FACT: Almost Every Branch of the U.S. Military Used This Gun (for over Seventy Years)

FACT: Almost Every Branch of the U.S. Military Used This Gun (for over Seventy Years)

American infantrymen carried the model 1903 Springfield rifle into battle with them for the first seven decades of the 20th century.

On November 17, 1915, Major Smedley Butler and a small force of U.S. Marines approached the old French bastion of Fort Riviere in Haiti. A group of rebels known as Cacos had taken refuge there, and Butler was sent to weed them out. Part of the 100-man Marine contingent crept close to the rundown fort and surrounded it to prevent the enemy’s escape, while another group made ready to attack the fort itself. After the Americans had moved into place, Butler blew a whistle to begin the attack.

The Cacos were taken by surprise. Butler and a small force rushed the fort’s wall and found a small tunnel that led inside. Two Marines, Sergeant Ross Iams and Private Sam Gross, bayonets affixed to their Model 1903 Springfield rifles, joined Butler in leading the way into Fort Riviere. Once inside the fort’s crumbling walls, they quickly found themselves under desperate attack by the Cacos, who were armed with machetes and clubs. Iams and Gross fought off the Cacos with their Springfields and continued to use their rifles to good effect even after the fighting evolved into a wild melee of hand-to-hand combat. Together, the three Marines opened the way for the capture of the fort and the destruction of the Caco force. For their bravery, the three would be awarded the Medal of Honor. For Butler, it would be his second Medal of Honor.

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The Model 1903 Springfield rifle the Marines carried that day began its life as the United States took its first steps onto the world stage at the beginning of the 20th century. The United States had just completed a war with Spain, a victory that handed the Americans a set of overseas possessions including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The rifle American soldiers carried in that conflict was the Krag-Jorgenson, the first bolt-action repeating rifle to become general issue to the Army. The Krag had done its job, but it also had shortcomings. Its cartridge, the .30-40, lacked power and range compared to that of the German-designed Mauser rifles used by the Spanish. Krags also had to be loaded one cartridge at a time, while Mausers could be quickly loaded with five rounds connected by a stripper clip, giving Mauser shooters a higher overall rate of fire. The German rifle was fast becoming the world standard; in the event of another war, the United States could easily find its soldiers outgunned.

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Research began quickly, and by 1900 the first prototype for the Krag’s replacement was being tested at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, then the country’s primary facility for the research and production of small arms. Several revisions ensued as part of the testing process, but by 1902 examples were being field-tested at Forts Riley and Leavenworth, Kansas. Reviews were  overwhelmingly favorable, and on June 19, 1903, the weapon was officially adopted as “United States Magazine Rifle, Model of 1903, Caliber .30.” Whatever the formal nomenclature, it would forever be known as the 03 Springfield. The Armory ceased production of the Krag and began cranking out the new rifle at the initial rate of 225 per day, with more than 30,000 produced the first year alone.

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Over the next few years, numerous alterations were made to the basic rifle, but they were essentially refinements to the weapon’s already solid design. One of the more significant changes involved its bayonet. The first models had what was called a rod bayonet, a thin pointed rod with no blade that fit into a slot under the barrel. It gained an enemy in President Theodore Roosevelt, an enthusiastic firearms hobbyist. One day, while meeting with a British general named Frazier in the White House, the subject of the new rifle and its bayonet came up. Roosevelt sent for the U.S. Army’s chief of ordnance, General William Crozier, instructing him to bring both a 1903 Springfield with a rod bayonet and a Krag with its more conventional blade bayonet.

Once in the Oval Office, Roosevelt asked Crozier if the rod bayonet was as strong as the blade type. When Crozier replied that it was, he was told to take the Springfield while the president picked up the Krag. With bayonets attached, Crozier took up a guard position while Roosevelt practiced a few moves with his Krag. Suddenly he spun and with a single blow broke the Springfield’s rod bayonet in two. General Frazier was impressed. Roosevelt wrote a letter expressing his disapproval of the bayonet, which resulted in the stoppage of production while the Springfield was modified to accept a blade bayonet. Most of the weapons equipped with rod bayonets were also converted, making unaltered Springfields a highly prized collector’s item today.