The Air Service Springfield 03

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Look up there! It's those amazing young men in their flying machines. The thing is, those early biplane pioneers needed a little bit of insurance and Uncle Sam had just the thing: a chopped down Springfield rifle.

Early US military Aviation

Until 1947, the armed force we know today as the US Air Force did not exist. From the time of the Wright brothers until then, the US Army had reign over most land-based military aircraft with the exception of those operated by the Navy/Marines and Coast Guard. Flying, then as now, is a dangerous activity. It was possible for pilots and aircrews to crash land in remote areas, unreachable by anything else except another flying machine. For military aviators you could add the prospect of being shot down behind enemy lines.

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The first US Army aviators to fly in a warzone were those of General Pershing's 1st Aero Squadron of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Air Service. These hardy flyboys were shipped 19 Winchester Model 1907 rifles and 9000 cartridges of .351SL ammunition to use in arming their craft if they got lost over the Chihuahua desert while looking for Pancho Villa in 1916. The Winny '07 thought to be lighter than the current issue Springfield rifle. Well when Pershing left with the American Expeditionary Force for France in 1917 to take on the Kaiser, he realized his much larger corps of flyers there would need a new rifle.

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The Air Service 03

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(they started with this)

By 1918, Pershing had requested 825 cut-down Springfield rifles for his air corps in France. Taking finished rifles directly from the assembly line at Springfield Armory, the Army changed the stock, band, rear sight, and hand-guard to make a new gun. The stock was not just a chopped standard one, but rather a wholly new design that ended just past the action to save weight, and was held in place by a special solid band.

The Air Service Springfield 03 - christophereger - tumblr-m4rpp4ywmv1r0n310o2-1280-1654.jpg
(and made this)

The sight was a modification of the 1905 Springfield sight, cut down and smoothed out, set for 100-yards. The sling and attachments were never fitted but the internal 5-shot magazine was removed and replaced by a 25-shot one. This was because aircrew would not have extra ammunition on their person, so a larger magazine already attached to the gun and loaded came in handy. The National Blank Book Company in nearby Holyoke, Mass. pressed these magazines out.

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The Air Service rifle didn't have a special designation other than "Rifle, U.S., caliber .30 M1903 stripped for aircraft use." By November 1918, just eight months after the request had been made; these guns were sitting in France, ready to go. Unfortunately, they never had a chance to take to the air as the war ended on November 11. This left most WWI aviators with only a trusty Colt 1911 stuffed into their flying suit.

What happened to them?

In 1920, the Army reported that they had 910 of these guns on hand. By 1925, at least 139 had been converted back to standard 1903's and reissued out to the service. There is no real hard answer as to what happened to the other nearly 800 chopped down Air Service rifles. It's possible that they were destroyed, converted, lost, broken up for their parts, or any combination of the above. Four are maintained by Springfield Armory, obtained in 1932, in their original condition as historic weapons.

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(hint: not a real Air Service Springfield)

A few are out there as collector's items in private hands. With such a rare item, they are often faked. The magazines themselves often sell for over $600 -- gun not included. Even much later 1903A3 (WWII-era) Remington manufactured Springfields, when fitted with an 'Air Service style' 25-round magazine extension sell for well over $1200 .

While there is no hard serial number list of these guns, they all ran in the 856000 to 863000 serial number range, and barrels had early 1918 dates. With that being said, if you should come across what looks to be a sporterised '03, in that range with a 1918 date on the barrel, it may be worth getting it checked out.

Or just give us a call, we will be glad to take it off your hands.

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September 29, 2014  •  06:11 PM
I believe I have recently acquired one of these rifles and have reason to believe it is not a clone, or "sporter. I do have some questions for Chris, the author of this article. Please email me at