Pay attention to baby carriages

Posted by Bruce Canfield

This is a "Canfield's Corner" post from several years ago that I'm moving to the "Current Topics" section as I've received several comments from readers who found it interesting. I have also added a photo of the hand-stamped markings referenced in the article.

In the four decades I’ve been collecting U.S. military weapons, I’ve encountered many unusual, interesting, bizarre and memorable things. Although I don't go to a lot of guns anymore, in the past, I routinely attended gun shows at least once a month. Most were small local shows but two of my favorites were large shows fairly close to home; the Market Hall show in Dallas and the Astro Hall show in Houston. I occasionally set up a table but usually just roamed the rows of tables looking for that hidden gem. When I started writing books, my publisher liked for me to display books at some of the larger shows so I was able to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone and often got a table at the Dallas and/or Houston shows.

One memorable situation occurred about twenty years ago at the Houston show. I was sitting at my table (near the front of the hall) and noticed a non-descript guy coming in pushing a baby carriage. That wasn’t particularly unusual as guys often came to shows with their wife and/or kids. However, when he got closer, I noticed the only thing in the baby carriage were two rifles in cloth cases. When he got in front of my table, I asked him what he had and he replied “…a couple of army rifles,” and from some subsequent comments I could tell he didn’t know much about guns. I asked if I could see the rifles and he first pulled a rather worn and ho-hum M1917 Enfield rifle out of the case. I glanced at it and politely declined any interest in the gun. From the other case he then pulled out a rifle which immediately got my attention. He handed me an extremely nice 1912 vintage M1903 Springfield rifle. It had the beautiful blued finish and lovely walnut typical of ‘03s of that era and was 100% original. It had seen some use but was in very nice shape and had been well-maintained (the bore looked like a mirror). However, when I looked at the left side of the gun, I saw something that made my heart sink. Someone had hand-stamped (and the letters were not very well aligned) the following on the left flat on the rear sight base:



I had no idea what this indicated and my first thought was that somebody ruined a great rifle by stamping these stupid markings. Although disappointed about what I perceived to be the desecration of a great rifle, I was still interested in buying it as a “project” if I could get it for the right price and thought I could perhaps have the markings buffed out and the sight base refinished. I asked the guy how much he wanted and he named a very nominal sum. I told him he might be able to get more if he shopped it around but he just wanted to dump it and move on, so I bought it. I didn’t think to ask where he got the gun. When I got home, I put the gun in my storage closet until I could decide what to do with it and almost forgot about it for a while.

When I got around to thinking about the gun again, the “Olympic Rifle” part seemed very strange. Since this ’03 was a totally unaltered military variant, I figured there was no way it could have been used in Olympic competition. I did a little research (this was pre-Google days) and found several interesting factoids about the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, including the fact that George S. Patton was a competitor that year in the Pentathlon event. This still didn’t shed any light on the cryptic markings on my rifle so I contacted some guys at the NRA and they sent me a long out-of-print book on Olympic shooting. I casually thumbed through the book to the section dealing with the 1912 Olympics and something immediately got my attention. One of the events was an “Army Rifle Match” which required the use of the unaltered standard military rifle of the participating nations. I had always thought that Olympic firearms were specially crafted precision shooting instruments and never imagined the 1912 U.S. team would have used a standard, unaltered current issue M1903 Springfield…just like the one I got from the guy with the baby carriage. The rifle was made in very early in 1912 and could have easily made it to the Olympics later that year.

I know that anyone can hand-stamp “Olympic Rifle” on a gun so that didn’t necessarily prove anything but it got me thinking about the other markings. More research revealed that one of the “stars” on the American shooting team in 1912, and a gold medal winner, was Captain Fred S. Hird from Des Moines and a member of the Iowa National Guard. All of the sudden, the other markings made sense; “HIRD, F.S. = Fred S. Hird” and “D.M. IA – Des Moines, Iowa.”

Now my attention was really piqued. To make a long story short, I found out everything I could about Captain Hird. I was able to obtain his complete service records including his stint with the Iowa National Guard and the fact he was recalled into service as a Lt. Colonel during WWII after his initial retirement. One of the more interesting documents was a list of the dates of his annual camps with the Iowa NG. The entry for the year 1912 was simply “At Olympics.” I was also able to obtain Hird’s death certificate and learned he had passed away from heart failure in 1952. I made numerous attempts to find any of his descendants, or even a photo of Hird, with no luck whatsoever. I contacted the U.S. Olympic Committee and they sent me a letter on their official letterhead detailing Hird’s shooting accomplishments at the 1912 Olympics. He also competed in the 1920 Olympics (there wasn’t a 1916 Olympics due to the unpleasantness in Europe at that time) but didn’t fare nearly as well as he had in 1912 when he won a Gold Medal.

Okay…so what now? When it comes to establishing the provenance of a gun I am, by nature, extremely skeptical. As I saw it, the rifle could only be one of two things:

Now let’s take a brief look at the relative merits of the two possibilities. First, stamping bogus markings to increase the value and/or desirability of a gun is hardly a rare phenomenon. Such markings can include fake US military stamps on a civilian gun or such other things as “USMC” and the like. It is actually fairly uncommon to find bogus names on guns. In most cases, all but the most hopelessly gullible wouldn’t fall for, for example, G.A. Custer on a Colt SAA revolver or Audie Murphy on a M1 Carbine. Names found engraved or stamped on guns are typically those of a previous civilian owner who, for whatever reason, thought it was cool to do so. Nobody is going to pay anything extra for a gun with Uncle Charlie’s name stamped on it. In fact, unless Uncle Charlie was somebody famous, such markings would seriously devalue the gun to anyone except, perhaps, Uncle Charlie’s close relatives. Since the entire purpose of fake markings is to increase the value of a weapon, it is not logical that someone would go to the trouble of stamping bogus markings which mean nothing to a potential buyer and which would certainly devalue the gun.

Given the above rationalization, it was (and is) my strong opinion that the gun was indeed the one Captain Hird used at the 1912 Olympics. The fact that the rifle would have been brand-new production at the time of the Olympics made sense as the shooting team would certainly have been equipped with the latest rifles. The barrel of my rifle didn’t have the star-gauge marking but since star-gauging of ’03 rifles didn’t start until the early 1920s, this meant nothing. It could have been the early equivalent of a National Match rifle since there were no special features or markings found on such guns. I would have loved to have gotten a letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee stating the serial number of the ’03 used by Hird in 1912 or his diary reflecting the serial number. Unfortunately, such documentation is very, very rare. In the vast majority of cases, all we can do is consider the preponderance of the available evidence and render an opinion accordingly. A pervasive myth is that a person cannot be convicted on just circumstantial evidence. Any lawyer who has been anywhere near a courtroom can tell you that people are convicted all the time on circumstantial evidence. If a court case was held to determine whether or not this rifle was Hird’s Olympic gun, I would rather be the lawyer arguing that it was rather than the one trying to persuade a judge or jury that it wasn’t. In any event, the research to which this this gun led me was an interesting and worthwhile endeavor.

My only regret is that I didn’t look at the M1917 Enfield rifle that was in the baby carriage closer. Who knows, if I had looked hard enough, maybe I would have seen an “A. York – Tenn.” hand-stamped marking!

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