The mid 1930s would usher in many significant changes to the Marine Corps’ M1903s, some of which were not well known until recently. Archival findings have shed light on the details of what exactly an early WWII era Marine M1903 would look like, and the result is a rifle heavily influenced by opinions of the marksmen that served on and commanded the Marine rifle team.
The Marine rifle team in the 1930s drove many of the decisions for how standard service M1903s would evolve. Noticeable in this picture is the bright bolts of National Match rifles, as well as the addition of pistol gripped C stocks, which the rifle teams service wide adopted in the late 1920s (photos: NARA).
The first change to come about in the mid-30s would be prioritizing the use of checkered buttplates. Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal had begun producing checkered buttplates in 1910, as the Marines were in the process of outfitting all units with the M1903. Due to the necessity of mass production for World War I, the Ordnance Department discontinued the checkering process, but would begin doing so again in 1920 through the end of production. The advantage of the checkered design was a coarse surface that could be firmly planted in the shoulder of the shooter, as the smooth buttplates were prone to slip. The Marines decided that their active duty forces should make a priority of utilizing these buttplates, and that the Depot of Supplies in Philadelphia should use them whenever possible. At the time, the Marines had roughly 55,000 M1903s service wide with just over 14,000 in use, the rest were in storage as war reserve. This disparity would make it possible for the more favorable items like the checkered buttplates to be cherrypicked for active duty rifles.
Finely checkered buttplates on USMC M1903 rifles. The buttplate on right was hand stippled after being worn thin (Tim Plowman collection).
With checkered buttplates limited, the Marines began exploring options to modify the tens of thousands of smooth buttplates that resided on the majority of their rifles. Marine ordnance officers first began correspondence with the ordnance staff at Springfield Armory as to how checkered buttplates were made and the process in which they were finished. As they would find out, the production answer was fairly in-depth and intricate, and most importantly the price of obtaining the multiple form cutter machine which operated from a master die was “itself almost prohibitive,” according to long time Marine ordnance officer Colonel Seth Williams. The Brown & Sharpe company was consulted as to whether they could furnish the Marines with the needed form cutters which would have provided a rough and nonuniform result, albeit a satisfactory one. This option ultimately appears to have been scrapped, as no further correspondence with Brown & Sharpe is recorded. With no further mention of any attempt to checker the smooth buttplates through machine milling, an unofficial solution appears to have taken place. USMC rebuilt M1903s are often noticed with “stippling” on their smooth buttplates. While the practice has not been named in archival documentation examined this far, it does seem logical that it began not long after these inquiries concluded. It is also worthwhile to point out that the type of buttplate a Marine rifle has can be loosely associated with rebuild date. Mid to late 30s rebuilds are more often seen with checkered buttplates, while WWII rebuilds are more likely to have stippled buttplates. This is far from a rule, and either are common on USMC M1903s. Not all smooth buttplates would have been stippled either, and the presence of a smooth buttplate on a USMC M1903 is not anathema.
A variety of hand stippled smooth buttplates, commonly seen on USMC M1903s (Steven Norton and Tim Plowman collections).
Another major change in Marine M1903s from this era would come with the decision to replace the #10 sight system. Beginning in 1935, the Marine Corps would commence exchanging the #10s for a unique system that used the standard #6 front sight’s width, but would have a variable height dictated by the zeroing needs of each rifle. While the M1903 was always famously accurate, its sights had dogged it from the beginning. Small variances in the rear sight collar, rear sight assembly, and the damage prone front sight led to the need to “custom fit” the front sight blade with a file in order for it to correctly correspond to the rear sight leaf’s elevation values. This, coupled with the service-wide change in ammunition from the 150 grain 1906 type to the 172 grain M1 type prompted the Marines to act. To try to compensate for both issues, a variable front sight blade would be implemented. The front sights would range in height from .35 to .45 and would be used accordingly per rifle to obtain a perfect 600 yard zero on the rear sight leaf. After seeking the most suitable production answer, it was decided the numbered sights contract would be awarded to RF Sedgley, a Philadelphia gunsmithing and sales company that had a long relationship with the Marine Corps. Throughout the the course of the late 30s and into the first years of WWII, all USMC M1903s would be equipped with this new sight system.
Documents detailing the acquisition and employment of the new numbered sight system (docs: NARA).
Examples of USMC numbered front sight blades (Tim Plowman collection).
To avoid damage to the always vulnerable front sight blade, the use of front sight covers was emphasized. Both the standard #6 sight covers as well as the larger #10 sight covers would be used, a noticeable practice as both size sight covers are observed in photographs pre-war and early in the WWII campaigns. The removal of sight covers would be restricted to armorers, to minimize the significant number of otherwise serviceable rifles that were being turned in for overhaul due to loose or damaged front sight blades, some of which were damaged during an attempt to remove the front sight cover. As anyone who has attempted to install or remove an M1903’s sight cover knows, the task can be quite difficult due to the tight fit and often are seemingly stuck in place. Individual Marines had been observed utilizing all sorts of different “methods” to achieve removal, and the subsequent damage to the front sight blade was deemed severe enough for orders to be issued mandating Marines to keep the sight cover on their rifles at all times.
Marines in training prior to WWII, small #6 sight blades can be scene underneath the large #10 sight covers (photos: USMC).
Example of colloquially termed “vise marks” on a USMC rebuilt M1903 (Steven Norton collection).
At some point during the 1930’s overhauls, Marine armorers began the practice of using a plumber’s wrench (or plumber’s table) to quickly and firmly grip a barrel during replacement. The teeth on the plumber’s equipment would bite into the barrel during the removal and installation process, thus leaving behind the iconic “vise marks” on a barrel’s base that are frequently seen on USMC M1903s rebuilt in this era. Rudimentary yet speedy, the plumber’s equipment would be an alternative to the traditional vise and insert blocks, which are specially made to fit the barrel. As any gunsmith will readily tell, these are prone to slippage, and can be a frustrating and time consuming process on barrels that do not want to break loose of their receiver. It is unknown if ease of operation was the motivation behind the Corps’ decision to begin using the plumber’s equipment, and as of yet no archival information has been uncovered to definitively shed light on the subject. The inception date, frequency, and location of this practice is still unknown, and it is possible it only occurred in one particular rebuild facility while others would have chosen to use traditional equipment, as not all replacement barrels have these marks. It does appear to have occurred most heavily in the late 30s/early 40s, which is logical as this was the height of the Marine Corps’ M1903 rebuild program.
Documents detailing the search for tooling to checker buttplates, the #10 sight replacement process, and the Marine rifle team using tall #10 sight covers with their National Match #6 sights during competition. Also included is the discussion on “modified” rear sight caps, which as of yet is a modification that has not been completely identified (documents: NARA).
In 1938, a survey was taken of the relatively sizable amount of M1903s held in war reserve at the Depot of Supplies in Philadelphia. The amount of high number or low number receivers (for the beginning of this story, please check out the previous chapter here: Post WWI/Banana Wars USMC 1903s) on the rifles was more or less split down the middle, and about a quarter of them had unserviceable barrels. Many new barrels were ordered from Springfield Armory to begin the long overhaul process, the goal being an effective war reserve of rifles to draw form during the next large conflict. Due to this barrels from the first half of 1938, particularly those from March, April, and May production are often seen on USMC M1903s. While low numbered receivers were deemed appropriate for firing regular ammunition in the late 1920s, many infantrymen had their rifles exchanged for high number variants to allow for safe rifle grenade firing. The Marines had a relatively small force in the years to follow, allowing most of the operational forces to be issued high number rifles to improve rifle grenade employment flexibility. By 1937, a directive was issued calling for the removal of low numbered receivers from service. With just a quarter of the Marine Corps’ war reserve of M1903s having serviceable barrels with high numbered receivers, decisions and prompt action were needed to obtain the desired ample war reserve. With the rise of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific and Hitler in Europe, war was on the horizon and the Marine command were well aware of the potential for a rabid mobilization. The testing and modification that followed would leave many USMC M1903’s with their most iconic feature: the “Hatcher Hole.”
The Marines adopted the idea of the “Hatcher Hole” from the army, and sent Marine Gunner Steven J. Zsiga to Springfield Armory to observe the procedure (documents: NARA).
Adopted from a stop-gap measure manifested by the bright minds at Springfield Armory, the procedure called for drilling a relief hole in the left side of the receiver with a matching hole in the bolt. The rationale being that the extra gas escape holes would allow for brass particles to exit out the side during a case malfunction instead of through the bolt to the rear, thus adding an extra layer of safety for the rifleman. Later dubbed the Hatcher Hole after army ordnance officer Julian Hatcher, the Marines decided this procedure was to be done on all rifles that would receive major overhaul regardless if the receiver was low or high number. The army, though the parent of the Hatcher Hole, appears to have used it very sparingly according to photographic evidence and official documentation, but they did use it nonetheless. The largest reason for the modification of M1903s being on the army’s back-burner is that by the late 1930s they were heavily invested in the M1 Garand. The new semiautomatic rifle was being tooled up for mass production, and by the time the Second World War was inevitable, many of the army’s infantry divisions were either fully equipped or partially so with the new rifle. The Marine Corps was far more pessimistic of the new M1 Garand, and chose instead to jump headlong into the modification of their M1903 receivers, believing this would allow the reclamation of the low numbered receivers that would need shortly. By the time the Marines were involved in WWII, a significant amount of their M1903s would be modified with the Hatcher Hole, especially in the early war rush to make serviceable the many thousands of rifles in storage at Philadelphia which were desperately need by the tens of thousands of new recruits pouring into the Marine Divisions.
Example of a “Hatcher Hole” on a USMC M1903. As in the case of this rifle, most Marine drilled Hatcher Holes leave a slight lip on the outside, and can appear quite crude. To the right is an enlarged gas escape hole on the bolt of a Marine rebuild. In tandem, the added emergency venting was designed to give an extra layer of safety to the shooter (Steven Norton collection).
Mix of rifles with and without Hatcher Holes in the hands of new Marines, early 1942 (photos: USMC).
Two examples of early/mid 1930s USMC rebuilt M1903’s. The top rifle saw major overhaul a touch later, as evident by the Hatcher Hole. Both are similar in that they have numbered front sights, finely checkered buttplates, and notches for bolt handle clearance cut into their stocks. The top rifle has a recycled SA 8-11 barrel, while the bottom rifle has an SA 3-32, likely the product of a post Banana Wars rebuild. The finish and appearance of either are what the vast majority of M1903s on Guadalcanal would have resembled (Tim Plowman collection).
More photos of what most early WWII battle used USMC M1903s would look like. In addition to the two rifles above is a Rock Island Arsenal M1903 with the same traits, wearing an SA 3-31 barrel. This rifle shows the darker color of the manganese parkerizing solution that was commonplace until later in WWII, when the Marines switched to a zinc phosphate solution that would leave a much lighter finish (Tim Plowman collection).
The adoption of the Hatcher Hole wasn’t where the M1903 receiver story would end, as the ordnance officers at Philadelphia were still concerned about the hardness of both low and high numbered receivers. Subjecting both to the Rockwell hardness test showed that the high numbered receivers where also likely to shatter under severe pressure. All rifles sent to Philadelphia for any reason would have their receivers tested, with those that scored between 20 and 45 on the Rockwell test being considered acceptable. To denote this, a punch mark would be added in front of the serial number of each passing receiver. Receivers that failed the test were not destroyed, but were “drawn back” or re-heat treated until a successful result was achieved. Although it isn’t mentioned specifically in Marine documentation, the practice of having receivers put through the Rockwell test appears to have been somewhat brief. While many pre-war/WWII USMC M1903s exist, the existence of a punch mark is a moderately rare trait. Most likely, the chaos of rapid wartime mobilization precluded the time necessary for this practice to continue.
A modification informally brought to the Fleet Marine Force by way of the USMC National Match rifle teams, a small notch would be carved into the stocks of M1903s to aid in the clearance of the bolt handle, as seen on the rifle above (photo: USMC).
National Archives documented USMC M1903 with punch mark in front of the serial number showing it successfully passed the Rockwell hardness test. This particular rifle was one of 34 from the Marine 2nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion stationed in San Diego that surveyed as needing overhaul in early 1938. The bolt is serialized to the receiver, another practice that began in 1938. This rifle was overhauled at least once more after 1938, as it bears a Sedgley USMC 9-42 barrel (Steven Norton collection).
Documented to the 4th Marine Regiment in 1926, Springfield Armory USMC M1903 #1024684 has a punch mark in front of the serial number indicating it passed the Rockwell hardness test, but it did not receive the Hatcher Hole modification as it wasn’t in need of major overhaul at the time (Ryan Niederman collection).
Late 1930s USMC rebuilt M1903 most likley issued to Private Alphonzo Land. Private Land was a single enlistment infantryman who served in various companies of the 5th Marines in Nicaragua before being transferred to stateside duties in the US. While this rifle bearing the same serial number as the one issued to Private Land is even more likely to be the one he carried due to it indeed being a Marine M1903, it can not be said for certain since Springfield Armory and Rock Island used the same production numbers, and Marine documentation rarely distinguishes between the two (document: NARA, rifle: Christopher Kalman collection).
After years of unofficial overhauls being conducted at various levels, the Marine Corps would decide to embrace a centralized approach to rifle maintenance and overhaul. For most of the decade, the ordnance facility at San Francisco and lower echelon armorers Corps-wide had done a considerable amount of upper level work. The results ended up being of a lower quality than the Marine armorers of the Philadelphia Depot were capable of. On top of this, rifles that had been cannibalized to keep others serviceable at the unit level were being returned to Philadelphia as unserviceable, compounding the logistical situation. At the lower echelon level bolts were commonly swapped, leaving a fair amount of rifles with dangerous headspacing. In some organizations, like Marine Reserve units, the bolts of the rifles were collected after a weekend drill and then stored in a box under lock and key. During the next drill, the bolts would be passed out at random, creating a situation were headspace was often outside of the range of safe operation. To remedy this, Marine gunners were tasked to inspect reserve rifles unit by unit, making sure safe headspacing was achieved. Afterwards, their bolts would be serialized to ensure each Marine would receive the same bolt every drill. Bolt wear was significant, particularly to the lugs which would wear down over time. Eventually a policy would be adopted that only Philadelphia Depot armorers would be allowed to set the headspacing for a rifle, and the bolt would have the rifle’s serial number inscribed atop it via electro-pencil. With preparations for World War II underway, replacement was a timely necessity, and a significant amount of new bolts would be ordered. The Marines would specifically request blued B2 replacement bolts from Springfield Armory. The improved heat treatment and late production of these bolts coupled with the smooth action of the penetrate blued finish would increase ease of operation when cycled and allow a higher headspace, which the Corps hoped would allow for longer service life.
The Marines specifically requested the large quantities of bolts they acquired from Springfield Armory prior to WWII to be blued instead of parkerized to achieve a more precise headspacing and smoother function (Tim Plowman collection).
As the Marine Corps entered the 1940s with the prospect of global war a near certainty, the priority of keeping their fighting force equipped with able rifles would reach a crisis point. The army’s adoption of the M1 Garand rifle meant they had ceased the production of M1903 service rifles. The Marines tested the M1 Garand at length, beginning with a sizable amount of very early “gas trap” models, which they considered needing of improvement. Later M1 Garands with the upgraded gas cylinder design were tested thoroughly, but the Marines being ever cautious decided that while the M1 Garand would become their standard service rifle, the M1903 would continue to be the battle rifle of the Marine Divisions. The Marine Divisions were the home of the elite and seasoned active duty infantry regiments of the Fleet Marine Force, and the thought at the time was the Garand was too unreliable for the rigors of amphibious warfare. What wasn’t disputed was that the Garand held a significant advantage in firepower, and was a superior weapon for static defense, guard duty, and in favorable conditions. As such, the earliest Garands procured would go to non frontline units. In the opinion of the Marine brass, this would give Springfield Armory proper time to fine tune the Garand, at which point the Marine Divisions would trade in their M1903s for the new rifle.
Documents in regards to the testing and subsequent decision to adopt the M1 Garand, yet keep the Marine Divisions armed with the M1903, early 1941 (documnets: NARA).
As 1941 progressed, the Marines struck a contract with Remington to supply the small parts that Springfield Armory would no longer be making for the M903. Remington had “tooled up” with the old M1903 equipment from Rock Island Arsenal, and would go into production of the rifle in late 1941. The Marines were eager to get their hands on the new Remington M1903s, but production of such had largely been allotted to the British as part of the Lend-Lease program. What production was to go to the US military was overwhelmingly promised to the Navy, leaving the Marines with the small parts order and no rifles. Many WWII rebuild USMC M1903s can be observed with a smattering of Remington made items, the most usually observed being bolts and their parts, triggers, magazine cutoffs, rear sights, and various springs. To compensate for the reduced amount of barrels available, multiple contracts were inked with RF Sedgley. The origin of the barrels Sedgley supplied the Corps with is still debated, but what is clear is they were marked “U.S.M.C.” above the date and thus have become very desirable to collectors, not to mention one of the exceedingly rare occasions where a USMC marking is genuine and actually is an abbreviation for the United States Marine Corps.
Lieutenant Louis Ditta inspecting a M1903 rifle, as well as a photo of the infantrymen of his platoon in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment armed with M1903 rifles in late 1941. Lt Ditta would be heavily decorated for heroic leadership under fire, and would retire as a colonel. From an excerpt in Medal of Honor recipient Mitchell Page’s book, “a Marine Named Mitch”:
“It was a really strange sort of quietness. As I sat down soaked with perspiration and steam still rising from my hot gun, Captain Louis Ditta, another wonderful officer who had joined the riflemen in the skirmish line and had earlier been firing his 60mm mortars to help me, slapped me on the back and as he handed me his canteen of water he kept saying, ‘tremendous, tremendous!’ He then looked down at his legs. We could see blood coming through his dungarees. He had a neat bullet hole in his right leg. There were hundreds of enemy dead in the grass, on the ridge, in the draw, and in the edge of the jungle. We dragged as many as we could into the jungle, out of the sun. We buried many and even blasted some of the ridge over them to prevent the smell that only a dead body can expel in heat. A corpsman sent by Capt. Ditta smeared my whole left arm with a tube of salve of some kind.” (photos: David Ditta collection).
Marine paratroopers with M1903 rifles during a training event (photo: USMC)
Marine recruits at the rifle range, Parris Island, South Carolina in 1941 (photo: Life magazine).
The next shortage to address was a critical deficiency in stocks. Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the Marines had refused pistol gripped C stocks to allow for a uniformity in the training of Marine recruits, but this was scrapped after the attacks at Pearl Harbor. While some small orders for straight stocks had been made for the Marines by Springfield Armory and other contractors, the dire situation led to the Marines decided to take anything they could get their hands on. C stocks, Pederson Device cut Mark 1 stocks, and even otherwise unserviceable stocks were drained from any army arsenal nearby, as the armorers in Philadelphia hastily mounted them with barreled actions to supply the recruit depots in San Diego and Parris Island. Standard Marine M1903 service rifles with C stocks are readily observable in the hands of recruits in the immediate days following Pearl Harbor, and in combat photos from Guadalcanal. Still, there was an overall lack of M1903s service wide, and the Marine Corps scrambled for a solution to get their hands on more. While the Marine rifle team had received roughly 150 National Match rifles yearly, no new service rifles had been procured since the late 1920s. The only rifles that could be spared were 33,000 M1903s from the Navy that had been used for training sailors at their Great Lakes Training Center. The overwhelming majority of these rifles needed major overhaul, but the Marines took them regardless. It is unlikely that many of them made it into the hands of Marines that would soon depart with the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions for the South Pacific, but most likely the better ones of the group would have had a minor presence. The specific traits and differences in Navy rifles compared to Marine rebuilt ones is still somewhat of a question mark, as Navy rebuilds have not been thoroughly studied. This acquisition from the Navy also opens the door for the possibility that the Marines did receive some Remington M1903s, though this has never been proven. What is certain though is a wide range of M1903s were in the hands of early WWII Marines.
USMC contract barrel produced by RF Sedgley, as evident by their Circled S logo. Below is a WWII era USMC M1903 with a trigger, sear, and magazine cutoff marked R indicating Remington production. To the right Marine recruits march to the rifle range with a mix of rifles, including one with a newly accepted pistol gripped C stock (photo: USMC).
Left: a mix of M1903s and M1 Garands in a November, 1941 photo from recruit training at Parris Island, S.C. The recruits armed with M1903s would be heading to the Marine Divisions. Middle & Right: Marines watching for and engaging Japanese aircraft on December 7th, 1941 (photos: USMC)
Left: The 1st Defense Battalion, who would defend Wake Island against waves of Japanese attacks before finally being overrun. Marine defense battalions were in the process of being armed with M1 Garands in very early 1942, but the logistical situation in the South Pacific precluded their making it to Wake in time. Right: The men of the 4th Marine Regiment pack equipment towards the defensive positions they would mount at Corregidor in early 1942 (photos: NARA/USMC).
USMC M1903 documented to the 4th Marine Division in 1926. The 4th Marines would engage the invading Japanese at Corregidor during the ill-fated Bataan Defense (Ryan Niederman collection).
The tremendous defenses by the Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion on Wake Island and the 4th Marine Regiment at Corregidor were furious re-acclimations to combat for the Marines and their venerable Springfield rifles. The controversial inability to reinforce the defenders and their subsequent capture left a Marine Corps itching for the chance to earn America it’s first major victory by land, and the chance would come on an obscure tropical island named Guadalcanal. While some of the men of the 3rd Defense Battalion and artillerymen in the 11th Marine Regiment were armed with M1 Garands, the vast majority of the 1st Marine Division came ashore with M1903s when they landed on August 7th, 1942. A world war prior, the M1903 had earned it’s deadly reputation in the hands of Marine riflemen successfully engaging German soldiers at Belleau Wood from 800 yards out. On Guadalcanal, the engagements would seldom be farther than 100 yards. The condition of these rifles would be as varied as the men using them, some would be old and salty with relatively little modifications since their acquisition in the WWI era. Others would be fresh, with all of the latest improvements and many parts of new manufacture. With the practice of rifles being issued to an individual Marine for the duration of their career (or until a rifle needed to be turned in for overhaul), the freshly overhauled M1903s were often in the hands of the scores of new Marines that had swelled the ranks of 1st Marine Division following Pearl Harbor. Photographic evidence from the campaign displays the wide ranging appearance of the M1903s the Marines brought ashore with them, but what is consistent is their exceptional performance in the brutal conflict which saw wave after wave of Japanese attackers repulsed. In desperate fights such as the Battle of the Tenaru, Bloody Ridge, and the Battle of Henderson Field, the 1st Marine Division earned their salt. With many a Marine behind a Springfield rifle, hand guards smoking from the heat of the barrel, palms blistered from working the bolt, and bayonets weighing heavily in the front, they would hold the line.
Top Left: The Marines land on Guadalcanal, August 7th, 1942. Top Right: Marines with a captured Japanese soldier, early in the campaign. Middle Right: Marines with their M1903s clearing fighting positions. Bottom: A Marine overlooks “Bloody Ridge,” where the elite Marines of the 1st Raider Battalion, 1st Marine Parachute Battalion, and 2d Battalion, 5th Marines mounted a tenacious and successful defense on September 12-14th, 1942 (photos: NARA).
A souvenir savvy Marine with his rifle on Guadalcanal. The high quality of the photo shows this M1903 to be of Springfield Armory manufacture, without a Hatcher Hole, and having a #10 front sight cover. (photo: USMC)
USMC Rock Island Arsenal M1903 with “Guadalcanal Is. Solomon Islands, August, 1942” carved into the stock. This particular stock was a pre WWI “high-wood” version with a notch cut into it to expose the Hatcher Hole, and allow it to function if needed. The trigger guard is staked, a common practice by the Marine Corps to prevent the screws from backing out in the field (Neil Duffy collection).
A young Roy Jowers
Springfield Armory USMC M1903 #840216, brought home from Guadalcanal by H/2/5 Platoon Sergeant Roy Jowers. This particular rifle bears a variety of early/mid 1930’s rebuild traits. It has an SA 3-32 barrel, .40 height numbered front sight, and a checkered buttplate (Tim Plowman collection).
Marines with their M1903s on Guadalcanal (photos: NARA/USMC).
The end of a long run: as the 1st Marine Division left Guadalcanal December, ’42 through January, ’43, the last units armed solely with the M1903 as their battle rifle left the field. Their replacements, the men of the 2nd Marine Division, were partially armed with the new and very effective semi-automatic M1 Garand (photos: NARA).
The month of November saw more elements of the 2nd Marine Division land as reinforcements on Guadalcanal. With them came the 2nd Raider Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, and later in January the 6th Marine Regiment who would all include a mix of M1 Garands to their compliment of M1903s. This transition to the superior firepower of the M1 Garand would mark the end of the M1903 as the main rifle carried by the Marines into combat. The 2nd Marine Division, like all units in the Marine Corps were still very fond of their M1903s, but the unquestionable advantage the M1 Garand provided in the close ranges and brutality that would come to typify the Pacific Theater was unmistakable. Though the brass had already ordered exchanging the M1903s of the Marine Divisions with Garands, the glowing reports of the M1s efficacy in combat were exactly the reaffirmation they had been hoping to hear.
Seen in the photos above, the men of the 2nd Marine Division carried a mix of M1 Garands and M1903s with them into the fray on Guadalcanal (photos: USMC/NARA).
As the 1st Marine Division ported for rest and refitting in Australia, the M1903s they carried with them would be quickly turned around for ships bound to the Marine depot at San Francisco, where they would be divvied up between there and the Philadelphia Depot for a final overhaul. With nearly 40% of the M1903s in the Marine Corps having served in combat in the South Pacific, many were sorely in need of rebuild. The result is what is easily the most well recognized and iconic version of the USMC M1903. These rifles have many Marine traits: Hatcher Holes, penetrate blued bolts (most with enlarged gas holes), stippled butt plates, staked trigger guards, and are unique in their finish and sights. The finish is an unmistakable grayish-green color from the zinc phosphate parkerizing that was used during overhaul, and the numbered sights are seldom seen, instead utilizing generic #6 sights as the Marines had no intention of using these rifles for front line duty again. Barrels on them on occasion are reused from previous contracts, however the majority are 1941-42 USMC contract Sedgley’s or of 1942 Springfield Armory manufacture. The barrels exceedingly have vice marks from installation, and the rear sights have been blued in a manner identical to the bolt. Sight covers are almost always absent, suggesting the Marine Corps did not bother installing them after overhaul on their way to storage. The quality of the overhaul is exceptional, and many of these rifles were either sold by the Marine Corps at PX facilities or the by the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) decades later. The craftsmanship applied has rendered these rifles excellent shooters, and many can be seen on the line at vintage matches offered by the CMP today.
The final version of the USMC M1903, the product of the mid WWII overhauls, is the most iconic and by far the most encountered today. This particular rifle displays a wide range of Marine rebuild traits, accumulated through years of changes to the Marine M1903 rifle program (Mike Griffin collection).
After the final overhauls, sizable amounts of USMC M1903s would be given to the Navy who would use the M1903 and updated M1903A3 in large quantities during WWII. Others would be given to local stateside units, as well as service organizations like the American Legion and VFW for use in ceremonies and funeral details. The trusted M1903 had served the Corps faithfully, but a new world war saw it give way to a revolutionary weapon in the M1 Garand that would prove exceptional in the hands of all the American servicemen who carried it. The M1903 would continue to serve in limited roles throughout the end of the war, mainly as a dedicated grenade launching weapon, as a lightweight rifle for deep jungle patrols (most frequently employed by the Marine Raiders), or a scoped sniper rifle. In this capacity, it would serve admirably through the Korean conflict as well, often working in tandem with scoped sniper version of the Garand. The range and accuracy of the M1903A1 sniper rifle would however give birth to the modern military sniper rifle, and in this capacity it’s legacy of capable functionality and precision soldiers on.
Marine Raiders on Bougainville in 1943, some still armed with the M1903, where it would serve as a grenade launching weapon or a lightweight rifle for long jungle patrols (photos: USMC).
Top: M1903s in the hands of the 1st Marine Division on New Britain in late 1943. Bottom: a Marine with a C stocked M1903A1 on the pier at Tarawa (photos: USMC & NARA)
PFC Edward J. Ross, a 1st Marine Division veteran of Guadalcanal who was awarded the Silver Star for actions in combat. Here he is pictured on Cape Gloucester still armed with his M1903 rifle (photo: NARA)