The Springfield M1903 Air Service rifle is an intriguing weapon with an enigmatic history. For numerous years gun nerds like myself wondered why was this gun created, what it was used for, and what happened to it.
The M1903 Air Service rifle was a specialized variant of the M1903 bolt-action .30-06 U.S. service rifle. Springfield Armory stripped the rifles down. They cut the handguard, relocated sling points, simplified the sights, and added a big 25-round magazine in place of the standard five-round magazine. The name air service rifle gave us our only clue about this rather odd rifle.
The M1903 Air Service theories
Less than a thousand of these rifles were ever produced. None we ever issued beyond testing, and most were destroyed or refit into standard M1903s after World War I ended. The limited production, nonexistent use, and lack of documentation led to numerous theories about the rifle and these are the three most popular.
Used by balloon observers
Balloons and airships were a big deal in World War I as they allowed for reconnaissance and observation. A guy in a balloon can see upwards of 40 miles and help report valuable information and even guide artillery.
One theory about the M1903 Air Service rifle is that the rifle was designed for balloon observers to take shots at enemy planes.
However, it seems awfully tough to hit a plane with a bolt-action rifle from a balloon platform. The sway caused by wind and the fact that planes moved fairly fast even then makes this theory tough to believe. Finding photos of balloon observers is tough, and finding a photo of an armed balloon observer seems to be impossible.
Used as a pilot survival rifle
World War I was the first time we saw the mass use of planes. Planes provided a new level of reconnaissance, and the mix of cameras and planes allowed commanders to have a constantly growing real-time picture of their battlefield. Yet, these planes were fairly new and lacked the optics and technology to fly high, and the cameras required them to keep it easy on the stick. Add in the fragile nature of the design, and we get a vehicle that was constantly shot down.
When pilots went down, their armaments were limited to a pistol. One theory is that the M1903 Air Service rifles were designed for downed pilots. The larger magazine made up for the fact they couldn’t carry a cartridge belt, and the lighter, less bulky design was easier to fly with.
Used for plane-to-plane fighting
It didn’t take long for planes in World War I to become weaponized. Pilots went from waving at each other to throwing bricks and rocks to shooting with handguns and throwing grenades. This theory states that the rifle was used for plane-to-plane combat.
Air-to-air combat with a bolt-action rifle seems tough. By the time this weapon was made, we already had machine guns on planes. It seems silly to have a bolt-action rifle in .30-06 for plane-to-plane warfare.
So which of these three theories holds true?
Work by the Archival Research Group uncovered some documents that detailed the purpose of these rifles. Believe it or not, the idea behind their creation was indeed for plane-to-plane fighting.
The United States was late to the war, and American forces were learning a lot from our allies. One of the recommendations from the French was for a backup weapon for two-seater airplanes. The reasons were two: Firstly, if the machine guns jammed, the plane could still fight. Secondly, if an enemy was below and behind the tail of the aircraft, the machine gun couldn’t take them out, but a gunner armed with a rifle could engage the plane.
The French also recommended using a stocked M1911 or a Winchester M1910. The Winchester was an early semi-auto, magazine-fed rifle that fired the .401 Winchester Self-Loading round. In fact, the French purchased several for World War I. They also advised the use of incendiary ammo.
The Army didn’t have any Winchesters, so they modified the Springfield. I mentioned it was silly to use a bolt-action rifle for air-to-air combat, and it was. Colonel Fox Conner agreed and said he didn’t want the rifles, and they were a “Relic of airplane warfare as it previously existed.”
End of the M1903 Air Service Rifle
The rifles made it to France, and that’s where they languished. There was some experimentation with the rifles by the infantry, but the results of their experiment are unknown. The 25-round magazine was of interest…but the war ended, and as things often due, the project and interest faded quickly. Thus the M1903 Air Service Rifle faded from history.
Feature Image: An early 20th-century U.S. Marine Corps poster depicting a soldier holding the M1903. (Creative Commons)
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