Source: The Saturday Review, 4 July 1885
JUDGING from some recent despatches and War Correspondents' letters, the expression "long-range rifle-fire" is acquiring a meaning more significant than that actually indicated by the words which make it up. In speaking of the target practice of the army and of match-shooting generally, the distance between 700 and 1,000 yards are usually called "long," just as those under 300 yards are called "short"; 400, 500, and 600 being middle, or intermediate. The French make very nearly the same distinction. But the expression we are noticing seems to suggest that not only is the distance (which may be any number of yards between 600 and 3,000) generally unknown, but also that there is more or less uncertainty on the side of those under fire as to the actual direction from which the bullets come. It gives, in fact, an idea of a harassing and annoying fire, de-livered almost with impunity from a point all but vanishing.
Just after Plevna a good deal was heard about long-range rifle-fire; but it is hardly too much to say that an idea of its probable power when skilfully applied was only definitely brought home to the great mass of Englishmen on the receipt of Sir Redvers Buller's reports, viâ Korti, on Saturday and Sunday, the 21st and 22nd of February last. The whole situation was, of course, intensified by the recent news of Sir Herbert Stewart's wound, by the reported death of General Gordon and the certain fall of Khartoum, by the withdrawal from Gubat, and, to some extent, by the departure of the Guards for the East. In addition to the uncomfortable feeling that things were going generally wrong, all England became for forty-eight hours exceedingly anxious. When, a day or two later, it was known how Major Wardrop had proved almost literally one too many for the Soudanese sharpshooters, the feeling of relief showed how great the anxiety had been. Of course undue importance may be given to long-range fire, just as it can, and sometimes is, for example, to the value of the bayonet as a weapon; but it will be generally agreed by those who know anything of the matter that at the proper time and place long-range rifle-fire has, like lobs at cricket, its very great uses, but, also like lobs at cricket, if not good of its kind, it will be useless and expensive.
There is no precise record when rifles were first used in war. "The middle of the seventeenth century" expresses as well as limits the vagueness of the date. It is known, however, that in 1680 each troop of our Life Guards was supplied with eight rifled carbines; and that in 1800 the 60th Rifles were armed with the "Baker" rifle. Long-range rifle-fire, in its present sense, is of much more recent date. During the first half of the present century the distance to which a rifle-bullet would range must appear to the modern rifleman wholly insignificant. Indeed, so far as actual flight was concerned, old "Brown Bess" of the Peninsular War time would throw a bullet (if you could trace it) a good deal further than could the Baker rifle, which won for our rifle regiments a goodly string of "honours," from Roleia to Toulouse. In those days the difference in shooting between two hand-made arms of the same pattern was often considerable. But, whereas an average Baker rifle could make it very dangerous for a "head and shoulders" 250 yards off, the smooth-bore musket was so erratic that it was of little use trying to hit a single man at distances over a hundred yards. On the other hand, while the smooth-bore loaded easily, the loading of the seven-grooved Baker rifle was always troublesome, and, after a few rounds had been fired, generally very difficult. Many a time must those old rifle-men, while grunting and sweating over a weary load and under a Spanish sun, have envied the nimble business of the smooth-bore ramrod. In 1836 (already following foreign example) we gave the two-grooved Brunswick rifle, firing a belted bullet, to our rifle regiments. It loaded a little easier and shot a little better than the Baker, but the improvement was one of a few degrees only. The Brunswick, like the Baker, fouled very considerably; and the fumbling, especially in cold weather, to get the belt of the bullet into the groove at the muzzle was a horrid drawback. The most that could be said for it was that it was as good as other peoples, better than the Baker, and probably the best that could be got. Doubtless there were soldiers of a good old sort who voted both the "Brunswick" and the "Baker" more plague than profit. But, notwithstanding the plague of loading, those old rifles - meaning thereby both the men and their arms - had a profit all their own. There was a distinct speciality not only in name and in the jacket but in the arm and in its use. The brunt of that kind of fighting which comes under the general head of sharpshooting fell naturally to the share of the men and the arms who could do respectable business at distances treble as great as could the ordinary "firelock"; and well, parenthetically be it said, did the old 60th Rifles and old 95th (afterwards the Rifle Brigade) uphold their special and honourable rôle, demanding, as it taught, increased intelligence and greater self-reliance. We look now with wonder at the old pattern rifle, but the work done in the Peninsula, in the Punjaub, and in the old Cape wars was too good for either masters or workmen to complain much about the tool. It may be that the Baker-Brunswick tradition is still bearing fruit. But when all is said and done, there was nothing in those days of the nature of long-range rifle-fire. The whole combat was within easy view of the commanders on both sides. However carefully the good rifleman kept out of sight, the smoke of his rifle was plainly seen at the moment of firing. No bullets came humming over the zareba (nor now and again into it with a deadly pat) at uncertain intervals by day and night from an unseen enemy at an unknown distance. It was simply not in the rifle or musket of our own or any other army to do it. Fire at the longest range was too short to be called long-range rifle-fire as we now understand that expression.
In the quarter of a century between 1825 and 1850 men, generally Frenchmen, went to work to invent a military rifle which should combine accuracy of shooting with ease and rapidity in loading. The names of the inventors, the dates, methods, and reasons of the failure of each speciality (are they not written in the Hythe text-book?), make a story as dull as any other about still-born inventions. At last, in 1847, Captain Minié, of the School of Vincennes, hit upon the right thing, and gave his name to a system. This, as almost everybody knows, was an elongated bullet which went easily down the barrel when loading, but was made through self-expansion to fit the grooves tightly at the moment of firing. Our own "Minié" rifle of 1851, and then our "Enfield rifle," pattern 1853, though improved again and again both in barrel and ammunition, were on the lines of Captain Minié's principle. In 1855 the "Enfield" took the place of the smooth-bore musket as the general arm of the infantry of the line, and the place of the "Brunswick" in our rifle regiments. Here, then, we may date the beginning of long-range rifle-fire. It was applied with good effect in India during the Mutiny, and afterwards in the hill fights with the frontier tribes. Presently, with the introduction of small-bores, the range grew longer. A short time ago there was a sort of controversy in the Times as to the credit due on the one hand to the first inventor, and on the other to the later improvers, of small-bore rifles and ammunition. Apparently the question lies in a nutshell. When the body of the pack is going on hard, all honour to the two or three hounds who are racing for the lead; but none the less does the observant master, particularly if he carries the horn himself, make a note in his mind, and possibly in his diary, of the grand point made ten minutes back; if it had not been for that capital hit at the cross-roads, a brilliant run would have been lost altogether. That, about 1857, Sir Joseph (then Mr.) Whitworth, not at that time a gunmaker, showed a line to the riflemakers of the world is beyond dispute. Anyhow, all who had any pretension to note followed him in his rapid twist and in the .450-inch bore. It is equally true that since that date several leading gunmakers, in developing their particular systems under the same general prin-ciple, have vastly improved the shooting of the small-bore rifle and made themselves names more or less famous. It is generally difficult to count, with any degree of exactness, the points made on the one hand by an inventor, and on the other hand by those who may have improved on the invention; but as between Sir Joseph Whitworth who once led the van, and those who have since followed in his wake, the long-range honours appear to lookers-on to be pretty evenly divided.
Just at present there is very little to choose between the different patterns of rifle carried by the several armies of the chief European Powers - perhaps the Russian "Berdan" is, if anything, slightly in front of the rest - but, if one may hazard an opinion about the future, there will before very long be a considerable and general increase in the reach and accuracy of long-range rifle-fire. Whether our own service rifle is to be replaced by the .40-inch bore, designed at Enfield, appears to be still uncertain. Between the respective merits of the two patterns-namely, the "Martini-Henry" and the "Martini-Enfield" - some comparison was made in the Saturday Review of the 16th of February of last year. It is certainly unfortunate that the new Martini-Enfield, though it has a lighter bullet, has a heavier barrel than the Martini-Henry. Any one who is used to carrying a gun knows that a little extra weight is highly objectionable, and every one used to soldiers knows how strongly as well as rightly all ranks would object to one unnecessary ounce. If the designer of the Martini-Enfield could, without losing any of its hitting power, make the arm a little lighter instead of a little heavier than the service rifle, he would (as they say at Lord's) score grandly to the "on" and to the "off" in one over. As the case stands now, the Martini-Enfield has been so long in emerging from the experimental stage, and there has been so much discussion about the extra weight of metal, that people begin to wonder whether the new rifle will ever get off the stocks at all. Lately, as everybody thought, we were within an ace of having to cross a consider-able, river, and, if our troops are ever to have a better rifle, it would be just as well to get the .40-bore question settled and the proverbial swap made before we are actually in the ford and on the point of swimming. To give our infantry a rifle which, as regards hitting power, is as superior to the English "Martini-Henry" and to the Russian "Berdan" as those rifles are to the Snider seems to be a point worth securing in a match which, sooner or later, is pretty certain to be played. In war, as in sport, there is a good deal of truth in the old adage, "A match well made is already half won." There is, of course, the question of quickness of firing as well as that of long-range with accuracy, and, no doubt, at this very moment all military Europe is looking this way and that way for a perfect magazine action; but when-ever it drops from the clouds or turns up from America or else-where, it will be time enough to adopt it. In the meantime, let us decide, if we can, upon our barrel of the future. Hereafter, if desired, it can be combined as easily as any other barrel with a magazine action.
In all probability the new .40-inch bore Martini-Enfield gives results as good as can be obtained under the present condition of science; for, so long as the shoulders of men, the winds of heaven, vile saltpetre, and so forth remain what they are, power to range with becoming accuracy must be limited by the considerations of recoil, length of bullet, fouling, and so on; and, again, given by supposition unlimited range, the power to apply fire with useful effect is practically limited by the ordinary scope of man's eyesight and by the natural features of the battle-ground.
And here in the middle of our long-range we venture to let off this practical question for what it is worth. When inviting fresh competition, or when considering the merits of any new rifle, it might be well to lay down beforehand the extreme distance at and up to which excellence of grouping of the shots shall be considered a sine qua non, and beyond which it would not, in a comparative trial, be taken into account. This particular distance, which, we take for granted, could be easily determined by our superior officers used to war, would probably lie between 1,500 and 2,000 yards. The restriction, in the best sense arbitrary, would at all events have the effect of clearing the ground satis-factorily, both for competitions and judges.
After all, long-range is, in itself, the foundation only of good long-range fire. To get the full value out of a superlative arm there must, of course, be added the capability to find the correct distance of the object, and the possession of much skill in shooting. A good range-finder is absolutely necessary. One, the use of which is difficult. to learn and easily forgotten, which re-quires delicate manipulation, which soon gets out of adjustment and not seldom out of order, is, however accurate at times, of no use whatever. An instrument the reverse of all this, but always accurate, handy, light, and requiring a very short base, is the one for the field. (The babbling hound, right once in a way, is the one of all others you should draft.) Since the first Wimbledon Meeting in 1860 people have been gradually learning that, in order to make a string of bull's-eyes, motionless holding and perfect aiming must be preceded by great care and judgement in the matters of "elevation" and wind-gauge, and accompanied by close observation throughout the practice. But for good long-range firing in the field there must be more than this. To be able to pelt the enemy from a distant vantage-point, through inter-vening dust and smoke, and perhaps after sundown, means an acquaintance with the craft which, by means of the proper adjustment of stakes or cairns or dark lanterns, establishes during clearer intervals a part of the "line of sight" which for purposes of aiming is equal to the whole. This theory of thus seizing betimes a portion of the "eyeline" (well called so by the Americans) is taught in our own and some Continental manuals of musketry instruction. We are not certain how far theory is put into practice; but firing at extreme ranges being one of those many things where a grain of showing goes further than a bushel of telling - being, also, something of greater consequence than feux de joie - it would be as well not to put off the showing in question until early in the morning of the day on which the reality may be wanted.
About machine-guns there still hovers a small cloud, partly, perhaps, of Egyptian sand. But when the difficulties of jam-ming, of locomotion, and of tactical disposition have entirely dis-appeared, the Nordenfelt or some other pattern is sure to come to the front in long-range rifle-fire. It will probably take one or more European campaigns, with a siege or two (giving time and opportunity for crucial trial), before the value of the game of infantry long-bowls is fully recognized. This will be a case where there can be no challenge about a fair or an unfair delivery. The only thing will be to learn how to play and reply to the long-range bowler whose "popping crease" is a mile and a half away on the other side of a hill. Given the specification of his arm and ammunition, and a simple system of screens (not easily disturbed by wind) to catch and show the drop of his bullet, science should be able to find first the direction and the distance, and thence infer, with the help of a carefully-contoured map, the height above the sea level of the hostile firing-point. Then, to say nothing of defilading or moving a little out of his way, a very good shot might (weather permitting) he made with a .40 bore at the enemy's whereabouts.