At the end of the 19th century, the United States needed a new battle rifle to modernize their current rifles and to bring them into the 20th century. That is where the US M1903 rifle came onto the scene. When developing the M1903, Springfield Armory patterned it after the renowned Mauser designs and then paired it with a 150 grain .30 caliber pointed-nose bullet which would come to be known as the .30-06 cartridge. The rifle and cartridge were officially adopted by the US Military in 1906 and remained the standard service rifle for 40 years and served as a sniper rifle for nearly 60. The original M1903 rifles featured a straight stock, lacking the pistol grip that was added with the later A1 version of the rifle in 1929. It had a 24″ barrel, a “turn-down” bolt, five round internal magazine that could be either loaded with a stripper clip or individually, and was fitted with a ladder style rear sight. The total length of the rifle was 43.2″ and it weighed in at 8.69 lbs. There are few differences, other than cosmetics, from the original M1903 prototype rifles and while it was officially adopted in 1906, it retained the M1903 model number.
Soon after the bolt-action .30-cal. U.S. M1903 Springfield was introduced and into production, the Ordnance Department began developmental work on a telescopic-sighted version of the new rifle. During the final development of the M1903 the Small Arms Firing Regulations of 1904 was released and authorized the issue of telescopic sights on rifles to specially designated marksmen. It stated in Chapter II, Section 235 of the Regulations:
“Telescopic Sight—To encourage efforts, to award efficiency, and to properly equip a special class of shots who shall not only be designated as expert, but who, in action, shall be employed as such, the telescopic sight is adopted. These sights will be supplied by the Ordnance Department and assigned to enlisted men who have qualified under these regulations as expert riflemen. They will be issued to and accounted for by the company commander, and, in his discretion, may be carried by the men at inspection under arms.”
Honestly, that was about the extent of the U.S. sniper program throughout the first World War. While WWI is considered the birth place of modern sniping and it was a time when much of the modern sniping concepts and practices were developed, a lot of the sniper programs and their rifles, were developed on the fly and were not nearly as defined as they were even during WWII. While the war department was working on developing scoped versions of the M1903, there was no real development of a complete sniper weapon system like there was just 25 years later. It was more a matter of taking a battle rifle and mounting some optics on it and then issuing the rifle to the best marksman. That was the extent of the US Sniping program at the time. Great Britain and Germany developed official schools and sniper programs through the WWI, but the US only participated in the British school on a limited basis and came late to the war.
For the “sniper versions” of the M1903 during WWI, there were two main scopes utilized, one adopted by the Army and the other by the USMC. For the Army, they elected to go for a prismatic “musket sight” developed by Warner and Swasey. The Warner and Swasey 1908 optic had a 6 power magnification, the later adopted 1913 version had a lower 5.2x power. The Army changed to the lower magnification for the larger field of view and improved light gathering capability. The scope was prismatic design which means it used glass prisms instead of lens to focus and magnify the image, which is why they are short and compact. The scope was constructed of steel and brass and the interior and exterior were painted black and it was quite heavy at 2.25 lbs (1.02 kg). It had a very short eye relief of only about 1.5 inches (38mm) so they added a rubber eye cup to help prevent head damaging contact with the scope when the rifle was fired.
An interesting aspect with the W&S scope is how the windage and elevation adjustments were setup. The range adjustment was a BDC style elevation wheel marked in 20 yard increments from 100 yards to an astounding 3000 yards, which was much farther than the actual capability of the rifle. The windage adjustments had 38 inches of left and 46 inches of right adjustment at 100 yards. Fixed to the scope were several brass plates with data printed on them to help the shooter know how much to adjustments to dial in to compensate for elevation, windage and even spin drift. The scope was mounted offset to the left by a rail on the side of the receiver, this allowed the shooter to be able to continue loading the rifle using stripper clips as well as to be able to use the iron sights. The weight of the heavy scope and the mounting position made the rifle top heavy and unbalanced. Having the ability to use the iron sights allowed the marksman to confirm the zero or make adjustments to the sight to maintain accuracy. The standard reticle for the Warner and Swasey was a fine crosshair, very typical for the period, and on the left hand side of the field of view were three stadia lines to aid in range estimation. Each line represented the height of the average man (5′ 8″ or 1.73 meters) standing at a distance of 1,000, 1,500, and 2,000 yards .
It may seem odd that a scope would have adjustments out to ranges as extreme as this, but it wasn’t uncommon for iron sights to have markings to those ranges as well. In fact, the M1903’s own ladder style sight was marked out to 2850 yards. It is unlikely that any confirmed kills were made at such dramatic ranges, but the advancement in technology with modern cartridges was evident.
The US Army procured 2075 of the Warner & Swasey 1908 models from 1909 through 1912. Of those, about 450 were mounted to the Benet-Mercie 1909 automatic machine guns and the rest are assumed to have been mounted to M1903s. The Army purchased significantly more of the model 1913, about 5,730. But only 4,200 were delivered by the end of WWI. Of the 4,200 only about 1,530 were officially known to be mounted to the M1903 rifles and issued by the Army. Springfield Armory took those sights and would mount them to specially selected M1903 rifles, presumably ones that shot better. The manufacturing marks and serial number on the rifles were still visible. Scopes were serial numbered to the rifle on the inside of the mount. No additional markings were made to the rifle to indicate they were a sniper rifle and the rifle serial numbers fall into a very broad range: 340,000 to 500,000 for the M1908 W&S sight and 577,000 to 935,000 for the M1913
Official documentation showed that the Army made an allowance of 96 of these scoped M1903s per Division.
For the USMC, their scope selection was quite different. They decided to go a different route than the W&S and they elected to use the Winchester model of scopes. The Winchester A5 was considered by many at the time to be one of the best scopes on the civilian market and it could be purchased in one of three powers. 3x, 4x, and 5x, which were known as the A3, A4, and A5 respectively. When selecting a scope to use on their sniper variants of the M1903, the USMC went with the five power A5. The scope tube is free floated in the mount’s, common for the era, and when the rifle is fired it slides forward with the inertia of the recoil which in turn protects the sensitive internals of the scope. Prior to firing again, the scope was manually pulled back into its proper position. The adjustment knobs in the rear base were threaded in the mounts and pressed against the scope and are countered by a spring-loaded plunger on the opposite side. This allows movement in either direction when the adjustment knob is turned. Later models would also have a wing added that would not only act as a marker but add friction to the knob to help keep them in place. At the front of the scope there is a stop ring which allowed the shooter to adjust for their eye relief. Additionally the scope had the capability to adjust the focus at the front and rear of the optic. As was common at the time, the standard reticle was a simple fine crosshair.
As is the USMC way, the rifles and scopes focused primarily on precision marksmanship. There were no provisions for bullet drop compensation or range estimation, that was the expected job of the sniper, not the rifle.
The USMC M1903s with Winchester A5 scopes were issued in much smaller quantities than the Army rifles, and we could not find any specific numbers for exact quantities. We did find, however, that about 400 of the A5 equipped rifles had found there way into the inventory of the US Army by the end of WWI. The A5 scopes were mounted to the rifles by marine armorers and not the rifle manufacturer, which set the precedence for the USMC and their sniper rifles and continues through today with the M40A6s being built by USMC armorers a century later. The USMC M1903s were not specially designed sniper rifles, but just converted infantry rifles which means the Mann rear base covered the markings on the receiver, including the serial number. The armorer also scalloped the top front handguard to mount the forward scope base. There were no additional markings made to the rifle to indicate that they were a sniper rifle.
Compared to today’s standards, both of these rifles and optics were not much and even the worst optics of today are leaps and bounds better than what our WWI veterans had to use. But at the time, they were the leading edge in long range marksmanship technology and were capable rifles in the right hands. The thoughts and concepts that were introduced pushed the industry to what we have today. These are very unique and special rifles that have significant historical meaning. Kudos to our sniper forefathers and their rifle builders. To read about the WWII versions of the M1903, check out our M1903A4/A1 Unertl page.