OLD FRIENDS RE-UNITED
SPRINGFIELD & UNERTL
Im not especially a fan of old weapons, OK they're nice to look at from a historical perspective/curiosity/collection point of view and if thats your thing, then the Royal Armouries in Leeds is a must. Also it's fine if you can afford to buy expensive stuff to polish and hang it on your wall but considering the quality of steels and methods of production, how good were these rifles or should I say - how accurate were they, compared to what we expect of modern rifles today?
Having made my usual sweeping statement, I should say I do have a more than passing interest in the Vietnam war and its weapons so, sometime ago, after reading about the extraordinary shots and exploits of the famous snipers from that era, such as Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Marwhinny, I got to wondering, given their age and production methods, just how accurate were these rifles? Or were these well documented extraordinary shots just a case of these men being truly exceptional marksmen.
Only one way to find out...build one! Or should I say re-create one to the same specification as the original sniper rifle and test it. A great idea but naïve to say the least. The problem being I didnt realise that the necessary bits and pieces to create this test are becoming increasing hard to get hold of. Sorry, I should have said very (hens teeth type) hard to get hold of.
Choose your weapons
That was a tough one - there were several different sniper rifles used throughout the Vietnam conflict or that should be - rifles that were pressed into service to fulfil the role of a sniper rifle. The old adage todays wars are fought with yesterday's technology is as true today as it was then.
At the start of the conflict in
So, shortly after the start of the war, Lieutenant Jim Land managed to convince upper echelons of the USMC of the value of scout snipers for reconniassance and harassment of the enemy on their own ground. In 1960, the first of the Marine Corps scout snipers graduated from the Hawaian two-week school (one of which was a Private Hathcock) at this time there was no official issued sniper rifle and it was a case of whatever the local armours had at hand - this inevitably meant left-overs and
ad-hoc weapons from the WW11 and the Korean conflict.
In order to make this a tough test, I ruled out the Remington and Winchesters that stayed in service throughout the major part of the war as they are basically the same rifles that can be bought off the shelf today. And of course the semi-auto rifles such as the Garand were out because of our nanny-state government says we can't be trusted with such WMD. So I decided on a real tough test - the Springfield M1903A1.
To be totally historically correct, this rifle was getting past its sell-by date when
This rifle was usually built on, or around, the Springfield 30-06 National Match rifle which was taken and accuracy tested/ gauged and fitted with the then new and top of the line Unertl scope.
Unertl 8X scope was based on the Unertl target scope. This was quite a bold step for the military, in as such that the standard thoughts on the use of scopes for military use was in favour of very low power - i.e. 2X or 4X - at the most 6X. The rationale behind this low mag. was to give the shooter the biggest field of view possible. This is fine but it doesnt help the sniper to deliver pinpoint accuracy as we understand it today. The ret. is a fine cross-hair which affords the user an uncluttered view and best of all, a very fine aim-point.
Its worth noting that it's only in the past couple of years that the UK forces have moved up from a set magnification of an 8X S&B to the variable 12X, a move that was way overdue, so as you see the US military was way ahead of its time. The Unertl scope has a few other things going for it too; the rear mount or housing has an external micrometer ¼ clicks for windage and elevation. This may look a bit crude but its actually a very good method of making adjustments on a scope as it takes all the very small moving parts that would normally be inside the tube and does away with them. The downside is, it does become a place where dirt and general junk can accumulate in combat conditions.
There is still a healthy trade in the second-hand market for Unerlt scopes; they do have a somewhat cult-following around the world and the holy-grail amongst collectors is a true USMC 8X sniper scope. These were stamped and serial numbered on the side of the tube and if you have one on top of your wardrobe that a long-forgotten uncle left you, it's probably worth around the £5000 mark! So for the people who want to recreate the Springfield sniper rifle, the next best thing is 8X target scope, which is in effect exactly the same scope but even these are becoming increasingly hard to get hold of. It took me the best part of year to find a good one and get it over from the
The other question I always get asked about this scope is "What is the spring for?". Well, the scope was designed to move within its mounts under the recoil of the rifle and the spring returns the scope to its original position so maintaining the correct eye relief.
I started the search for a rifle around the same time as the scope and I thought this was going to be reasonably straight forward, after all the were thousands of Springfield National Matches made. When I started to ring round all the dealers, I was greeted by stunned silence, a sharp 'sucking of air' type noise or just plain laughter - not an encouraging start but the one name that did crop up time after time was that of Andrew Kukielski of Colenso Arms. Not only is Andrew a collector of this type of rifle, he is one of the few people in the country who is regarded as an expert and as such makes him an invaluable source of knowledge of where to get the various bits and pieces. Great, so I handed the problem over to him (a problem halved...) and true to his word, 6 months later I got a call saying he found one, in very nearly mint condition and it was in great nick for a rifle that was built around the 1920`s.
OK, got the rifle, got the scope, just a case of getting them together - did I say just? As usual nothing was that simple - the scope mounting-blocks have to be mounted in set designated positions, one on the barrel, one on the action. This pre-determined distance is what sets the value for the clicks, again luckily probably the only gunsmith in country with such a jig to do this job is gunsmith Roger Mason of Essex, who luckily was a friend of Andrew's.
A few phone calls later and all the bits were off to Roger to be assembled. Three weeks later, the woodwork on the forepiece had been altered and the scope-blocks were fitted and the scope was on. The whole rifle had been stripped, serviced and cleaned to bring it back to an as-new condition. Several days later and project that I had worked on for a year without seeing the majority of the parts, landed assembled in my lap. Given that I said at the start of this project that I wasnt a fan of old military rifles, I fell in love with this rifle as soon as I unwrapped it. It's light, well balanced and comes up to the shoulder really well. Andrew had even managed to get me a leather sling to finish it all off however the point of all this was not to stroke it but to find out what it's capable of.
Luckily there's lots of loading info. out there for this rifle and a search on the net throws up loads for everything from 155 to 220g bullets. I had plenty of 155 and 168 Lapua match bullets and in order to give the rifle the best chances, I gave it the best equipment to work with - Lapua brass and Redding competition dies and in order to be a little gentle on the bore, I moly-coated the bullets. I ran two test batches and both had similar promising results. Interestingly the best groups were @ 48.5g of N140 = 2650 fps - both showing 5 shot touching groups, I took the two best and ran the same test at 300yds. The 168`s really came into their own, showing a 10 shot group of 2 ¾ inches, so thats sub MOA.
Just as a comparison test, I shot a friend`s Sako TRG with a 8x32 Nightforce scope and the Springfield at the same distances 300yds, the Sako does have smaller 5 shot group of 3inch which was only to be expected but the old rifle did put up a good show on the day with a 3¾ inch group.
This was not very a scientific experiment but I did wind the power down to 8X on the NF to make it level playing-field but it does show what this 70 year old rifle can do. I would go further by saying that with some more load-development and in more experienced hands than mine, I'm sure that this rifle could do much more.
Going back to the beginning of this article I asked How accurate were these rifles? The answer is more accurate than I ever imagined - sub MOA!!
Andrew Kukielski 01787 224900
Roger Mason 01268 781 573