I love odd variants of service weapons, be it experimental models or G.I. conversions of existing service weapons. Today we are looking at the Springfield M1903 ‘Bushmaster’ Carbine, which is a bit of a G.I. mod and an experimental model. To understand the weapon, we have to take a step back and take a look at the situation in which the Bushmaster carbine came to be.
It was January 1942. America had only just entered World War II, and things were looking dicey. No one knew how the war was going to end.
There was a genuine possibility that the Nazi regime could conquer most of Europe and fundamentally challenge the existence of democracy across the globe. It was tense times, and the United States took steps to ensure its physical and economic security.
One measure was to send the 158th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division to the Panama Canal Zone. The 158th Infantry was and is an infantry unit of the Arizona National Guard. These men were more open-plain cowboys than jungle fighters, but the American soldier was adaptable.
Welcome to the jungle
Sending the 158th to Panama served two purposes. First, they reinforced the 14th Infantry, also known as the Jungleers, and the 5th Infantry in providing security to the Panama Canal Zone. The Panama Mobile Force ensured that American forces would control the canal and its trade route.
Second, the 158th Infantry would undergo jungle training. The Army wanted a jungle platoon that could test new equipment, weapons, tactics, and even food. The 158th created this jungle platoon, and it proved to be very successful. From a big Army perspective, this was a smart idea. There were many dense jungles in the Pacific, and having men trained and ready for jungle warfare was a smart decision.
These men trained, patrolled, and built facilities from the ground up. They dealt with various hazards in the jungle, from bugs and heat to the insanely venomous Bushmaster snake. The 158th adopted the name Bushmasters and a shoulder insignia with a Bushmaster snake wrapped around a machete.
This advanced jungle platoon would go on to help create the M1903 Bushmaster rifle.
The Bushmaster rifle
The Springfield M1903 was an old rifle by 1942. The semi-automatic M1 Garand was the rifle of choice for the U.S. Army, but that doesn’t mean the rifle made it to every crack and crevice of the Army. Reserve and National Guard units were often the last to receive the latest and greatest, so when the 158th went to Panama, they carried the old M1903 rifle.
The M1903 measured out to 43.2 inches. That’s a big rifle, which makes it terrible for jungle warfare. The jungle is a dense, tight environment and big rifles are tough to maneuver and a hassle when navigating these jungle environments.
As part of the testing and development of jungle tactics and equipment, the Bushmasters trimmed about six inches from the barrels of their M1903 and trimmed the handguards and stocks. The barrels went from 24 to 18 inches, but it’s not clear how much of the stock was trimmed or what the overall length of the rifle became.
The soldiers trimmed the barrel, moved the front sight rearward, and ditched the bayonet lug. The rifle gained the name Bushmaster from the men who wielded it. Almost 5,000 M1903 rifles were converted to the Bushmaster configuration.
The shorter length and lighter weight made the weapon handier and easier to use in a dense environment. This was a modification guided by experience and months of jungle training. The jungle ranges allowed for shorter engagements, so the loss of velocity and effective range wasn’t a concern.
Eventually, the 158th Infantry left Panama to serve in the pacific campaign. These jungle-trained soldiers left their Bushmaster carbines in Panama. Most, if not all, were destroyed as the 158th was deployed. They traded the old bolt actions in for more modern, semi-automatic M1 Garand.
These Arizona plains cowboys went on to be an effective fight force in Dutch New Guinea. There they fought ferociously, and the Army retains its combat chronicle here. Their training in the Panamanian jungle must have been invaluable once the shooting started.
In reference to the 158th Infantry, General MacArthur once said that “No greater fighting combat team has ever deployed for battle.”
The M1903 Bushmaster Carbine might have never seen combat, but it’s an interesting footnote in the history of American small arms, and it’s attached to a larger story that’s equally fascinating.