View Full Version : Low Serial# Springfield '03

December 26, 2005, 12:29 PM
Ok, a little history, when Springfield started making '03s they didn't a real crap job of heat treating. I don't have the numbers on hand right now, I believe it is below 1,000,000, but I checked and mine, at 258xxx, is well below the line. The problem with these guns is that the heat treat was inconsistent, some were too hard and could literally shatter like a hand grenade, and others were too soft and would warp and deform on firing. Some of them have a decent heat treat but there is no way to tell without sending it off for an expensive rockwell test.

In short, shooting them is like playing baseball with a hand grenade.

Well, the gun I have was sporterised many years ago and has shot many rounds without consequence, but I still worry about it. The bolt and reciever are not obdurated or deformed and it gives every indication of being fine, but I still worry about it.

My dad got it from a friend 40 years ago and gave it to me recently to restock, recrown and fix an issue with the manual safety, so what am I to do? I don't feel comfortable giving this gun back to my dad as I would hate to see it blow his face off, but he loves the gun and I would hate to give him back a dead gun.

Any suggestions? Can it be safely rebarreled in a lighter caliber? I don't mind doing more work on it as it's for my dad and is a labor of love, but I don't want to sink too much money into this rifle. The safest course is to just tell my dad the situation and tell him to scrap the gun, and that is what I will do if I must but if anyone knows of a way to salvage the rifle I am all ears.

December 26, 2005, 01:01 PM
Retire is, hanfg it on the fireplace.


December 26, 2005, 01:19 PM
Julian Hatcher's " Hatcher's Notebook" has a detailed discussion of this.The Army recommended scrapping the low numbered rifles , that's good enough for me.Retire it !!

Jim Watson
December 26, 2005, 01:25 PM
I can think of several things.
1. Retire it. It is not as strong as later guns.
2. Shoot it. They don't blow up by themselves. There were guns demolished by overloads, by soft brass, by bore obstruction, by a nitwit who crammed an 8x57 into a .30-06, by greasing bullets in an attempt to prevent hard metal fouling. The problem is that when the cartridge let go, the over-hardened action could not stand the shock of the released gas pressure. Ammo is better now, and the gun is thoroughly tested.
3. Rebuild it. Shop around for a bubbified high number Springfield and transplant Dad's parts to a better reciever. It won't be cheap but he is your Dad.
4. Feed it. I don't think a "lighter caliber" is feasible. What would you use that would fit the action but stress it less? Rebarreling would not be less expensive than No 3 anyhow. But a handloader could load ammunition at the pressure rating of a .30-40 Krag, which was of the same steel and heat treatment as the "low number" '03s and you don't hear about those blowing up.

Harry Bonar
December 26, 2005, 06:07 PM
Dear Shooter
Springfield arsenal below 800,000 were subject to shatter if a problerm occured - but, my opinion is that if the rifle has been shot and shot and shot with regular factory 30-06 and no problems, personally, I'd continue to use it with standard ammo (not +P stuff), but Remingtom or Winchester stuff.
I may be wrong and don't take my opinion on it but the "blue-pill" re-heat treat- actions did no better.
You have the same issue with Model 17 Enfields, of reciever cracking, but I feel that much of this was in poor technique in "removing bbls" by inexperienced gunsmiths; a Springfield or Enfield bbl should alwasys have a relief cut at the very front of the reciever to avoid stressing the action - Mausers didn't have this problem, but, I've seen Mauser actions vary tremendously in heat treatment (carburizing) and never cause trouble!
Krags, had that front lug crack and many gunsmiths will lap so that the safety lug touches too - but, Krags have been barreled to some fantastic calibers. I am convinced that most reciever accidents are caused by the poor brass of that era and the metallurgy used - the case head would fail and then with a "hard" action the ring would shatter.
Just my opinions which may be wrong.
Harry B. I agree very much with Jim Watson!

December 30, 2005, 04:21 PM
FWIW, the USMC didn't pull the low numbered ones until they got the M1 in hand in 1944 after 20-40 years of service. Also I can't imagine anyone charging you more than a couple bucks for a rockwell test--any machine shop should be able to do it. It's up to you really. Personally, I'd run it downtown and spend the $5 to have someone check the hardness before I make any decision one way or the other.

December 30, 2005, 05:45 PM
Springfield made 800,000 and Rock Island Arsenal made around 285,507 rifles before the war that were absolutely fine. They were case hardened and had no problems with them. They were proof tested to 70,000lbs. They changed the cartridge in 1906 to the newer 30'06 cartridge and made 700,000 of these in about 14 years that didn't have troubles.

Then during the war, some receivers got a double dose of hardening which made them hard through out the receiver instead of having a soft core and this is when folks started having troubles. If you greased your bullets to avoid excessive fouling and was using one of these rifles, then you could shatter the receiver due to the increased back thrust on the bolt from the grease build up in the chamber which caused excessive headspace. I would think like Harry said, if the rifle has been functioning, it shouldn't be a problem with this particular rifle. A lot of the troubles people had were to due to bad brass being used that was too soft and it failed as well.

The range of guns you need to watch out for is between 800,000 and 1,275,767, this is the range that was double heat treated. The ones that come before are fine and the ones after this range used a different steel and they used the correct heat treatment on them and are completely fine as well. The Rock Isaland Range is between 285,507 and 319,921 which were double heat treated as well. If you find one in these ranges of serial numbers, please retire the gun or you can have a bad experience with it. I got these numbers from Custom Gunmakers of the 20th Century. I hope this cleared it up for some folks.

Jim Watson
December 30, 2005, 06:38 PM
Cntryboy1289 does not agree with my sources, mainly Hatcher's Notebook.
The Springfield '03 rifles from sn 800,000 to 1,275,767 were double heat treated and are some of the finest, smoothest, and strongest rifles to ever come out of an arsenal. Proof tests on 24 of the first receivers to be double heat treated showed that ten (10!) 70,000 psi proof loads increased headspace from nothing at all to .006", a followup shot at 80,000 added not more than another thousandth or two, and a final shot at 125,000 psi did not wreck the action.

The change to nickel steel was to simplify manufacture and gain strength by choice of alloy rather than by elaborate heat treatment.

December 30, 2005, 08:25 PM
Will the rifle stay in your fathers' hands? I'd be leery. A popular catch-phrase at a school I attended was "Think about liability... adn do whatever you think your career can afford."

December 30, 2005, 09:39 PM
I have to apologize Jim, I misread my reference material. After I read your post, I went back and reread it. Jim is correct in that the 800,000 to 1,275,767 were double heat treated as well as the numbers ranging from 285,507 to 319,921 and this solved the problem's of the receiver's being brittle. The brittle receivers were built during the war so if you can find out which numbers coincide with those built during the war, you should be ok if have one built before or after. After the 1,275,767 for Springfield and 319,921 for Rock Island, they changed to nickel steel which made for a stronger receiver. Thanks for catching my mistake Jim. I wouldn't want to give out the wrong info and it not be caught for sure.

January 1, 2006, 10:02 PM
If I am reading correctly, this information is still a little confused. Double heat treating was the cure instituted starting at the serial number dividing line and applied thereafter to all higher serial numbers. Double heat treating is not an over-heat treatment, but rather, if I understand it correctly, a repetition of tempering to allow relieving additional stresses that appear during the first post temper cooling. It also improves homogeneity of the metal structure. This example is different in detail but illustrates the principle: A friend of mine had a gray iron casting made for the base of a super precision grinding robot. It had to be annealed by re-heating and cooling 12 times before it finally stopped changing shape enough to meet the required specification (50 millionths across about 3 feet of diameter). So, stress relief on one heating and cooling cycle was imperfect, possibly because of differential heating and cooling rates between the inside and out and between thick and thin parts? Mete could probably give us a more detailed description or a reference if he sees this?

The early 1903 receivers causing the problems were not double-heat treated, but rather were heat treated by the old color method in which both the pre-quench and the drawdown colors were judged by naked eye—cherry red for dead hard quenching and the right color of surface oxide for final draw temperature indicator. It was discovered that whether the workers performing this old technique were in bright daylight or not affected their ability to judge this indicator by about 300°. My guess is that under low light conditions it would be easy to get some 500° embrittlement because the steel looked darker than it really was at the end of the drawdown.

There is a very complete description of the problem and its investigation by Hatcher's board of inquiry here: http://m1903.com/03rcvrfail/. The conclusion I would draw from it is, since no further failures were observed among receivers already in service, that with good modern brass and standard pressure loads of single-base stick powders, it is safe to go on using them. I would particularly avoid any loads charged with slow ball powders in these guns (see the RSI web site on secondary pressure spikes from double-base powders; scroll down to "Secondary Pressures" in the middle of this document (http://www.shootingsoftware.com/barrel.htm)). Otherwise, the statistical analysis of the low number 1903 failures suggests many common activities are more life threatening.