The late 19th Century saw marked improvement in service rifles, but the US military’s choice of the M1895 Winchester Lee Navy and M1898 Krag-Jørgensen ended up showing a deficiency in performance compared to the more advanced and ballistically superior Mauser rifle. These deficiencies were put on display when American troops squared off against Spanish troops armed with Mausers in Cuba and the Philippines, leaving Springfield Armory scrambling for a modern response. The answer would some in the form of the United States Rifle, Caliber .30, Model 1903, chambered in the .30 Caliber, Model of 1903 cartridge. While not a complete copy of the Mauser, the action and bolt in particular were heavily incorporated, leading to copyright infringement lawsuits and the US government paying royalties to Mauser for a period of time. The M1903 design was greatly improved with the advent of the .30 Caliber Model of 1906 Ball Cartridge, a superior round with excellent ballistic performance known worldwide as the .30-06. The next few years would see the US arsenals upgrade and retrofit existing M1903 rifles with new barrels and peep sights, and also replace the early internal rod-bayonet designed rifles and their stocks to the exterior M1905 Bayonet system. These improvements would render the M1903 into the iconic rifle who’s accurate and rugged reputation in the field would make it world renowned in the early half of the 20th Century.
Springfield Armory Model 1903, chambered in .30-03, with Mauser style ladder sights and the early rod bayonet design. The improvements of the 1905 and 1906 would make the M1903 much more appealing to the Marine Corps (photo: www.icollector.com).
With the advent of the Model 1906 .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge, the American military finally had a rifle and round that could match the performance of the Mauser. The two rifles would square off against one another just a decade later (Dan Kost collection).
After a decade of service with the M1898 Krag-Jørgensen rifle, the Marines made the switch to the refined M1903 Springfield rifle in the summer of 1909. The initial incorporation plan was for the Marine rifle team to receive the first batch of M1903s in the form of a sizable order of the National Match variety. As such, the skilled marksmen on the Marine rifle team would cycle through Marines with leadership billets to train them in the operation and employment of the new rifle, and then these newly trained junior leaders would go back to their units to train the Marines in their charge on the proper employment of the M1903. The plan was successful, and soon after came several large orders of procurement in 1910 and 1911, with more than enough M1903s being obtained to outfit the entirety of the still very small Marine Corps in the role of the standard issue service rifle. Despite the Marines not switching to the M1903 until 1910, serial number research has shown that many rifles were manufactured considerably earlier, suggesting that the Marines received a considerable amount of the updated, early M1903s.
Marines at Camp Perry for the National Matches early in the service history of the M1903 rifle with the Corps. These Marines would be equipped with National Match M1903s which they would use to train junior Marine leaders on the proper employment of the rifle before large scale acquisitions began (photos: NARA).
Left: Marines with their new M1903 Springfield rifles on the USS California and USS Wyoming, late 1912 – early 1913. Right: Marines bound for the Punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1913. (photos: USMC & Google).
The following years saw the the Marines putting their new service rifle to good use. In the time between the M1903s adoption and the beginning of American involvement in Europe for WWI, the Marines would employ the M1903 in a variety of small scale conflicts in the Central Americas. The combat experienced in these “Banana Wars” would lend expertise to the men would would later fight in France during WWI, of which expert employment of the M1903 was no small part. Though the M1903 was exceptionally accurate from the start, the Marines began to experiment with ways to improve precision fire further with the implementation of scoped rifles. Various types of scopes were tried, with the Winchester A5 model being the type most commonly used. The Marines would employ Adolph Niedner in the manufacture and installation of the Franklin War Mann designed tapered scope blocks that the A5 scope would be mounted atop in 1917. Later Winchester would collaborate with the Marines for another run of M1903 sniper rifles that began production not long after, with both types of rifles being sent to the France during the war.
Marines would learn to appreciate the accuracy of the M1903 early on in its service history (Dan Kost collection).
Springfield Armory M1903 #605811. An original example that shows heavy wear, this rifle is in a very dense serial number range for M1903s documented to the 4th Marine Brigade (Tim Plowman collection).
The Great War found the Marine Corps, like the army, being rapidly filled with men and equipment. By the spring of 1917, Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal were cranking out M1903 rifles at a furious pace, and many of the men that would depart for France with the 4th & 5th Marine Brigades were issued rifles that were fresh off the production line. The 5th Marine Regiment had more “old hands” heading into the war, and they would depart for France in the late spring/early summer of 1917. The freshly stood up 6th Marine Regiment would leave in the fall of 1917, with a considerable amount of their Marines carrying newly made rifles. That said and as mentioned earlier, archival research has shown that a significant amount of the rifles carried in WWI were from the earliest years of Marine M1903 procurement or prior.
Marines at Parris Island, SC in 1917. Note the use of the Kerr Sling on the M1903s (photo: USMC).
The 5th Marine Regiment would draw some supplies and ammunition from the army while a part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in France, but small arms would be issued from the USMC (documents: Tim Plowman/NARA).
Marines training for combat, 1917 & 1918 (photos: USMC & NARA).
While it had been known for some time the Marines utilized the M1917 Enfield rifle stateside during the WWI era, recent document discoveries have shown they were also employed in combat by the men of the 4th Marine Brigade (Steven Norton collection)
A statement from Colonel B. Puryear, Jr, USMC Quartermaster on the use of M1917 rifles by the 4th Marine Brigade in France during WWI (document: NARA, rifles: Tim Plowman collection).
Photos showing Marines during the WWI era with M1917 Enfield rifles (photos: Rick Slater).
The Marine M1903s of WWI were still as issued from the armory, and would be identical to those carried by the army. For the collector hoping to obtain a representative sample of what a WWI Marine M1903 would have appeared as, the best option would be to find an unmolested or restored example from 1917 or earlier. While individual servicemen have long snuck home their rifles in their seabags, verifying a Marine WWI rifle is exceptionally difficult, and if there is an absence of documentation or otherwise exceptional provenance, such rifles should only be taken at face value with caution. While the provenance of WWI Marine rifles will likely always be debatable, what isn’t is the incredible feats of marksmanship performed by the Marine infantrymen of the 5th and 6th Regiments against German forces. The devastating, precise fires laid down by Marines at Belleau Wood would forever cement the the individual Marine as the penultimate rifleman in the annals of history.
2d Battalion, 5th Marines in 1917 before departure for France (photos: USMC).
Staged photo of WWI Marines (photo: USMC).
Marines of the AEF during WWI (photos: USMC & NARA).
Springfield Armory M1903 #480345, an original example in a similarly dense 4th Marine Brigade serial number range (Tim Plowman collection).
The rifle above is a 1917 production SA M1903, which would be similar to what the 4th Marine Brigade would have carried in France (photos: Tim Plowman collection).
While the provenance of WWI Marine rifles will likely always be debatable, what isn’t is the incredible feats of marksmanship performed by the Marine infantrymen of the 5th and 6th Regiments against German forces. The devastating, precise fires laid down by Marines at Belleau Wood would forever cement the the individual Marine as the penultimate rifleman in the annals of history. During this era, the Marines had not yet implemented the specific modifications they would utilize in later years. Most likely, the surviving examples from this era will have received a host of modifications from the later years of their service, as rifles like this are often observed.
Weapons that Marines would make famous during WWI, as well as an assortment of German items many would bring home with them (photo: Tyler Anderson/Ozark Machine Gun collection).
A Marine sentry stands his post in France (photo: USMC).
Marines on the march in France (photo: NARA).
The Marines of the 4th Marine Brigade came home from Europe with their unit logos proudly displayed on their shoulders and helmets for a hearty victory parade in New York City, 1919 (photo: Tim Plowman collection).