Some thoughts on the ‘03A4 Rifle

Posted by Bruce Canfield

As discussed here previously, demand, and consequently prices, for quality U.S. military weapons have increased at a rate seemingly unimaginable a decade ago and still remain relatively strong even in the current economic climate. While prices for all of these arms have gone up significantly in the past few years, several have raced ahead of the pack. Among these are M1A1 carbines, M1941 Johnson rifles (not necessarily a U.S. military weapon but very popular nonetheless) M1911/M1911A1 .45 pistol and M1904A4 sniper rifles. Portions of this article were previously posted on “Canfield’s Corner” but the continuing popularity of the M1903A4 rifle warrants something of a repeat.

As most of you probably know, the M1903A4 rifle was the primary U.S. Army sniper rifle of the Second World War. It was a slightly modified M1903A3 and was only made by Remington Arms Company. There are basically five differences between the M1903A3 and the M1903A4.

(1) The markings on the receiver ring are offset in order to be read with the scope mount in place.

(2) The front sight assembly is not mounted (although the milling cuts are present).

(3) The bolt was concavely forged to clear the scope body.

(4) The stock is inletted to make room for the curved bolt.

(5) A Redfield “Junior” scope mount is attached to the receiver.

That’s about it. Unlike most other U.S. military sniper rifles, it is almost impossible to convincingly fake a M1903A4 because of the unique placement of the receiver ring markings. I have recently seen one attempt to create a fake M1903A4 by buffing off the markings on a standard M1903A3 and restamping them in the “correct” location. It was obvious that the markings were not original and the profile of the receiver was slightly altered due to the amount of metal that had to be removed in order to remove the factory markings. Most fake ‘03A4s around today are simply the result of someone attaching a Redfield mount on a ‘03A3 rifle and modifying the bolt to clear the scope body. Such fakes are easy to spot because the markings on the receiver ring are partially covered. In all fairness, in many cases, these rifles were not created with any larceny in mind and were done for the owner’s satisfaction. Regrettably, this satisfaction was usually purchased at the price of ruining a perfectly good M1903A3 rifle. A common name today for these ersatz ‘A4 rifles is “clone” which, as we discussed in a recent posting, is simply a euphemism for harsher words. 

For the past four or five years, M1903A4 prices stayed fairly constant (relative to inflation) but the weapon is now among the hottest collectibles of the genre. I’m not sure what caused the ‘03A4 to take off but I suspect there were several factors including the fact that the majority of other U.S. military sniper rifles on the market today are fake whereas the ‘A4 is, as we discussed, almost impervious to convincing fakery. Another reason…and don’t laugh…was the movie “Saving Private Ryan” which prominently featured a M1903A4 rifle. Although the rifle in the movie was depicted with not one, but two, incorrect telescopes, it nevertheless seemed to whet the appetite of many collectors who wanted an example. While it may sound silly, it is a fact that many guns have become popularized by movies. From Dirty Harry’s Model 29 S&W .44 Magnum to the Garands and carbines featured in countless WWII films and television mini-series (Band of Brothers, etc.), movies have undoubtedly influenced collecting patterns for many years. The western movies from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” (1930s and 1940s) were, at least in some measure, responsible for the exploding popularity of lever action Winchester rifles and Colt SAA revolvers in the 1950s (which continues even today). 

Regardless of the reason(s), the M1903A4 has become a poster child for many U.S. military arms collectors. Even though, as mentioned above, realistic fake ‘A4s are not a big problem, that doesn’t mean a collector can blithely purchase an example with no fear of getting burned. The biggest factor for a potential purchaser to consider is the telescope on the rifle, or perhaps, not on the rifle. A fair number of M1903A4s were sold via the DCM in the early 1960s and virtually none of these came with a telescope. It has been said that the Kennedy assassination in 1963 resulted in the Army removing the telescopes from the ‘A4s in the DCM sales program to alleviate fears of the government peddling “evil sniper rifles” to the public. Reportedly, the original telescopes removed from the rifles were destroyed and the lenses given to schools for science classes, etc. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but given what the Federal government does, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. The M1903A4s sold by the CMP in recent years didn’t include scopes either.

In any event, the fact that almost all of the ‘A4s that came on the market were sans telescopes, meant that collectors had to find the correct type of their rifle because, after all, a sniper rifle isn’t much good without a scope, especially the ‘A4 which didn’t have any iron sights! It has been pretty well known that the Weaver 330C and M73B1 telescopes were the primary scopes supplied with the ‘A4 during WWII. I won’t go into extreme detail here, but early examples used “off the shelf” 330C scopes and this same telescope made under government contract was designated as the “M73B1” (and was so marked). Most of the 330C and M73B1 scopes mounted on ‘A4 rifles at the Remington plant had serial numbers (not related to the rifle) hand-etched on the tube. Since these scopes have been rather scarce on the collector market for the past couple of decades (partially due to the fact many were destroyed), collectors have been looking for alternatives. The commercial Weaver 330 scope was a popular item on sporting rifles since the 1930s and are still pretty common today. These scopes differed from the 330C in the fact that the latter had knobs that could be hand-turned for windage and elevation adjustment while the former required a screwdriver for such adjustments. Some guys have fantasized that any type of Weaver 330 series was used with the ‘A4 rifles because “it was wartime and they used anything they could get.” Sounds good but it’s wrong. The military specifications specifically stated which scope(s) were authorized and those, and only those, were used. While the Lyman Alaskan, designated as the “M73” was authorized for use with the M1903A4 rifle, none were procured by the government for the ‘A4 production program and the Weaver (330C and M73B1) were THE telescopes used with the rifle in WWII, with one possible exception. The only exception would be the Weaver 330-M8. This scope is very similar to the M73B1 except it does not have the same type of adjustment knobs and most have a tapered post reticle rather than the cross-hairs of the 330C/M73B1. Few, if any, have been noted with added serial numbers. There is some question whether the 330-M8 scopes were actually used with the ‘A4 and I understand why some may doubt it. I believe the scopes to be correct, based in large measure on a letter that the late sniper historian Peter Senich obtained from Weaver many years ago which stated that the M8 was, in fact, used on the ‘A4 to a limited extent during WWII. Unless something else comes to light that proves this to be incorrect, it’s good enough for me. Therefore, it can be said with a high degree of certainty, that the only types of telescopes that would be correct for a M1903A4 rifle remaining in its WWII configuration would be the Weaver 330C (with added serial number), M73B1 and, probably, the 330-M8, wishful thinking to the contrary. If I had to select only one scope to put on a WWII M1903A4, it would clearly be the M73B1 as its “correctness” cannot be questioned.

The picture gets a bit less clear for ‘03A4s that made it into the post-war period. The ‘A4 actually remained in military service until at least the early days of the Vietnam War and, like most WWII military weapons that remained in service, the majority were overhauled one or more times in the post-war period. The Weaver was not a great scope and most of them were replaced during overhaul. By the mid 1950s, the M84 was the standard Army sniper scope and most of the rebuilt ‘A4s had this scope mounted. Some of the WWII vintage M81 and M82 scopes (originally made for the M1C rifle) were also used on some post-war overhauled ‘A4s, but not nearly to the same extent as the M84. Again, some collectors have maintained that commercial Lyman Alaskan scopes (which are still pretty common) were used on ‘A4s after WWII but there is no evidence to suggest this was the case, although a few such scopes were used on M1Cs during the Korean era. It has also been claimed that the Weaver K-4 scopes were on A4s used during the Vietnam period. A few K-4s were mounted on M1D rifles (which required a special 1” mount) in the late 1960s but, again, there is nothing to confirm the scopes were also mounted on ‘A4s and any such use is extremely doubtful.

In summary, the “correct” scopes for the M1903A4 rifle are:

 WWII ……………………. Weaver 330C (with added serial numbers), M73B1 and, probably the 330 M-8.

Post-WWII………………. M84 and to a limited extent, M81 and M82 during the early to mid 1950s.

 Any other scope found on a M1903A4 rifle today is almost certainly incorrect, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

That takes care of the scopes, so let’s look at a few other things that should be considered when evaluating a M1903A4.

Since most of the rifles were overhauled after WWII, certain features will be found on such rifles including arsenal rebuild stamps on the left side of the stock and parkerized components, including furniture. As originally made, the M1903A4, like the ‘A3, had some blued parts including barrel bands, band springs and a few other small components. As production continued some of these parts began to be parkerized, including the front band and, perhaps, the magazine/buttplate assembly. Regardless, an original M1903A4 will still contain some blued parts and an example with all parkerized components has definitely been refinished, likely as part of a post-war arsenal overhaul. Such rifles are still fine collectibles but don’t have the value of an example remaining in its WWII factory configuration. The same is true for all other weapons of this era including Garands and carbines. If a ‘A4 has been determined to have been overhauled, a collector should not go to the trouble to look for one of the scarce (and generally very expensive) WWII Weavers since few of these were retained on the rifles after the war. The best choice for such a rifle would be a M84 which, fortunately, are still pretty available and certainly less expensive than the genuine WWII Weavers and the M81/M82 scopes.

The majority of the M1903A4 rifles left the Remington with WWII production “Type C” (full pistol grip) stocks although some of the later production rifles had the scant (“wart hog”) stock. This was the only example of the scant stock being used on new production rifles and any seen today on a M1903 or M1903A3 has been added, possibly during and arsenal overhaul. In such cases, the stock should have the appropriate rebuild stamps on the left side.

One other thing to look for is to determine that the barrel is an original ‘A4 barrel and the rifle hasn’t been rebarrelled with a M1903A3 barrel that had the front sight assembly removed. In such cases, the area of the barrel under the front sight band will be smooth and devoid of finish whereas it would be the same texture and color as the rest of the barrel on genuine M903A4s. Of course, an added ‘A3 barrel could be reparkerized, thus making it difficult to determine its originality as an ‘A4 barrel.

Even with the current woeful national economy, I don’t see any signs that demand or prices for quality M1903A4 rifles are noticeably falling. Any genuine example with a correct telescope, especially one still in WWII trim, is a great find and such rifles are avidly sought by collectors. If you should ever run across a genuine Weaver M73B1 scope at a reasonable price, you might want to consider grabbing it even if you don’t need it. There are many collectors out there who would pay a substantial amount of money for such an item to complete their treasured ‘03A4. I wish I’d had the foresight to buy several dozen M73B1 scopes at $25 each back in the early 1960s but I was a kid in junior high school then and didn’t have the money or the clairvoyance to engage in such an enterprise. If I had done so, it would make the performance of my 401K look anemic today by comparison!

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