When the U.S entered the First World War in April 1917 we had a major problem: there weren’t enough rifles to go around. The US military had 600,000 Model 1903s and about 160,000 Krags that were obsolete. Although extra shifts were ordered at the Springfield Armory and Rock Island, and production ramped up on 03s, realists at the War Department recognized the demand couldn’t be met — and that’s where the US Model 1917, aka American Enfield, comes in.
Some of you may recognize this rifle as the one carried by Richard Harrow, the WWI veteran Army sharpshooter played by Jimmy Huston in Boardwalk Empire.
This article originally ran in March 2017.
WWI Rifles Needed: 30-06 not 303!
Luckily someone in the Ordnance Department discovered that two private firearms manufacturers (Winchester and Remington) had been making service rifles for the British Military since 1914, and an inquiry showed this contract was coming to an end. Even better was that a third factory had been in full swing on this project: an affiliate of Remington called the Eddystone Rifle Plant, operated by Midvale Steel & Ordnance Co. in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. They wisely recognized that retooling for M1903s would cause an unacceptable delay and that leaving the rifles as specced out by the Brits in .303 British would cause a logistical nightmare.
Uncle Sam reached out to these manufacturers and asked them to change the tooling to produce the same rifle in .30-06 Springfield instead of .303 British.
It was designated the US Model 1917 Magazine Rifle and despite some criticism, a 1919 report issued by the War Department stated:
“The decision to modify the Enfield was one of the great decisions of the executive prosecution of the war—all honor to the men who made it.”
US Model 1917
Eddystone made the most, with about 1.6 million rifles completed by November 1918. Winchester and Remington made about 500,000 each. It was longer and heavier than the M1903, it lacked that rifle’s balance, and while it held six rounds the stripper clips only held five. Still, the action was stronger and it would prove to be more accurate than the Springfield 1903. Over 75% of US troops who landed in France took to the field with the Model 1917.
There were other problems from the start. In the early 20th century, most mass-produced firearms still required a significant amount of hand-fitting. Although it was the same design, early samples had parts that wouldn’t interchange from one plant to another. After a few small redesigns, the best that could be accomplished was an interchangeability rate of about 95%.
It’s not a rifle that most people think of as an “American Icon”. Sadly, most folks never think of the huge part it played in our history, although the rifle was famously used by a conscientious objector from rural Tennessee named Alvin York.
Corporal York was one of a squad of seventeen soldiers assigned to take out a German machine gun nest. After capturing a large number of Germans, six Americans were killed by small arms fire and three were wounded. York took charge and single-handedly attacked the machine gun position, dispatching six Germans with his M1917. The remaining six Germans charged him with bayonets, but as he was out of rifle ammunition he drew his M1911 and killed them all. York and his men marched back to their unit’s command post with more than 130 prisoners, and he was immediately promoted to sergeant. York was initially awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, but an investigation led to this award being upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
At the war’s end, many of these rifles were cleaned up, repaired and put into storage only to be called out again during World War II in order to fill the shortfall of rifles until the M1 Garand became available in reasonable quantities. We also shipped many of these to our allies like Great Britain and China to aid in their war efforts.
In the 1950s many of these rifles were sold to civilians by the government for about $10 each, and became the basis for for more customized and wildcat rifles than any other military issued rifle in US history. It had a cock-on-closing action and a bolt face that could be adapted easily for belted magnum cartridges. The long action allowed magnum cases to fit in the rifle’s magazine.
Still, the rifle serves in some quarters of the globe.
In Greenland by way of Denmark, it is known as the Gevær M/53 (17). It is used by the Sirius Sledge Patrol, most commonly used to take down rogue polar bears and musk oxen. It started with fifty rifles given to them in 1945 by the US Coast Guard, and those fifty as well as others are still in use. We recommend a good reading of the following blog to gain a unique insight into this unit. They have made their own adaptations to the rifle as well.
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Our American Enfield is one that was “sporterized”. It is an Eddystone version that was made in early 1918. The stock has been modified but the rest of the rifle was left mostly intact and in its original .30-06 Springfield chambering. We were originally intent on restoring it, but the parts suddenly became too expensive. It functions fine as an iron-sighted hunting rifle in .30-06 as-is, so we decided to leave the fastest bolt action rifle in the world in its post-war “Bubba” configuration.
These rifles are approaching 100 years of age and unlike the rifles that would replace them, one never hears of muzzle or throat erosion, Blue Sky barrels, improper headspace or bent operating rods. British design and American ingenuity built a platform that still sees service a century after it first saw combat.
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