M1903A4: America’s WW2 Sniper Rifle

The United States Army entered World War Two with neither sniper rifles nor a sniper training program. As troops began to see combat, requests began to come back to the War Department that both were urgently needed. The newly-adopted dM1 Garand rifle was going to be a bit tricky to mount optics on, so while that program began a contract was made with Remington to product a scoped version of the M1903A3 Springfield rifles. This was designated the M1903A4, and it would serve as the US Army’s standard (and essentially only) sniper rifle during the war.

The 03A4 used a Weaver 330C commercial scope (given the military designation M73B1) on Redfield Junior mounts. The scope offered just 2.5x magnification, and used a simple crosshair reticle. It was reasonably effective, but not hardened for military service. The rifles did not have any other particular special work done to them, like bedding or improved triggers. A total of 28,365 were delivered, all made by Remington. They are found in the following serial number ranges:

3,407,088 – 3,427,087
4,000,001 – 4,015,000 (only about 3,000 in this block were used. Some duplicated 03A3 numbers; these were given an addition “Z” prefix)
4,992,001 – 5,784,000 (only about 6,300 were used of this block)


  1. Yup, I believe I’ve read about this sniper rifle before. And thanks for the offer to win a 1903A4. Unfortunately I don’t have any firearm license; though I love the videos & reading about firearm history. Thanks.

  2. Owned one. Also one with the Unertl scope. Real pounding to shoot and not all that accurate. All the WW2 snipers were that way. Seemed good for a couple hundred yards and that was about it.

  3. I think these rifles fell more into the “Designated Marksman Rifle” category than “Sniper Rifle”, TBH.

    Yeah, they didn’t have the term, but that’s a lot closer to how they were used than what we think of today as “sniper”.

    Lots and lots of fuzzy thinking, back in the day. Paul Fussell had a great essay on it in his collections of essays he entitled “Wartime”. The first essay in the book is From Light to Heavy Duty, and in it he describes the epically delusional way they thought about making war at the beginning of WWII, with all the flyweight “mobile, hard-hitting” equipment like the jeep with a little bitty 37mm AT gun behind it, and how long that lasted up against the far more experienced Germans who were much further along the same power curve from delusion to enlightenment at the hands of the Allies. Every war we go into is like that, with early predictions of easy victory due to ultra-cool high-tech weapons that will save us from having to fight hard winding up in a death struggle between giant hippopotami of war struggling to get at each other. Light and fast don’t do well, matched with “heavy”.

    The siren call is always there, though. Look at the latest abomination coming out of the system, that of the latest AFV, the Booker. I’m still unsure what they were thinking with that thing, other than that it’ll look cool in the Powerpoint decks…

    • With the exception of two forces (one Allied, one Axis), no army had actual “snipers” or proper rifles for the job back than, and most still don’t. In fact to his day they aren’t even sure WTH a “sniper” is, or what he’s supposed to do.

      The Russians had some idea, largely due to being on the receiving end of “proper” sniper warfare during their war with Finland. Simo Hayha gets all the glory, but the Finns had a lot more snipers than just him. And like him, most Finnish snipers shot over open sights, restricting their engagement range to a fairly sensible 300 meters or so. they weren’t “trained”; most were hunters like Hayha who just applied their ‘home-grown’ skills to the war.

      When the Russians got into it, the result was a Mosin-Nagant 1891 with a PE or PU 3.5x x 21 scope. They handed them to anybody who showed the ability to actually hit something in basic training. That was the Russian “sniper training” system, and their snipers were primarily scouts.

      The German equivalent of the Russian PU scope was the 4x ZF4 scope- mostly used on the G43/K43 self-loading rifle. Exactly why, nobody seems to know.

      Most Kar98s used for “sniping” had the ZF41 1.5x, which replaced the standard back sight. Neither German sight was really satisfactory for shooting much beyond 200 meters for the ZF4, or 100 meters at best for the ZF41.

      The Japanese put low-powered telescopic sights on the Type 99 Arisaka. Then trained their soldiers to shoot from trees. The Chinese repeated this blunder in Korea. One of my high-school teachers was a rather experienced U.S. Army “countersniper” there. He used a tripod-mounted M2HB .50 Browning.

      The only ones who seem to have taken sniping at all seriously were the British, and the German SS. The British Rifle No. 4 Mk1 /Mk1*(T) had a 3.5x scope, a properly bedded action and barrel, and other refinements that made it really the only “purpose-built” sniping rifle of the war that actually was designed for…sniping.

      As for the SS, they mostly used commercial hunting rifles with telescopic sights. Since Mauserwerke had had an entire line of such sporting rifles before the war, in almost any caliber you could wish for (but most were in 7.9 x 57, the German equivalent of .30-06 here in the U.S.), they were fairly well-served by “off the shelf” items.

      Regarding “sniper schools” apparently the only actual one was the British Army’s rifle marksmanship training unit at Hythe. And it was simply part of their standard rifle training course going back to the 1850s. You might say it was the “advanced placement” curriculum there.

      Oh, the famous Enemy at the Gates sniper duel at Stalingrad? Sorry, it never happened. Vasili Zaitsev definitely existed. There is no record of an “Erwin Koenig” in the German service.


      clear ether


      • RE: “Them” still not knowing what to do with snipers today… Yeah, that’s mostly true. There are two groups in any Infantry-based task force you can always count on having (and, voicing endlessly…) legitimate gripes about the commanders not knowing what to do with them: The sniper sections and the Engineers.

        The problem with the snipers, in my observation, is that they’re not well-documented in the doctrine. I mean, they’re there, with their own manuals, but like with the Engineers, nobody outside the community really reads them. The officers who run those sniper sections and understand how to employ them most effectively are a tiny minority that doesn’t produce too many higher commanders; the frustrations of it all tend to lead to them punching out of the Army at about Captain.

        That said, there are times and places that snipers are not good ideas to try and deploy. You’re in Europe, in a relatively benign Area of Operations? Fine; sniper teams are value-added. Some areas of Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan? They’re open invitations to lose your teams when the locals notice them and spontaneously decide to start killing them. If you’re a sniper team in an area where the goat herders aren’t weaponized, you’re likely to be effective at doing something. Where they are weaponized? You’re going to be a major distraction for the higher commander who has to divert forces to pull your ass out of the fire, and those forces are awfully likely to find a grease spot at your reported “hide” position.

        You have to have a good feel for things, running those operations. Sometimes it’s value-added, sometimes it’s a total waste of time and a distraction.

        I love the snipers like brothers, but… Man. I have to wonder, sometimes, if it really and truly has a real effect on fighting the wars. Fundamentally, I feel like those guys might be better replaced by a good MG team that’s well-trained, because if a target is worth shooting once, it probably deserves a burst or two in the general vicinity thereof.

        So, yeah… Snipers: Cool concept, but is it really the best way to kill the enemy? You have to wonder, sometimes.

        • The U.S. Army has had a love/hate/”please go away” relationship with snipers going back to the Revolutionary War.

          The myth of the Minute Man with the Kentucky Rifle has a slim basis in fact. Early on, General Washington had as much of the available black powder for small arms as possible diverted to frontier militia groups of riflemen, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough even for combat in conventional volley fire musketry style, let alone practicing it. So giving it to the “coonskin cap” crowd at least meant that the powder would be used by shooters who were accustomed to actually aiming at a target and hitting it, as opposed to simply blasting off volleys on command in the general direction of the Redcoats.

          During the subsequent wars from 1800 (Quasi-War with France) to the Mexican War (1846-48), sniping was not really practiced. The Battle of New Orleans (8 Jan 1815) was fought at skirmish ranges from behind cover. So even though there were “riflemen” involved, they were mainly shooting at what was for them insanely short ranges, under 75 yards, not the 150-200 they were accustomed to.

          During the Civil War, if not for Union Col. Hiram Berdan, there would have been little or no “sniping” at least on the Union side. According to William B. Edwards in Civil War Guns (Stackpole 1963), Berdan first asked for and got Colt Revolving Rifles for his “Sharpshooters”, because he saw the future of tactics as skirmishing rather than line formations, and concluded that short-to-medium range firepower, backed up by a few dedicated snipers was going to be the way to do it. Chickamauga pretty much proved he was right.

          Berdan’s regiment generally had squads consisting of one or two snipers with the heavy-barreled “picket” rifles, backed up by first Colt revolving rifles, then Sharps breechloaders, and finally Spencer repeating rifles to provide flank protection and the squad base of fire.

          You could argue that Berdan’s doctrine morphed into U.S. Army infantry doctrine with the BAR + Garands substituting for the picket rifle + breechloaders.

          Confederate doctrine boiled down to “country boy up tree with his squirrel rifle”. How much of that was due to Southern “rugged individualism” and how much due to “using whatever is available” is still debated by historians today. What is certain is that “tree-stand shooting” works well in hunting, but less so vs. a quarry that is predisposed to shoot back.

          By comparison, Berdan’s men shot from cover such as embrasures in dugouts whenever possible, and were religiously devoted to the axiom of “never linger where you have killed”. They pretty much refined the “shoot-and-scoot” doctrine inherited from the franc-tireurs or “free shooters” of Napoleonic times.

          Properly executed, sniping can be a useful harassment tactic. Whether or not it’s a real game-changer is yet to be proven, by anybody.



    • “(…)these rifles fell more into the “Designated Marksman Rifle” category than “Sniper Rifle”,(…)”
      If it so, then where M1C Garand belongs?

      • Same place, really.

        “Sniper” and “Designated Marksman” are really more about employment than the rifles.

        Simo Hayha did most of his killing with either a Finnish Civil Guard rifle or a Suomi KP-31. Neither weapon was what we’d term a “dedicated sniper rifle” today.

        However, Hayha operated a lot like a modern one-man sniper team, soooo… Yeah. He was a sniper, and he carried a sniper rifle.

        Doctrinally, I think the breakpoint is this: Does the man with the rifle operate as a part of a separate team, meant to have separate tactical effect, or is he a part of another team, like an infantry squad or fire team? If it’s separate, then “sniper”; part of a squad, then “designated marksman”. The rifles could be interchangeable, TBH. All they have to be capable of is precision aimed fire in the hands of an expert.

        And, in the end, it’s the man, not the rifle. One of my guys I had working for me at one point in my career was an absolutely amazing shooter, and could hit things with entirely improbable and scary accuracy. It was just a knack he had, which also bored the hell out of him. I tried getting him to try out for our AMU element several times, and just couldn’t do it. “Nah, I don’t want to shoot all the time… Then, it ain’t fun…”

  4. About the M1891 MN Sniper, another rifle that would not zero. Tried to do it with 2 different rifles and after working on them for over an hour, nada. Just would not zero. To the 1903’s credit, it was better in this regard but could not get a MN to zero more than 3-4 moa at 100yds. In my experience, worst of the WW2 sniper bunch.

    Thought it was me.

    Then started shooting a Sako TRG-21 and was having no problem at 400yds.

    Just my .02 but never met a WW2 sniper that a good shooter. Ok, but not good.

    Have a MK4 Enfield that hasn’t gotten out yet so that perspective might change.

    • “(…)M1891 MN Sniper(…)2 different rifles(…)would not zero(…)”
      In which year was that example made? Some pattern 1891/30 sniper rifle of wartime production were simplified and among others have birch stock, which decimated accuracy compared with prewar ones which have walnut furniture. Also PU sights made in 1943 and 1944 were of dubious quality.
      For more information see https://weaponland.ru/load/snajperskaja_vintovka_mosina_obrazca_18911930/88-1-0-390

      • There’s also the “forgery” factor to consider, and the “decay” one. There are a lot of faked-up Mosin-Nagant snipers out there, and there are a bunch of actual sniper rifles that are no longer capable of what they once were, due to wood warpage, corrosion, and general abuse. Just like anything, they wear out.

        I’d really hesitate to base my judgment of WWII-era weapons off of what they’re capable of today, unless I’d run them through the same sort of gauging and checking that they’d have gotten before acceptance for service. You just can’t tell.

        • Rifle wasn’t the standard MN, it was a Hungarian version of it. Off Rock Island Auction, in pristine condition. Bolt didn’t do the rattle thing most MN do (and service grad 1911 45 Autos). Was a well put together rifle that I thought would do fairly well. Unhappily surprised.

          Kind of a bummer.

          • Question is, what tolerances did that rifle actually have? Did it meet specs for the Mosin snipers?

            I’ve seen some of those Eastern European arsenal reworks that wouldn’t even close on a headspace gauge and whose barrels were abysmal. Looked good, though… Nice and clean. I speculate that the people doing the work weren’t exactly enthused about it all. Either that, or not all that competent to begin with. The Soviets pawned some real crap off on the Eastern Block, and the people doing work there weren’t always all that crazy about doing it, either.

            FWIW, a good friend of mine was and still is a major Mosin enthusiast, loves the things. However, even he recounts the story of buying a crate of rifles and going through them to find the “good ones” that shot well. Sold the rest at a gunshow as what they were, and a couple of ’em were merely really nice-looking wall hangers…

  5. The 1903 (c stock) with the unertl had just come our of CMP. Had it rebuilt to spec. All in all, an ok shooter but not great. Maybe 2moa with a brutal kick. Not fun to shoot at all.

    Your points were all good, and may have applied to the other two (MN and Weaver Scoped 03A4), but the Hungarian and Unertl were pristine.

    It did push me in the direct of PTRs. Much better, way better shooting guns and not as harsh. But then again, not built for a mass production war so gun makers could take their time.

  6. Two items 1) In late 1978, during the last couple of months before I departed for the Officer Advanced Course, I was assigned to my battalion’s S-3 (Operations & Training) Section as a “Liason Officer”. That my have been my title, but it was really doing the various odd jobs that could be found for me. One of the things I suggested was publications officer – I would review what every staff section and company had in terms of manuals versus what the Army said they should have and we’d requisition what was needed. So one day, the S3 Shop got a shipment of manuals and I was going through them to check off what we had gotten versus requisitioned and I found the Technical Manual (the operator’s manual) for “United States Rifle, Sniper’s, 30 Caliber, M1903A4”. I was astounded. I had heard stories that some had been used in Vietnam, but figured that was their last hurrah. But, apparently, the Army still had some in store someplace waiting to have the Cosmoline stripped off and be put back into action. 2) A year or two before, I was home on leave and just decided to stop in at a local dealer. This was not just a gun shop, he had ads in the various shooting publications and would ship what you ordered to your local FFL dealer nationally. As I was browsing through the racks upon racks of rifles, I spotted something I immediately wanted. It was an M1903A3 – I preferred the peep to the ladder sight – on a type C full pistol grip. I knew the combination was unusual, maybe rare and this might be the only one I ever found. Come to Papa, baby! Still have it

  7. The British Sniper School was due to the existence of the Lovat Scouts, who – among other things – introduced the world to the Ghillie Suit (Which was logical, since the Regiment was recruited from Scottish Gamekeepers or Ghillies).

    “The Lovat Scouts was a British Army unit first formed during the Second Boer War as a Scottish Highland yeomanry regiment of the British Army. They were the first known military unit to wear a ghillie suit and in 1916 formally became the British Army’s first sniper unit, then known as “sharpshooters”. It served in the First World War and then Second World War.”

    “Well practiced in the arts of marksmanship, fieldcraft and military tactics, they were also phenomenal woodsmen always ready to tempt fate, but also practitioners of discretion: “He who shoots and runs away, lives to shoot another day.”

    • The prime proponents of “sniping” in those days were the Boers. The Lovat Scouts were the British response to same.

      Ian Hogg’s rule still applies. “Nothing gives you an appreciation of the effectiveness of a new weapon or tactic quite like being on the receiving end of it.”



    • The local game keeper, when I was a child, had been a Lovat Scout in world war 2

      I was too young to know, and wasn’t on good terms with him.

      A present day good friend used to be his under keeper and got a few tales. the local cop from the late 1970s got a few tales as well. Somehow the guy had managed to stay out of the loony bin.

      He had been the top one in unarmed combat, and with a dagger. The former cop who had grown up in a coal mining village and had a reputation for finishing fights, said that the old guy had shown him some scary stuff.

      he seems to have been employed more as a scout than anything else.

      one tale had him and another scout in Italy, coming across a line of dugouts at dawn, and deciding to run along the top of the sandbags and lob a grenade each into each one.

      they’d rounded it off by running for their lives down a briar tangled hillside and getting cut everywhere

      another time he’d spent several days lying on his back in a ditch in some
      ?orange or ?olive groves, expecting to get seen and shot at any moment.

      I haven’t heard any tales of him being used as a sniper. though that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t employed for that

      the old guy died several years before I learned what the Lovatt scouts had actually been.

  8. Back then it was called the DCM, (Dept. of the Army, Director of Civilian Marksmanship). Not the CMP we have today.

  9. Great video and nice to see another good condition specimen. I own s/n 3407881 and have for some time. In very good condition but not near as nice as the one you featured. Mine clearly has seen some service.

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