History: US Service Rifle Production - Great War

The following chapter from The Armies of Industry, by Benedict Crowell, Assistant Secretary of War and Director of Munitions (1917 - 1920) and Robert Forrest Wilson, Captain, U.S. Army, was published in 1921 by the Yale University Press. We trust it will be of great interest to those of you with a historical interest in the service rifles of the Great War. The book principally addresses the production of war materiel, including the M1917 rifle detailed in this chapter. - GAS -

Service Rifles
by Benedict Crowell and Robert Forrest Wilson

US Rifle M1917
  In the nineteen months of American belligerency we sent to France upward of two million soldiers. Each rifleman among them, as he stepped aboard his transport, carried his own gun. This weapon, which was to be his comrade and best friend in the perilous months to come, was an American rifle, a rifle at least the equal of any in use by soldiers of other nations, a rifle manufactured in an American plant. It may have been one of the dependable Springfield rifles. More likely, it was a modified 1917 Enfield, built from a design fundamentally British, but modified for greater efficiency by American ordnance, officers after the actual entry of the United States into the great struggle. When it is considered that even a nation of such military genius as France, especially skilled as she was in the construction of military weapons, was three years in developing her full ordnance program, even though working at top speed, the rifle production of the United States stands out as one of the feats of the war.

The story of the modified 1917 Enfield, the rifle on which the American Expeditionary Forces based their chief dependence, is an inspiring chapter in our munitions history. It is a story of triumph over difficulties, of American productive genius at its best. To get this weapon, we temporarily forsook the most accurate army rifle the world had ever seen and straightway produced in great quantities another one, a new model, that proved itself to be almost, if not quite, as serviceable for the kind of warfare in which we were to engage.

America, since the days of Daniel Boone a nation of crack shots, was naturally the home of good rifles. Hence it is perhaps not surprising that the United States should have been the nation to produce the most accurate military rifle known in its day. This was the United States rifle, model of 1903, popularly called the "Springfield." The Springfield rifle had superseded in our Army the Krag-Jorgensen, which we had used in the Spanish-American War. In that conflict the Spanish Army used a rifle of German design, the Mauser. Our ordnance officers at that time considered the Krag to be a more accurate weapon than the Mauser. Still, we were not satisfied with the Krag; and, after several years of development, in 1903 we brought out the Springfield, the most accurate and quickest-firing rifle that had ever come from an arsenal.

There was no questioning the superiority of the Springfield in point of accuracy. Time after time we pitted our army shooting teams against those of other nations and won the international competitions with the Springfield. We won the Olympic shoot of 1908 over England, Canada, France, Sweden, Norway, Greece, and Denmark. Again, in 1912, we won the Olympic shoot against England, Sweden, South Africa, France, Norway, Greece, Denmark, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. In 1912 the Springfield rifle, in the hands of Yankee marksmen, won the Pan-American match at Buenos Aires, and in 1913 it defeated Argentina, Canada, Sweden, and Peru. In all these matches the Mauser rifle was fired by various teams; but the Springfield never failed to defeat this German weapon, which it was to meet later in the fighting of the World War. Altogether, the Springfield rifle defeated the military rifles of fifteen nations in shooting competitions prior to the war, and in 1912, at Ottawa, an American team firing Springfields set markmanship records for 800 yards, 900 yards, and 1,000 yards that have never been broken. Much is to be said for the men behind these guns, but due credit must be given the rifles that put the bullets where the marksmen aimed.

Such was the history of this splendid arm when the United States neared the brink of the great conflict. But as war became inevitable for us and we began to have a realization of the scale on which we must prosecute it, our ordnance officers, studying the rifle problem, became persuaded that our Army could not hope to carry this magnificent weapon to Europe as its chief small-arms reliance. A brief examination of the industrial problem presented by the rifle situation in 1917 should make it clear, even to a man unacquainted with machinery and manufacturing, why it was humanly impossible to equip our troops with the rifle in developing which our ordnance experts had spent so many years.

The Model 1903 rifle had been built in two factories and only two—the Springfield Armory, Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Rock Island Arsenal, at Rock Island, Illinois. For several years before 1917, our Government had cut down its expenditures for the manufacture of small arms and ammunition. The Rock Island Arsenal had ceased its production of Springfields altogether, and the output of rifles from the Springfield Armory had been greatly reduced. This meant that the skilled artisans once employed in the manufacture of Springfield rifles had been scattered to the four winds. When, in early 1917, it became necessary to speed up the production of rifles to the limit in these two establishments, those in charge of the undertaking found that they could recover only a few of the old trained employees. Yet, even when we had restaffed these two factories with skilled men, their combined production at top speed could not begin to supply the quantity of rifles which our impending Army would need. It was obviously necessary that we procure rifles from private factories.

Why, then, was not the manufacture of Springfields extended to the private plants? Some ante-bellum effort, indeed, had been made looking to the production of Springfields in commercial plants, but lack of funds had prevented more than the outlining of the scheme.

Any high-powered rifle is an intricate product. The 1917 Enfield is relatively simple in construction; yet the soldier can dismount his Enfield into eighty-six parts, and some of these parts are made up of several component pieces. Many of them must be made with great precision, gauged with microscopic nicety, and finished with unusual accuracy. To produce Springfields on a grand scale in private plants would imply the use of thousands of gauges, jigs, dies, and other small tools necessary for such a manufacture, as well as that of great quantities of special machines. None of this equipment for Springfield rifle manufacture had been provided; yet all of it had to be supplied to the commercial plants before they could turn out rifles. We should have had to spend preliminary months, or even years, in building up an adequate manufacturing equipment for Springfields, the while our boys in France were using what odds and ends of rifle equipment the Government might be able to purchase for them—except for a condition, present in our small-arms industry in early 1917, that now seems to have been well-nigh providential.

Among other governments, both the British and the Russian, in the emergency of 1914 and 1915, had turned to the United States to supplement their sources of rifle supply while they, particularly the British, were building up their home manufacturing capacity. Five American concerns were engaged in the production of rifles on these large foreign orders when we entered the war. Three of them were the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, of New Haven, Connecticut; the Remingtion Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company, of Ilion, New York; and the Remington Arms Company of Delaware at its enormous war-contract factory at Eddystone, Pennsylvania, later a part of the Midvale Steel & Ordnance Company. These concerns had developed their manufacturing facilities on a huge scale to turn out rifles for the British Government. By the spring of 1917 England had built up her own manufacturing facilities at home, and her last American contracts were nearing completion. Here at hand, then, was a huge capacity which, added to our government arsenals, could turn out every rifle the American Army would require, regardless of how many troops we were to put into the field.

But what of the gun that these plants were making—the British Enfield rifle? As soon as war became a certainty for us, the Ordnance Department sent its best rifle experts to these private plants to study the British Enfield in detail. They returned to headquarters without enthusiasm for it; in fact, regarding it as a weapon not good enough for an American soldier.

A glance at the history of the British Enfield will make clear some of our objections to it. Until the advent of the 1903 Springfield, the German Mauser had occupied the summit of military-rifle supremacy. From 1903 until the advent of the World War these two rifles, the Mauser and the Springfield, were easily the two leaders. The British Army had been equipped with the Lee-Enfield for some years prior to the outbreak of the World War, but the British ordnance authorities had been making vigorous efforts to improve this weapon. The Enfield was at a disadvantage principally in its ammunition. It fired a .303-caliber cartridge with a rimmed head. From a ballistic standpoint this cartridge was virtually obsolete.

In 1914 a new, improved Enfield, known at the Pattern '14, was brought out in England, and the British Government was on the point of adopting it when the World War broke out. This was to be a gun of .276 caliber and was to shoot rimless, or cannelured, cartridges similar to the standard United States ammunition. The war threw the whole British improved Enfield project on the scrap heap. England was no more equipped to build the improved Enfields than we were to produce Springfields in our private plants. The British arsenals and industrial plants and ammunition factories were equipped to turn out, in the quantities demanded by the war, only the old "short Enfield" and its antiquated .303 rimmed cartridges.

Now, England was obliged to turn to outside sources for an additional rifle supply, and in the United States she found the three firms named above willing to undertake large rifle contracts. Having to build up factory equipment anew in the United States for this work, England found that she might as well have the American plants manufacture the improved Enfield as the older type. To produce the 1914 Enfield without change in America and the older-type Enfield in England would have complicated the British rifle-ammunition manufacture, since these rifles used cartridges of different sizes and types. Accordingly, the British selected the improved Enfield for the American manufacture, but modified it to receive the .303 rimmed cartridges.

This was the gun, then, that we found being produced at New Haven, Ilion, and Eddystone in the spring of 1917. The rifle had many of the characteristics of the 1903 Springfield, but it was not so good as the Springfield in its proportions, and its sights lacked some of the refinements to which Americans were accustomed. Even so, it was a weapon obviously superior to either the French or the Russian rifle. The ammunition which it fired was out of the question for us. Not only was it inferior, but, since we expected to continue to build the Springfields at the government arsenals, we should, if we adopted the Enfield as it was, be forced to produce two sizes of rifle ammunition, a condition leading to delay and unsatisfactory output. The rifle had been designed originally for rimless ammunition and later modified; therefore it could readily be modified again to shoot our standard .30-caliber Springfield cartridges.

It may be seen that the Ordnance Department had open before it three courses. It could spend the time to equip private plants to manufacture Springfields, in which case the American rifle program would be hopelessly delayed; it could get guns immediately by contracting for the production of British .303 Enfields, in which case the American troops would carry inferior rifles with them to France; or it could take a relatively brief time, accept the criticism bound to come from any delay, however brief such delay might be and however justified by the practical conditions, and modify the Enfield to take our ammunition, in which case the American troops would be adequately equipped with a good weapon. The decision to modify the Enfield was one of the great executive choices of the war. All honor to the men who made it.

The three concerns which had been manufacturing the British weapon conceded that it should be changed to take the American ammunition. Each company sent to the Springfield Armory on May 10, 1917, a model modified rifle to be tested. The test showed that the weapons were still unsatisfactory, principally because they had not been standardized. Standardization was regarded as an essential for two reasons, one of them a matter of practical tactics in the field and the other a matter of speed in production.

To begin with, the soldier on the battle field is his own rifle repairman. His unit usually has on hand a supply of weapons damaged or out of commission for one reason or another. If, therefore, any part of the soldier's rifle is broken or damaged, he can go to the stock of unused guns on hand and take from another rifle the part which he requires, and it will fit his gun, provided there has been standardization in the rifle manufacture at home. But if the guns have not been standardized and each weapon is a filing and tinkering job in the assembling room of the factory, then the soldier in the field is not likely to be able to find a part that will fit his gun; and his rifle, if damaged, goes out of commission. Or, if he finds a part which fits, but does not fit perfectly, his gun may break as he fires it, and he himself may suffer serious injury. And standardization is equally essential to great speed in production. If one plant producing rifles encounters a shortage in any of the parts, it can send to another plant and secure a supply—an advantage which does not exist unless the weapon has been standardized. The value of standardization in speeding up manufacture is best shown by the actual records of rifle production during the war. The fastest mechanic in any of the three Enfield factories before 1917 had set an assembly record of fifty rifles in one working day for the British gun. After we had standardized the Enfield the high assembly record was 280 rifles a day; and the assemblers in the plants averaged 250 rifles a day when the work was well started.

The Enfields sent to the Springfield Armory test were not standardized at all; they were largely hand fitted. Little or no attempt had been made to obtain interchangeability of parts among the rifles turned out by the three plants. Even the bolt taken from one company's rifle would not enter the receiver of another company's. The Ordnance Department was confronted with the dilemma of approving and issuing a weapon pronounced unsuitable by its own experts and thus obtaining speedy production, or delaying until interchangeability was established. It chose the latter course.

On July 12 a second set of rifles had been tested. These came more nearly up to our ideas of standardization, but were still not entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless we decided to go ahead with production and improve the standardization as we went along. The Winchester and Ilion plants elected to start work on that understanding, but Eddystone preferred to wait for the final requirements. Ilion afterward decided to postpone production until the final specifications were adopted. It would have been well if the same course had been followed at the Winchester plant, for word came later from Europe not to send over rifles of Winchester manufacture of that period. The final drawings of the standardized and modified Enfield did not come from the plants until August 18. Six days later the thousands of dimensions had been carefully checked and finally approved by the ordnance officers, and after that, production began in earnest.

The wisdom of adopting the Enfield rifle and modifying it to meet our requirements instead of extending the manufacture of Springfields was almost immediately evident, for in August, almost as soon as the final drawings were approved, the first rifles were delivered to the Government. This was possible because the modifications which we adopted did not require any fundamental changing of machinery. The principal equipment of the plants was in place and ready to begin manufacturing Enfields at once; and while the changes in the rifle were under discussion, the manufacturers were producing their gauges and small tools as each modification was decided upon. Though we did not succeed in attaining, and in fact did not attempt to attain, complete standardization and interchangeability of the parts of the Enfields, we did all that was practicable in this direction. Several tests showed that the average of interchangeability was about 95 per cent of the total parts.

Meanwhile we were building up the working staffs of the Rock Island Arsenal and Springfield Armory and speeding the production of Springfields. Before the war ended, the Rock Island Arsenal, which was making spare parts for Springfields, reached an output equaling 1,000 completed rifles a day; and the Springfield Armory attained a high average of 1,500 assembled rifles a day in addition to spare parts equaling 100 completed rifles daily.

The Eddystone plant finished its British contracts on June 1, Winchester produced its last British rifle on June 28, and Ilion its last on July 21, 1917. Winchester delivered the first modified Enfields to us on August 18, Eddystone on September 10, and Ilion about October 28. Progress in the rate of manufacture was thereafter steady. During the week ending February 2, 1918, the daily production of military rifles in the United States was 9,247, of which 7,805 were modified Enfields produced in the three private plants, and 1,442 were Springfields built in the two arsenals. The total production for that week was 50,873 guns of both types, or nearly enough for three army divisions. In spite of the time that went into the standardization of the Enfield rifle, all troops leaving the United States were armed with American weapons at the ports of embarkation. Ten months after we declared war against Germany we were producing in a week four times as many rifles as Great Britain had turned out in a similar period after ten months of war, and our production was then twice as large in volume as Great Britain had attained in the war up to that time. By the middle of June, 1918, we had passed the million and one-half mark in the production of rifles of all sorts, this figure including over 250,000 rifles which had been built upon original contracts placed by the former Russian Government.

The production of Enfields and Springfields during the war up to November 9, 1918, amounted to 2,506,307 guns. Of these, 312,878 were Springfield rifles produced by the two government arsenals. We had started the war with a reserve of 600,000 Springfield rifles on hand, and we had in addition, stored in our armories and arsenals, 160,000 Krags. These last had to be cleaned and considerably repaired before they could be used. From the Canadian Government we purchased 20,000 Ross rifles. The deliveries of Russian rifles totaled 280,049. This gave us a total equipment of 3,575,356 rifles. Since approximately one-half the soldiers of an army, as armies are actually organized, carry rifles, the total number of rifles procured by the Ordnance Department was sufficient to arm, both for fighting and for training, an army of 7,000,000 men, if we take no account of reserve and maintenance rifles.

The Enfield became, then, the dominant rifle of our military effort. Its modified firing mechanism could use the superior Springfield cartridges with their great accuracy. The Enfield sights, with the peep sight close to the eye, gave even greater quickness of aim than the Springfield sights afforded. In this respect the weapon was far superior to the Mauser, which was the main dependence of the German Army. To a weapon that made at first but scant appeal to our ordnance officers, we added in a few weeks such improvements and modifications as made the 1917 Enfield a gun that, for the short-range fighting in Europe, compared favorably with the Springfield and was to the Allied cause a distinct contribution which America could claim as substantially her own.

Standardization not only made possible the speed with which our rifles were ultimately produced, but, together with the care of the Government in purchasing raw materials and in drawing contracts, it saved a great deal of money in the cost of these weapons. The modified Enfields cost the Government approximately $26 each, a price considerably under that which the British paid for their American-built Enfields.

Both the Springfield and the 1917 Enfield rifle possessed advantages of accuracy and speed of fire over the German Mauser. It is true that the Mauser fired a heavier bullet than that of our standard ammunition and sent it with somewhat greater velocity; but at the longer fighting ranges the Mauser bullet is not so accurate as the United States bullet. Due to its peculiar shape, the Mauser bullet is apt to tumble end over end at long ranges—"key-holing," the marksmen call it— particularly when the wind blows across the range. Such tumbling causes a bullet to curve as a baseball thrown by a good pitcher, destroying its accuracy.

Early in our fighting with Germany we captured Mauser rifles and hastened to compare them with the Springfields and modified Enfields. We found in the American rifles a marked superiority in the rapidity of fire, the quickness and ease of sighting, and in the accuracy of shots fired. The accuracy was due not only to our standard Springfield ammunition, but also to the greater mechanical accuracy in the finish of the chamber and bore of the American rifles. The rapidity of fire of the American guns was due to the position and shape of the bolt handle, the movable mechanism with which the soldier ejects a spent shell and throws in a fresh one.

How we developed this bolt handle is an interesting story in itself. In 1903, when we brought out the first modern Springfield rifle, we decided to abandon the old carbine which had been carried by our cavalry regiments and, by making a rifle with a comparatively short barrel, to furnish a gun which could be used by both infantry and cavalry. The original bolt handle of the Springfield, like the one on the present Mauser, had projected horizontally from the side of the chamber. It was found that this protuberance did not fit well in the saddle holster of the cavalryman, but jammed the side of the rifle against the leather of the holster, with frequent injury to the rifle sight. For this reason, primarily, the rifle designers bent the bolt handle down and back. This modification incidentally brought the bolt handle much nearer to the soldier's hand as he fingered the trigger. The Enfield design had carried this development even farther, so that the bolt handle was practically right at the trigger, and the rifleman's hand was ready to pull the trigger the instant after it had thrown in a new cartridge.

Let us see what effect this design of the bolt handle had in the recent war. The Mauser still clung to the old horizontal bolt handle, well away from the trigger grip. Some of our best riflemen practiced with the captured Mausers and, firing at top speed with them, could not bring the rate of shooting anywhere nearly up to the marks set by the Enfields and Springfields. One enthusiast has even maintained that the speed of the Mauser is not over 50 per cent of that of the 1917 American rifle, but this may be an underestimate. On such a basis, under battle conditions with equal numbers of men on a side, the Americans had in effect two rifles to the Germans' one. To put it another way: By bending back the bolt handle we had placed two men on the firing line where there was only one before; and the added man required no shelter, clothing, rations, water, or pay. Although he sometimes needed repairing, he did not get sick, nor did he ever become an economic burden or draw a pension. His only added cost to the Government was an increased consumption of cartridges.

When American troops were in the heat of the fighting in the summer of 1918, the German Government sent a protest through a neutral agency to our Government, asserting that our men were using shotguns against German troops in the trenches. The allegation was true; but our State Department replied that the use of such weapons was not forbidden by the Geneva Convention, as the Germans had asserted. Manufactured primarily for the purpose of arming guards placed over German prisoners, these shotguns were undoubtedly in some instances carried into the actual fighting. The Ordnance Department procured some 30,000 to 40,000 shotguns of the short-barrel or sawed-off type, ordering them from the regular commercial manufacturers. The shell provided for these guns each contained a charge of nine heavy buckshot, a combination likely to have murderous effect in close fighting.

Such was the rifle record of this Government in the war. The Americans carried into battle the best rifles used in the war, and America's industry produced these weapons in the emergency at a rate which armed our soldiers as rapidly as they could be trained for fighting. Success in such a task looked almost impossible at the start; but that it was attained should forever be a source of gratification to the American people.


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