The Star-Gauged 1903 Springfield Supplied Through the NRA – Firearms News

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I bought my first 1903 Springfield based on the cash in my pocket. There was a good gun shop in my college town that usually had a varied assortment of interesting new and used guns. I was a frequent visitor, but far less frequent buyer—college student, no student loans just earnings from summers working in a factory and whatever jobs I could get during the school year. On the day in question, though, I had received my income tax return and had some money. My plan was to purchase a center fire rifle, most likely in .30 caliber.

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The World War II 1903A3 is less elegant than the original 1903 Springfield rifle, but it has better sights. A Smith Corona built M1903A3 match rifle (bottom). (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service)

There were three that piqued my interest—a Marlin 336 lever action in .30-­.30, a US M1917 Enfield, and a World War II Remington 03A3 version of the Springfield. The Marlin cost a bit more than the cash in my pocket, but I could have put a down payment on it and picked it up in a couple of weeks. I could afford either of the GI .30-­06 rifles, though the 03A3 was a few dollars more than the 1917. Both had the advantage that surplus .30-­06 ammo was readily available in those days.

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The shooter friendly rear sight of the 1903A3 rifle.

I chose the 03A3 because I had read enough about World War I and World War II and seen enough films to know something about its military heritage. Over the next decade, I shot that rifle quite a bit using corrosive GI ammo for the first few years and cleaning the rifle with boiling water and surplus GI bore cleaner. As the 03A3 had been seen service in WWII, I assumed it had probably been fired with corrosive ammo at some point anyway. I’d probably still have that rifle but when I was going off to London for graduate school, I had to sell down to a few guns to put into storage and the 03A3 was one that went. I didn’t own another 1903 Springfield for 25 years.

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Diagram showing the parts of the M1903 Springfield Rifle.

After I’d agreed to do a book on the 1903 Springfield in the Osprey WEAPON series, I pre-­spent some of my earnings from the book to purchase a 1903 and a 1903A3 for tactile reference in writing the book. The 03A3 was another Remington. I found it interesting that I liked my 1903 much better because of its legendary World War I service but that I shot the 03A3 much better because of its more soldier friendly rear sight.


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The tag showing results of star gauging Thompson’s M1903 NRA Rifle. During World War I, some US snipers were equipped with M1903 rifles mounting the Model 1908 Warner & Swasey Musket Sight as an improvement on the iron sights. (NARA)

While working on the book I immersed myself in the 1903 Springfield, reading everything I could find. I was also fortunate that I had two friends who were among the foremost collectors of the 1903 in the country. As a result, I was able to examine rare variants chambered for the .30-­03 cartridge, which was soon replaced by the .30-­06 cartridge, and rifles with the rod bayonet, production of which had ceased in 1905, among other rarities. Of special interest to me were the M1903 rifles designed for use in the National Matches at Camp Perry and ones used for sniping in World War II.

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A view of the M1908 Warner & Swasey Musket Sight on a M1903 Springfield rifle; the scope was offset to the left of the receiver to allow feeding the rifle’s magazine with five-round clips. (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service). During World War I a periscope version of the M1903 was developed to allow firing over the lip of a trench (Springfield Armory NHA)

Of particular interest among the match M1903 rifles were those authorized for sale through the Director of Civilian Marksmanship to members of the NRA, beginning in 1913. The concept that the government would allow civilians to purchase the current service rifle for personal use seemed the perfect salute to a “country of riflemen.” How times change!

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Right side view of a M1903 National Match Rifle. (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service). Left side view of a M1903 National Match Rifle (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service). A star gauged 1903 Springfield Rifle. (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service)

These rifles were “star gauged,” which meant that a gauge was used to check uniformity of the rifle’s lands and grooves. Although all barrels were star gauged and selected for match rifles beginning in 1910, the barrels were not marked with the star on the muzzle until 1921.


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The California rifle team with M1903 rifles at the Camp Perry National Matches in 1908.

Those match-­grade rifles sold to members of the NRA also had the letters “NRA” stamped along with an ordnance bomb ahead on the floor plate. Readers may be aware that 1911 pistols from Colt and Springfield Armory were also sold through the DCM and bear the “NRA” markings.

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Beginning in 1921, rifles that had been star-gauged were marked with a star on the muzzle. Early M1903 Rifles were equipped with a rod bayonet. Examples of this variation are rare and sought after. Operating the 1903 Springfield’s safety with the thumb while retaining the rifle against the shoulder in the firing position. After pushing the cartridges into the magazine of the M1903 Rifle from the stripper clip, running the bolt forward will cause the clip to eject.

I’ve read numerous books on World War I weapons. Bruce Canfield’s U.S. Infantry Weapons of the First World War is especially good. I think one reason I’ve found World War I infantry combat so interesting is that it saw the first major combat use of weapons such as self-­loading pistols, pump action combat shotguns, and submachine guns. Many of the classic bolt action rifles that would still see combat in World War II, such as the 1903 Springfield, K98 Mauser, SMLE Lee-­Enfield, and M1891 Mosin-­Nagant, were also in World War I trenches.



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Well-known marksman Dots Miller firing his 1903 Springfield in a match during 1917.

US troops weren’t just armed with the M1903, as production could not keep up with the rapidly growing US Army. As a result, the M1917 Enfield was also used in large numbers. Admittedly, the World War I weapon that has fascinated me for much of my adult life is the Trench Shotgun and I’ve owned at least one Model 97 Trench Gun for 50 years or more. But the Colt 1911 and the Springfield M1903 had a lot of appeal as well, as did Lugers and C96 Mausers.

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NRA markings on the 1903 sold through the CMP. Colt and Springfield Armory 1911s were also sold the same way. As a piece of trivia, there are faked 1903s and 1911s, and one indicator of authentic CMP guns is that the periods after each letter of NRA get progressively larger on the authentic ones Thompson has examined. The M1903’s safety rotated to the “READY” or fire position.

I’ve never really had the collecting fever for M1903 Springfields, though as already mentioned I have owned a couple of them. Still, I remained fascinated by the DCM NRA Model 1903 Star-­Guaged 1903 Rifles. As a result, I’ve put bids in on a couple of them in auctions and actually won one at what I consider a fair price a few years ago. A couple of collectors I know seem to agree as they’ve offered me a profit on it, but I’ve refused to sell. I had it out of the safe a couple of weeks ago in the process of looking for something else and realized I’d never shot it. I decided it was time, and this article is the result.

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Close-up of an M1903’s bolt cutoff; when in the “ON” position as the bolt was drawn to the rear, a cartridge from the magazine could be fed into the chamber; in the “OFF” position, the bolt could not be drawn fully to the rear, thus preventing a cartridge from the magazine to feed but allowing the shooter to insert a cartridge directly into the chamber while retaining the full magazine in case rapid fire was needed.

Ok, I had the rifle, but I didn’t have any of the white box .30-­06 Match ammunition that used to be readily available. Fortunately, though, I did find that the Civilian Marksmanship Program had high quality ammunition from Creedmoor Ammunition available and ordered a box of 50 cartridges.

One of the first things I had to do at home, and then again when I got to the range with my NRA M1903 Springfield, was re-­acquaint myself with the ‘03’s rear sight—it offers a lot of options. These include: the battle sight, peep sight on the drift slide, and sighting notch on the bottom of the drift slide.

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Quickly operating the bolt of the 03 Springfield while keeping the muzzle towards the target. (T.J.Mullin photo)

The battle sight was set for 547 yards, while the two sights on the drift slide could be used between 100 and 2,350 yards for the peep and 2,450 for the notch at the bottom of the drift slide. The U-­notch at the top of the leaf could be used to 2,850 yards. I’ll be honest, I have never shot that well using any of them. I shoot better with the receiver mounted aperture rear sight of the 1903A3.

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Col. C. B. Winders, who won a gold medal in the team military rifle event at the 1908 Olympics, firing his 1903 Springfield. (Library of Congress)

Though I have never been a fan of the 03’s sights, I have always found it a handy rifle, easy to shoot offhand. Therefore, to reacquaint myself with the trigger pull and the notch on the drift slide, which I had set for 100 yards, I fired a few rounds at plates at 50 yards. Then, to check if the sights were on, I fired three rounds from a rest at 50 yards, putting the rounds into 3/8 of an inch and well centered. Then, I moved to 100 yards. Even though I have bionic eyes these days (cataract surgery) I still could not acquire the front sight effectively through the peep sight, hence use of the notch on the drift slide.

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View of the 03 Springfield sight in the down position only allowing use of the battle sight. From the GI 23-10 1903 manual a diagram of the various parts of the 03’s sights.

I wish I could relate that at 100 yards I kept my group tight, but I didn’t. Using the same sight, I was getting groups of four to five inches, as was my friend who also shot the rifle. This confirmed my experience in the past with the M1903: I don’t see the sights well. The difference between the group at 50 yards and 100 yards was I believe attributable to the sights in that I found aligning the front post more difficult on the bull, which appeared much smaller.

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Thompson firing a 100-yard group with the DCM NRA 1903 Springfield. (T.J. Mullin photo)

I’ll admit that’s an excuse, as I have had friends who were fans of the M1903 who could shoot excellent groups at distances well past 100 yards. Let’s face it, as with many of you reading this I’d expect, optical sights have spoiled me. The ammo was high quality so I couldn’t blame that. We did find that the handguard band was loose and would not tighten all the way, I doubt, however, I can blame that for affecting the rifle’s harmonics to any great extent.

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50-yard group fired using the U-sight on the drift slide of the M1903. Two shooters could only manage groups between four and five inches at 100-yards. The handguard band kept shooting loose despite being retightened. What effect, if any, this had on accuracy is unknown.

This was the first time I had fired the rifle and may well be the last. I purchased it for its historical interest. I have another 1903 and a 1903A3, the latter which I shoot much effectively. The rifle had come from the well-­known collection of Scott Duff, which gives it good provenance among collectors.

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During World War II the M1903A4 sniping rifle was the most widely used in the US Army. (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Service)

For me, when I handle the rifle, I like to think of that NRA member who purchased it a century ago fondling it and thinking how lucky he was to be an NRA member and to have in is hands an example of American craftsmanship and military preparedness. Maybe that handguard band worked loose from all of the matches in which he shot it! 

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Creedmoor Sports produced three million rounds of .30-­06 ammunition for the Civilian Marksmanship Program. This high-­quality match ammunition is loaded using Lapua brass and 167 Grain Scenar BTHP bullets. The ammunition is produced to very high standards and is optimized for shooting in 200-­yard CMP matches. Additionally, it’s priced very reasonably given its quality. I couldn’t really give the Creedmoor Sports ammo a proper test with my NRA M1903, but I also shot it from my National Match Garand and at 200 yards from a rest put five rounds into just over 5 inches. For me that is very good.


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