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Old 08-01-2020, 09:06 AM
cplnorton cplnorton is offline
Join Date: Nov 2011
Location: Van Wert, Ohio
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Originally Posted by navyrifleman View Post
The first letter indicates that the armory was in the practice (prior to 1944) of replacing 1903 "low number" receivers for high number ones, but that they had suspended that program due to WW II.

I know that the DCM had a program as late as 1967 where they would exchange a high number receiver for a low number one for a small fee. The owner of the rifle was required to find his own gunsmith to install it, however.

The caveat of the armory for declaring the low number 1903 rifles "safe" was that only "standard armory ammo" be used in them. Unfortunately, there would be no way of knowing how much high pressure ammo had already been fired in any given rifle up to that date and how much stress the receiver and bolt had been subjected to.

These letters and the policy/practice they state should be considered in the context of the time they were written, and not necessarily as the final word on all low number receivers.

The policy of the Armory stating only standard ammo should be fired was across the board of all rifle platforms. For instance, you know how so many were building magnum caliber rifles on m1917 receivers back then. The docs stated that the M1917 receiver was not any stronger than a M1903 receiver, and SA sent out strongly worded cautions of men building M1917's into magnum calibers. SA stated they were not safe to do that and any ammo that exceeding the pressure of the standard m1 round was not safe and the receiver could fail. So those cautions of anything over standard ammo were for every rifle platform, not just the M1903. Many guys were loading ammo hot back in the day trying to get a performance boost out of them, which was in excess of the safety PSI of the receivers.

On the DCM still swapping receivers as late as 1967, I would state a lot of it was in the interest to keep people happy, and not really based on the views of Ordnance.

This was also at the time Hatcher's notebook was taked as gospel and he wrote words of caution as an editor for the American Rifleman magazine. I think a lot of the caution of the low numbers we have even today can be directly tied to Hatcher's writing post WWII. But Hatcher's opinions do not coincide exactly to what I see as the opinions of the Marines and Army.

Also I would state that the M1903 was declared obsolete in 1947. And really other than rifles inspected to be sent to NRA sales post 1947, there really wasn't any active use of the M1903 by the Army, Marines, or Navy post 1946. The National Guard used some M1903's, but even in their docs I never see any mentions of safety issue with the M1903's.

So the guys who would have had direct knowledge of the M1903 pretty much would have declined rapidly at the end of WWII. I just don't think there would have been the direct knowledge base in the 1960's as there would have been in the 40's and before. Also as I had stated before I really think Hatcher's work was so influential in the 50's and 60's that most of the opinions of low numbers were based on his work. But if you open up Hatcher's book in the beginning, he states a disclaimer something about his views are not the views of Ordnance, and that is what I see as well.

If I could sum up this topic. This is what I see as a total picture of the low numbers in the docs.

The Marines never pulled any low numbers from service. There only restrictions were to not fire rifle grenades from low numbers from the mid 20's to 1938. In 1938 they even removed that restriction and stated there wasn't a need to restrict low numbers in anyway. Nearly half of all Marine rifles till 1941 were low number. The Marines state they didn't have any failures that they could remember that were the actual fault of the low number receiver, and not an outside influence. They also state in their investigations that many high numbers were just as brittle as low numbers and in some investigations some low numbers would actually survive failures better than high numbers.

For the Army the only real issues were in the 1920's. I have sort of already discussed them, but the failures were mostly determined because of faulty ammo. The Army in 1928 started to replace low number receivers in rebuild and this practice continued until 1940. This was only on rifles that came in for rebuild as any low number that didn't need a rebuild, stayed in service and was never pulled. In 1940 the restrictions of low numbers being used in rebuilds was removed and low number receivers were rebuilt. Army Ordnance detailed there was not one failure of a low number rifle after 1927 when the last of the WWI ammo dried up. In WWII, countless low numbers were used by the Army and other countries. In 1944, Rock Island Arsenal, which had rebuilt hundreds of thousands of M1903's at that point and was the main Army rebuild depot, details they had never heard of a M1903 low number that failed. This is about the same time that SA wrote the letter above. So after 1940 the Army never issues any words of caution of low numbers and this is for sure continued until 1952 when I see it mentioned the last time that they are safe. There is never a mention in the docs of M1903's after 1952 on the topic of low numbers. But after 1947 the only thing the Army did with the M1903 was inspect them and turn them over to be sold thru the DCM. The Govt was done with the M1903 after 1947. So Army policy after 1940 was that low numbers were safe and this was never changed.

The Navy has holes in the docs in the 20's and 30's, so it's hard to gauge their response. But 1941 and up it's pretty complete. They had about 500,000 M1903's and 03A3's in service during WWII. In fact they did not adopt the M1 Garand till 1945. So the whole war they used the M1903 or carbine as their main rifles. There is not one mention of any safety problems of the M1903 that I could find in the files.

I think it's important in this discussion to show the doc that started this whole debate. This is the proclamation in 1928 that started the restrictions on the low number receivers until 1940. If you read this, they seem to be focused on the fact that the ammo was the main concern and they were airing on the side of caution on the way the single heat treat receiver could respond to defective ammo. But when you look at the number of low numbers in service, the failure rate was very low. Also at this time in 1928, the low number was the main rifle. There really wasn't a lot of high number rifles in service as SA had focused the main part of production on the Mark 1 and not new high number service rifles, and the Mark 1 was in storage at this point not being used. So they really didn't have a lot of data on how high numbers would even respond to defective ammo because the ammo was depleted by the time they really were used in number. I guess when I read this doc, I don't get the sense of doom and gloom that I have seen on low numbers. Here is the proclamation that stated all these debates for the past 92 years.


The policy that they were safe as long as they used standard ammo was continued until 1952 by Army Ordnance. This is the last time I see it mentioned in the docs.

I see no other mentions of safety or concern after 1952.


Last edited by cplnorton; 08-01-2020 at 09:11 AM.
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Old 08-01-2020, 12:12 PM
RHScott RHScott is offline
Join Date: Jul 2016
Location: NC
Posts: 233

Excellent as usual.
You don't need to be perfect, just better than your competition.
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Old 08-01-2020, 12:43 PM
USMC-Nav USMC-Nav is offline
Join Date: Oct 2009
Location: Louisiana
Posts: 1,137

Excellent information cplnorton. As one who has a low number Rock Island I appreciate your information.
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Old 08-02-2020, 08:56 AM
navyrifleman navyrifleman is offline
Join Date: Oct 2009
Posts: 770

Cplnorton, Excellent research and information. Good advice regarding inspection and safety with these old rifles. The heart of the matter concerns the strength of the 1903 action, and possible defects in production of the receivers. But as you indicate ANY action could fail for a number of reasons, among them damage due to over stress or other factors, such as drilling, grinding, or high heat (such as welding).

As with all decisions or policies in government (including military), it can be seen in the letters found in your detailed post that the Low Serial Number issue was something that was a concern which had to be addressed.

But there were certainly other related concerns and issues at the time which are referenced in those letters. Those were the issues of the real need to arm the troops then in active service, as well as maintaining a mandatory strategic reserve of weapons for any future need. The first letter mentioned (1928) indicates that the US 1903 rifles on hand were below the required war reserve by just over half a million.

Decision makers came up (in 1928) with a solution of sorts to suggest issuing newer rifles to the active troops, while keeping the Low Number receiver rifles in reserve, and gradually replacing those low number receivers during rebuilds. In effect, they recognized and accepted earlier safety concerns and reports about Low Number receivers, and addressed the issue in association with other pressing issues. To totally scrap all low number receiver rifles would have been a very bad decision for a number of political and national defense reasons.

The later letter, concerning the suspension of the Springfield Armory's program of replacement of Low Number Receivers for those civilians who had purchased them from the Army, was a decision based upon pressing war time necessity and national security concerns. Stating that it was safe to use standard issue ammunition in Low Number rifles was a sort of warning not to use high power ammunition. And also a sort of indication that they still recognized the concerns about the Low Number receivers.

The Low Numbered Receiver controversy will go on.

Was there a real safety concern to begin with? Probably so, but according to some sources, it was with a limited number of improperly heat treated receivers made during World War I. Efforts were made to correct the procedures and provide quality assurance in production following actual receiver failures. But exactly which receivers were defective could not be determined, and so all Springfield Armory receivers below 800,000 (and all Rock Island receivers under a stated serial number) were considered to be suspect. It would be very interesting to know specifically what serial numbered receivers were known to have failed.

There were studies and statistics on failures of Low Number receivers, but I do not have those reports. It would be interesting to see the facts as reported initially by the Army and also any later studies done over the years by NRA, or other organizations or researchers.

Last edited by navyrifleman; 08-02-2020 at 09:16 AM.
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Old 08-02-2020, 10:33 AM
ordmm ordmm is offline
Join Date: Oct 2009
Posts: 415

"cplnorton'.....In my opinion your posts #10 and #11 are the best I have ever read on the topic of not only '03 low numbered receivers but also provided excellent thoughts on the M1 and M1917 platforms which most of us have always considered infallible.

Thank you for the obvious effort you have put into research!
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Old 08-02-2020, 10:56 AM
S99VG S99VG is offline
Join Date: Jun 2010
Location: Northern California
Posts: 2,251

Yes good posts and I think it's always healthy to get a historical perspective from the context of it's time and not today - such as what you get with primary sources. Thanks for all the hard work you do with your research and postings!

Last edited by S99VG; 08-02-2020 at 12:59 PM.
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Old 08-02-2020, 12:51 PM
Garandpa Garandpa is offline
Join Date: Dec 2009
Posts: 339

cplnorton, This goes double for me too Sir: "Thanks for all the hard work you do with your research and postings!" Your contributions, and John Beard's contributions, (and many others' contributions on this forum), are not taken for granted, believe me. Please continue!

Last edited by Garandpa; 08-02-2020 at 10:08 PM.
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Old 08-02-2020, 05:25 PM
hogfamily hogfamily is online now
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Old 08-02-2020, 05:28 PM
32sbct 32sbct is offline
Join Date: Oct 2009
Location: Chester County Pennsylvania
Posts: 330

Top notch research! Really outstanding. I have one low number RIA (1912) and one SA (1916). Yesterday I put the ME gauge in the RIA & SA just to check Them. The RIA is 2.5 and the SA was 2.0. I think that indicates quite a few rounds were fired from both rifles. I also recently read Teddy Roosevelt's book "African Game Trails." He was shooting a custom 03-03 from 1904, serial # 6,000. Now that was a really low number receiver! Needless to say he hunted with it for years without any negative incidents. I really like the low numbered rifles, lots of history there. I got the SA 03 from the CMP back in 2011 for $350.00. I wish I had bought several more.
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Old 08-03-2020, 05:25 AM
cplnorton cplnorton is offline
Join Date: Nov 2011
Location: Van Wert, Ohio
Posts: 2,079

Guys thank you so much for the kind words. They really mean a lot. I love to research and share this info because we all have different insight into these topics. I find it fascinating to hear other viewpoints and compare notes so to speak.

I keep on saying I'm going to put all the low number documents together and either do a post or maybe even find a website like Tim's Marine page to host a link to them all. So when people ask about low numbers you could just provide a link to where people can research it themselves and make their own determination. Hatcher's book is online and free to access, so I always wanted to provide a link to that, and then the documents I found at the archives as counter. So that way people can read both sides and make up their own mind on the topic.

A couple more docs that I love. Just because of the time frame or the source. The first was one in 1925 when Western Cartridge company wrote Ordnance and asked if low numbers were safe. This was their reply. I find this one really interesting as this was at the peak of the problems they had with low numbers. Almost all failures that were going to happen, had happened by this point.



The next one I have always loved as well. This was the Maj Smith's response from the Marine Philadelphia Depot when the Commandant of the Marines Corps asked if they should follow suit to remove low number receivers. The interesting thing when they say they wondered if the Army was just needing to create work, this was at the height of extreme budget cuts and the start of the Great Depression. Each Armory was ran just like a business and in the docs they had to justify why they shouldn't be closes. I'm throwing a summary doc of what I see too in the docs where they talk about how tight the budget was between the wars. There are some strong political overtones in some of the docs. Not only the M1903 low number debate, but later the way they covered up the M1 Garand failures. Right before WWII, There had been a major investigation by Congress that the M1 Garand was chosen by favoritism over what many considered the superior rifle which was the 1941 Johnson. I really feel that is why so many problems with the Garand were brushed under the rug so to speak. That congressional investigation was a huge black eye for Ordnance and SA and to later admit the problems of the Garand would have been very embarrassing.



This one I feel is very significant too. This is a response by Rock Island Arsenal in 1945 when they are asked if they should revert back to the prewar policy of replacing low number receivers. Rock Island was the top Army Rebuild Depot for basically the whole time it was open. They had rebuilt hundreds of thousands of M1903's by this point and this was also the main Army location for keeping records. So if there had been failures, they should have been archived at RIA.

I would honestly argue this RIA doc and the SA document I posted first are the two most significant in the low number series. The two largest experts on the M1903 would have been SA and RIA, with a third being the Philly Depot for the Marines. Those three opinions I would value before anyone else's on this topic. Such as the opinion of Hatcher.


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