Combat use of the M1903A3 Rifle
Posted by Bruce Canfield
It’s been a while since I posted anything on this blog but reviewing the galley proofs for the new Garand book, filming for the TV show and general work stuff have taken a lot of my time. I will comment at some point on the current hysteria in the national media over “assault weapons,” high-cap magazines, etc. but want to wait to see what occurs with the pending legislation. In the meantime, I thought I’d try to answer a question that seems to be the subject of a lot of confusion and incorrect assertions. The question is “Was the M1903A3 rifle used in combat in WWII?” Some guys claim it saw no use whatsoever and others insist it was widely used. Both are incorrect.
The short answer is “yes,” but a bit of clarification is necessary. For some reason, a lot of people apparently believe that all M1903 Springfield rifles are ‘03A3s. This, of course, is totally wrong. In actuality, the ‘A3 was a WWII bolt-action rifle designed to be an expedient weapon to be manufactured on existing M1903 production machinery in order to supplement the limited supply of the standardized M1 Garand. The ‘A3 had a number of differences from the earlier ’03 including a receiver-mounted rear sight and numerous manufacturing shortcuts including a lot of stamped metal parts to replace the forged parts. It is a fact that the ’03 (not the ‘03A3) saw a lot of combat use in WWII, especially by the USMC in the early Pacific battles. In fact, the initial campaign of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal was fought with ‘03s. The HBO series “The Pacific” depicted ‘03A3s in the hands of the Marines on Guadalcanal but this is historically inaccurate. The Marines used the earlier standardized M1903 rifles during the campaign. Even after there were sufficient M1 Garands on hand to equip most Army and Marine combat units, a number of ‘03s still remained in use as grenade launching platforms due to problems encountered in developing a satisfactory grenade launcher for the M1. Some modified M1903A1 rifles were fitted with Unertl target telescopes and used by the Marines as sniper rifles. The standard U.S. Army sniper rifle of WWII was the M1903A4 which was simply a slightly modified M1903A3.
All of the above still doesn’t answer the original question. While the ‘03A3 was intended to be a supplemental weapon to augment the standardized Garand, there were some limited cases where ‘A3s found their way to combat units. This is confirmed by a number of WWII vintage photos depicting ‘A3s in combat. One famous photo clearly shows a M1903A3, along with a M1903A4, being fired at the Japanese from a hillside position in Burma. Also, while most of the grenade launching rifles were standard ‘03s, there were some ‘A3s “drafted” into grenade launching service as well. It is true, however, that the majority of ‘A3s that were issued were used by support units, MPs and other ostensibly non-combat units. Actually, the majority of the almost one million‘03A3 rifles produced never left the states. This explains why it is one of the more common WWII U.S. military weapons found in unaltered condition today.
In conclusion, I suppose the best answer to the question of the ‘03A3 rifle saw combat service in WWII would be, “yes, it did see some limited combat use.”