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Historical Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Military History

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The 1850s was the decade when Long Range shooting really took off. It opened with the Minié Rifle, proceeded via the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny and closed with the introduction of the Whitworth and the founding of the National Rifle Association, the Final Stage of whose First Meeting in 1860 was shot at 1,000 yards.

The Enfield was introduced during the Crimean War and assumed its place there during the latter stages of the campaign alongside the Minié Pattern 1851. Much has been written of the awesome effects of the Minié Rifles but a comment by the Russian Commander Todleben will suffice: "....the enormous losses which the enemy’s riflemen inflicted on the Russian artillery. A perfect cloud of riflemen, hid in thick brushwood, opened a very violent and accurate fire against our artillery at the distance of 800 paces. Some of our guns from time to time rained case upon them, but the discharge only checked the fire of the enemy’s riflemen for a moment." Another extract states: "It was more the fire of rifled small arms than that of the artillery of the enemy which reached our artillerymen, of whom the greater part were killed and wounded."

A similar story of the long range success of the Enfield comes from the Indian Mutiny where Mutineers’ artillery was silenced on one occasion by volley firing at 1,100 yards.

While all this was going on the muzzle loading rifle was moving towards its ultimate form. Whitworth’s trials arrived at the calibre of .45 and the bullet weight of 530 grains with a 20 inch spiral using hardened paper patched lead. It is not the intention to go into the numerous forms of rifling that were tried, it is sufficient to say that the ratios arrived at by Whitworth suggest that the apogee of Black Powder and Muzzle Loading had been reached.

The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 is credited with having produced some astonishing results from the Whitworth. Some of the stories are suspect. Practical experience suggest that the account of the Union General sniped at and killed at a range in excess of one mile can only have been a complete fluke, if indeed, the victim was the actual object at which the sniper was aiming.

The widespread reported use of the Whitworth by the Confederates is a matter which today requires a degree of suspicion. These rifles were present and not only the production of the Whitworth Company, but others with hexagonal bores made under licence. However, it must be remembered that the name "Whitworth" was often applied by the Americans to the whole generality of British small bore rifles including the Turner, the Kerr, the Henry, etc., all of which produced remarkably similar spent bullets but which can, nevertheless, still be identified by the expert from the battlefield pick-ups.

In 1865 Metford produced a .500 calibre rifle weighing 15 pounds and fitted with a telescopic sight. This was specially made to shoot at 2,000 yards in trials organised at Gravesend. In 1866 another such rifle was made for and used by Sir Henry Halford, and these two rifles were the only ones to hit the target which was 24 feet wide and 12 feet high increasing in 1866 to 18 feet high. The charge of powder was 150 grains and the bullet weighed 700 grains. Elevations were to the order of five degrees. Hits varied from 8 to 14 in strings of 25 shots.

1865 also saw the first of the whole series of Gibbs-Metford Rifles in .461 calibre which, with their clones, were to dominate Match Rifle Shooting in muzzle and later breech loading form right through to the introduction of the .303 in the 1890s.

By now that crucial element in all Long Range shooting, the sights, had become very sophisticated and have not really been bettered to the present day. The foresight had developed into the tunnel with various forms of interchangeable inserts. These took many forms besides the usual circular ring. There was, for instance, a square aperture designed to frame the square black aiming mark used in the 1860s. It became apparent that some of these sight elements were dangerous and lists were prepared showing which were and were not permitted. The danger lay in those that obscured everything from the shooter’s vision except the aiming mark. In those days of iron targets, the marker had to appear at intervals to whitewash the target and the implications are obvious.

Others which have since fallen into disuse, such as the Goodwin Bar, are now enjoying a revival and are found to give very good results. The addition of a cross levelling bubble appeared in the middle 1860s. When using elevations of 120 minutes or more it was crucial that the sights were vertical as canting them had a serious effect both on line and elevation. It was usual to adjust for windage on the foresight which was normally adjustable laterally by a screw threaded through a dovetailed block on the muzzle. This was regulated by a scale engraved in whichever divisions the maker had decided upon.

Rear sights consisted of a long bar mounted on the wrist and later on, either the wrist or the heel of the butt for back position shooting, which became more and more popular towards the end of the 19th Century. The adjustment on these was for elevation only, the windage being on the front, until the advent of breech loading made this very impracticable. Fine adjustments were made by means of the Vernier Scale, the use of which was well understood. In order to move the sights smoothly and fairly rapidly it was normal to use double start threads which require a delicate touch in the making. The use of "click" adjustments was not normal although there are very likely examples that were made. It is true that there is nothing new under the sun.

Makers had their own ideas on the subject of the best way to measure elevation on the rear sight, with the front sight usually following the same scale. The best known are Whitworth’s use of inches divided into hundredths and Metford’s degrees and minutes. Of the two, Metford’s was the more scientific and modern shooters also use minutes of angle as this is a measurement that can be translated easily and quickly into subtended distances at any range.

The arrival of the .303 and its counterparts overseas saw the last of the truly long range small arms intended for general issue to the infantry. The early Lee Enfields, before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, retained a feature which combined the great range of the new cartridges with the ancient concept of volley firing. Experience on the wide plains of India, North and South Africa suggested that at ranges far beyond any possible ability of a marksman to strike an individual target, entire platoons or companies firing volleys could blanket an area target with fire. For this purpose an additional sight known as the Collective Sight was fitted to the left side of the fore-stock. It was graduated to 2,800 yards allowing a further 800 yards over the normal barrel sight which was limited to 2,000 yards. The short range carnage of the trenches and the use of the medium machine gun, in a role similar to that of a light field gun, put the finishing touches to this idea which has never been revived.

As this is an Historical Perspective it will not go beyond 1914 because target practice at 1,000 yards, increased to 1,200 yards by the end of the previous Century, is not exceeded today and the Military now seem to regard 600 metres as about the maximum effective range of the new 5.56mm. Certain limited military arms are retained which are capable of long range sniping but the generality of infantry today are not expected to know the Art of Musketry as did their grandfathers.

Today’s Historical Shooters have revived the art of 19th Century Long Range Shooting alongside their modern counterparts, the Match Riflemen of the English VIII and their rivals of the Scottish, Irish and now the Welsh VIIIs. The use of the modern Match Rifle is increasing as evidenced by the annual rise in entries for the "Hopton" Match Rifle Aggregate Championship held each year at Bisley. Perhaps tradition now has more influence than the needs of the military.

To close this Perspective an account of "Billy Dixon’s Long Shot" taken from the Journal of the American Single Shot Rifle Association will make a fitting end. In June 1874, a mixed group of Comanches, Kiowa and Arapahoe attacked a trading post in the Texas Panhandle; an engagement known as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. On the third day of the engagement, Billy Dixon shot an Indian at the distance of 1,538 yards with a 50/90 Sharps. Dr. Donald Fusia, Junior, of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, published an article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences (Volume 34, No.4 of July 1989) entitled "A Trajectory Analysis of Billy Dixon’s Long Shot". The article investigated the factors involved in such a long shot. The wind deflection at 14.3 miles per hour = 28 feet. The bullet drop was 318 feet. The time of flight 4.8 seconds and the remaining energy 630 foot pounds. From personal experience this author would have allowed for a much longer time of flight but that is his opinion only and he is not familiar with the criteria used by the learned doctor.