M1903 Springfield – Stripped for Air Service

Edit: For additional information on these, including some unpublished documentation, see the C&Rsenal video on the 1903 Springfield

One of the more interesting and unusual – and rare – variations of the M1903 Springfield is the version that was “Stripped for Air Service”. Contrary to common belief, these were not used as in-flight aircraft armament before the use of machine guns, or as antiaircraft armament for observation balloon crews. Instead, they were developed by Springfield Armory in early 1918 as a pilot’s survival rifle – armament to be used in case one crash landed in enemy territory.

The modifications made include cutting down the stock and hand guard to reduce weight, adding a fixed 25-round box magazine, elimination of the sling swivels, and simplification of the rear sight to a 100-yard notch. The large fixed magazine was chosen because a pilot would not be carrying extra ammunition in a cartridge belt, as would a normal infantryman. All the ammunition he would have if he needed to use the survival rifle would be what was stored in the rifle itself.

A total of 910 of these modified rifles were made, and 908 of them shipped to France in late June, 1918. They were never put into service though, and 680 were still in a French depot at the end of the war. The remainder may have been distributed to some airfields, but they were never actually used. With the end of the war, the rifles were put into storage in the US along with the mass of other war materiel. In the mid 1920s, much of this stock was scrapped, and the surviving Air Service 1903s were either destroyed or converted to standard infantry pattern rifles. Very few survived this process, making them extremely rare today. This particular one came from the collection of Bruce Canfield.



  1. Survival rifles are supposed to be simple, reliable, and powerful enough for foraging. The large capacity magazine seems a bit off, but it’s better than single shot with a separate cartridge pouch which could be lost. Just don’t think of using this for impromptu trench raids should you crash behind enemy lines unless you can acquire a proper weapon by relieving one enemy of his mortal sufferings.

  2. Othais over at C&Rsenal seems to have documented in his recent 1903 Springfield episode that these were, in fact, intended for aerial use, though by the time they were ready it was clear that a semi-auto or machine gun would make more sense so they were never used in that capacity.

    As a survival/self-defense rifle, the whole concept just seems silly and cumbersome–no sling, little weight savings, full-length barrel, awkward magazine. Any number of military or commercial carbines already in inventory or readily available (Krag, Winchester 1892/1894/1895, Savage, Remington or Winchester self-loading, etc.) with ammo on the sling or a stock pouch would have made much more sense as a pilot’s self-defense rifle. Given the very limited numbers of rifles and small amount of ammo needed, a non-standard rifle caliber would not have been a big deal, or an existing pistol caliber could have been used.

    • “Given the very limited numbers of rifles and small amount of ammo needed, a non-standard rifle caliber would not have been a big deal, or an existing pistol caliber could have been used.”
      However using standard rifle cartridge might allow salvaging ammo from on-board machine gun, if aeroplane was crash-landed. However I am not sure which cartridges used American aviation during Great War, it was .30-06?

  3. Basically they re-created the early M1903 cavalry carbine with a slightly longer barrel and the addition of a high-capacity magazine.

    I wouldn’t call it a practical aircrew survival gun, because even with all the “simplicate and add lightness” it was still a pretty heavy item considering the limited engine HP and thus payload of the aircraft of the day.

    But with a slightly shorter barrel it would have been an interesting weapon for trench raids.



    • An overwhelming and overpowered carbine for a raid? Okay, but good luck reloading the magazine. I recommend bringing a good automatic pistol or revolver as your side arm. And don’t forget a knife.

      • Most of what I’ve read about trench raids, plus what I learned from my great uncle who served in that one, tends to show that reloading wasn’t an issue.

        You dropped into a reasonably vacant section of the enemy’s frontline trench, fired a few rounds to either neutralize or just scare off any defenders, secured the traverse (trenches were in zig-zags for obvious reasons), maybe tossed some grenades around corners to dissuade anybody from trying to rush your position, grabbed or wrecked whatever it was you were after, and beat it back across No Man’s land to your own trench line. It was Dieppe on a very small scale.

        That was a typical “opportunity” trench raid, done mainly to mess up enemy frontline C3I and also just to keep the enemy from getting a decent night’s sleep.

        By comparison, a “deliberate” raid to wreck a section of trench was generally done by units up to company size, usually including combat engineers with demolition equipment. You secured the traverse, the engineers set charges with you covering the ends of your “liberated” area, then when they signaled everybody got their backsides back across NML before the bangs.

        In either situation, probably the best choice of weapon would be a pump-action “trench” shotgun. But I wouldn’t feel ill-equipped with a short-barreled Springfield firing 150-grain spitzer leaving the muzzle at 2,700 F/S, that held 20 rounds on one fillup.

        If nothing else, any German coming around the corner with a trench shield in front of him would get a surprise he wouldn’t like very much.

        A trench shield was sort of like a Roman legionary shield or a modern police riot shield. They started as shields for snipers, like a medieval pavise or mantlet, but soon “cut-down” versions were introduced for dealing with trench incursions. Generally made of mild steel, with a sight port in it to allow the use of a rifle or pistol, a trench shield would stop pistol slugs at close range, but not full-power rifle bullets.

        Especially not at an average range of about five to ten feet/em> rather than fifty or sixty yards.

        The Canadians came up with a version called the MacAdam Shield Shovel;


        It was a basic spade made of thicker steel, with a sighting hole. Nobody liked it, as it was too small to make an effective shield, and was next to useless as a shovel, because it had this whacking great hole in it.

        And it turned out that it wouldn’t stop even a pistol bullet anyway, let alone a 7.9 Mauser slug.

        As a rule, multipurpose gadgets rarely do even one thing well.



  4. I don’t think a downed pilot in occupied Northern France, or Germany, would expect to hunt for food. This would be, rather, a ‘survival and evasion’ rifle. It still seems like a dumb project. A shortened/lightened rifle with a belt of ammunition would do the trick without so much work.

    • Probably the best weapon of all would have been a compact .22 pistol like a Colt Woodsman, with a Parker-Hale silencer. Compact, lightweight, and you could carry a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition in one pants pocket.

      It would suffice for foraging without being noticed, would certainly be able to kill a sentry if necessary, could give you a good chance of ambushing a patrol if push came to shove, and of course it would be just as intimidating as any other pistol.

      More so, really. As a rule, when you show people a handgun with a sound suppressor on it, they tend to assume that you are a professional who has no qualms about using it, and also are unlikely to miss.

      This is doubly so about .22s, interestingly enough. They assume that if you’re using a .22, it’s because you’re a good enough shot that you don’t need a 9mm or etc. to kill somebody with.

      And that you’ve probably already done it, more than a few times.



      • “As a rule, when you show people a handgun with a sound suppressor on it, they tend to assume that you are a professional who has no qualms about using it, and also are unlikely to miss.”
        This might work today, suppressor surely existed in 1918, but were they associated with professionals in 1918?

        “This is doubly so about .22s, interestingly enough. They assume that if you’re using a .22, it’s because you’re a good enough shot that you don’t need a 9mm or etc. to kill somebody with.”
        I would rather suggest .25 Auto rather than .22 rim-fire, mainly because of .22 rim-fire cartridge with lead (jacket-less) bullet might be described as bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body (Hague Convention of 1899), also having automatic pistol easy to hide might be useful in certain situations.

        “occupied Northern France, or Germany”
        Important question is: where crash-landing occurred? If deep into Germany territory situation is bad (in fact there were strategic bombers deployed during Great War, even if less known that of Second World War, see for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handley_Page_Type_O ), occupied Belgium seems somewhat better, as you have friendly population, near front-line might looks good, but I have doubts about of going to own side.

      • Well, that’s what Raymond Chandler suggested. I doubt that civilians in Flanders or the Rhineland would have enough gun-savvy to have opinions about firearm selection

  5. I also watched Othias’s video. I prefer Ian’s short, to the point presentation compared to Othias”s one plus hour video.

    • I liked both presentations, appreciating the thoroughness of one and the conciseness of the other.

      Othias was doing a video on the M1903 series through World War 1 (and a little beyond), not just a brief bit on the Air Service version. He did cover (or re-cover) a lot of associated material that was better covered elsewhere, but it was relevant to the M1903.

      As for the discrepancy, the correspondence Othias mentions is apparently only recently uncovered. Finding stuff in the National Archives can be massively worse than finding a needle in a haystack, and it seems to me quite fortuitous that clarifying documentation has been uncovered.

    • Ian and Othais took different aproach, and both shows are great.
      What is interesting to me Othais’s have gun with “buckhorn sight”, while Ian showing basicaly same sights with U-notch on small plate screwed to “buckhorn”. What was original version? Maibe this plate was screwed on later for more accurate shots by owner or C&R’s video showing gun with missing part?

  6. Meh. Apparently even Uncle Sam can “Bubba” a gun now and then.

    As far as a E&E weapon, I’d stick a SMLE in the cockpit: 10 rounds in the rifle. Or a few extra magazines for my 1911.

  7. Speaking of ‘survival… is crash landing after being shot down and still living, not enough of accomplishment? Shooting at locals probably would expedite crowd justice, especially in WWII. (Not sure what conventions stipulated; if for example crashed pilot would not loose his right for fair treatment if continued with hostility.)

    What I’d like to think of is that survival in environment such as tundra, when encountering polar bear would make more sense. That kind of survival need is quite legitimate

    • Just FYI: These were developed around 1918 for WW1. After that war, the “Stripped For Air Service” version were mostly converted back to standard 1918.

      In World War 2, aircrew were often provided side-arms or possibly other small arms. The aircrew in question had to evaluate which option (fight, flight, hide, or surrender) was his best option. Depending on the location they were shot down, having a weapon could well be the difference between life, death, capture, or escape. Not being armed reduces those options. Deciding that it is best to leave airmen unarmed because fighting MIGHT not be the best option is certainly not the way I would go when deciding how to equip my country’s aircrew. I feel it would be better to let them decide for themselves when presented with the specific circumstances, rather than pre-decide based on what MIGHT occur.

      • Mind you, I’m just adding to your post and expanding, not criticizing. You brought up an excellent point that was well worth expanding on. Fighting it out in the European theater was probably not a good choice for the Western Allies. Surrender was probably a more dangerous option in the Pacific or for Eastern Europeans in Europe.

        • Thank you, also please see my last note which ties to your own. This is what happens to me routinely – start to talk around away from technical subject 🙂

      • You view is sensible, if carrying with hostility is preferred course of action; war is war after all and this justifies use of violence. Everyone had to decide for themselves.

        This makes me to think about case of Gary Powers (not explicitly war status, although cold war was in its peak), how he used means to his disposal (including poisoned needle) after being grounded. Common sense prevailed, I guess.

        • Powers once stated that the U-2 pilots’ first reaction to the poisoned needle concealed in the coin was “somebody’s been reading too many spy novels”.

          The suppressed High Standard HD Military .22 pistol he was issued was actually a leftover from the OSS in WW2.

          He also said that he had no chance to dispose of either one before he was taken into custody on landing.

          He thought that what he really needed was a Russian phrasebook, starting with “I’m just a pilot,I don’t really know anything”, which pretty much summed it up.



          • I still remember the affair with Powers from how press presented it. It was tremendous success by Soviet air defense, since U.S. intelligence assumed they have not completed development of new ground to air missiles. Powers himself looked rather sheepish. Czechs call this kind of attitude “it was not me, I am just a musician”. Powers was later swapped for some spy; I bet he wrote book about it and made decent buck.

          • There was no expectation that a U2 pilot would survive being shot down at altitude. That was why Eisenhower agreed to let the missions proceed.

            The only case when a survival kit would have realistically been expected to have been used was if there was some sort of engine difficulty and the pilot was able to ditch the plane. Even that would have been hard to walk away from, as the U2 is difficult to land even on a proper runway.

          • “It was tremendous success by Soviet air defense, since U.S. intelligence assumed they have not completed development of new ground to air missiles.”
            This was one example of fact that you might get aeroplane or other flying machine, able to get too-high or too-fast for enemy defense, but not for eternity, as enemy will sooner-or-later get suitable weapons. Also never believe in that your machine is totally beyond enemy capability c.f. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_F-117A_shootdown
            when so-called stealth aeroplane was shoot down by ancient S-125 rocket (developed yet into 1950s, introduced to Soviet service in 1961)

          • @ Daweo: exactly as you say.

            Btw. Peoples republic of China was practically since its inception under pressure of surveillance flights originated from Taiwan under CIA leadership; pilots were Chinese nationals. Since PRC at the time had no technical capability to deal with this pesky nuisance, they got Russians on board and success was soon scored. It happened after event with U2 over Sverdlovsk region (I have difficulty to find reference, but I believe I read it on one of Czech pages with military history). Then followed a long pause in similar activities.

          • It was known that there was a risk of a U2 being shot down, but the belief was that there would be plausible denyiability without a live pilot, and it was worth the risk.

            So the surprise was not so much that Soviet missiles were a threat, but was that Powers lived. Which, again, meant that his kit was thought to have be of little use. Sort of like giving submariners survival kits to carry around all day.

            Overall, it is always a response to the other side–why the SR-71 was created to fly higher and faster. Created by the same designer who made the U2. Very successful, and expensive. Ironically, the U2 is still used–get enough altitude and useful images can be taken from international air space.

            A Rand Institute study, made shortly after WWII, laid out a vision for CCD cameras on satellites transmitting images back to earth. That was well before anyone was trying to launch anything into space at all. Spy planes, and even film ejecting satellites, were supposed to be a stop gap measure. In the mid-1940’s that “think-tank” foresaw about thirty years into the future of airborne surveillance. The track records of seeing thirty years into the future of small arms design have not been as good.

  8. Loosely related subject- personal armament with aircrews during WWII. Among other nationalities conducting air-raids on Germany were also Czechs and Slovaks. As I cannot speak on status of Slovaks (Slovakia was allied with Germany during war), Czech being taken “under protection” would be treated upon shootdown as traitors with only one possible outcome.

    Oh yes, those who flew Wellingtons during beginning of war, were armed with compact sixshooter, besides of map and German Marks (they often spoke German fluently). I do not recall reading about actual occurrences related to it.

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