A History of Drill and Training Rifles Part 1

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By Malcolm MacPherson


The terms drill rifle and training rifle are often used interchangeably. There are subtle differences between the two and some specimens do not fit well in either category. However, I feel there needs to be some distinction made between the two. A more specific definition and correct usage will help differentiate between the different types.

Dictionary definitions:
Drill – Training in formal marching and other precise military movements.

Training – To undergo instruction designed to impart proficiency. It is obvious that military drill requires a device to simulate the handling characteristics of a firearm and that rifle training requires a mechanical devise that can perform the functions of a military firearm in order to develop proficiency. I offer the following definitions that more clearly reflect the difference between drill rifles and training rifles.

Drill Rifle – Any device having the same general shape and weight of a military firearm that has no movable parts or functional sights, or an obsolete military firearm that has been modified to prevent it from firing live ammunition.

Training Rifle – A replica of a current military rifle, having movable parts and functional sights, which can simulate the functions of that firearm but cannot fire live ammunition, or a current or similar military rifle that has been modified to the degree that prevents it from firing live ammunition. It should be apparent that a Training Rifle can be used for drill instruction but a Drill Rifle is not appropriate for rifle training.

With the onset of WWI the American public became interested in military training. Groups of men and boys formed organizations that promoted military drill and rifle training. The periodicals of the period are full of advertisements for instruction manuals, uniforms and inexpensive training devises. Several firms advertised inexpensive 1903 Springfield replicas for drill purposes. They ranged from crude wooden rifles to excellent functional replicas. They ranged in price from a few cents to several dollars.
Drill rifles are interesting due to their variety and application. In some cases they differ only slightly from training rifles, making them difficult to classify. In the past, drill rifles were often made from obsolete military firearms that had been modified in such a way as to make them incapable of firing live ammunition. While drill rifles had some military application, their primary use was in training non military personnel in the various elements of drill with a firearm.

Frequently this occurred in military schools, ROTC programs and color guards. In these applications it was desirable to use non-firing rifles for safety and economy. These obsolete rifles were usually very inexpensive and could be easily obtained from military surplus outlets such as Bannerman’s or the DCM (Department of Civilian Marksmanship). In some cases these rifles were sold as functioning firearms and later deactivated in some way by the purchasing organization. The steps taken to deactivate obsolete rifles depended greatly on the supplier and their intended application. In some cases the only thing that was done was to cut off the tip of the firing pin. At the other end of the continuum, relatively modern military rifles had significant modifications that would prevent them from ever being made operative again. All drill rifles used by the military fall into this last category. In all cases they had the same appearance and feel as the original rifle.

Drill rifles are subjected to considerable handling abuse and frequently have surface damage. To prevent injury to the handler the sight blades were usually removed as they were an unneeded appendage. In later years some wooden stocks were replaced with plastic stocks that would withstand greater abuse. This was particularly true of drill rifles used by drill corps that had routines where the rifles were thrown in the air during a performance. As each model of military rifle became obsolete they became available through military surplus. In the US, the pattern most used has been the 1903 Springfield. This was due in part to the huge numbers that were available as a result of production during WWI and WWII. This pattern also has a weight and shape that make it desirable for drill purposes. There is a category that I will call parade rifles that are functioning rifles that have been highly refinished and are used by color guards in parades or to fir[ing] salutes. The metal parts are usually polished and often chrome plated. These are nearly always used by veterans’ organizations. I do not consider them as traditional drill rifles because they are carefully handled and can still fire live ammunition.

Another category is called “Quaker Guns” which are fake guns. The Quaker opposition to war was the source of the word Quaker in the term Quaker Gun. The term Quaker Gun goes back as far as the American Revolution when logs were peeled and made to represent cannon. This occurred twice during 1780 at the battle of Rugeley’s Mill and at Hunt’s Bluff in South Carolina. Such artificial cannon were also used extensively by both sides in the American Civil War and the military use of such fakes continues to the present time. Francis Bannerman was a dealer who bought great quantities of military surplus following the Civil War. He was the first person to apply the term “Quaker Guns” to hand held firearms. He was always looking for new markets and between 1890 and 1920 he modified obsolete rifles by replacing their metal barrels with wooden barrels and applied the name Quaker Guns to them. These were much lighter in weight and were sold to organizations of boys. Two of these were the “Sons of Union Veterans”
and the “Baptist Boys Brigade”. They represent one of the earliest form of non-firing drill rifles.

Bannerman also sold fully operational military rifles that could be converted into drill rifles with only a slight modification. Between 1910 and 1920, he converted Model 1891 Russian rifles into drill rifles by shortening the barrels, modifying the magazine and removing the firing pin tip. These drill rifles were made to look as much as possible like the 1903 Springfield. He was very creative in developing a market for his military surplus and sold his “product” all over the world. I will attempt to identify various models of drill rifles. In every case you will find variations in the way individual rifles have been converted because they were produced at different times by different suppliers.

The 1873 Springfield rifle was probably the first US military rifle to be used as a drill rifle. Prior to this period all of the firearms were muzzle loaders and could be used for drill with no alteration. The 1873 Springfield rifles in functioning condition were available from Bannerman’s for about $3 dollars in the early 1900’s. Many military schools used these as drill rifles through WWII. The usual modification was to remove the firing pin and occasionally remove the sights. I know of one example where a hole was drilled through the barrel at the rear sight mounting screw hole. Most of these 1873 Springfield drill rifles will have some markings on the butt stock that would identify them as drill rifles. These markings may be numbers or letters stamped, branded or painted on the butt stock. This was done by the institution for accountability purposes.

The Krag rifle was only used for a very brief time and was soon made obsolete by the 1903 Springfield. The Krag had many design features that made it a poor choice as a military rifle. The large magazine port near the balance point made it less desirable as a drill rifle. While some Krag rifles were released to American Legion Posts and military schools they were most often used for parade purposes. They are rarely found with significant alteration or stock markings. Millions of 1903 Springfield rifles were produced from their introduction in 1903 through the end of WWII. The first 800,000 of these rifles are called “low number” and are considered unsafe due to improperly heat treated receivers. These low number rifles were withdrawn from use by the military and at various times sold as surplus. Many of these rifles were modified and became drill rifles. Following both World Wars many functioning rifles were released through the DCM for purchase by civilians at a very low cost. This made them very attractive for drill
purposes. Many of these 1903 rifles that were used for drill only had the firing pin tip ground off and the front sight blade removed. The clearest indication of their use is the external condition of the wood and metal surfaces. Both will often show significant dents and abuse. All of the 1903 rifles that were uses by the military had significant de-mill operations performed on them. The barrels were plugged and the receiver was welded to the barrel. Usually the magazine cut off was welded to the receiver so that the bolt could not be removed. In most cases the front sight blade was removed. When the supply of wooden stocks was depleted a replica plastic stock was manufactured that was much stronger and could stand a great deal of abuse. This modification is an example of a gray area between Drill rifles and Training Rifles as it can still perform training functions.

There is also a group of wooden replicas of the 1903 Springfield. They tend to be rather crude and often have few metal parts. They have no moving parts and are usually significantly lighter in weight. Most of these are unmarked and it has been difficult to determine their origin or date of manufacture. It is highly probable that they were all made between 1915 and 1925. The M1 Garand has seen some use as a drill rifle but it has handling characteristics that make it less desirable. They are frequently used as a parade rifle and there are also non-firing replicas available for drill.

There are a considerable number and types of non-firing training rifles that were produced during the first half of the 20th century. The vast majority of them were made by Japan, Great Britain and the United States. Japan used them primarily to train school boys, while Great Britain and the United States used them with military personnel.

Following WWI Japan initiated a program that required all high school age boys be instructed in weapons training as part of their education. This practice continued through WWII. They produced thousands of training rifles using parts from older firearms as well as converting the type 30 rifles that had been used in the Russo-Japanese of 1904-1905. There are many variations of their training rifles but they all have functional bolts and sights. Some of them could fire live ammunition but were chambered for cartridges other than the current Japanese round. Some models were designed to fire blanks and often had smooth bore barrels. Some specimens have the original markings ground off but there are no special markings that would identify them as training rifles. They vary greatly in condition and quality. Many of these rifles could be considered operational firearms rather than non-firing training rifles. They are included here only because of their intended use. There was a great shortage of US military rifles prior to the start of WWI and WWII. As a result of this shortage there were several Drill and Training rifles produced for the military and civilian use.

During WWI the only true training rifle was produced by the United States Training Rifle Co. It is the most accurate replica of the 1903 Springfield rifle ever produced. It not only had the look and feel of the 1903 but also had an operating bolt and an adjustable rear sight. They had a contract with the US Navy for 10,000 training rifles.

During WWII the Parris-Dunn Training Rifle was used by the US Army and Navy. This was a very inexpensive replica of the 1903 Springfield and was much lighter in weight and had a simplified bolt and trigger mechanism. Although is had moving part and sights, it is in the gray area as it was used primarily for guard duty and similar activities by troops stationed in the United States. They produced 335,000 of these training rifles under military contracts.

There is another group of non-firing rifles that generally fall in the training rifle category. These are dummy rifles that were used for bayonet training. These generally have no sights or moving parts but were designed to be of the same weight and shape as a military model.

The next installment: Early Drill Rifles

From the paper, Non-Firing Drill and Training Rifles, by By Malcolm MacPherson

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