Hand Work in Making 1903 Springfields

During World War I, the national arsenals kept manufacturing the M1903 rifle, while industry was asked to manufacture the M1917. The arsenals decided to document their manufacturing processes anyway, just in case… and the process was published in a book, postwar, by Fred Colvin and Ethan Viall.

While the title of the book is United States Rifles and Machine Guns, it’s almost entirely about the manufacture of the 1903 — part by part and process by process. One gets the impression that the arsenals didn’t actually have a really systematic set of process sheets before someone asked them to make them up for war production; that before that request, this was all tribal knowledge contained in the foreheads of foremen and minds of machinists.

The sheer complication of 1903 production is one take-away from this book, but another thing that really struck us was that this 20th Century rifle, an icon of mass production, was not entirely produced by machines. Along with many machine setups and many trick jigs and fixtures, there are significant hand operations. Here’s one example. If you have a Springfield (or a Mauser, close enough), pull out the bolt and look at its face. See how the bolt face is relieved or “counterbored,” so that the head of the cartridge case is supported? This Is the two-step operation that produces that counterbore. And while the rough operation is done with a powered drill, the finish operation is done with a hand tool. First, let’s look at the rough cut:


Transformation: Fig. 725.
Machine Used: Pratt & Whitney 14-in. upright three-spindle drilling machine.

Work-Holding Devices: Drill Jig, Fig. 726; bolt handle stops against a stop, while clamps are drawn down on body by an equalizer bar.

The bolt is on the left, the jig on the right. We’ve omitted Figure 727, which is a scaled three-view providing more detail the drill jig in Figure 726 and the way it locks in the bolt. It’s obvious that getting this right (or wrong) has serious implications for headspace, which affects safety and accuracy.

The hand operation’s setup is shown below. It too requires a specific jig. Since here we’re in the forty-something’th operation on the bolt alone, and almost every operation needs one or more jigs or fixtures, the tooling requirement for an early-20th-Century rifle plant is mind-boggling.


Why the hand operation? Our best guess (because the book doesn’t say why) is that, while the Pratt drill press was great at removing a lot of metal, it didn’t have the precision needed (“safety and accuracy,” right?), so a finer cutter in a hand fixture finishes the cut to exact depth and desired surface finish.

As Europe slid into war again, the arsenals were making a new rifle, the US Rifle M1. One suspects this book was the guide for industry as they, once again, produced a version of the 1903, this time with countless manufacturing simplifications. Many manufacturing processes were simplified (and more hand operations eliminated) as the war replaced and supplemented prewar craftsmen with wartime hires longer on enthusiasm than experience.

Incidentally, for the set-up seen here, the book even shows how the cutters and pilots are made, and their dimensions. (There are separate rough and finish cutters). It doesn’t show all the gages that must have been used by both the set-up men and operators of the machinery, let alone the inspectors.

It does show enough that you could probably set up your own Springfield factory and do it exactly the way they did it back in 1917 — if you could find a supply of 1917 Connecticut River Valley gun-industry craftsmen to make all these cuts for you. And if you could get some billionaire to fund you. (Well, there are two famous billionaires competing for the same job right now, one or the other will be looking for opportunities in a couple of weeks). Good luck!

13 thoughts on “Hand Work in Making 1903 Springfields

  1. Bonifacio Echeverria

    I’m not all that sure if “fitter” is the exact translation of it (I can’t find a definition of fitter in the Merriam-Webster, btw), but there is a lovely word in Spanish, “ajustador”.

    Now the ajustador was the guy that took all the machine made and/or otherwise mass produced pieces (stampings, castings, etc) that made up any complex mechanism (v.g. firearms) and took them alltogether the last few meters towards a “mass produced” working product.

    If I had to bet, I’ll say there were fitters around even when the time came to mass-produce Garands and even the first M-16s.

    There certainly were Ajustadores around Eibar when they were mass producing the P28-31 series. I know several of them personaly. Ajustadores, BTW, were one of the elites in the workshoop floor. They were regarded as specialy experienced, highly dexterous professional, and they draw higher pay accordingly. It took 10 years as a craftsman to become one.

    Ajustadores were not exclusive of arms production, although I would say the arms industry was one of the last to keep the post as a separate professional category. Nowadays most workshops just have “quality” guys…

    1. Hognose Post author

      What became of the gunsmiths and ajustadores of Eibar, after Star and Llama etc. all went out of business? I get the distinct impression that Spain in particular and the EU in general does not want to be a producer of small arms for reasons of policy. But that industry must have brought some prosperity to Eibar, while it operated.

      1. Bonifacio Echeverria

        Well, they are all gone.

        Of the three big, Llama, Astra and Star, only Star remained in Eibar. Astra went to a nearby town, Gernika, and closed in 1997. Llama had moved to Vitoria, and held out a little longer, till
        2000 I think. STAR was the only remaining in town, but closed in 1997 too.

        There are those who think it was all a matter of evil Brussels bureaucrats and Madrid spineless politicians unable to defend autoctonous manufacturing capabilities (of any kind), there are those who blame the unions and those who blame bad management… There is quite a bit of bad blood about how things went, even today, 20yrs after it all happened.

        Some of the workers established a small firm called Iparguns, they survived till 2012 servicing STAR and ASTRA products worldwide. No new designs. Then, they retired quite sad that there was no next generation to take over. Local authorities made several attempts over time to attract young people to gunsmithing as a career path, but most of their attempts were not exactly wise and young people, anyway, had no great interest in learning that particular trade. Which is sad, cos Eibar still calls itself with pride “the gunsmithing town”… they were so ashamed of the local arms museum they decided to transform it in the “Museum of Industrial Activities”, tho. No matter that guns and shotguns put food on the table, and quite a bit of money in many pockets, for centuries. Sic transit…

        There is still a small (and I mean small, anything between 2 and 12 guys) number of gunsmith firms in the town and the nearby towns, but they are all in the high-end sport/hunting shotgun market. They don’t fare all that bad, I heard the biggest two were actualy hiring new hands a couple years ago (which is remarkable given the overall economic landscape in the area), and yes, they still use Ajustadores, and you better listen to what they say when they tell you how to build a gun.

    2. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

      In the Brit gun trade, the man who finished the stocks was the man who put all the pieces together, and was the “senior gunsmith” who was responsible for all the parts of the finished gun working together properly.

  2. DSM

    It’s not far removed from bolt face lapping tools and holders. Well, except for the amount of material intended to be removed of course.

    All this Springfield talk of late has re-energized my interest in finally doing something with that so-called “sporterized” 03-A3 I rescued many years ago. Depending on how the election goes it might be the only firearm project that’d be doable. Anyone have recommendations on a good Springfield smith?

  3. Hillbilly

    I’ve like the 1903 since I first fired one as a kid. My dad had one and the father of a friend had one. I was probably about 12 or 13 I guess.
    A buddy of mine had a 1903A3 that was converted to a target rifle with the addition of a globe front sight and a peep rear and some work to the stock. It was a good shooting rifle.
    I had no idea they set the final headspace by counterboring the face of the bolt .

  4. 10x25MM

    Why the hand operation? The dismal science, economics.

    Hand fitting and manual operations are still used today when favored by economics. The superior flexibility and lower capital cost of manual operations, relative to automation, is compelling at low production volumes.

    Springfield was only producing 904 Model 1903 rifles a week on average prior to WW I (1903 – 1916, from serial numbers). That is 22.6 rifles an hour on a single shift. Think this operation was automated when the Model ’03A3 went into production at Remington and Smith-Corona during WW II. Bolt faces look quite different.

  5. raven

    A little OT, but to as to hand work-
    I have a 1895 Ludwig Loewe Chileno Mauser. The level of fit and finish on that rifle is so amazing, and the machining so intricate, it makes one wonder how they paid for it. How on earth did they machine and polish the complex curves of the receiver bridge? Or the machined, oval section ,contoured stock bands, , with a completely unnecessary groove around it. Every screw on the gun has a bright fire blue finish, all the springs show a straw temper, every part is serial numbered to the gun.
    I wonder, in modern terms, what the cost was .

    1. Cattus Borealis

      I feel the same way about my Ludwig Loewe Mauser Chileno and especially my CZ Vz98/29 Persian. Such creatures were made with love and time.

      ¡Admiro mucho a los ajustadores!

    2. TRX

      Colvin also had a write-up on the production of the ’93-’95 Mauser. I think it was in “Iron Age.” *And* a write-up on the production of the Lewis gun.

      They’re not quite as detailed as ‘US Rifles & Machine Guns”, but they have full dimensions for every part, plus a description of each manufacturing step. The articles just lack some of the cutter and fixturing information that’s in the Springfield book.

  6. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    On mass production in those days in general:

    It is fascinating today to read of how firearms used to be made, and the economics involved.

    If you want to read a little bit about the civilian market’s approach to guns, the following book has some wonderful insights:


    This book details in an early chapter (sorry, mine is buried somewhere, and I can’t access it quickly) how much labor, capital and time Winchester needed to set up the Model 12 production line. It was over a year, and millions of dollars in tooling, fixtures, machines, etc. A million bucks in 1912 was a buttload of money.

    In general, mass production of guns 100+ years ago required lots of fixtures, special tooling, gages, jigs, and hand persuasion of parts to fit. There’s lots of poseurs with no profit margin who own machine tools who like to claim that they can “hit tenths (of a thousandth of an inch) all day long,” but the truth is, they’re full of organic fertilizer. My machines were new when I bought them, I’m a pretty fair machinist, have good instruments and for me to hit +/- 0.001 (not a tenth, but a thousandth) or -0.000 +0.002 sorts of allowances takes time and care. Can I hit these types of numbers, without a DRO on the machine? Yep.

    Could I do it if I were punching a clock and had a production quota to hit ever day? Hell no. Could I hit +/0 0.002? Most of the time, sure. Could I hit something like -0.000, +0.004? Yes, I could nail that on a quota schedule.

    Which brings us back to the above issue with the 1903 bolt. The 1903’s barrel was designed for mass production. The outside profile, the square threads on the tenon, etc – all were chosen to maximize production. The square threads, especially, are a wonderful asset to speeding things up. The square threads are 0.050″ wide 0.050 deep, and when I thread a 03/03A3 barrel, it takes me a trivial amount of time compared to threading a V-thread barrel. Literally, I can make two passes over the 1903 barrel shank threads and I’m done – compared to a dozen passes for a Mauser or M70 (or other) barrel with V-threads.

    Likewise, the chamber was reamed to be juuuuust a tad short, with the remaining headspace necessary to be adjusted with the bolt face. Why? Because by so doing, you put the barrel in the lathe, you knock out all the features of the barrel (including the chamber), the barrel comes off the lathe, gets screwed into the receiver ONCE, and then you finish the headspacing with the bolt face. When I’m doing a rifle barrel in most guns, I leave the chamber a couple thousandths short, then I put the barrel into the receiver, put in a go gage, put in the stripped bolt, check the headspace, then I might have to hand-ream the chamber a couple of thou until the bolt handle drops on a go gage. If it isn’t a bolt gun, I have to pull off the barrel to deepen the chamber.

    Hand reaming takes some experience, and it is possible to wreck the chamber by so doing. So why bother? You can hand the above fixture, with small hand-powered cutter, headspace gages, plus the barreled action and bolt, to some kid you just hired who is barely out of short pants, and get the correct results. Dirt cheap solution.


    Thanks Hognose, being an engineer I love this stuff.

    I have a 6.5×55 Swede in a 98 action made by Zastava, and I just took the bolt out and had a look at it. I’m sure the modern guns are done differently, but I could feel how the work would’ve been done similar to this process back in 1898.

    I love these beautiful and potent machines, and the spirit that went into their design and manufacture!!

Comments are closed.