P14 Enfield Rifle
One of the important decisions of the American involvement in the First World War was how to alleviate the rifle shortage for the Army and Marines. The Marines, a smaller and agile organization, was equipped with Model 1903 Springfield Rifles. However, production of Model 1903 Springfield rifle could equip the rapidly expanding Army. Several stopgap measures were used; undelivered American made Mosin Nagant 1891 rifles ordered by the now defunct Russian Tsar’s government were used as training rifles. Pressed into emergency service were older U.S. Krag rifles and carbines from the Spanish America War era and even some 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfields from the Indian for training or industrial plant security.
US Model 1903 Springfield Rifle
None of these solutions would equip a large American Army for combat in France. As a solution, it was decided to use the Pattern 1914 (P14) Enfield rifle in US service. The P14 was designed in the wake of the Boer War and was based on German deigned Mauser rifle principles. The P14 was a development of an earlier rifle originally designed for a high performance .276 cartridge and christened the P13 in 1913. The Mauser rifles used by the Boers outclassed the British lee Enfield rifles in the Boer War. The outbreak of the war in 1914 caused cancellation of this program. The British, desperate for rifles in 1915 and 1916 contracted with three American companies, Winchester, Remington, and Eddystone Remington, to produce the P14 rifle in the standard .303 British service cartridge. By early 1917 production of the M1917 reached 1.2 million P14 rifles. Surprisingly, during this period, British rifle production of the Lee Enfield met the voracious demand for rifles on all fronts. Additionally, the excellent performance of the Lee Enfield SMLE in the trenches made the introduction of the P14 unnecessary. Thus, the P-14 saw only limited use and was placed in war reserve at the end of the war.
SMLE, M1903, and M1917 rifles on the firing line.
The factories, tooling, and workforce were in place for mass production of the P14. However, American military and political leaders wanted no part of the British .303 cartridge. The .303 was perceived as inferior to the U.S. 30-06. No one wanted the confusion and supply problems generated in having two different service rifle cartridges. The decision was made to redesign the P14 to accommodate the 30-06 and the rifle was designated the U.S. Model 1917. This rifle is often referred to as the American Enfield or 1917 Enfield. It is incorrect to refer to the rifle as a P17. The United States never used “pattern” or “P” as a designation for military arms.
Model 1917 rifles started reaching U.S. soldiers in late 1917. After some initial problems with parts interchangeability, all three companies produced rifles at an incredible rate; in all 2.4 million Model 1917 rifles were produced by 1919. Some estimate 75% of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) were equipped with this rifle in France. Had the war continued into 1919 or 1920, production of Model 1917 rifles would meet demand.
But, if the military establishment had decided to use the P14, and not modify it for the 30-06, would it have really been a problem? The answer is no. The United States was already producing and selling large amounts of 303 British ammunition to the United Kingdom. The famous ocean liner RMS Lusatania carried several tons of 303 rifle cartridges when sunk in 1915. The capacity existed to produce the cartridge for the U.S. Military.
The problem of using two different service rifle rounds for U.S. troops in World War I existed. Doughboys used the dismal French 8x50 Lebel ammunition in the even more disappointing Chauchat light machinegun and in the Hotchkiss model 1914 medium machinegun. Also, although supplied by the French Army, African –American Soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd divisions were stuck with French weapons and other equipment including the cumbersome and awkward Lebel and Berthier rifles. Other American troops used British SMLE rifles during training which occurred in France before deployment to the trenches.
The P14 is a very accurate and adequately powerful rifle. It could have served the AEF well. The rifle is quite comfortable to fire and has less recoil with the 303 cartridge than the Model 1917 in 30-06. The immediate adoption of the P-14 would prevent rifle shortage experienced by the U.S. Army early in the war (1917 for the U.S).
The P-14 and M1917 rifles are superior for combat use than both the SMLE and the 1903 Springfield. The P-14/M1917 sights surpass any other rifles used in World War I. Metal ears protect the thick front sight and provide the soldier a very good sight picture. The close proximity of the rear sight aperture to the soldier’s eye improves the sight picture and increases the sight radius. The five groove barrel of the P-14/M1917 also demonstrates excellent accuracy. Some M1917 rifles were refurbished with two groove barrels in World War II, in fairness, these replacement barrels are accurate also. If the rifle has a weakness it is the lack of a windage adjustable rear sight. The front sight is adjustable with a tool. If the opportunity presents itself, fire the rifles of World War I and make up your own mind.