The last active-duty military unit in the world still using the M1917 rifle is the Sirius Sled Patrol (Slædepatruljen Sirius) of the Danish possession of Greenland. The M1917 is designated Gevær M/53-17 by the Sirius Sled Patrol.
Lying in the Arctic north of Canada and west of Iceland, Greenland is the largest island in the western hemisphere but is nearly completely covered by an ice cap and glaciers, and has a very tiny population – all of which is clustered in several coastal towns. The interior, and much of the northern coast, is completely uninhabited. Greenland was first colonized by Vikings in 986 and became a formal Danish colony in 1814. As such, it had no self-rule privileges and was restricted from trade other than Denmark. This situation lasted until WWII.
Sometimes called “the American Enfield”, the M1917 was an adaptation of the British P14 rifle to the US Army-standard .30-06 Springfield cartridge, which was used by the more famous M1903 Springfield rifle. The bolt-action M1917 was 3’10” long and weighed 11 lbs. It had a six-round internal magazine. All in all, it was a very good rifle of the time, albeit overshadowed in the American military by the M1903 Springfield which came before it and the M1 Garand which came after.
A large number were discarded just before WWII, with many being sold to Canada. Some (chambered for .303 British) were sold to the UK, which used them during WWII.
History of the Sirius Sled Patrol
In April 1940, Denmark was occupied by Germany during WWII. Across the Atlantic, this left the tiny Danish settlements on Greenland isolated. The Germans allowed a puppet government to remain in power in Denmark, but this was not recognized by any of the Allies.
The highest level of authority in Greenland was two sheriffs, who both refused to obey instructions from occupied Denmark. In the USA (still then neutral) a Danish diplomat informed President Roosevelt, who reacted favorably and dispatched the cutter USCGC Campbell (WPG-32) to Godthaab, Greenland, where representatives of the State Department established what amounted to an embassy with the sheriffs. President Roosevelt recalled a 1920 statement of President Harding, the so-called “no third country rule”, which said that the only situations the USA would accept in Greenland were continued rule by Denmark, or, self-rule by Greenlanders themselves.
Besides the diplomats, the Coast Guard also quietly “left behind” fifty M1917 rifles for the Greenlanders to protect themselves. One of the sheriffs, Eske Brun, was particularly interested in the weapons and established a fifteen-man force known as the Northeast Greenland Sledge Patrol.
Training was provided by the US Coast Guard and US Army, which infuriated Germany as President was all but ignoring neutrality in the matter. Sheriff Brun stated that his actions were in line with an obscure 1925 Danish “emergency situations in Greenland” law, and said that he viewed the situation as regrettable and would end it at the earliest opportunity. Brun also ended the ban on Greenlanders trading with countries other than Denmark.
Considering it’s size, the Sledge Patrol was quite effective in capturing weather stations and radio posts which the Germans tried to set up in Greenland. The US Coast Guard noted that the Patrol members were extremely good marksmen with the M1917. The force suffered one KIA during WWII, in turn, it took German POWs in numbers quadruple it’s own size.
When Denmark was liberated in 1945, Sheriff Brun stayed true to his word and immediately ended all of his wartime powers. He returned to Copenhagen to present himself for treason charges due to establishing a military force without authorization. These charges were filed and almost immediately dropped, and Brun later became the leader of Greenland, now a self-governing entity within Denmark.
The wartime force was renamed Sirius Sled Patrol and remained a permanent fixture, as did the M1917 rifles.
Origins of the Sirius Patrol’s M1917s
The Sirius Patrol obtained it’s M1917s from a number of sources, with “newer” acquisitions of the old rifle replacing worn-out examples. None of the original fifty provided by the US Coast Guard are still in use. After WWII, the first large lot was a donation from the Canadian military, which had phased the M1917 out. Some came from a lot transferred to Denmark from the United States in 1945; these were mostly used by ashore watchmen of the Danish navy and other second-line roles before being phased out there in the 1950s. Some were donated by Great Britain; these were of the rechambered .303 British style which were duly “unrechambered” back to .30-06 Springfield. Still others were M1917s which both Britain and the USA had provided to Norway, which in turn gave them to Denmark when no longer needed.
Popularity in the Sirius Patrol
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st, the Danish military repeatedly offered to re-equip the Sirius Patrol with more modern assault rifles. Every time, the force refused. The Grenlanders feel that no cartridge is better than the .30-06 Springfield for stopping a polar bear. The cartridge has a legendary reputation on the island. Additionally the M1917 rifle is, for whatever reason, impervious to cold and snow and functions perfectly in the worst conditions.
(The .30-06 Springfield cartridge. The Sirius Patrol uses the standard 168-grain military round, and also civilian hollow-points. The patrolmen feel that the full metal jacket bullet on the military round is best against polar bears at long range, but, that the hollow-points are better against an enraged musk ox. Typically, the patrolmen arrange their stripper clips so every third round is a hollow-point.)
(As the .30-06 Springfield is no longer a service cartridge anywhere else in the Danish military, some Gevær M/53-17s have this stripe to warn shooters not to mistakenly load the wrong ammunition. During WWII the British also marked their .30-06 guns this way.)
Modifications for Sirius Patrol service
The rear wing assembly of the M1917 is removed, and (in some cases) was replaced by the rear sight package of a M1 Garand. For the most part, by 2015 these too have been removed and most M1917s still in use in Greenland have a simple v-notch rear sight ahead of the action.
All have a circular hole-type notch cut into the upper action assembly, this is so the M1917s can be reloaded by M1903 Springfield-type stripper clips.
During the early 1960s, a large number of the remaining M1917s were completely refurbished including being rebarreled. These M1917s carry the “crowned VAR” stamp and year; the same as rebarreled Danish M1 Garands.
The refurbished VAR-rebarreled M1917s are of exquisite high quality. Their accuracy would be rated National Match standard in the US Army. A US Air Force airman in the 1990s said they were “…like pointing a laser”.
Current status and future
In the 21st century, the Sirius Patrol has six 2-man dogsled teams, armed with M1917s. Selection and training for the Sirius Patrol is amongst the most grueling of any NATO unit. Applicants have to be Danish, must have honorably completed prior service in the Danish military, and the hitch is a 26-month tour with two-man sled patrols operating in the arctic wastelands for weeks or even months at a time. Although the Sirius Patrol retains a wartime combat function, it normally does not operate as a part of the Danish army. Overall, the Danish military gives the Sirius Patrol a wide berth on how to operate itself, which is understandable given the extreme conditions.
The Sirius Patrol has refused offers of motor vehicles, as it feels that dog sleds remain the best transportation in Greenland. The dogs also offer early warning of dangerous animals and provide companionship to the patrolmen.
As previously mentioned, the Sirius Patrol has rejected all offered replacements for the M1917, and has plainly stated that it will not even consider weapons firing something other than .30-06 Springfield. As of 2015, there are no plans to even begin studies on a replacement so in all likelihood, by 2017 the Sirius Patrol will be armed with weapons one hundred years old.