The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
Ordnance Branch Insignia
(It wasn't necessarily a Springfield)
By Leonard G. Shurtleff
Gary Cooper as Alvin York
Springfield or Model 1917? ¹
When America entered The Great War in April 1917, it was short of just about everything upon which a modern army depends. Not the least of these shortages was that of small arms, or individual weapons: the rifles and pistols carried by the foot soldiers. The story of how the U. S. Army grappled with this shortfall is part of the reason why Cooper carried the wrong rifle (and the wrong pistol, as well) when he portrayed Medal of Honor-winner Alvin York in the 1940 classic movie "Sergeant York". It is also the story of "the other rifle" carried by the vast majority of American doughboys who fought in World War One.
The British Enfield Rifles. The story starts in August of 1910 in Great Britain. The British War Office was undertaking a number of basic reforms as the result of experience in the Boer War in South Africa and as a consequence of informal staff talks with the French Army. Among these was the design of a new rifle to replace the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle chambered for the .303 inch rimmed cartridge.
The Small Arms Committee charged by the War Office with drawing up requirements for the new rifle agreed on the following specifications, among others:
The rifle developed from these specifications by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield came to be known as the Pattern 1914 Enfield. It was chambered for a new .276 rimless cartridge presaging the later trend toward smaller bore, higher-velocity infantry assault weapons which culminated in the M-16 and the AK-47. The new .276 round had a muzzle velocity of 2,785 feet per second versus the .303's 2,440 feet per second. Consequently, it had a longer range and flatter trajectory than the .303. The Pattern 1914 rifle was stronger overall than the SMLE and simpler in that it had fewer parts and could be field-stripped without tools, another requirement set by the War Office.
- Length, weight and recoil as near as possible to the Short Lee-Enfield
- The rifle should fire rimless cartridges from a 10-round detachable magazine (later reduced to five rounds)
- The breech should be of the Mauser type
- And, the sighting system should be of the aperture backsight variety.
When England entered the war against Germany in mid-1914, it abandoned the idea of introducing a new cartridge let alone retooling assembly lines for a totally new infantry rifle. The British had to avoid disrupting vital small arms production and complicating ammunition supply at a time of extreme national emergency and explosive growth of the armed forces. So, they retained the flanged, or rimmed .303 cartridge, and rapidly expanded domestic production of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) while farming-out production of the new Pattern 1914 rifle in .303 caliber to overseas manufacturers specifically Winchester, Remington and Midvale Steel in the United States.
Now, the British Tommy was not necessarily displeased with this turn of events. The Pattern 1914 Enfield was some two inches longer and a pound heavier than the Lee-Enfield. So, many Tommies preferred their beloved SMLE. It was easy to handle, held 10 rounds instead of five in the new Pattern '14 and its bolt action was smooth and reliable if less robust than the Pattern 1914's. So fast could experienced British riflemen handle their weapon that German frontline troops thought they were facing massed machine gun fire in the opening battles of 1914. The Pattern 1914 Enfield was relegated to a role as the sniper's rifle for the British Army and was still in use in the early days of WWII. By 1916, the British were turning out sufficient rifles, with modifications and improvements to the SMLE, in their own factories. So, they canceled the U.S. contracts for the Pattern 1914 Enfield. On the existence of these lapsed contracts hangs part of our tale...
Springfield Rifle, Model 1903
The American Springfield Rifle. The Springfield, or Model 1903 was a direct outgrowth of the Spanish-American War of 1898. U. S. ordinance experts recognized the superiority of the German-designed Mauser magazine rifles with which the Spanish were armed and studied them carefully. Over a period of time, a new design, the Model 1903 patterned unabashedly on the Mauser, was developed at the U. S. Government's Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts. (The U. S. Government paid Germany for the use of certain Mauser design components.) It was issued to American troops beginning in 1904. This rifle had a 24-inch barrel, some six inches shorter than the 1898 Krag (also known as the Krag-Jorgensen after its Norwegian inventors) -- the U. S. Army's first bolt action, smokeless powder rifle -- which it replaced. The real improvements in the Springfield over the Krag were in the quality of the ammunition and in the ease of loading the new Springfield. The Model 1903 was loaded from a single five-round stripper clip rather than by dropping five separate loose rounds into the magazine as in the Krag. The ammunition was also modified from the round-nosed Krag and early Springfield .30-40 caliber cartridge with a rounded 220-grain bullet to a pointed 150-grain round known as the .30-'06 (thirty-ought-six) patterned again after the German-designed "spitzer" -- or pointed -- bullet. The "ought six" in the cartridge's name refers to the year the new round was adopted: 1906. The rimless .30-'06 cartridge survived as the standard in the U. S. Army through the Korean War.
The Springfield was replaced as the standard infantry rifle in 1936 by the semiautomatic Garand firing the same caliber round. But, the highly-accurate .30-'06 Springfield rifle Model 1903 with various modifications was in limited use in WWII (as a sniper rifle) and a generation later even in Vietnam.
The Crisis of 1917. When war was declared in 1917, America was entirely unprepared. The presidential election of the previous year was fought and won by Thomas Woodrow Wilson (his second term) on the platform "He Kept Us out of War". Sentiment in Congress and among the electorate did not favor intervention. Millions of Americans traced their ancestry back to Germany. Another major ethnic group, the Irish, had no love for Great Britain. And, powerful pacifist, and populist and Progressive legislators blocked any arms buildup save that for a larger "defensive" Navy. A majority of voters in the Midwestern states from Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana south into Kansas and Oklahoma were no more than lukewarm warm to America's entry into the war and many outside the northeast and California were opposed. So politically volatile was the issue of preparedness that the U. S. Army staff was specifically instructed by the Secretary of War not to plan for a European intervention, or even for wartime military and industrial mobilization.
Moreover, in 1917 there was almost no excess industrial capacity to support mobilization and expanded war production. The American economy was going full tilt. U. S. factories, foundries, mills and shipyards were running at 94 to 96% of capacity as a result of heavy wartime demands from England and France. American farmers were working overtime to produce wheat, corn and livestock (including horses and mules) needed to feed Allied armies and civilians. Rural and urban unemployment was, as a result, practically nonexistent. Moreover, the flood of immigration from Europe, which had provided the ready source of cheap, willing labor that fueled the massive post-Civil War American economic expansion, had dried up as a result of the war. Thus, both labor and industrial capacity were already stretched to the utmost. There was no excess capacity available as there was to be in 1939 and 1940 at the outset of World War Two when America was emerging from a long, hard and cruel economic depression to retool as the Arsenal of Democracy, to used the term coined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When war did come to America in April 1917, the Army in particular was woefully unprepared. Everything had to be done at once. Recruiting, housing, training, arming and transporting an army to Europe was a monumental task almost beyond the talents and capacity of America's tiny professional military officer corps and a minuscule Federal bureaucracy. Small arms were a number-one priority. But, only two government-owned factories -- the Springfield and the Rock Island (Illinois) Arsenals, were producing the Army's Springfield Model 1903 rifles. Army planners correctly judged that production at these arsenals could probably not be increased significantly, and certainly not fast enough to arm the four million men the Army envisaged mobilizing.
And, America was under tremendous pressure. The French and the British were desperate for American troop reinforcements to meet expected German reinforcements moving to the Western Front from Russia, which was out of the war. They demanded we mobilize faster and send raw drafts for training in England and France, and incorporation into their own army formations. Wilson, backed by his Secretary of War Newton Baker and by General John Pershing, refused. American troops would fight under American command. And, they would be trained and armed under American direction. For this, the Army needed infantry weapons and they needed them fast.
The Army had only three choices for getting these weapons:
Out of necessity, they chose all three options.
- Increase current production
- Issue obsolete rifles from current stocks
- Or, obtain rifles from the Allies.
The Other Rifle. In looking for Allied rifles, their eyes immediately fell on American factories which had been producing the Enfield Pattern 1914 rifle in .303 caliber for Great Britain. The U. S. bought out British interest in the Remington and Winchester plants for some 900 thousand dollars, far less than the two million dollars England spent to acquire and equip these facilities. Of course, the factories had to be retooled to produce rifles firing the standard
U. S. .30-'06 rimless cartridge. Fortunately, this meant only relatively minor modifications to the machinery producing rifle barrels, receivers and magazines. Less minor were persistent labor problems of workforce turnover as scarce skilled workers migrated from one firm to another seeking ever higher wages, as well as shortages of such key items as high-quality steel for rifle barrels and receivers, and seasoned hardwood for rifle stocks. Eventually, the raw material and labor problems were resolved, and production of the American Enfield reached 10,000 rifles per day by the end of the war. Nonetheless, thousands of American Doughboys were sent overseas without basic musketry training. Some significant number never even fired a rifle before being sent to the trenches in France, or Belgium.
US Model 1917 Rifle
What about this other rifle called "The American Enfield"? The Model 1917, or The American Enfield, as it was popularly called, was two inches longer and nine tenths of a pound heavier than the Model 1903 Springfield rifle. But it was exceptionally strong. Some said it was the most rugged bolt action rifle ever manufactured. And, it remained in U. S. inventories until World War II when over a quarter of a million American Enfields were shipped to our allies under the Lead Lease Act.
Estimates differ on how many rifles of what type were produced by America during World War One. The latest available figures indicate that some 379,000 Springfield Model 1903 and nearly 2.2 million Model 1917 American Enfields were produced in 1917 and 1918. Over 1.1 million Enfields were made my Midvale Steel at Eddystone, Pennsylvania, the largest single maker. The rest were produced by Remington Arms at its Olean, New York plant and by Winchester in New Haven, Connecticut. The Springfields were all produced at the U. S. Government's Rock Island and Springfield Arsenals.
Only the first United States infantry and Marine units (mainly the First and Second Divisions) arriving in France were equipped with the Model 1903 Springfield rifle. Almost all the rest, the vast majority, carried the Model 1917 American Enfield. But, some, particularly engineer and pioneer infantry units, were armed with the obsolete Model 1896 or 1898 Krag. One entire division (the 27th, which fought under British and Australian command throughout the war) was equipped with British .303 Lee-Enfield rifles (the SMLE), as were other independent and detached artillery, engineer and infantry units serving with British and Commonwealth forces.
Three Negro National Guard infantry regiments (the 369th, 370th and 372nd)
and one National Army infantry regiment (the 371st) made up of Black
American draftees sent to France to make up the 93rd Infantry Division were
assigned, instead, to the French Army. These segregated regiments were
entirely armed with French Model 07/15 rifles, French helmets and other
French gear with the exception of their uniforms. They fought under French
divisional command throughout the war.
Three Related Rifles
¹ Corporal York's Rifle. But what about Sergeant York (or Corporal York, as he was at the time)? The classic 1940 film starring Gary Cooper and directed by Howard Hawks, (himself a World War One U.S. Army flying instructor) depicts York as using a Springfield Model 1903 to pick off the enemy one by one. This is the deed that earned Alvin York of Tennessee the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for valor. The only problem with the scene in the film is that York did not use the Springfield rifle on October 8, 1918 in the Argonne. Rather he used the other rifle, the Model 1917 American Enfield that was issued to the men of his division, the 82nd. York, a noncommissioned officer, is correctly depicted as carrying and firing a sidearm. In the movie, it's a P-08 Luger 9mm German semiautomatic pistol. In the Argonne Campaign, York actually carried a Model 1911 .45 caliber APC semi-automatic pistol, the same one those who served in the U.S. Army, or Marines remember firing in training. The problem was that Hawks could not find any .45 caliber APC blank ammunition when it came time to film the battle scenes for "Sergeant York". So Gary Cooper used the 9mm Luger instead.
Springfield 1903 [US], Top; US Model 1917, Middle;
Short Magazine Lee-Enfield [UK], Bottom
Still, despite these minor lapses in authenticity, it's a great movie and a great true story about a genuine American hero -- even if he did carry a British-designed rifle...
--The Book of the Springfield, E. C. Crossman and Roy F. Dunlap, Small-Arms Technical Publishing, Georgetown, SC, 1950.
--The Lee-Enfield Rifle, Major E.G.B. Reynolds, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1960.
--"The Other American Rifle, the "American Enfield"" in Over There! The Illustrated Journal of the First World War, Vol. 6, no. 2, Summer 1993.
--Rifles of the World, John Walter, DBI Books, Northbrook, IL, 1993.
--The United States in the First World War, Anne Cipriano Venzon (ed.), Garland, New York, 1995, pages 557-560 on Small Arms by John Votaw.
--Images of the Spanish-American War: April - August 1998, Stan Cohen, Pictorial Histories, Missoula, 1997.
--"Model 1896 Krag-Jorgensen Rifle", The Spanish-American War Centennial Website, 1997.
Thanks: Ambassador Len Shurtleff, President of the WFA-USA is a regular contributor. His article on the doughboy's rifles originally appeared in the April 1999 edition of Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association. Mike Birdwell contributed the photos of the rifles. MH
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