By W. Jim Dickson
In World War I, the U.S. discovered that some of the low numbered M1903 Springfield receivers had burst because the metal had been burned by overheating it in manufacture. It was heated to the point that it was white hot with sparks coming out and held at that temperature long enough to burn most all the carbon out of the steel, leaving it porous where the carbon had burned out, very fragile, and brittle. When reading the description of this event in Hatcher’s Notebook, and the Army’s solution of going to temperature-controlled furnaces, one could get the impression that this problem was caused by judging the temperature by eye. Neither General Hatcher nor the Army Ordnance Department were experienced blacksmiths, though. As an experienced blacksmith of many years, I would like to set the record straight.
You harden metal at a cherry red heat. You burn metal at a white-hot heat with sparks coming off the metal as the carbon is burned out. It takes a little bit of time for it to burn out, also. There is a big heat difference between cherry red and white-hot, just as there is a big difference between the color of cherry red and white with sparks coming out. I would trust a careful apprentice to quench metal at cherry red. For an experienced blacksmith to burn metal is almost unheard of, and for him not to know that he had done it is not possible. To do this on multiple receivers is nothing but deliberate sabotage. Somebody was mad about something and taking it out on the work. There is just no other possibility.
It’s likely that Ordnance realized this while also recognizing a public scandal might ensue if news of failure were reported in the newspapers. It would be a scandal that could hurt the careers of all the men in charge of Ordnance, as well as destroying a lot of the confidence that the Army (and the public) had in the Ordnance Department. Better to quietly correct the problem and get temperature controls on the furnaces so they could blame the lack of them for the problem instead of causing a scandal.
Then again, it’s also possible that Ordnance never understood this, as their heat treatment of the receivers was the same as hardening a file. They wanted the glass smooth action of the Krag rifle and touted the great strength of file-hardened metal under a load but ignored the extreme brittleness of said metal under a sudden shock. Any good blacksmith could have told them this was a very bad idea.
Except for files, I’ve never hardened anything without tempering it, which is reheating it to anything from a straw yellow to a blue, the latter color being used for springs, knives, razors, and axes. Some folks have complained that the receivers of Mauser rifles were too soft. Well, they didn’t break or give trouble in over 100 years of hard service, and they have successfully been re-barreled for every cartridge that will fit through the action. Softer is better for sudden shock loads, such as those you get with a ruptured cartridge case… which will burst the file hardened receivers of the low numbered Springfield rifles.
The problem surfaced with the poor-quality ammunition that came out in WWI when Ordnance reported that their ammunition was getting worse. Soft brass and erratic loading of powder (with some loads that exceeding the 70,000 PSI army proof load) coupled with the fact that the last part of a cartridge case projects out over an eight of an inch (specifically 0.147 to 0.1485-inch) on a Springfield or M98 Mauser rifle is a formula for ruptured cartridge cases. When that happens, the brittle, file-hard receivers of the low number Springfield rifles burst. If the steel was burnt, it had very little strength; it burst even quicker.
Between 1917 and 1929, there were 61 cases of receivers blowing up. Attempts to reheat treat the receivers met with inconsistent results because often the steel used did not meet the specifications for composition. Ordnance finally gave up trying to repair the faulty receivers. They pivoted and made some good receivers that were hardened AND tempered, calling them double heat treated, and then went to nickel steel. During this time, some low numbered receivers got mixed in with the new, safe receivers… the cut-off date for manufacturing the old glass-hard receivers was not exactly recorded. How many ways can they screw up!? After thoroughly investigating the problem, Ordnance wanted to scrap ALL of the old receivers and replace them with updated, safe ones, but the money for this was never appropriated.
In their attempt to copy the M98 Mauser and call it an American invention (so that they wouldn’t catch the flak they had caught over previously adopting the Norwegian Krag rifle) Ordnance succeeded in making the only M98 variant that had its receivers blow up!
SAFETY, STOCK, AND SIGHT ISSUES
Ordnance also apparently didn’t appreciate that the thumb notch cutout on the left side of the M98 receiver was there as a last line of defense to protect the shooter’s eyes by diverting the gas from a pierced primer or ruptured cartridge case. They coupled the cocking knob from the Krag rifle with a 13-inch length-of-pull stock that resulted in some soldiers seriously injuring their eye on the cocking piece when rapidly working the bolt. Most soldiers learned to either move their head way back or drop the rifle from their shoulder when working the bolt.
In the British gun trade, rifle stocks are custom fitted to the shooter’s individual measurements to a sixteenth of an inch in all directions. A 13-inch length-of-pull is for people 4-and-a-half feet tall and shorter. That’s the average height of a 10-year-old. To make a soldier’s rifle stock that short is insane. The M1928A1 Thompson submachine gun had a 15-inch length-of-pull and was universally lauded for its extraordinary handling qualities.
Mauser rifles came with a “V” rear sight and an inverted “V” front sight. This front sight has a broad base that easily catches the eye in low light and a narrow top enabling minute-of-angle groups. It’s a rugged arrangement and can stand alone with no protection. In the U.S., Ordnance had long favored a narrow blade that needed a hood or side-mounted wings to protect it. A blade hood cuts down light on the sight, making it hard to see in low light. As a result, later rifles with protective side wings on the front sight sometimes had soldiers sighting on the wing instead of the blade in the hurried stress of combat.
Despite these shortcomings, the M1903 Springfield rifle series became one of the most respected and loved rifles in U.S. military history, even serving iron-sighted snipers in the Vietnam War some 70 years after the rifle’s introduction. It’s just a shame that it had to go through these unnecessary problems.