A Flyboy’s Rifle: The Air Service ’03
By Bruce N. Canfield
via the American Rifleman web site
Perhaps the most venerable United States military rifle of all time is the “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903,” better known to several generations of Americans as simply the Springfield “Oh-Three.” The ’03 was the premier U.S. service rifle from the time of its standardization in 1903 until the adoption of the M1 Garand rifle in 1936. Even after the M1 came on the scene, large numbers of M1903 rifles remained in front-line use well into World War II.
During the ’03’s long tenure of service, many variants and modifications of the rifle were developed. These ranged from the well known, such as National Match rifles and several types of sniper rifles, to the rare and obscure, such as the version with the semi-automatic Pedersen Device attachment and the Cameron-Yaggi Trench Periscope Rifle. Among the most interesting, rarest, and least-known variants is the Air Service ’03.
Developed during World War I, the Air Service ’03 was essentially a standard M1903 service rifle with a specially made shortened stock and handguard, simplified rear sight, and a 25-round non-detachable extension magazine. The rifle was not intended for infantry use and was described in a 1918 Ordnance Department Report as “… Stripped for Air Service.”
While the existence of the Air Service ’03 has been well established, the intended use for which the rifle was designed remains the subject of some conjecture and speculation even today. Several theories regarding the intended purpose of these arms have been proposed, including the idea that the Air Service rifles were to be utilized as a form of rudimentary armament for personnel in observation balloons. Such balloons were widely used in World War I for artillery spotting and similar purposes. It has also been suggested that the rifles were to be used as defensive armament for two-man fighter or observation aircraft. Still another theory is that the rifles were intended to be carried in aircraft as personal defense arms in the event a pilot was forced down behind enemy lines and had to defend himself.
After considering all the stated theories, the latter application is clearly the most plausible. The first theory can probably be dismissed when one considers that the usefulness of a bolt-action rifle against an enemy fighter airplane, while in a swaying observation balloon basket, is questionable. The theory about using the rifles as aircraft armament is also rather unlikely. Machine guns for aircraft had proven their effectiveness several years before development of the Air Service ’03, and, in any event, a bolt-action rifle would be a very poor substitute against an enemy plane armed with machine guns. On the other hand, a full-power, service-type rifle with which a downed aviator could defend himself seems to be a much more logical concept. Since a pilot would not be wearing a cartridge belt, the 25-round extension magazine used with the Air Service rifle would have provided an adequate supply of ammunition self- contained in the rifle and ready for immediate use. Even though relatively minor, the weight savings of the shortened stock, and elimination of unnecessary sling swivels and other hardware also support the idea that the rifle was intended for aircraft use where any sort of weight reduction, slight as it may have been, would have been viewed as an asset.
Read the entire article on the American Rifleman web site.
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