Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Enfields and Springfields and such

Several people seemed to find my recent post on the Pattern 1914 rifle interesting, so I figured that I'd expand on it a bit and highlight the American version, the US Rifle, Model of 1917, and it's partner in WW1 warfare, the venerable 1903 Springfield.

Come World War One, the British found themselves in a bit of a fix. They were off to war against that whacky Kaiser Wilhelm but they were sorely lacking in infantry rifles. They were then using the Enfield #1 Mk3, "SMLE" (Short Magazine, Lee Enfield", or "Smelly" to the troops) but they didn't have nearly enough of them.
SMLE in .303

So the Brits turned to the US Arms Manufacturers Winchester and Remington and gave them a design for a rifle that had showed promise in trials but not gone into production for lack of available manufacturers. This rifle was the Pattern 14, a rifle that was considered more accurate and robust than the SMLE but which was also heavier and limited by it's five-round magazine against the SMLE's 10-round capacity.
Pattern 14 rifle in .303

Winchester made these at their plant in New Haven, Connecticut and Remington cranked these rifles out at two plants, it's main plant in Ilion, New York, and a second plant that it set up in the Baldwin Locomotive Plant works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania just to make these rifles. They made them up until 1917, at which time the Brits figured that they had enough SMLE rifles and cancelled the contracts. But then the US, feeling left out, got into the war. Not surprisingly, we needed more rifles than we had, too. Our own government arsenals at Springfield, Mass. and Rock Island, Ill. were turning out 1903 Springfield rifles as fast as they could but it wasn't enough to arm the new troops that we were drafting.
US Rifle Model 1903

Fortunately, the Winchester and Remington plants were still set up to produce Pattern 14 rifles, so the design was changed a bit to chamber the rifles in .30-06, the US cartridge that the '03 Springfield was already using, and they were put into production, this time as the US Rifle, Model 1917.
Model 1917 (top), Pattern 14 (bottom).

So our troops went to Europe with not one rifle, but two. The 1903 Springfield is the one often remembered at the predominant World War 1 rifle by many, but in actual fact, more US soldiers were armed with the Model 1917s. Even Hollywood got it wrong when they made a movie about World War One Medal of Honor recipient Alvin York. His heroics were portrayed in the 1941 movie Sergeant York, which featured Gary Cooper in the title role, shown here shooting his newly-issued 1903 Springfield rifle.

In reality, York carried a Model 1917.

1903 Springfield (top), Model 1917 (bottom).

Given a choice, our troops tended to prefer the 1903 Springfield. It was shorter, lighter, and had much better sights that were fully adjustable for windage and elevation. A shooter who knew how to use them could put hits on targets at remarkable distances.
1903 rear sight.


By contrast, the Model 1917 and Pattern 14 were only adjustable for elevation, and while the SMLE had a windage adjustment, it was still pretty crude.
Pattern 14 rear sight. Model 1917 rear sight is identical.

Enfield #1Mk.3 SMLE rear sight.

It was with those 1903 rifles and their long-range marksmanship skills that the US Marines established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in their engagement with the Germans at Belleau Wood. The Germans could not believe that riflemen could pick their machine gunners off at 800-1000 yards as the Marines regularly did with their Springfields.

Post-WW1, the Pattern 14 and Model 1917 were declared obsolete and sold off or stored. They'd be back by necessity in World War Two when the British, desperate for rifles again, re-issued their Pattern 14's to Reserve and Home Guard troops right alongside Model 1917s that the US sent under provisions of the Lend-Lease act. Owing to the difference in cartridges that the two fired, the 1917s had to have big red bands painted on the stocks to clearly identify them as .30 rifles, not .303. The 1903 Springfields soldiered on, remaining a front-line rifle with the Marine Corps. and even some Army units well into the Second World War. An updated version of the 1903, the 1903A3 Springfield, saw that war to a conclusion and even served into the Korean War as a sniper rifle.

Mine have some noteworthy markings that tell a bit about where they've been and what they've seen. My Model 1917 was made at the Eddystone plant in Pennsylvania.
It's barrel is dated 1918, and that's consistent with the serial number. It also shows a stock stamping "RA-P" with indicates an overhaul at the Raritan Arsenal in New Jersey, probably post-WW1.
It also bears the US Ordnance Dept. acceptance stamp, a small flaming bomb, on the receiver and the barrel.

My Pattern 14 was also made at the Eddystone plant, but it's receiver marking is a bit plainer.

On it's receiver rail, it has the British acceptance mark--a crown and the letters G.R. for Georgius Rex--King George. Just ahead of that is a broad arrow stamp, indicating British government ownership.

My 1903 Springfield is a later model, manufactured in 1933 per it's serial number and barrel date.

It also has some faint stock markings that didn't photograph well. The main one of interest is an SAA stamp, which indicates that at some time, this rifle went through an overhaul program at the San Antonio Arsenal.

The SMLE has lots of markings.
It was made in 1916 and the Birmingham Small Arms factory in England. It also bears the Georgious Rex stamp.
It has two serial numbers, the larger one it's British number assigned when it was made, and the lower one an Australian number stamped on it when it was transferred to the Aussie government at some time in it's service life. The D^D stamp is indicative of the Australian Defense Department. This old critter got around.

The stock bears marks as well. The small "639" indicates that this rifle received a new stock in June of 1939, probably when it was being pulled from post WW1 storage and being reconditioned. The stock also has both the rifle's original serial number and the Australian Dept. of Defense stamping.
I'm guessing that it served with English forces in the First World War and the Australian forces in the Second. Bet it's got some stories to tell.

I regularly shoot all of these rifles and find them all to be perfectly sound and accurate after all of these years. All will put rounds nicely on a 200 yard target if I do my part, and I suspect that 1903 in particular will reach out considerably farther. When I get a chance, I'm going to work it in on the 400 yard range and see if I can't ring the steel gong with it a few times.

The 1903 is special to me. I actually saved this one from destruction by buying it sight unseen from a kid who'd inherited it from his grandfather and who was going to cut it into a deer rifle. When I met him, it was bouncing around in the trunk of his car, uncased, with the jack and tire iron and a tool box banging into it. I gave him a hundred fifty dollars for it on the spot, gambling that it wasn't some shot-out piece of junk or National Ordnance boat anchor. As it turned out, I did ok.


All of these rifles have history. Each undoubtedly saw service in at least one world war and perhaps a few other smaller conflicts on the side. Each could probably tell some great tales. Each has known many previous owners before me, and I have no doubt that each will survive me in fine shape and pass on to other owners, probably still in 100% serviceable condition. But for now, I'm proud to have them and appreciate the chance to research them and shoot them.





11 comments:

  1. Thank you for the pics & back-stories. I do sometimes wish those old guns could talk.

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  2. Great stuff! Thanks for taking the time to post this. I find information like this fascinating.

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  3. Great post as usually.

    Kind of sad that kid didn't have more appreciation for his grandfather's rifle.

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  4. Thank-You for sharing this story

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  5. So far I've got a 1917 that was sporterized (not bubba'd - it was done very well and is an excellent shooter), an original Pattern 14, a No. 4 Mk I and a No. 5 Mk I. I'd like very much to get my hands on one of the recent 1903 A4 replicas made by Gibbs. I don't really have an interest in a No. 1 Mk III.

    Yours are quite nice examples!

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  6. I humbly bow before your long gun-fu. Nice rifles! And THAT is how an Enfield is supposed to look. I did not know. ROAD TRIP!

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  7. @ Keads: Come on! And bring that Enfield of yours up here. We'll finish it together if we have to.

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  8. Oh, let me do my humble ministrations first. Then you can tell me how bad I screwed it up!

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  9. Excellent.

    Long time ago I had a 1917 '06. Of course I traded it off... Owned a 03A3 to, and traded it off. The only one I have now as a NPM .30 Carbine.

    The thing about the history of the rifles is it is also the history of nations. Notice Britain got rid of their guns and had to beg a bunch from us. And yet they nowdays ban most guns. Another shooting war and what will they do? No real training, no real guns.

    I wonder how many Roman citizens didn't have swords or training by the time the Visigoths came to the gates.

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  10. @ Paul: Good points. Britain so disarmed her people after WW1 that they needed to beg guns from the US government and even private citizens. And now they've gone and disarmed themselves again. Well if the Germans attack them again, I'm not sending any of these back over there.

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  11. Those were an awesome stories. I need to do the same with my Enfield and Springfield 03A3.

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