The intricacies of World War 1 small arms fill books due to the rapid advancement of technology and how warfare changed in a few short years. It’s easy to get wrapped up in calibers, firearm models, bayonets, and actions as you pour over the history of the world’s first Great War. As such, sometimes things get forgotten and the world finds itself in need of a reminder. If I asked you what rifle the American forces used in World War 1, for instance, you’d likely say the Springfield 1903. You’d be partially right, but only about 25% or so. The M1917 Enfield actually did most of the fighting.
The Springfield 1903 certainly served overseas, and if you asked video games and movies, then you’d be led to believe it was the only American service rifle fighting that war. The Springfield name is absolutely legendary, and at the time, the Springfield 1903 was the official service rifle of the United States. Yet, 75% of American troops carried the Enfield M1917, and only the paltry remainder actually carried the Springfield rifle.
This includes Medal of Honor recipient Alvin York who silenced machine gun after machine gun with his M1917 and M1911 pistol. However, if you watch the Gary Cooper rendition, he wields a Springfield M1903. If the Springfield 1903 was the American service rifle of the time, then you might be asking: why did the M1917 Enfield arm the whopping majority of American troops?
Well, my dear reader, it’s simple logistics.
The M1917 Enfield and A Tale of Victory
You see, Americans are typically a little late to World Wars. However, we often help our allies in some big ways once we show up. The Brits had recently changed rifles and calibers, and when World War 1 came around, they were in need of rifles… but they clung to an old caliber to simplify logistics. They couldn’t build their P14 rifles quick enough to meet their needs, so they contracted with American weapon manufacturers to produce more.
American factories were spitting out P14 rifles left and right, chambered in the old .303 British. This helped the British forces greatly, but by the time America got involved in the war, they had the exact same problems the Brits had. There weren’t enough rifles to go around. Specifically, not enough Springfield M1903 rifles.
So, they looked at the factories building Enfield rifles and planned to retool them to make America’s Springfields instead. Then someone had a much better idea. Let’s just make P14s for American forces.
It would be much faster to produce Enfields for America than to retool the factories for Springfield rifles. They would be chambered, however, in the American 30-06 U.S. Service cartridge and were modified as such to accommodate the round. Luckily since the original rifle was itself designed for a powerful new British round, it accommodated the American 30-06 just as easily. Thus the M1917 Enfield was born.
American forces eliminated the volley sights and added a 16.5-inch bayonet to the end. The Enfield M1917 would quickly deploy with American Expeditionary Forces and fight in the fiercest battles of World War One.
Inside the M1917 Enfield
M1917 Enfields were very robust guns. While many of us may think of bolt action rifles as light hunting rifles, these guns were from that. They weighed nearly 10 pounds, featured 26-inch barrels, and an overall length of 46.3 inches.
The M1917 Enfield held five rounds of .30-06 and could be loaded via individual rounds or through stripper clips. Stripper clips allow for rapid reloads via simple disposable clips that hold five rounds by their rim.
Soldiers aligned the stripper clip with the integral magazine of the weapon and pressed downward, loading the magazine rapidly and allowing the soldier to jump right back into the fight. It may sound slow by today’s standards, but it was pretty quick in its day.
The bolt throw and movement on the M1917 Enfield were rapid and smooth. Enough so that the Enfield rifles gained a reputation for having a faster firing rate than the Springfield rifles. At close range, a faster firing rate is quite valuable (as was the 16.5-inch long sword bayonet).
Accuracy In Combat
Americans and Western European forces placed a good amount of value on accuracy in their rifles, and that’s apparent in the M1917. It wore a peep sight that was suited for long-distance engagements. In that role, the sight allows a soldier to carefully aim and take a precise shot. That’s great on an open battlefield, but sucked for close-range fighting in the trenches.
The peep sight allowed the M1917 to be more accurate than the M1903 in the early days, but later models of M1903 incorporated them as well. However, the M1903 sights of World War 1 weren’t incredibly effective. They were too far from the eye, and the front sight was thin and hard to see. It also broke quite often.
Accuracy with the M1917 was top-notch, and with iron sights, an average shooter could produce three-inch groups at 100 yards. You take a skilled shooter like Alvin York, and you could be a real menace to the enemy with this rifle.
They were accurate enough that the military converted a number of them to sniper rifles with fixed power magnification optics. These rifles were equipped with Winchester A5 scopes which granted the user a fixed five-power magnification that greatly increased their ability to hit targets at long ranges.
The End of the Line
After World War 1 ended, the M1903 went back to being the bell of the ball, though the M1917 stuck around for a while. They were sent overseas and kept in reserves, and later when World War 2 broke out, they were distributed as Lend-Lease rifles. Soldiers in mortar and artillery units carried them into the next Great War until the M1 Garand shortage was over. The M1917 Enfield was a fantastic rifle, and it’s a shame it doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
Hopefully, we’ve helped spread the glory of the M1917 Enfield and the difference it made in the trenches, in Belleau Wood, in Cantigny, and beyond.
Cailean MacAnndraigh says
I have been hunting with my grandfathers pattern nineteen seventeen (1917 ) eddystone for 56 years. I started hunting at 14. I own several WW1-2 era bolt rifles from all nations. My fave is the eddy. Next is the 03. Then the krag for its like glass smooth action. Mauser Arisaka you name it The pattern 17 may not be the prettiest. It however drives tack and has killed from Africa to Europe and the USA all one shot kills It should never be forgotten.
Alfred Gallo says
Excellent article! I recently won an auctioned off M1917 that’s original. I cannot wait to get my hands in her as it’s being shipped from the Midwest to my FFL here on Long Island.
Lucius Severus Pertinax says
I have an M1917 in as-issued condition (with bayonet) I bought in 1980. It was probably a DCM rifle that was formerly owned by someone who had passed away. Mine is of Eddystone manufacture, and was refurbished at Rock Island arsenal sometime in the 1920s ( the original blue finished replaced by Parkerizing). It still retains its original 7-1918 dated barrel and still shoots dead straight!
Lucius Severus Pertinax says
PS.. I KNOW many of these rifles have been “sporterized”; it may have been all right to do that once upon a time, but NOW would be simply a crime!
I was just given m17 sporterised but bolt is missing. Are parts east to come by
Timothy James Bailey says
I’ve owned a p14 – rebarreled to fire .25 rounds and re-mounted in a sporter stock. It had brush / swamp open peep sights – with the varying adjustable smaller rings removed. It was very effective on mobs of feral pigs.
It was a lot easier to manipulate when shooting fast than my 7.92 mm Mauser 98 which was ‘basic’ sporterized and rebarreled to .30-06.
But that was what I happened to be carrying, when a very large feral boar decided to hide from my hunting buddy and I in a large black-berry bush he’d obviously hollowed out for himself.
But, the spiral path he’d made into it was quite narrow, and he didn’t / couldn’t (?) turn around – after he’d gotten in there.
Yes, I’d crawled in after him! ? And the 150 gn soft nosed round quartered him and he fell dead.
Feral pigs in that somewhat northern neck of the Snowy Mountain range – tended to be ridden with pig diseases, so we didn’t eat him, and left him for other ferals to eat.
We hunted them on sheep and cattle grazier’s large properties and they generally welcomed our visits as the pigs would take lambs and calves.
Let alone the mess they made of alpine grassed areas with their pig-rooting.
There were also a lot of feral deer around Canberra (our capital city).
His tusks were 5 inches long
Franklin Gray says
I am looking for 351 Winchester ammo. If i can’t find ammo but if someone has brass i could reoad the cases.
Donovan Noryon says
I have a Remington 1917 barrel and action that I purchased years ago. I then purchased a walnut laminated stock that I need to I finish getting it refined and looking good
jack b says
I have a Sporterized 1917 that’s really nice. I would love to have the non modified military m1917 but I got this one free so no complaints about the rifle. And I do enjoy shooting it. My 03 Springfield is still my favorite but the m1917 would be nice to ad to my collection of WW1 & WW2 Small arms. It’s one of a few I have yet to procure.
Got a ’17 wrapped in brown paper 25 years ago from a buddy going through a divorce – $100. He called me a month later as he was moving out of the house, had found a “box” (crate) of ammo and the “knife” (Winchester bayonet) – said they went with the deal if I helped him move stuff out of the house. Ahhh – the good old days!
Bud in TX says
I think it’s the most elegant looking rifle ever employed by the US military. Just beautiful!
I would like to point out that a M1917 has an internal magazine capable of holding six rounds of 30-06. This was due to the magazine being designed to hold 5 rimed 303 rounds. Although, the men were still issued 5 round striper clips. (Logistics reasons)
Holly LeRoy says
Lots of 1917’s wound up sporterized and are still in use today. I have both a 30-06 and a .458 Winmag built on 1917 actions. High grade walnut stocks, Lilja barrels, Huber Concepts triggers, Nikon and Leupold scopes. They look sharp and are real tack drivers.
Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed it.