The Springfield M1903 is a bolt-action battle rifle chambered in .30-06 Springfield.
|Sights:||Aperture rear sight and blade front sight|
|Features:||Two-stage trigger set for 4.5 pounds; and swivel studs|
|Material/Finish:||Milled steel/grey phosphate|
|Twist:||1 in 10"|
History in your hands
Once in a while we pick up a rifle that just makes us go, “Oh, baby!”
For me, it’s most often one that epitomizes the gunmaker’s art, something both eminently functional as well as beautiful, like an ultra-fine Mauser sporter from the early 1900s. Sometimes it’s a rifle that’s just kick-ass, like the FNH SCAR, which I mentally poo-pooed as “Oh, another plastic semi-auto” until I actually handled and fired it.
But the last rifle to melt my heart was a 68 year-old warhorse with a total facelift, a beautifully restored Springfield M1903A3. This baby turned my head at the James River Armory booth during the 2011 SHOT Show a few months back.
James River Armory in Halethorpe, MD specializes in restoring Springfields, Garands, M1 carbines and K98 Mausers to “arsenal re-issue” condition. Except for the K98s, all rifles get new barrels and that’s because they aren’t supposed to be wallhangars. These rifles are meant for shooting and that’s what I wanted. Specifically, I wanted the ‘03A3 to replace my M38 Swede for shooting in Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) Vintage Military Rifle matches.
Do I really need to introduce you to the ’03 Springfield? Just in case you’ve forgotten, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the basics.
The US Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903 served the US from that year into the Vietnam War-era (as the M1903A4 sniper variant), though manufacture stopped in 1944 after about 2.6 million had been produced. The government then sold a lot of them as surplus at about $15 each. For the years following, every guy with a hacksaw built a Springfield sporter. But those days are over and today plain-Janes still in uniform go for anywhere from $500 to $1,000 – the cost of holding real history in your hands.
Match barrel? Who, me?
While the James River Armory’s standard M1903A3 sells for $839, I paid an extra $100 for this specimen because it has been accurized to the limit allowed by CMP rules: the trigger was lightened to 4.5 pounds and it is equipped with a new Criterion barrel that the Armory says is match grade.
The CMP rules for new barrels say the outside dimensions must be identical to original military issue, but say nothing about the precision of the bore, rifling and chamber, so if you’re going to re-barrel, might as well go for the gusto.
The downside, though, is that the pressure is on me to shoot even better scores because now I have a theoretical advantage over competitors whose rifles still have original military grade barrels.
The workmanship on my rifle is excellent in the sense that it looks and works like an original military rifle fresh out of an arsenal refinish. All the metal parts have a light grey phosphate finish, except the stacking swivel and sights, which are blued.
Some markings are deliberately correct. The receiver serial number tells me it was made in 1944.
The rifle has the correct Type C (reproduction) stock and the correct “FJA” inspector’s cartouche for that year, as well as an ordnance escutcheon. On the grip, the letter “P” in a circle is a proof load mark.
A wood-to-metal gap at the receiver tang appears to be a manufacturing error, but is actually a 1908 design specification to prevent the wood from splitting at this point from recoil. It sports an oil finish that highlights the nice grain, which is almost too nice for a combat rifle.
The only major detail missing is the ordnance stamp and year of manufacture that you’d normally find behind the front sight (remember, it’s missing because it’s an aftermarket barrel).
Ok, enough drooling. Let’s move on.
Not too windy… Range Test
Trying to coordinate other obligations with decent weather made me wait a long time before I could finally spend a day at the range with the ’03. The spring and early summer winds at 5,500 feet in Arizona are daily and strong – typically 20 to 40 mph gusts – precluding any fair accuracy test. Impatience finally made me rationalize one morning that 10 mph winds won’t severely impact .30 caliber bullet flight at 100 yards, and CMP Vintage Military Rifle matches can be shot at 100 yards on NRA SR-1 reduced targets, so that’s how it went down.
I stopped breaking-in barrels when I learned that barrel manufacturers recommend it only because so many customers appear to believe it’s necessary. I shot 20 rounds of surplus M2 Ball ammo to check functioning and find a zero before shooting it for groups and that’s when I dipped into the match-grade stuff.
To my surprise, the combat rear sight was not precise. It has 12 elevation clicks that range the sight from 100 to 800 yards, and I adjusted it by simply pushing it up or down with my thumb. The seven white windage hash marks each represent four MOA, and there are supposedly four clicks on the windage knob between them – it’s hard to tell though because the marks are so small and the clicks aren’t terribly positive.
At 100 yards with the M2 Ball, the rifle’s zero was dead center windage, but three clicks up (200 yard setting).
The rifle scored 10 out of 11 shots in the 10 and X rings, with an unexplained flyer in the nine ring (hey, it’s surplus ammo).
Hornady makes some very fine loaded ammo called Match .30-06 M1 Garand 168 grain A-MAX. Beyond its accuracy, what makes it so unique is that it’s designed specifically for the Garand’s gas system. If you’re shooting commercial .30-06 hunting ammo in your Garand – stop! It’s almost certainly too-high pressure for the rifle. However, this is a subject for another time, for now trust me on this one. Anyway, the ’03 likes the Hornady stuff, same as my Garand. After shooting a few rounds to find the Hornady’s zero, the rifle shot a 99-4X with 10 shots - and I called the 9 and two 10s at 5 o’clock. The four Xs look like only two bullet holes and at two inches, the group is half that of the M2 Ball. Sweet!
Before I left, I talked with another club member who was shooting his M96 Swede.
“Hey, Art, are you going to shoot that ’03 in the military rifle bench rest match on Wednesday?”
“Dude,” I said, showing him my targets, “you don’t want me to shoot that match.”
“Oh, baby,” he said with a laugh. “THAT is a winner.”
Check out what others say about the M1903: