independence Day celebration at Mittry, France on July 4, 1944. Image: NARA

One of the primary reasons why the M1903 rifles continued to serve alongside the M1 Garand in the war’s final 18 months was due to the 03’s grenade launching capability. The M7 Grenade Launcher fitted to the M1 rifle disabled the Garand’s semi-auto firing capability. With the M7 launcher in place, the Garand could only be fired by cycling the action by hand. The bolt-action M1903 rifles used the M1 Grenade Launcher and operated normally while the clamp-on launcher was attached. Using the M1903 as a grenade-launching rifle allowed U.S. infantry squads to maintain their rifle firepower, with one man easily switching between grenadier and rifleman simply by changing ammunition.

A U.S. Marine examines a Japanese bunker on Bougainville Island in 1944 while holding an M1903A3 rifle
A U.S. Marine armed with an M1903A3 rifle examines a Japanese bunker on Bougainville Island during December 1943. Image: NARA

The M1903A3 was also the basis for the M1903A4 Sniper Rifle, which replaced the rear peep sight with a Redfield scope mount for a telescopic sight. Officially adopted in 1943, the “03A4” sniper rifle served U.S. and Marine units through the end of World War II, and saw some use in the Korean War as well.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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