Sometimes, timing is everything, and it was fortuitous that at the time the United States declared war, three American plants were completing production of large numbers of the “Pattern 1914” rifles under contract for Great Britain. The .303 British Pattern 1914 rifle was a slight modification of the “Enfield .276-inch Magazine Rifle,” also known as the “Pattern 1913,” which was a modified Mauser design chambered for an advanced .276-cal. cartridge. The workforces and production machinery used to manufacture the Pattern 1914 were still in place, thus the firms could almost immediately go into production for the U.S. government. The manufacturers were: Winchester Repeating Arms Co., New Haven, Conn.; Remington Arms Company, Ilion, N.Y.; and Eddystone Rifle Plant, operated by Midvale Steel & Ordnance Co., an affiliate of Remington located in Eddystone, Pa.
Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell later said that three large plants with trained workers and tooling intact at the right time to manufacture critically needed rifles was “…well nigh providential.” While it was unquestionably fortunate to have these production facilities on hand, the Ordnance Dept. was faced with yet another dilemma. If the three plants converted from Pattern 1914 to M1903 production, troops would be issued the familiar ’03, but it would require an inordinate—and unacceptable—length of time to get a totally new rifle into production at three different factories.
The Ordnance Dept. also looked at adopting the Pattern 1914 in the .303 British chambering, permitting the maximum number of rifles to be manufactured in the least amount of time. But this would introduce a non-standard cartridge—one generally viewed as inferior to .30-’06 Sprg.—and add likely troublesome supply problems. Finally, the Pattern 1914 could be modified to accept the .30-’06 Sprg., which would reduce supply issues, but would cause some delay in getting the modified rifle into production.
After studying the options, American ordnance engineers were put to work modifying the British rifle to accept the U.S. service cartridge, and the result was adopted as “United States Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1917.” The American government was criticized by some for delaying the acquisition of additional rifles but, in retrospect, this was clearly the most logical choice. In 1919, a report issued by Assistant Secretary of War Crowell stated: “The decision to modify the Enfield was one of the great decisions of the executive prosecution of the war—all honor to the men who made it.”
In addition to the production delays, there was some resistance to the new rifle itself, as well as some misconceptions regarding its suitably for the American armed forces. An article in the widely-read "New York Sun" about the newly adopted rifle was entitled “Why our forces in France must use an inferior rifle,” and it cited a number of “facts” that were either misleading or outright falsehoods. Interestingly, this article appeared before any M1917 rifles had even been issued to American troops. A subsequent July 28, 1917, article in American Rifleman’s predecessor, Arms & the Man, soundly refuted the previous newspaper piece and gave logical reasons for the adoption of the M1917 as a supplement to the Model 1903 Springfield. You can read the article at www.americanrifleman.org.
From a technical standpoint, converting the Pattern 1914 rifle to chamber .30-’06 Sprg. was not particularly difficult. The M1917 possessed a strong, nickel-steel action that could handle the pressures of .30-’06 Sprg. with no problems. The fact that the Pattern 1914’s predecessor, the Pattern 1913 rifle, was originally designed for use with a rimless cartridge (the .276) actually made the M1917 more suited to the rimless .30-’06 Sprg. than the rimmed .303 British round.