Springfield 1903 A4 rifle
Pete Moore considers what must be one of the most iconic sniper rifles of the 20thCentury - the 1903 A4 Springfield
I would imagine that most shooters have some interest in military sniper rifles, as in essence any modern scoped rifle is a sniper-type by the simple fact it offers a lot more accuracy than an iron sighter. In the past I have used a number of examples from World War II - Moisin Nagant Snaiperskaya, Mauser K98, Lee Enfield No 4 T and the 1903 A4 Springfield.
The US Army ended the 19th century with their first general issue, magazine-fed, small calibre, smokeless cartridge rifle the Krag-Jørgensen in 30-40 calibre. Designed by the Norwegians Ole Herman Johannes Krag and Erik Jørgensen, it was unusul by the fact it did not load by a stripper clip, but by a pull-out draw on the side of the action. In US service it suffered in the Cuban campaign in comparison to the clip-loading Mausers as used by the Spanish-supported Cuban troops.
The shortcomings of the Krag eventually forced the US to consider a replacement, which unsurprisingly was a Mauser-type. The end result was the 1903 Springfield chambered in the then new and more efficient 30-06 Springfield, which has survived to this day to become one of the truly great medium calibres ever. This article is not a history lesson, but a look at two examples of the marque courtesy of historical firearms dealers By Sword & Musket run by Kirk Emmerich who supplied a 1903 and the A4 sniper variant.
The original 1903 and 03 A1 in terms of production values and build quality show all-machined components and a barrel-mounted, ladder-type rear sight design. The later A3 by comparison is far more value engineered with stamped parts where ever possible along with a relocated and simplified aperture rear sight.
The 1903 offered a straight hand stock, with the later A1 and A3 and A4 offering a full (C-type) or partial (scant) pistol grip layout. The action is near 100% Mauser 98 with a twin-lug bolt, external, sprung extractor and flag-type safety at the rear of the bolt shroud. Clip-loading, the 03 offers a selectable magazine cut-off along with a last round hold open. This was done to show the rifleman that the gun was empty and needed reloading.
Though an out and out military build the 03 feels like a sporter with an acceptable trigger, good weight, balance and natural handling. Though reasonably light, recoil is not that bad and certainly better than the 8mm Mauser K98, which is a bit of a mule by comparison. The original 03 rear sight consists of a barrel-mounted, flip-up ladder with a windage-adjustable base that offers long range ability. Up front is a fixed blade with removable protector.
What I find odd about the Springfield family is its continued development and production in face of the US adoption of the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1942 as their standard service rifle. For example the A3 version with simplified sight and features appeared in 1942/43.
The real contribution the A3 model gave in US service was its use as the base for the A4 sniper version, which is perhaps the most recognised example and one made famous in the film Saving Private Ryan; though a little tongue in cheek in terms of optics… The A3 was less elegant and well finished when compared to the original 1903/A1, which is born out by the second test rifle. The action is phosphate-finished and markings are crudely stamped upside down, but then again it was made for a purpose and not for looks.
In 1942 the original rifle chosen for the sniping role was the 1903 A1 with the barrel-mounted rear sight. However, the introduction of the simplified A3 saw it adopted instead, with the official requirement being; ‘rifles especially selected for accuracy and smoothness of operation’. Major changes were the modification of the bolt handle with a re-forged, longer and concave section to allow it to clear the scope. Also removal of the iron sights, leaving the muzzle bare with a Redfield (Junior) one-piece base screwed to the receiver bridges with turn-in, 1” rings. The front one goes on and rotates through 90° to lock and the rear offered crude windage by opposed jam screws, much like the modern set up that Leupold uses today. This bridge mount precluded the use of the standard 5-round stripper clip, so loading the A4 was by hand only. The finished product was designated U.S. Rifle .30. M1903 A4 (Sniper’s).
The US Marines have always been a little different in terms of equipment use and procurement, and stayed with the 1903 A1 as their sniper rifle. This retained the iron sights, which gave the gun the ability to fight even without glass on top; something the A4 could not do. They also opted for a totally different scope and one that to many exemplifies the Springfield sniper rifle. In essence you had two lines of development with the US Army and Marine Corp taking having different views on what consisted of a precision combat optic as we shall see.
Back then a complete A4 as made by Remington cost the princely sum of $64 per unit, which included $18.75 for the scope and $4.75 for the mount. Today such is the collectability of the A4 that a price of £4000 is ball park; with a good 03 or A1 at over a grand.
Scopes for the A4 are a bit of a movable feast and for that matter not that good or well suited. The initial choice was the readily available Weaver x2.5 330-C. A magnification of just x2.5 is very low as I can attest to and seems strange for a sniper gun. Research indicates that the early combat in the Pacific showed 300-yards to be a maximum requirement; hence the low specification.
The USMC view
Despite what the movies might tell us the US Army stuck with the Weaver 330-C on the A4, though there were plans to replace it with the Lyman Alaskan, which was a marginally better design, but this never happened. In action the former was not waterproof and proved fragile to the rigours of combat. The Marines after testing and evaluation decided that a power of around x8 was better and went for the Unertl target scope, which is perhaps the most recognised glass for the Springfield sniper guns.
The actual magnification was x 7.8 and the build shows a massively long (24”) optic that mounted on the forward receiver bridge and barrel. Like the old Malcolm scope, adjustment was external though using micrometre drums with ¼ MOA clicks, the scope being designed to recoil in its mounts. The Marines rated this set up, but it has always struck me as far too fragile and large; certainly by modern standards. But in terms of its role it did allow the rifle to reach out and touch at far more effective ranges. I also consider the 1903 A1 the better rifle when compared to the A3 with greater accuracy potential, which in conjunction with the higher mag Unertl must have contributed to performance.
World War II - I think not
By 1944 the US was already considering the M1 Garand for the sniper role (M1C and M1 D) and though still in active service the A4 was no longer in production, where it served until the end of WW11 and well beyond. I shall not go into M1 scope development, but by 1945 the US had decided on the M84, though previous models could be encountered on the M1s. Initially called the T134, it was trialled in both x3 and x4.5 but rejected in favour of a x2.2 version, which was adopted as the M84. This is what came fitted to the A4, so certainly never saw combat in WWII. But is none the less kosher as the A4 was used in Korea five years later and even limited amounts in Vietnam.
In terms of scopes the M84 will be familiar to modern shooters and is not a bad design. It shows a steel, 1” body tube, fixed focus, integral/sliding sun shade and proper, dialling turrets under hinged covers. Click values are 1 MOA with the dials marked so that you can wind in corrections. Elevation allows you to go out to 900-yards in 50 and 100-yard increments as marked. Windage is the same though gives 20 MOA in each direction with a 0 position. In either plane you get 2 ½-turns, plus the mount can be shimmed for base zero and the scope course adjusted for windage by using the mounting screws on the rear ring.
The reticule is a simple T-shape with a fine line at 3 to 9 o’clock with a wider, pointed post coming up from 6 o’clock and stopping just above centre. I assume this gives you two, pre-set zero/aim points with the top one going from 0-200 and the lower taking it out to 300.
Past experience has shown that WWII sniper rifles can be disappointing, so I was not expecting much from the A4. I did not have any military M2 ball ammo, instead dug out 150-grain soft point from Winchester and Remington, figuring it would be similar.
The M84 has a field of view of 27ft @ 100-yards and trying to zero on my standard target was impossible as the mag was not there to give me an aim point, though the optic was clear and reasonably crisp. I solved the problem by using an old Fig 11 (charging Hun) which is a contrasting black and tan pattern with its large/light section on the nose, making a highly visible aim point. With a few shots into the bank to see where I was, I soon adjusted the M84 and the rifle was shooting a pleasantly surprising 1.5 - 2 MOA at 100-yards. OK hardly what a modern rifle/scope can do but given the age and technology most impressive.
I reckon at 100-yards the centre post is subtending near 2 MOA, out at 300 that means 6 MOA, which is not too bad, but at that distance the magnification is so low as to make accurate shots less than reliable. On the Fig 11 this means the possibility of a hit but not with any certainty of central placement. However, I had a lot of fun just shooting the A4 and have not enjoyed myself so much for a very long time.
I’ll just leave you with this thought; though there are far better optics around that would improve the A4 no end, but that would defeat the object on a classic rifle, which is far better shot in its factory format. The original M84/A4 combo is still a practical design if a bit low powered and ably demonstrates that the 1903 Springfield is still a shooting machine even after all these years!
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