Public interest in competitive rifle shooting in the UK arose out of the Volunteer Movement that was inaugurated in 1859 with the object of producing a trained, armed militia to counter the then perceived threat of French invasion. At their training camps Volunteers practised rifle shooting and their regular and keenly contested prize competitions became very popular leading to the development of more accurate ‘Volunteer Pattern’ rifles in .451 calibre as opposed to the standard military .577. These rifles are highly prized today.
As the Volunteers had to provide their own firearms and equipment, it was mainly a middle – and upper-class pursuit in which the ordinary working-class man could not afford to participate.
Rifle shooting, which enjoyed royal patronage with Queen Victoria herself firing the first shot at the new National Rifle Association ranges on Wimbledon Common in 1860, was considered in Victorian and Edwardian society to be a desirable and legitimate pursuit. Shooting was therefore actively encouraged and major competitions such as the Queen’s Prize, which is still shot for at Bisley today, attracted huge crowds of spectators.
The Boer Wars and their Legacy
The Great (or Second) Boer War (1899-1902) started out badly for the British and Colonial troops who suffered numerous disastrous setbacks at the hands of the Boers (‘farmers’ in Dutch.) That this should have come as a surprise to anyone is difficult to credit as, only 18 years or so earlier during the First Boer War (1880-1881), British forces had also been badly mauled as a result of the superior fieldcraft and marksmanship of the enemy.
At the battle of Majuba Hill (27 February 1881), for example, a British force of 555 men suffered a total of 267 casualties, including their commander Sir George Cooley who was shot through the head when they fought an inferior force of Boers. An officer present later wrote about, “Bullets from an enemy we couldn’t see” having the effect that, “the Boer fire so completely dominated ours.”
According to Farwell (1999), “Never before in its long history had British arms suffered such a humiliating defeat: a group of unsoldierly farm boys had completely routed a British force containing elements of the Royal Navy and regulars from some of the most famous regiments in the British Army, and a force, moreover, that was six times larger than that of the Boers and in what ought to have been an impregnable position.’
Today’s civilian shooters are probably not aware that they owe an enormous debt of gratitude to two literary giants of the Victorian/Edwardian era, Rudyard Kipling, author of Britain’s favourite poem ‘If’; the ‘Just so’ children’s stories and a vast catalogue of other often patriotic writings and Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle who is now mostly remembered for his Sherlock Holmes detective stories and his history of ‘The Great Anglo-Boer War’.
[Note: Prior to researching this article I had assumed that ‘Conan Doyle’ was a compound surname so I was therefore surprised to discover that he was christened with the given names Arthur Ignatius Conan and that his surname was Doyle. A Michael Conan, after whom he was probably named, was listed as his godfather. At some time in his teens, Doyle began to call himself Conan Doyle but in 1902 he was gazetted for his knighthood for services to the British Empire simply as Doyle.]
In early 1900 Kipling, who had championed the British soldier in many of his writings and who regularly holidayed with his family in South Africa, set off for Cape Town to see for himself what was going on. Coincidentally, in the spring of the same year, Doyle, a Scottish doctor who had previously been rejected for a commission by the Middlesex Yeomanry, took up a voluntary post on the staff of a private field hospital in South Africa. There is no record of Kipling and Doyle ever having met while in South Africa.
British military tactics at the time were more suited to the Napoleonic era with artillery crews still serving their guns in the open only to risk being picked off at extreme range by the unseen Boers. Troops still advanced in line abreast across open countryside making little use of the terrain to provide cover, a practice that proved suicidal against concealed expert marksmen who also skilfully employed guerrilla hit-and-run tactics.
The effects of this superior field craft and marksmanship were seen at first hand by both Kipling in the field and by Doyle in the hospital.
Following the battle of Kari Siding during the British advance on the town of Brandfort (March 28 1900,) Kipling wrote that from a vantage point he had seen sheep begin to drop and kick.
‘(we) move(d) forward to the lip of a large hollow where sheep were grazing.’
‘That’s both sides trying sighting shots,’ said my companion.
‘What range do you make it?’ I asked.
‘Eight hundred at the nearest. That’s close quarters nowadays. You’ll never see anything closer. Modern rifles make it impossible’.
In fairness to the British soldiers of the period who are regularly criticised for their poor marksmanship, I should point out that the .303 Lee-Enfield rifles with which they were originally supplied had defective sights that over-compensated for bullet drift in the Southern Hemisphere, presumably to allow for the Coriolis Effect. The official rifle acceptance standard at the time required only that each rifle be capable of grouping within a specified minimum diameter circle irrespective of where on the target that circle was located. Later tests on these rifles confirmed that at 500 yards they were in fact shooting 18 inches to the right. Sight modifications were rapidly carried out but only after questions about the scandal had been asked in Parliament.
I can confirm that my own BSA commercial ‘Long-Lee’ manufactured to the original government sealed pattern in around 1900 and which has not subsequently been modified was frustratingly inaccurate with its original open sights but was transformed to target rifle standard when I fitted a contemporary windage-adjustable precision rear aperture sight.
One other disadvantage that our troops faced was that the 1896 Mauser favoured by the Boers was charger (sometimes wrongly referred to as ‘clip’) loading. This meant that although its magazine held only five rounds as opposed to the ten in the British Lee-Enfield which had to be manually loaded one round at a time, it could be reloaded and fired significantly faster. Contemporary photographs of Boer Kommandos often show them posing with their rifles while ostentatiously showing off five-round chargers ready to be thumbed into their weapons’ magazines. It is thought that this was done deliberately in order to taunt and demoralise the British troops who would later see them.
In 1906 a charger loading bridge was incorporated into the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield that replaced the ‘Long Tom’ and its carbine derivatives as the British infantry rifle.
Greatly affected by what they had witnessed, both Kipling and Doyle returned to England determined to do whatever they could to promote the cause of civilian marksmanship so as to prepare the populace in case of future conflict. The National Rifle Association of Great Britain had been founded in 1859 but by 1900 it was clear that the succeeding 40 years had not seen the general standard of British marksmanship raised to anything like an acceptable level.
At a Primrose League (Conservative) meeting in May 1900, the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury called for the establishment of civilian rifle clubs; his aim being that there should be ‘a rifle in every cottage in the land.’ Salisbury said that:
“If once the feeling can be propagated abroad that it is the duty of every able Englishman to make himself competent to meet an invading enemy, if ever, God forfend, an invading enemy should appear—if you once impress upon them that the defence of the country is not the business of the War Office but of the people themselves, learning in their own parishes the accomplishments which are necessary to make them formidable in the field, you will then have a defensive force which will not only repel the assailant if he comes but will make the chances of that assailant so bad that no assailant will ever appear.”
Kipling, who foresaw the coming conflict with Germany, favoured the use of full-bore rifles for training but immediately encountered problems in finding suitable 1000 yard ranges. By contrast Doyle, who believed that civilian marksmen could repel an invading army, championed the use of ‘miniature’ rifles that used either .22 rimfire ammunition or the then popular .297/230 Morris Tube ammunition which could be used on much smaller 50, 75 and 100 yard ranges.
Despite his fame, Doyle was not immune to criticism and on 28 April 1906 the following letter appeared in the Farnham, Haslemere and Hindhead Herald.
Sunday Rifle Shooting
Sir, — I observe in your columns a protest against our action in opening our range on Sundays, so courteously and temperately expressed, that I feel it calls for some word of explanation and justification on our part.
In the first place, I may say that this action has been taken, after mature consideration, by the unanimous vote of the whole committee, some ten in number, representing men of all shades of religious opinion. I need not say that we foresaw opposition, and that we intend to live it down.
At the same time, nothing is further from our wishes than to assume a defiant or offensive attitude towards the religious sentiments of the general community. The range is only open at such an hour in the afternoon as will clash with no religious service. The firing entails work to no-one, but harmless occupation to all. The noise in a Morris tube is so small as to cause no public inconvenience.
In these days when Sunday cycling, motoring, boating, and even golf, are universal, it is difficult to see any logical cause for an objection to the one form of amusement which may serve an important public purpose.
As to the general question of the uses of the Sabbath, I would remind you that our Protestantism came from Germany and our Puritanism from Holland and from Switzerland. In all three countries, and especially in the land of Calvin, it is quite usual to shoot on Sunday, indeed, Sunday is the day specially set apart for that purpose. In the time of James I of England, although this country was Protestant, shooting was, I am informed, compulsory on the Sunday. Our present views of Sunday observance, or rather, the views of our fathers — for the last twenty years have materially altered them — have no warrant in the history either of England or of Protestantism, but are the outcome of that somewhat local Puritanism which lingered as a last legacy of the theological disputes of the 17th century.
I am, Sir, yours faithfully,
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.
Undershaw, Hindhead, Haslemere.
Another constraint on the use of full-bore .303 ammunition in training and practice was its cost when compared with the cheap-as-chips .22 Long Rifle round and the Morris Tube centre fire ammunition, both of which could be fired from standard issue military rifles modified by the addition of suitable removable adapter tubes that fitted down the barrel.
By 1906, due largely to Kipling and Doyle’s support, 302 miniature and 307 full-bore clubs including Kipling’s own club at Rottingdean and Doyle’s at Undershaw, Glasgow had been established and affiliated to the NRA.
So great was the demand for suitable club rifles that between 1902 and 1914 the government donated thousands of surplus, ex-military Martini-Henry rifles and carbines to The Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs for conversion to .22LR by the Birmingham gun makers Bonehill and Greener.
A Typical SMRC .22LR Special
The rear sight is a recalibrated standard military ladder type fitted with a precision, windage–adjustable slider. You can also see where a thin wooden bedding insert has been added to the fore-end following the removal of the original .577/450 barrel and its replacement with a tubed barrel presumably from a .303 Martini-Enfield.
These ‘Parkerifled’ inserts were famous for their high quality of manufacture and installation and when fitted to worn out target rifles usually resulted in them becoming even more accurate than they were when new. This is probably what happened to this rifle sometime between the two World Wars. This particular example is a real tack-driver at 25 and 50 metres.
The Army soon realised the benefits of training raw recruits on small-bore versions of the current military rifle before they progressed onto larger calibres with their flinch-inducing recoil. To the best of my knowledge, all British service rifles have at some time been converted to .22 calibre for training both cadets and older recruits.
Military trainers are an ideal way to learn safe gun handling without the risk of developing bad habits due to recoil and noise. They are ‘real’ guns that exude history and are a delight to shoot. Due to the low cost of their ammunition they also make ideal first rifles for anyone who wants to own a part of our military heritage that they can use regularly on both outdoor and indoor small-bore ranges.
To the Victorians and Edwardians, shooting skills were highly valued and hence were encouraged and celebrated among the general population. Sadly, this is no longer the case and gun ownership, even for legitimate purposes such as target sports, is now generally looked upon with suspicion.
One example of just how much attitudes towards civilian shooting sports have changed since Kipling and Doyle’s day was the ludicrous political decision not to upgrade and use the existing National Shooting Centre at Bisley for the shooting events in the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Instead a completely new facility was created at Woolwich Barracks at an estimated cost of £40M only to be demolished in its entirety six weeks later when the events had finished. So much for the ‘lasting heritage’ we were promised from our hosting of the Olympic Games.
And the alleged reason for this decision? Bisley was considered to be ‘too far from London’ for the competitors. How strange then that it wasn’t too far during the 1908 and 1948 Summer Olympics that were also held in London or during the 2002 Commonwealth Games that were held in Manchester.
We have certainly come a long way from Lord Salisbury’s goal of ‘a rifle in every cottage.’
Our two literary benefactors must be spinning in their graves.
Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd. (1912), B.S.A. Rifles and Rifle Sights (Reprint), Aldershot, Selous Books
Bourjaili, P (1989), Champions of Civilian Marksmanship, The American Rifleman, July 1989
Farwell, B (1999), The Great Boer War, Ware, Wordsworth Military Library
Riall, N (2000), Boer War. The Letters, Diaries and Photographs of Malcolm Riall from the War in South Africa 1899-1902, London, Brassey’s
© Tom Pudding 2019
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