Alvin York – ’03 or M1917?

Posted by Bruce Canfield

I have always found it interesting, if not amusing, when a particular topic elicits a lot of controversy on an internet forum discussion site. It is appalling how some of the respondents can really get nasty and call someone with an opposing point of view all sorts of ugly names. None of these people would say anything remotely like that to the other guy’s face which, of course, is nothing but cowardice…but I digress. That is another discussion for another time.

Another contentious ’03-related topic that pops up from time to time is the question as to what type of rifle Alvin York used during his amazing and heroic exploits of World War I. Some guys are absolutely convinced that he used a ’03 Springfield and other are equally sure he utilized a M1917 “U.S. Enfield.” Both sides come up with various reasons or conjecture that purportedly support their respective positions. Before I chime in with my opinion, let’s look at some of the more common arguments made:

Contention - One of Alvin York’s sons stated that his father used an’03 during the war.

Response - This means nothing. Does anyone know that York’s son knew anything about guns and could tell the difference between a ’03 and a M1917? More importantly, children can be wrong about what their parents had or did. A good example (which I think I related here sometime ago) was an incident a number of years ago at a large gun show. A guy (probably in his 30s at the time) came up to my table and asked if I’d like the see the gun his father carried ashore on D-Day. I said sure, and he produced a Universal M1 carbine. Despite the fact that this was a commercial production weapon made in the 1980s, he was still absolutely convinced this was the gun his father had with him on Omaha Beach in 1944. I’ve also heard kids claim that their grandfather used a .30-30 rifle in WWI or their dad had a Mattel-made M16 in Vietnam. So much for the veracity of offspring! Also, at least two of York’s sons did not even agree on the type of rifle their father used.

Contention – The 1940 movie “Sgt. York” (starring Gary Cooper) pictured the intrepid Tennessean armed with a M1903 rifle (actually it was an Bannernam ersatz ’03). Since York was a “technical advisor” on the film, this had to be the correct weapon he used or he would have said so and insisted that the proper rifle be depicted.

Response - If York was so insistent on historical accuracy regarding firearms in the film, then why was Gary Cooper carrying a Luger instead of the M1911 .45 pistol that York actually used? Supposedly, it was because the M1911 could not readily function with blanks, but that still doesn’t excuse its inclusion if A.Y. was so concerned with technical accuracy regarding the weapons used in the movie. Also, why was Gary Cooper clean-shaven when York had a prominent mustache? If someone looks to Hollywood to support their historical assertions, then any of their conclusions are, to say the least, suspect.

Contention – A statue depicts York with an ’03 rifle.

Response – So what? I’ve seen works of art supposedly depicting a Civil War soldier armed with a .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield rifle. Most paintings, and many statues, either depict the subject with an incorrect gun or one that is barely recognizable. An artist is rarely concerned with such details and concentrates on the person that is the subject of the painting or statue. Few give a rip about the type of gun shown. In any event, the statute in question was commissioned after York’s death so he hardly had an opportunity to confirm or refute that the proper rifle was depicted.

Contention – York was a noted marksman and would have preferred an ’03 because it was more accurate and he could have picked up one from the battlefield.

Response – Where to start? First, the ’03 is certainly an accurate rifle. However, for combat use, I don’t think it is any better, indeed probably not as good, as a M1917, primarily because of the design of the latter’s rear sight (the receiver-mounted peep aperture close to the eye).

Secondly, York’s unit was definitely armed with M1917 rifles. There is no doubt about this. He may have seen an ’03 somewhere, but his issue weapon (and the one for which he was accountable) was a M1917. Remember, he was a Corporal at the time of his exploits and would almost certainly have been reluctant to throw away a perfectly good rifle (which he had trained with and was intimately familiar) for a discarded ’03 that may or may not have functioned properly. Sure, he could have picked up and used an abandoned ’03, but “could have” and “did” are entirely different matters. He “could have” used an abandoned French Lebel, British SMLE or German Mauser but I wouldn’t bet on it.

OK, by now I suppose you can guess where I come down on the subject. Suffice it to say that all reasonable evidence points to the fact that York used a M1917 rifle for the reasons cited above. Is it remotely possible that he could have used an ’03 instead? Sure, almost anything is possible. However, in the absence of proof, we have to go with what is more logical and more likely. In this context, I think the M1917 wins out hands down over the ’03 theory. I know this posting probably won’t change anyone’s mind one way or the other and the controversy will go on.

By the way, if York did use an ’03, I wonder if it was a “low number” or “high number”!

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →