The Magic Bullet?

Dan Rogersby Dan Rogers
Guns and Gunsmiths Contributor

If I were to classify this as an article on gunsmithing, shooting, or reloading I think it would be a draw on all three counts. I saw the call for articles on tips, tricks, and lessons; so I figured I would weigh in on a particular experience I had with a Remington M1903A3.

Like all good lessons they generally start with or end up making a good story. My lesson starts with a used (maybe overused) M1903A3 rifle that I came across in the used rack at my local gun store. The rifle looked quite handsome and I recognized it immediately from across the store.

I asked to see the rifle and saw the stock and bluing looked very good considering the rifle’s age and use. At a glance at the serial number, I reckoned the rifle started life as a Remington 03A3 circa September/October 1943 and then at some point was sporterized by Golden State Arms of Pasadena California. I was dumbfounded as to how the rifle found its way to Louisiana!

Rogers03A3 sporter

The store was asking something like 150-200 dollars as best I can recall. I continued to check the rifle and found the throat looked kind of long and the rifling was quite faint. I debated and debated and then left the store, but my emotions got the best of me. After returning home the agony of orphaning a rifle in such need and rationalizing that I had shot Mausers and Krags with bores that looked worse and they shot OK,

I booked it back to the store and purchased the old ’03. I am the grandson and great nephew of three World War II veterans, and the great great nephew of a World War I sniper. Nostalgia got the best of me and I was convinced it would shoot good enough. I was basing my conclusions on my previous experience and also the epic reputation of the rifles not only as military rifles but as sporting rifles. Maybe I had too much family connection or had read too much from the likes of Elmer Keith, Col Whelen, Maj. Hatcher, and Col. Craig Boddington.

There's rifling in there somewhere!

There’s rifling in there somewhere!

In any event the rifle was now mine and no longer orphaned. I took it home and cleaned and function checked the weapon — everything seemed to check out well. I then decided to grab a few dummies and see how the rifle fed and ejected because I noticed a very pronounced wear mark (groove really) in the bolt body where the extractor rides. I found that the rounds failed to strip from the magazine. I removed the rifle from the stock again to adjust the magazine spring so that the tension was sufficient to get the rounds to the correct attitude and angle so that the neck and shoulder of the round was no longer being driven into the rifle’s feed ramp. It was literally shredding the brass all over the feed ramp.

After I accomplished that I adjusted the extractor until it had the correct gap and tension to properly grip the head of the cartridges. At this point I understood why I got such a good deal on the rifle.

My first available chance I took my “new to me” 03A3 to my hunting camp. I carried along some surplus 30-06 ammo and my go-to 168gr handload. Needless to say I think I had got my hopes up too much. The 100 yd groups with the surplus ammo I did not even bother to measure, and the groups with my handload were worse than I wanted them to be. The best group I was able to squeeze out of the old dog was 1.8 inches at 100 yards with my best 168 grain match handload.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement because of how much effort I had to put into getting groups that I deemed too large for my liking. After all, my handload with my 168 Sierra Matchking ALWAYS improved a rifle’s groups. I had used it for over 10 years at the time. It shot single ragged holes at 100 yards in my Remington 700 BDL and kept them inside a quarter at 300 yards in that same rifle. I had crowned the load “The White Feather Special” in honor of Carlos Hathcock.

I eventually sluffed it off to the barrel and rifle being just too worn. I had performed all the usual checks to verify the rifle was OK. I double checked the bed and barrel channel, verified the action screws were torqued, checked the scope mounting hardware and the scope itself — all the usual suspects were either fine or adjusted slightly and still no change in the groups. I accepted that the rifle would just shoot “minute of deer”. I monkeyed around with the powder charge and overall length of my loads in order to find a happier combination for the tired barrel but never made any progress.

Deer seasons came and went. I carried the old girl on nice days when it was not wet and when shots were not beyond 200 yards. She served admirably and put venison in the freezer. I debated the idea of one day re-barreling it or doing a custom build and never gave the rifle much more thought. I really thought the bluing and craftsmanship of a by gone era would be disturbed if I did any barrel or custom work.

Fast forward a few years and a scout sniper buddy of mine and I decided to come up with a load to shoot in some local M1 Garand matches. I tried to tell him I already had a load that shot lights out. I explained that my 168 grain match load was plenty safe in the Garand and shot extremely well in mine. The powder and charge weight were correct for the Garand in both burn rate and pressure. I made sure my “White Feather” load would not hurt my Garand! I had done my homework.

My friend being deployed to Iraq with M118LR 7.62 ammo, touted the 175 grain Sierra Matchking as far superior to the 168 that I knew and loved so much. He eventually convinced me that the 175 was the way to go so we set about coming up with a 175 grain load that was safe for our Garands. What we developed was very close to my 168 load and effectively duplicated the old M72 30 caliber match round. We used 50’s vintage once fired military cases my Uncle had “donated” to me, CCI primers and IMR4895. The load was nearly exactly the same as my 168 load with the simple addition of the 175 grain bullet. The charge was reduced somewhat for the heavier bullet and the overall length was the same.

I figured we would head to the range and see that all our efforts were for naught. I was astounded to see that all the way to the 200yd mark our rounds were coming in right at the .5 MOA mark. At the 100yd line we were getting some cloverleaf groups and the 200yd groups never went over .5 MOA. Ecstatic we went back and cranked out oodles of these and got ready for the matches.

Fast forward even farther. I took all my ’03’s and my 30-06 hunting rifle to the camp on a whim to do some chrono work. When I arrived I noticed a box of my M72 (175 grain) clone ammo had been hanging out in my ammo bag. At the end of my chrono session I got the wild hair to try it in my old 03A3 sporter. I had read many times over the years that heavier longer bullets had more bearing surface and sometimes offered an accuracy improvement over lighter bullets in barrels with heavy wear.

I quite honestly expected no change in group size. I thought at best the gun may go from 1.8 inches at 100yards to maybe 1.5 inches. I fired a group and to my astonishment I went down range to find a cluster of rounds that grouped roughly .45 inches. I was in total disbelief. Thinking surely it was a fluke I sent another group, yet the results were nearly identical. Had I indeed found the “magic bullet” for this old rifle? Was it the bearing surface difference? Honestly I was too excited to care. My old friend had a new lease on life. The old Remington was a sub MOA rifle. It is practically smooth in the bore but will hang em under a half inch at 100 yards I almost thought I was dreaming.

168 grain on the left, 175 on the right.

168 grain on the left, 175 on the right.

I thought surely there’s a reasonable scientific explanation for this. It must be a difference in bearing surface. I decided I would call Sierra and ask what the specifications on bearing surface were for the 168 and 175 matchkings and see if I could attribute the cause to that. I learned from speaking with Phillip Mahin at Sierra that the bearing surface measurements for the 168 and 175 grain Matchkings are so close it would be very difficult to attribute my accuracy gain to the bearing surface alone. Though the nominal lengths for the 168 and 175 are 1.22 and 1.24 respectively their bearing surfaces are nearly the same he said. I knew the lengths of the bullets and the angles of their boat tails were different. The 168 has something like a 13 degree boat tail whereas the 175 has a shallower boat tail of something like 7-9 degrees I do not recall the actual figure.

I inquired would this difference at the heel of the bullet make it possibly run truer in the barrel. Phillip said it is possible but would be difficult to say, he did however state he had a similar situation with a .243 that had similar throat and barrel wear. He found that his rifle shot the 100 grain pro hunter (a flat based bullet) much better than the 100 grain gameking (a boat tail bullet) using identical components. The flat based bullet does indeed have more bearing surface because of the absence of the boat tail. The absence of a boat tail on a bullet of equal weight gives the bullet more surface that will engage the rifling. This surface that engages the rifling is known as a bullets bearing surface. He did point out though that his results were not as dramatic as mine.

As I stated in the beginning, it would be difficult to attribute this article to just one of the subjects of gunsmithing, shooting, or reloading. If anything it is a gentle blending of all of the above. A case study if you will in how all three relate to one another in improving the performance of one’s firearm. Getting my worn rifle to shoot better took an understanding of how all of the three disciplines work together as well as understanding how all of the hard parts (the ammunition, rifle, and rifle’s components) function.

I agree with Mr. Dunlap when he says you can’t fix something when you don’t know how it works. My grandfather, an engineering professor, was of the same school of thought. Although I could not definitively attribute my accuracy improvement to increased bearing surface, one could still make the argument that the longer bullet did actually shoot better. My experience if nothing else supports that rule of thumb. A simple change of bullet took a rifle from a candidate for a new barrel to a rifle with a new lease on life. This does not negate the wear in the rifle, but it allows me to have more confidence in the field with this wonderful old piece. It also allows me to have a rifle that performs much more satisfactorily without sacrificing its nostalgic patina. You too can have such success if you put in the time and remain dedicated to finding the “Magic Bullet” for your rifle.

Dan Rogers is a native of West Monroe, Louisiana who grew up in rural southwest Mississippi. He has since returned to West Monroe. He holds a degree in Automotive Science and works as a diesel mechanic at Hixson Ford in Monroe, LA. He has been there since 2005 and is currently a Senior Master Ford Diesel Technician. He has been an avid lifelong shooter and hunter and was taught his shooting skills by his father, grandfather, and uncle. His father was a US Army Ranger, his grandfather was a WWII vet and M1 Garand instructor, and his uncle a law enforcement officer and competitive pistol shooter. These men fostered his knowledge and love of firearms and outdoors and general discipline.

Dan has been a reloader for 15 years a skill taught him by his uncle. He enjoys improving, repairing, and maintaining firearms and the challenge of optimizing ammunition to specific firearms for specific purposes. His most loved discipline is high power rifle shooting and loading for high powered rifles. He aims to be a well-rounded shooter by maintaining a degree of discipline with pistol, shotgun, and rifle.

13 Responses to The Magic Bullet?

  1. Good to see another G&G contributor.
    Hope the rifle keeps shooting good for you.
    Great article, well written and interesting.
    Thanks for the article Dan. Cheers.

  2. Great article Dan! Love reading about these older weapons that have been granted a new lease on life. Doing your homework and constantly searching for the “why” can certainly lead to the desired results. Thanks for the article, Dan. Makes me wonder what else you might have up your proverbial sleeve. Looking forward to more articles in the future from you my friend. Keep your nose in the wind and your powder dry.
    Until next time.
    Fred Freeland

  3. Wow! I did not expect this much of a response from people. I appreciate the kind words of a fellow writer Dana.
    Fred, thank you for posting I have a soft spot for these old weapons for sure.
    Brady, many thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
    I hope I can continue to contribute information so that we can all learn to better our craft. Stay safe and keep ’em headed downrange!

  4. I had a similar experience with an old A3 that had. 2-groove barrel. Shot 180s in 1/2″ groups and would throw 165s all over the place. Go figure.

  5. Good to know I’m not the only one Ed. I have some 180gr flat base Sierras on the shelf somewhere. I thought about trying them to see if it got any tighter. That 175 is tough to beat in my 03A4 and also my 700’s I hate to go fixing something that aint broke!

  6. Nice article. Good information. Thinking about starting some reloading. This article has pushed me further in that direction.

  7. Very nice article and great story. Glad to read of someone who makes a living such as yourself and has such a fondness of the old weapons and a tender heart. Glad it turned out good for you.You have a great family history.

  8. I very much appreciate the kind comments. I would say to anyone contemplating reloading to get good information and give it a try. It has been the most enjoyable and rewarding hobby I have ever tried. I owe my uncle for that. He really took the time to teach me all he knew about it and challenged me to become a better reloader and shooter.

  9. Dan, I read your story with great interest. I own a fully original Remington 1903A3 built in February of 1944. I shoot this gun monthly at our local club who puts on a Military Bolt Action Bench Rest shoot. Guns must be original “as issued”, no bedding, no drop-in triggers, no sight changes. I as well shoot the Matchking 175 and love it. When I first started building a load for the gun I tried several different bullets including the “A-MAX” from Hornady in 168 Grain. I came to much the same conclusions as you except for the bearing surface. I started looking at barrel harmonics because of the 2 lands/grooves and barrel length. Some of m research led me to the fact that the gun was originally designed to shoot at 640 meters accurately with iron sights and the steel core 150 Grain military ball ammo of the day. Hope some of this helps. Be SAFE…..Shoot WELL!

  10. Roger that Lea! Great info. I have an 03 of 1918 vintage and a 03A4 that are in original configuration. I’d love to find an original condition 03A3 to round out the collection. They served our servicemen admirably and deserve to be preserved and enjoyed. Stay safe and keep ’em headed downrange

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