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Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Military History

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Around the same time that the Indians were dragging off their surprised comrade and Billy Dixon was swabbing out his barrel, long range shooting was a hot topic of conversation accompanying the post dinner brandy and cigars at various gentlemen’s clubs in the New York City area.

General George Wingate and some of his associates were concerned about the poor level of marksmanship evidenced by the recruits to the Union Army during the late Civil War. In an attempt to bolster national defense and encourage marksmanship they formed the National Rifle Association of America on November 21, 1871. They were able to enlist the aid of the New York State Legislature and on June 21, 1873 the newly constructed range, just 20 miles from New York City at Creedmoor on Long Island, was opened with a major match pitting teams from the National Guards of various states and the regular army. Events in Great Britain would soon thrust the new facility into the international spotlight.

For some years eight man rifle teams from England, Scotland, and Ireland had vied for the Elcho Shield. The contest required the teams to fire at ranges of 800, 900, 1,000 yards. When, in 1873, the Irish won the match for the first time they were so enthused that they issued a challenge to the United States to engage in a world championship. Not knowing of the existence of the NRA, the Irish directed their challenge to the ‘Riflemen of America’ via the pages of the New York Herald. The president of the Amateur Rifle Club happened to be General Wingate who picked up the gauntlet for the American riflemen. Considering that the club had barely five-dozen members and little experience at ranges beyond 500 yards it was a bold reply. The match was fired on September 26, 1874 at Creedmoor. It would be more than a contest between nations; it would also be one of competing technologies.

The American team fired breech loading cartridge rifles made by Sharps and Remington while the Irishmen used their Rigby muzzleloaders. The Remington rolling block rifle became known as the “Long Range Creedmoor Rifle.” It was designed, and its manufacture supervised by noted marksman L.L. Hepburn. The rifles were chambered in .44 with 90 grains of black powder pushing a massive paper patched 550-grain lead bullet.

The rear sights, copied from the English, were of a vernier tang style that mounted just behind the receiver, or near the heel of the butt stock, depending if the competitor was shooting either the prone or supine position. The front sights were of the wind gauge style. In original form they were dovetail blocks that were lightly tapped with a tool for windage adjustment, later a more accurate and easier to use horizontal vernier was employed for left or right changes. The rifles of both sides used heavy loads of black powder that required them to be wiped clean after each shot, a necessity with paper-patched bullets.

The competitors took the line to shoot 45 record shots apiece at cast steel targets with a four point square bullseye. Each man would discharge 15 shots at each of 800, 900, and 1,000 yards. There were no sighters. The match was tight all the way to the finish with just three points separating the victorious Americans from the Irish.

In a splendid example of sportsmanship, Major Arthur Blennerhasset Leech presented an ornate Victorian standing cup to the host team who placed it in national competition the next year as the Leech Cup. It has always been a long range trophy except for 1951 and 1952 when it was awarded to the highest scorer using the service rifle in the 600 yard Marine Corps Cup Match. The Leech Cup is the oldest trophy presented in shooting by the NRA. After the 1913 National Matches the Leech Cup went missing and was not found until 1927. The NRA responded by requiring that all trophies would be held at NRA headquarters and keeper awards would be given to the match winners.

The Irish again challenged the Americans in 1875 and invited them to compete at Dollymount, Ireland. The visiting team repeated its performance of the previous year, only opening the margin of victory to 39 points. The Americans then travelled to Wimbledon, the British range just outside of London, to compete for the prestigious Elcho Shield. It turned out that the rules excluded the American team and caused some hard feelings. To assuage the visitors the British National Rifle Association prevailed upon Queen Victoria’s daughter, the Princess Louise, to present a large three-footed silver tankard to the Americans for competition amongst themselves.

The first winner of the massive trophy, now known as the Wimbledon Cup, was Major Henry Fulton. Fulton himself was honored with a trophy when, in 1987, International Shooting Hall of Fame member and Palma Alumnus Arthur C. Jackson presented a trophy to be awarded to the high scoring individual in the International Palma Team Competition in Fulton’s memory. The Wimbledon Cup returned to the United States with the team and was placed in competition by Fulton. It has become the premier long-range prize for marksman in the United States, as it has never been contested over any distance other than 1,000 yards.

‘The Great Centennial Rifle Match’ was fired at Creedmoor the 13th and 14th of September 1876 as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the independence of the United States. The fledgling National Rifle Association of America hosted eight man teams from Australia, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland for the first meeting of what would become the longest continuously running international rifle match in history. The target was a six by ten foot frame of canvas that had a 36 inch black five ring, or bull’s eye, and a 54 inch four ring printed upon it. The remainder of the inner six by six foot section, outside of the rings, was worth three points. A two-foot wide panel ran down each side and was valued at two points. The teams fired twice across the 45 shot course in two days and when the billows of black powder smoke had cleared, the home team had won the first Palma Match.

The Palma Matches quickly became the preeminent long-range international shooting event. However, it would be a misnomer to refer to these early events as prone matches as most of the shooters fired from the popular back or ‘Texas’ position. Lying supine, with their feet pointing towards the target, the shooters would rest the rifles upon their legs or feet and blast away. The long barreled rifles and the tall vernier sights of the time favored this seemingly ungainly, but strong, position making it a less formidable task to shoot than it looks. The 32 to 34 inch long barrels and sights mounted close to the butt gave shooters an incredibly long sight radius.

The Palma has evolved into the “The World Long Range Shooting Championships, Individual and Palma Team Matches”. It has gone through many changes since 1876 and has developed its own set of rules and requirements in regard to target, rifle, and cartridge. The United States has, overall, experienced great success in this special match that is held at three to five year intervals. Teams consist of 16 firing members and two alternates along with a support group of a team captain, adjutant, five coaches and a non-firing armorer, with total team size not to exceed 26 members. The current rules allow for the use of a manually operated rifle using .308 Winchester or 7.62mm NATO ammunition loaded with the Sierra 155 grain Palma bullet or its equivalent. The rifle must mount metallic sights and not weigh more than 6.5 kilograms. It is interesting to note that the rules state that the use of a sling is not mandatory.

The match is fired at 800, 900,and 1,000 yards or 700, 800, and 900 meters depending on the range available to the host nation-the distances being almost identical-and at the National Rifle Association of America’s Long Range Target. The Palma is a match of great distinction, so much so that nations, or rifle associations, that are celebrating special events or anniversaries apply to host the match to add extra glamour to the occasion.