Rapidity With Accuracy: Modernizing the U.S. Army Service Rifle in the Gilded Age

By Stephen C. Small, Ph.D.


During the late 19th century technological advances made truly reliable repeating rifles a practical reality for military usage. Prior to that time such weapons were generally too fragile or complex to withstand the rigors of combat. Arguably the most important of these emerging technologies was the magazine-fed bolt-action rifle. An equally important adjunct innovation was that of small-caliber high-velocity ammunition. These innovations substantially increased the ability of soldiers to achieve lethality in combat. That is, rapidity of fire combined with accuracy to make the soldier a deadlier instrument of war than had previously been the case. On the threshold of the 20th century, U.S. Army Ordnance officers were well on the way to producing a service rifle that employed both these innovations. The product of which would ultimately be the superlative Springfield Model 1903 rifle with its equally impressive .30-06 cartridge. That rifle-cartridge combination would demonstrate its efficacy in both war and peace for more than thirty-three years in its role as the Army service rifle. This essay sketches the historical events and technological changes that underlay the Springfield Model 1903 rifle becoming the service rifle of the U.S. Army.

The closing of the American frontier in the 1880s and early 1890s made it necessary for the Army to rethink its service rifle. That is, in light of the significant technological changes that had taken place since mid-century. Additionally, there was the possibility – albeit fairly remote – of the United States encountering a military threat from South America or even Europe. Amid such uncertainty, one thing remained constant. U.S. Army soldiers needed to overmatch the service rifle of any future enemy. Overmatch in this case was measured in terms of superiority with regards to effective range, wounding, lethal effects on the target, and overall accuracy. Ordnance officers by virtue of their role as weapon developers had a significant stake in rifle modernization. However, the complexity of the problem required more than simply choosing among the most technologically advanced candidate rifles.

Two obstacles stood in the way of rifle modernization. The first was economic, the second doctrinal. The economic problems were those of parsimonious peacetime military budgets. Being perennially short of funds, the Army spent what few dollars it possessed on the maintenance of equipment already in its inventory. The second situational obstacle involved the matter of Army doctrine: How did the Army plan to fight and with whom did it expect to fight. Both the how and who of it were in flux at the time. The only certainty being that the peacekeeping activities on the Western Frontier kept the small Army, some 25,000 men, somewhat gainfully occupied. Savage battles between soldiers and Indians were punctuated by lengthy periods of inactivity and boredom. In addition, there were the much less bloody involvements of the Army in domestic civil disturbances, such as the great railway strike of 1877. However, despite the difficulty and complexity of such peacemaking and peacekeeping missions, senior Army officers remained confident that the existing single-shot service rifle was more than an adequate tool for handling such domestic threats. Despite the absence of monies for modernization and the ill-defined combat need, the Army service rifle was to change dramatically in the years approaching and shortly following the turn of the century. Central to this change were the efforts of the U.S. Army Ordnance officers – only about fifty men at the time.

1880-1892: Single-Shot to Magazine Fed

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the Army had on hand more than million obsolete but serviceable muzzle-loading rifle-muskets. The discarding of such a great number of weapons, in favor of a technologically improved replacement rifle, became unthinkable as defense expenditures began to drop. And so, the Army chose as an option a modification to the rifle-muskets. The product of this effort was known as the “Trapdoor rifle” or “Allin Conversion” as the namesake of its inventor Springfield Armory master armorer, Erskine S. Allin. The rifle-muskets were converted to breech-loading rifles at the Springfield Armory by cutting into the breech and adapting a hinged “trapdoor” breechblock mechanism. This mechanism enabled the loading, firing, and extracting of self-primed metallic cartridges. This modified rifle, and the sixteen variants that followed between 1865 and 1889, served as the official Army service rifle until 1892. The Model 1873 Trapdoor models fired the powerful .45-70 cartridge. This 405-grain bullet had an average velocity of some 1,300 feet per second (f/s). The weight of the rifle was moderately light at 8.25 pounds. Despite the ad hoc design of the rifle, it proved to be both rugged and effective in combat – although speculation on some rifles having jammed during General Armstrong Custer’s Little Big Horn fight in 1876 fueled controversy. No matter, since the late 1880s the rifle had become transparently obsolescent when compared to its counterparts in Europe.

The response of Ordnance officers to service rifle obsolescence was to periodically upgrade the Trapdoor rifle, hence the many variants. However, parallel to that effort they sought to monitor technological change by testing new rifles. These tests had practical utility as they enabled officers to assess such innovative weapons as the Lee, Chaffee-Reece, Ward-Burton, and the Hotchkiss rifles. By such testing, officers kept abreast of technological change. When defense budgetary matters began to improve in the 1880s – Army expenditures rose from $38,177,000 to $44,483,000 – Ordnance officers were relatively well-informed regarding small arms technological change.

The watershed event for rifle modernization came in 1890 when Army Ordnance Department Chief, Brigadier General Daniel Flagler (1835-1899) convened a Board on Magazine Arms. Once again the testing of rifles resumed. However, unlike with previous tests, this board of officers had as its object the true search for a new service rifle rather than simply monitoring technological change. Fifty-three repeating rifles of varying types were extensively tested. Candidate rifles came from all parts of the globe. Exhibitors’ addresses included Austria, Belgium, Demark, England, Germany, Japan, Portugal, as well as the United States. When the testing concluded, the Krag-Jorgensen No. 5 rifle – Denmark’s entry – was the Ordnance Department’s chosen weapon. The inventors of the Krag rifle were Ole Hermann Johannes Krag, a captain in the Norwegian Royal Artillery, and Erik Jorgensen, Master Armorer at Kongsberg.

The Krag was to be the first official bolt-action magazine-fed service rifle of the U.S. Army and it possessed several advantages over its predecessor. The loading capacity of the magazine was five .30-40 cartridges. The 220-grain .30-40 bullet had a muzzle velocity slightly over 1,900 f/s. This smaller, faster bullet reduced time-of-flight to the target as well as flattening the arch of the trajectory, both of which enhanced hit probability. Another feature that the evaluators liked was the fact that the Krag functioned well with rimmed cartridges. Rimless cartridges were still novel at the time and generally not looked upon favorably by Ordnance officers. Additionally, the Krag fired smokeless powder. This was an important issue, for when the Trapdoor fired its black powder cartridge, a plume of smoke easily identified the shooter’s position to an enemy. Or the smoke made follow-up shots more difficult as it tended to obscure the shooter’s field of view. Another advantage was that one hundred of the Krag’s .30-40 cartridges weighed about the same as sixty of the Trapdoor rifle’s .45-70 cartridges. This situation helped to lighten the soldier’s load in terms of ammunition basic load. The Krag rifle and bayonet did weigh more than the Trapdoor rifle, tipping the scales at 9 pounds, 5 ounces.

In the final analysis the Krag’s capacity to be loaded one-round at a time with its magazine being held in reserve in case of emergency would prove its winning features. Known as the “single-loader” concept, it was accomplished mechanically by way of a magazine cutoff – a lever on the rear left of the receiver. When in the “OFF” position the cutoff mechanism prevented cartridges from being moved forward and chambered by the bolt. The Magazine Board summarized its findings as follows: “[the] relative merits of a magazine arm and a single loader for use in the United States service [is such that the] the board adds that it considers such an arm as this Krag-Jorgensen No. 5, which is capable in a high degree of both single-loading and magazine fire, to be vastly superior for use in the United States service to any weapon adapted to single-fire only.”

The Krag’s status as the official Army service rifle was formalized on September 15, 1892, when acting Secretary of War L.A. Grant approved its adoption. However, the weapon’s status was unhinged as the “not-invented-in-America” aspect of the rifle soon fomented controversy; American arms-makers being quite upset with its selection at the expense of American entries. The ensuing uproar was such that Congress directed that $400,000 earmarked for Krag production be withheld until further tests of American arms were conducted. And so, the Congressional constituencies in arms manufacture were given a second chance. During April and May of 1893, the Ordnance Department tested fourteen American rifles. Much to the dismay of American arms-makers a second look changed nothing. Once again the Krag was deemed the superior rifle. And so in 1894 the Krag finally went into full production at the Springfield Armory.

Rational Behind The “Single-Loader” Concept

The fixation that late 19th century Ordnance officers appeared to have had with the “single-loader” concept was not solely their own. Infantry and Calvary officers of the period were also united in their belief that soldiers should first load, then carefully take aim, and only then fire – one aimed shot at a time. This concept was contrary to having soldiers rapidly fire, aimed or not, in the general direction of a large formation of enemy soldiers. This “concentrated fire” technique was fairly representative of Army tactics as practiced prior to 1871. However, by the 1880s, skill in individual marksmanship had relegated concentrated fire to usage only under extreme circumstances. For example, when one’s defensive position was at risk of being overrun. However, as a general rule, officers held that aimed fire was not only tactically better than its predecessor technique, but that it minimized the wasting of precious ammunition.

This trend towards aimed-fire was further enhanced as officers came to recognize the generally poor state of soldier marksmanship in both the Army and the militia. The case was articulated by Lieutenant-Colonel William C. Church, editor of The Army And Navy Journal. In the 1870s he printed numerous articles addressing matters of marksmanship training in the Army and volunteer militia units. His efforts contributed to an awakening by officers to this key aspect of training. Soon, the Army leadership began to place strong emphasis on aimed, accurate long-range shooting. In Addition, other combat skills – such as physical fitness – were tested by fire and movement to sequential shooting positions. Not everyone felt enthusiasm for the new rifle marksmanship. In 1885, Colonel Richard I. Dodge of the Eleventh Infantry complained, “At present the whole army is afflicted with a ‘boom’, a genuine craze on target firing and everything has to yield precedence.”

Along with a new emphasis on marksmanship came added hopes for reduced ammunition expenditure by troops in battle. The psychology of this fixation with ammunition expenditure might have been linked to institutional remembrances of Civil War logistical difficulties. During that war, ammunition had to be trans-loaded from wagons to a fighting position or formation – often by hand-carry while under fire. Such lessons-learned made the expenditure of every bullet appear particularly precious. And so, the “single-loader” concept drove much of the criterion for service rifle adoption. Interestingly enough, this concept was not inter-service in nature. Sailors of the era possessed the Winchester manufactured Lee bolt-action straight-pull rifle, a rifle that fed exclusively from the magazine, an arrangement that did not feature the single-loader concept. Perhaps shipboard ammunition re-supply to landing parties led to markedly different thoughts regarding small arms fire.

1898: The Spanish-American War And The Service Rifle

On April 25, 1898, America found itself at war with a foreign power for the first time since 1846. The Spanish-American War is notable for both American naval successes and U.S. Army shortcomings. In that sense, many war veterans concluded that the enemy’s Spanish Mauser service rifle had outperformed the American Krag rifle during the war. The Spanish Mauser Model 1893 was indeed an excellent combat weapon. Adopted by Spain on 7 December 1893, it had received much positive acclaim by Spanish Army officers. As a token of their esteem, the designer Paul Mauser was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Military Merit by the Spanish government. The rifle was very easy to load, reload, and fired quickly. The charger, which was held in position during loading, facilitated this rapidity of firing. Another significant attribute of the rifle was its accuracy. Being on the receiving end of its fire, American soldiers soon learned to duck upon hearing the “peculiar whirring or rustling sound” of the Spanish 7mm. Commonly referred to as the 7mm Mauser, this bullet was in fact the 7x57mm Mauser – a rimless bottlenecked cartridge that used smokeless powder. Its 173-grain round-nosed bullet was propelled at a muzzle velocity of 2,300 f/s. The rifling-twist giving it gyroscopic stability was one turn in 8.8 inches. Moreover, it possessed a relatively flat trajectory and its high velocity made it less susceptible to bullet deflection caused by winds. Both these attributes contributed to its accuracy. Its rifle weight of 8.69 pounds made it ergonomically comparable with that of the Krag.

The exacting accuracy of the Spanish Mausers was somewhat in counterpoise to its wounding effect. In that sense, its resultant wounds were occasionally almost humane. Clara Barton (1821-1912) founder of the American Red Cross and actively engaged in nursing the wounded on the battlefield commented that, “this [Mauser] wound was a small clean perforation, with very little shattering or mangling, and requiring only antiseptic bandaging or care.” She went on to add that wounds to the abdomen were another matter, the risk of infection being significant in that case.

Of the 17,000 soldiers that deployed for the Cuban land campaign in June 1898 most were regular Army. However, included in this number were two Volunteer infantry regiments, as well as Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and his soon-to-be famous “Rough Riders.” Individual weapons carried by these soldiers were a part of the 51,000 Krag rifles and 11,000 Krag carbines that were shipped from the Springfield Armory between April 1 to June 30, 1898. The regulars carried Krags as did the Volunteer Rough Riders. However, most of the Volunteers were armed with the Trapdoor Model 1884 Springfield single-shot .45-70 caliber rifle. Several weeks into this brief war, some Volunteers were issued the Krag. Despite the arming of combatants with the new service rifle, affording them even rudimentary training was another matter. For example, until the first fight of the Campaign, a skirmish at Las Guasimas, not one of Roosevelt’s Volunteers had ever fired their Krags.

Battlefield Lessons-Learned

Following the American Army’s redeployment from Santiago, a board of Ordnance officers visited the troops at Camp Wikoff, (Long Island, New York) for the purpose of interviewing officers and soldiers and to assess comments regarding the performance of weaponry. Some of the officers interviewed who had fought at Santiago indicated that the Krag was used almost exclusively as a “single-loader” with the contents of the magazine being held in reserve. These officers concluded that magazines must be kept for emergency usage only. Other infantry officers took an even more conservative stance as they argued that the Trapdoor rifle was preferable to the Krag rifle because the former has a rate of fire of fifteen rounds per minute and, as such, was expected to be adequate for most combat engagements. In addition, they said that the simpler breech-locking mechanism, on the Trapdoor rifle, was less likely to break given rough treatment by inexperienced Volunteers. However, by the conclusion of all interviews, the board’s findings indicated that many officers from the Cuba campaign stated their desire to have a clip for the service rifle – a clip that facilitated rapid charging of the magazine.

The inequality of Spanish and American service rifles was both real and imagined. For example, the Mauser’s 7mm bullet, had a muzzle velocity of 2,230 f/s and possessed 2,589 Joules of energy. Correspondingly, the Krag’s .30-40 caliber bullet, had a muzzle velocity of 1,755 f/s and possessed 2,045 Joules of energy. During tests conducted at Springfield Armory in 1899, the terminal effects (penetration) test outcomes were fairly close. Bullet penetration of pine butts (alternate sections of pine and air, one inch thick) was the measurement employed. When fired in a side-by-side comparison at a distance of 2,000 yards, the Mauser bullet resulted in 4.06 inches of penetration as opposed to 5.3 for the Krag. Given the slight performance gap between the two rifles, the difference between the Mauser and the Krag might appear as easy to bridge. However, the single lug bolt system on the Krag lacked the requisite strength. That is, in order to increase the muzzle velocity of the bullet to the additional 200+ feet per second, 40,000 pounds per square inch (psi) tolerance was required. The Krag’s structural strength was simply not up to the task; whereas the Mauser rifle with its two-lug bolt easily accommodated the higher pressure.

American attitudes towards the Spanish Mauser likely crystallized in response to the heavy casualties suffered by U.S. soldiers in the battle for San Juan Hill. Many veterans felt that the Mauser was largely responsible for the costliness of that victory and that belief contributed to the movement toward the American development of a Mauser-type service rifle. Another enabling occurrence came in the way of the 20,000 or so M93 Mauser rifles that fell into American hands at the close of hostilities. Without doubt, the availability of rifles for study at Springfield Armory helped American Ordnance officers to better understand the technology that underlay Mauser rifle performance. Soon thereafter, the Ordnance Department began its own efforts to develop a new service rifle. As a first step in that direction, the Ordnance Department entered into an arrangement with the Mauser company and began to develop a modified Mauser rifle at the Springfield Armory. For this, the American government paid $200,000 for the manufacturing license.

1900: The Experimental Rifle

Per the order of Brigadier General Adelbert R. Buffington (1837-1922), Chief of Ordnance, a one-of-a-kind experimental rifle was designed and built at the Springfield Armory and completed on August 25, 1900. That rifle, designated the “Model 1900 Experimental Rifle,” was a combination of both the old and the new and, as such, it took advantage of many on-hand Krag parts. For example, it had the same 30-inch barrel, 10-inch rifling twist, buttstock (with its 13.4-inch “pull”) as well as a similar forestock. Both the safety rib on the bolt and the firing pin component were reminiscent of the Krag’s functional architecture. The Experimental Rifle sighting system employed the Krag front sight. The M1898 rear sight included an aperture that allowed for wind deflection of the bullet and could be positioned for elevation. When the leaf was down, an open notched “battle sight” was adjustable out to approximately 400 yards. No doubt Springfield Armory’s large investment in machine tools and substantial inventories of Krag parts drove this eclectic mix of weapon hardware. Nevertheless, there was a substantial new departure happening. The Experimental Rifle’s receiver was based on the Mauser model, as were its magazine, and bolt mechanism. These included the critical two locking lugs near the head of the bolt. This feature gave the system the strength needed for a modernized high velocity cartridge.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the single-loader concept still held sway over the Experimental Rifle’s architecture. Present on the rifle was an Enfield-type magazine cut off. It consisted of a thin sheet of steel that hinged so that it would swing over the magazine thereby enabling the rifle to be used as a single loader. The single-column magazine held five rimmed cartridges and projected well below the stock. The rifle’s magazine used the Mannlicher system entailing a follower, flat springs, and an arm. The trigger and sear were like that of the Krag. This arrangement worked rather poorly and resulted in the rifle having an exceedingly long trigger pull.

The Rimmed Prototype Cartridge

The Experimental Rifle was a possible prototype of the future service rifle. As such, its primary object was to test the feasibility of firing higher velocity bullets than had been possible with the Krag rifle. Such a bullet would result in better accuracy than could be realized by the Krag. Experiments were carried out at the Frankfort Arsenal in early 1900 in order to develop a caliber .30-bullet that would have a velocity of over 2,000 f/s. The initial product of this effort (for the Experimental Rifle) resulted in little more than the standard service caliber .30 (Krag) rounds loaded to a special pressure and velocity. Some 11,985 rounds with a chamber pressure of 48,000 psi were made for the test. This rimmed bullet did use a sharper shoulder (advanced approximately .056”) and a greater length of .56”. The retention of the rimmed case served to minimize the problem of proper head-spacing in the manufacture of both rifles and ammunition. Moreover, the rimmed case added strength in the cartridge head, thereby reducing the possibility of failure when the rifle was fired. The primer for this cartridge was known as “H-48.” It employed a non-mercuric mix invented by Lt. C.L. ‘H. Ruggles in 1899. Rimmed cartridges have a rim which seats against the breech face and aids in extracting the case as opposed to rimless cases. They have an extraction groove in the case body, leaving a flange at the base of the case. The bullet utilized in this cartridge was a round-nosed, 220-grain bullet. This modified cartridge afforded 2,300 f/s at the muzzle of the 30-inch barrel. Tests conducted in October 1900 by the Small Arms Board resulted in the board members complaining about the round’s rimmed case. The rim made it feed poorly in the Mauser-type clip. Most importantly, the board was unsatisfied with this initial effort and wanted higher velocities than this first attempt had yielded.

The Test of the Springfield Magazine Rifle

The Experimental Rifle was submitted to the Board on the Springfield Magazine Rifle on the morning of 2 October 1900. The board had gathered at Springfield Armory and its members included (the Board’s president) Major John H. Greer, and captains, Frank Baker, John T. Thompson (of later Thompson submachine gun fame), and Odus C. Horney – Ordnance officers all. The test entailed several phases during which the rifle was subjected to a series of trials in which the harshness of a combat environment was approximated. These subtests included rapid fire at close-quarters (100 feet) against a man-size target – the emphasis here being on the “single-loader” feature. During one firing, forty-one shots were fired in 2 minutes; 29 hits were made. Additionally, an endurance test included the firing of 500 rounds without cleaning the rifle. For the most part all went well, but on the forth string of firing 50 rounds the magazine mechanism failed to feed and the test was suspended until the difficulties could be remedied. Another subtest entailed the intentional fouling of the rifle. For two minutes a fine sand dust was blown over and around the rifle. The bolt was then cycled to ensure the weapons remained functional. Despite this impediment, the rifle continued to function satisfactorily. And then, intentionally defective cartridges were fired to see if such firings would damage the rifle. This time an extractor was broke. The broken part was replaced and the test continued. Next, excessive charges (64,000 psi) were fired with no negative effect. The bolt continued to operate as easily as was the case prior to the firing. Last, an ease of manipulation subtest was successfully completed as each member of the board efficiently worked the bolt and trigger.

The board concluded that the rifle, excepting some minor difficulties, had successfully passed the test. The major advantages of the rifle were cited as its strength and simplicity relative to the Krag. The former quality would serve as a plus for battlefield ruggedness and the latter for ease-of-manufacture. A negative pointed out was the weakness of the magazine, in that it extended well below the rifle-stock and was thereby exposed to being damaged. Additionally, the magazine cut-off was not liked because the magazine could not be filled while the cut-off was in the “OFF” setting. The board submitted its final report with recommendations on 8 December 1900. They recommended that the magazine be modified in order to make it flush with the bottom of the stock. This modification would permit a more compact staggered column of cartridges and make the rifle more like the Spanish M93 Mauser. And, since the rimmed cartridge would not feed in a Mauser-type clip, they recommended the changing over of rimmed cartridges to rimless types. General Buffington approved the report on 18 January 1901. Shortly thereafter work was begun at the Springfield Armory on a new rifle, a rifle incorporating the modifications recommended in the board’s report.

1901: The Modified Experimental Rifle and Cartridges

The 1901 Experimental Rifle was intended to possess all the good features of the M1900 rifle as well as the added improvements resulting from the board’s recommendations. Perhaps the most important revision was that it was the first Springfield rifle to employ the Mauser staggered box magazine, that is, a magazine fully enclosed within the rifle-stock. The weight of the rifle including its rod bayonet was 9.47 lbs. Moreover, there were several minor changes of detail whereby the cost of manufacture were to be lessened.

Aforementioned, the Frankfort Arsenal’s first attempt at developing a new cartridge had resulted in only marginally greater velocities than the standard Krag .30-40 cartridge. Moreover, the rimmed configuration of the new cartridge case did not feed properly from a clip. And so work continued at Frankfort in search of a significantly improved cartridge. In November 1900, they developed another new cartridge with a velocity of 2,500 f/s. However, new problems replaced the old. Along with its high velocity came a correspondingly high chamber pressure of 49,000 psi. And the rimed cartridge was retained despite the earlier protests. The rimmed bottlenecked case was 2.752 inches long and possessed a rim diameter of 0.58 inches. It was loaded with 48 grains of service propellant. In January 1901, the rifle board members expressed their concerns about the excessive recoil resulting from the high chamber pressure as well as the feeding difficulties attending the rimed case. And so, Frankfort developers resumed work. Within 30 days they had developed yet another cartridge. This rimless cartridge yielded a velocity of 2,300 f/s. Additionally, it possessed a chamber pressure of only 45,000 psi. The propellant was 44.5 gr. charge of Whistler-Aspinwall double-based (nitroglycerin type) powder. The bullet was 220 gr., round-nosed, jacketed with cupro-nickel and lubricated with Japanese wax and graphite. The first of these cartridges were fabricated in February 1901.

More than 10,000 rounds were tested in the M1901 Experimental Rifle. These were probably a mixture of the single or three lubricating grooved (also known as “cannelured”) bullets – the Army service bullet was in transition at this time. In September 1902 it was noted that the gas seal of these bullets was poor. And so the so-called “Cole” bullet was tried—it had smooth sides. This bullet had no grooves and was slightly more pointed. The rifle board found this bullet superior in perhaps every way to the standard M1901 cartridges and its predecessors. And so, the board recommended that the three-grooved, cupped-base, round-point bullet, and that the “Cole” bullet should be adopted.

The Trial of the Model 1901 Rifle

Unlike the M1900 Experimental Rifle of which only one was made, the M1901 Experimental Rifle was planned for a much more expansive form of testing. On 6 November 1901, a limited production of 5,000 M1901 rifles was approved. These were to be issued to soldiers for actual day-to-day testing in the field. It was planned that by 1902, production levels at Springfield Armory would be up to 125 per day. Assuming that the M1901 performed well in the field with troops, plans were made to have that production rate upped to 400 per day, with another 250 per day being produced at Rock Island Arsenal. However, once again scarce dollars as well as manufacturing difficulties foiled the plan. Soon after formulating the project, then Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier (1855-1942) decided that this massive test simply was impractical. He scaled it back substantially. On 7 April 1902, Crozier secured $1,700 for the shop model production of 100 experimental M1901 rifles. A board of officers convened at Springfield Armory on 16 February 1903. And following some limited firing at the local test facilities more extensive testing was completed at Sandy Hook Testing Grounds. Additionally, trips were made to ten Army posts during which the rifles were demonstrated and comments of testers and observers solicited.

The board of officers delivered their final report to General Crozier on 28 March 1903. Within the report they summarized the testimony of 223 officers. Further, it incorporated the input of 4,669 enlisted men. The report indicated that the majority of these men overwhelmingly supported the rifle becoming a candidate for the new service rifle.

The board of officers recommended several modifications to the rifle. One of the more significant entailed support for General Crozier’s recommendation that the barrel length be shortened from 30 to 24 inches. He had made this directive the previous year when the 100 prototypes rifles were being produced. This action proved quite important since it eliminated the need to have a full-length shoulder weapon for the infantry and a carbine for the cavalry. This improvement standardized the service rifle and reduced the need for specialty small arms in the Army. Two other recommendations addressed ergonomic improvements. The hand guard was changed to better protect the shooter’s hand from barrel heat, and modification to the lower sling swivel enhanced carrying comfort. However, not all the recommendations worked out completely. The shortened barrel resulted in greater muzzle blast. The rear sight was moved further rearward extending the sight-radius. This change placed the sight too close to the shooter’s eye resulting in a poor sight picture.

With regards to the candidate service rifle’s ammunition, the 10,000 rounds of M1901 cartridges fired by the board were deemed adequate as the service cartridge. But a small lot of the Cole bullet was held to be quite superior. The Cole cartridges (they lacked cannelures) afforded an excellent gas seal. This difference significantly improved accuracy over the three-cannelured M1901 cartridges. The M1901 rifle was chambered for the rimless .30 caliber M1901 cartridge, the same cartridge that the M1903 rifle would be chambered for when it was initially produced. As a bizarre footnote to the aforementioned, and after all their efforts to increase the velocity of the service rifle, Ordnance officers took a step backward. In October 1905, the Ordnance Department ordered the Frankford Arsenal to reduce the velocity of the Model .30 ball cartridges from 2,300 f/s to 2,200 f/s – eight million rounds would be reloaded to this new velocity. The reasoning of the Ordnance Department was that an increase in rifle barrel life would be secured. Once again the fixation with seemingly dubious economies overrode other considerations.

The Enabling Spitzer Bullet and The .30-06

The classic round-nosed bullet, although still very much in vogue during the testing of the M1900 and M1901 Experimental Rifles, was soon to be replaced and a new innovation in bullet design was about to begin. In 1898, the French had adopted a bullet known as “Balle D.” And in early 1904, the Germans developed a flat base, 145-grain, “spitzer” (pointed). Such European technological change was not lost on the U.S. Ordnance Department. Soon thereafter they developed their own flat-based, jacketed “spitzer” bullet. Whether the Americans were simply copying their European counterparts still remains somewhat unclear. In 1894 Lieutenant Colonel J.P. Farley of the Ordnance Department had apparently invented a “spitzer”-type bullet. However, the utility of the concept remained speculative until German advances in high-speed photography captured drag waves on film and thereby displayed its ballistic efficiency. Farley’s sketches were later used as proof that the German “spitzer” bullet was not copied in the development of the .30 M1906. Unfortunately, these sketches served only as part of an unsuccessful defense strategy to a lawsuit bought by Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) against the Americans over the use of this type-bullet. World War I delayed the legal proceedings. But in 1921, DWM received $412,520.55 as settlement for infringement. Legal issues aside, the “spitzer” bullet would be central to the development of the M1906 cartridge, a cartridge nearly immortalized in 20th century military and sporting usage and better known as the .30-06. When this cartridge was perfected in October 1906, some 150,000 M1903 rifles were called back to the Springfield Armory and chambered for the new round. With the addition of this enabling technological development the combination of the M1903 rifle and the .30-06 bullet became a reality.

Summary: Object Fulfilled – the U.S. Magazine Rifle “03”

The rifle-bullet combination of all the aforementioned efforts became a reality on 19 June 1903, when then Secretary of War Elihu Root (1845-1937) approved General Crozier’s recommendation regarding a new service rifle. The Mauser-like Springfield rifle was designated United States Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30 Model of 1903. It weighed 8.68 pounds, fired the .30-06 (7.62x63) cartridge, the muzzle velocity being 2,800 f/s and it held five rounds in an internal box magazine. The “03” rifle met the requirement of rapidity with accuracy, and yet it still retained the “single-loader” mechanism. The Ordnance officers had done their work well albeit slowly.

In conclusion, the Spanish American War experience coupled with late 19th century military technological change and improving defense budgets served to promote Army service rifle modernization. However, it was the U.S. Army Ordnance officers of the era that provided the catalysis of planning and testing. They deserve the credit for the development of a truly efficient and effective instrument of war – the “03” Springfield rifle. The accomplishment is more impressive given that Ordnance officers of the Gilded Age tended to be punctilious rather than visionary. Small arms firepower in the Spanish American War was a mere foreshadowing of that yet be in 1918 France. Few of those men even dimly imagined what was coming. Rather they possessed outlooks that were fully commensurate with the budgetary and doctrinal realities of the old frontier Army. All of which made them men of their time.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V17N4 (December 2013)
and was posted online on October 18, 2013


Comments have not been generated for this article.