Shortly after D-Day, a U.S. Army photographer took a picture of a company of soldiers climbing the bluff above Omaha Beach after having just landed on the Easy Red Sector. In the shot, the column of troops snakes all the way up from the water’s edge to the top of the bluff, past vehicles, equipment and even a concrete bunker that had been knocked out during the fighting on June 6th. A close examination of the image reveals that the troops are with the 2nd Infantry Division and a closer examination reveals they are armed with a firearm you might not expect to see on the invasion beaches in Normandy: the .30-caliber, M1903 bolt-action rifle. When we picture the U.S. Soldier fighting his way across Europe in World War II, we picture him carrying the M1 rifle. In fact, the Garand is thought of as the American rifle that did all of the fighting during the Second World War. But, another infantry rifle armed U.S. fighting forces during the conflict, and that rifle is well represented in the photo of 2nd Division soldiers climbing the bluff behind Omaha Beach. The M1903 did much more fighting between 1941 and 1945 than we give it credit for, and a commercial manufacturer made most of the examples of the rifle that did that fighting.
Even as the M1 Garand went into production at the Springfield Armory in 1937, the old 1903 remained the standard service rifle of the U.S. military. The design was proven in combat during the Moro Rebellion, World War I and the interventions in Siberia and Nicaragua. The ’03s that did all of the work in those combat zones were produced at either the Springfield Armory or Rock Island Arsenal, and they were reaching the end of their service lives. While re-barreling could extend that, there was still another big problem. By late 1939, wars were raging in both Europe and Asia, and it was recognized that hundreds of thousands of rifles would be needed if the U.S. was drawn into either conflict. It was also known that the quantity of M1903 rifles on hand was not nearly enough and that it would take too much time for the Springfield Armory to produce the new M1 semi-automatic in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of a full national mobilization. In an effort to address this potential disastrous shortage of service rifles, the U.S. government issued a contract to Remington Arms to put the ’03 back into production in September 1941 using the old Rock Island manufacturing equipment. At first, the Remington M1903s generally resembled the rifles produced at Rock Island toward the end of World War I, but then Remington began introducing modifications designed to reduce production time and decrease production costs. Grasping grooves on the stock were eliminated, as well as several unnecessary machining steps, and non-critical tolerances were relaxed. These so-called “Remington modified” M1903 rifles began entering service shortly after the U.S. went to war, but the model did not last long.
As Remington continued to turn out guns, the design was repeatedly simplified for mass production until it eventually became an entirely new model. Slightly more than 8 months after the original contract with the company had been signed, the M1903A3 rifle was standardized on May 21, 1942. The A3’s design made use of stamped sheet-metal construction for the upper-band assembly, the lower barrel band, the front sling swivel, buttplate and trigger housing/floorplate. A fully adjustable rear peep-sight assembly was added to the rear receiver band, increasing the rifle’s sight radius by 5 inches. The Ordnance Department approved the introduction of two-groove rifling for the barrels in October 1942, and deliveries of the new design began 2 months later. By the end of the Second World War, Remington had produced 348,085 standard M1903 and “Modified” M1903 rifles, in addition to more than 700,000 M1903A3s. These rifles served from Algeria to Burma, and from Peleliu to Salerno. They came ashore in northern Europe during the Normandy invasion; they crossed the Rhine River and they liberated concentration camps. In fact, when U.S. troops reached the camp at Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany on April 11, 1945, at least one of them was armed with an M1903A3. While the M1 Garand rifle turned in legendary service during World War II, the ’03 did, too, and it is worth remembering that most of the examples produced during the conflict had the name Remington on the receiver.