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“Of all our national pastimes, this is one which should be pursued for the sake only of the honourable distinction to be obtained, in excelling in an art, where both mental and physical gifts are developed.”

Anonymous author on match rifle shooting (1866)

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Rifle Championship of the World

The Irish team arrived in New York Harbour on 16 September 1874. On 26 September, the great match took place before an estimated audience of five thousand people. The riflemen were each to fire 15 shots at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. No sighting shots or artificial rests were permitted. The targets were as per those used at Wimbledon in 1873; the three feet square 'bull's eye' was in the middle of the 'centre', measuring six feet square, with a three feet wide by six feet high 'outer' at each end of the target, the whole measuring six feet high by twelve feet wide. Scoring was 'bull's eye' 4, 'centre' 3 and 'outer' 2.

The Americans made a strong start at 800 yards, taking the lead on 326 points against the Irish team on 317. As the ranges increased in distance, so the Irish began to claw back points. At 900 yards the Americans scored 310 whilst the Irish finished on 312. The Americans lead was gradually eroded further at 1,000 yards, where the Irish finished on 302 points for a total of 931. The Americans were still shooting. By the time it came to the last shot to be fired, the Irish were leading by one point.

John Bodine was the last man to shoot. He approached the firing point with a bloody hand wrapped in a handkerchief having shortly before his last shot cut himself whilst opening a bottle. The pressure must have been tremendous, with thousands of spectators straining to see the shot on which American victory depended. Bodine pulled the trigger, then there was the four second wait for the bullet to travel the thousand yards to the target. "Clap!" That welcome sound as the lead bullet flattened on the iron target, indicated a hit. Then came the marker indicating a bull's eye! The American's had won and Bodine was carried off in triumph.

The final scores were America 934 and Ireland 931. The American team win gave the art of long-range shooting a considerable boost in the country, and assured its future as a sport within the US. At least for a decade.

In 1875 a return match was held between Ireland and America on Irish soil to the same conditions as the 1874 match. The match took place on 29 June at Dollymount, near Dublin, and, according to the Illustrated London News before an audience of between forty and fifty thousand people! The Americans again won, scoring 967 against Irelands 929.

Dollymount 1875

The International Rifle Match Between American and Irish Teams, at Dollymount, near Dublin
(Illustrated London News, 10 July 1875)

 

The American Centennial

In the American centennial year of 1876 the 'riflemen of the world' were invited by the NRA to compete at Creedmoor for the Centennial Trophy. The trophy, commissioned from Tiffany's by the NRA, was a replica of a Roman legionary standard. Beneath an eagle clutching a wreath of palm leaves was a plaque bearing the word PALMA. It is by this word that the trophy later became known. The match was for teams of eight and to be held over two days, 13 and 14 September, with shooting at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. Competitors were to fire fifteen shots at each distance upon each day.

The final line-up of nations accepting the invitation to compete in the Grand Centennial Rifle Match was: America, Australia, Canada, Ireland and Scotland. Once again the American team were to use breech loading rifles while their rivals were to contest the match with their trusted Rigby and Gibbs-Metford muzzle loading match rifles.

Targets at the Centennial Match underwent a change from those previously adopted. The old square bull's eye was now replaced by a new circular one, as had been adopted by the NRA of Great Britain in 1875. The target used was six feet high by twelve feet wide, and was divided as follows: Bull's eye, 36 inch circle, signal, white disc, counting 5; Centre, 54 inch circle surrounding the bull's eye, signalled by a red disc and counting 4; Inner, 6 x 6 feet enclosing the centre, signalled by a white disc with a black cross, counting 3; Outer, the remainder of the target, being a strip 3 feet wide on each edge, signalled by a black disc and counting 2.

After the two day battle, the grand aggregate results were America 3,126; Ireland 3,104; Scotland 3,062; Australia 3,062; Canada 2,923. The most outstanding shooting was made by J.K. Millner of Ireland who shot fifteen bull's-eyes at 1,000 yards for an unprecedented maximum score of 75 x 75. When one considers that this was achieved without the benefit of sighting shots it makes the achievement all the more remarkable! The Centennial Trophy was presented to the American Team by General Hawley at Gilmore's Gardens on 15 September in the presence of 15,000 people, as much as the Gardens could accommodate. Further crowds, unable to gain access to the Gardens, lined Madison Avenue.

A week after the Grand Centennial Rifle Match, on 21 September, there followed another international match at Creedmoor which is seldom reported today. This was a return match between the old adversaries, America and Ireland. The teams of six fired at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards and the match was another victory for the US, scoring 1,165 against Irelands 1,154.

America vs Great Britain

Creedmoor 1877

Sir Henry Halford coaching (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 22 September 1877)

In May 1877 the NRA of Great Britain received an invitation from New York to compete for the Centennial Trophy the following September. Sir Henry Halford was appointed captain of the British team and organisation was left entirely in his hands. The team was chosen following a three day trial shoot held at Cambridge.

On 25 August the British riflemen arrived at New York. Booming cannon and an American reception party aboard the steamer Nelson K. Hopkins greeted them. The fifth annual fall prize meeting of the NRA opened on 9 September. As these opening individual matches drew to a close so attention shifted to the great international rifle match. Scheduled for two days shooting, on 13 and 14 September, this was to be the first time that a Great Britain rifle team had competed against an American team.

About 10 o'clock on the 13th the British team, consisting of Sir Henry St. John Halford, H.S. Evans, Lieut. G. Fenton, Lieut.-Col. J. Fenton, Sergt. Ferguson, A.P. Humphry, J.K. Milner and W. Rigby, arrived from their quarters in Garden City. After visiting the butts and examining the targets, they proceeded to the tent of the American team captain, General Dakin, where they met the American riflemen. The American team of Maj. Gen. T.S. Dakin, I.L. Allen, C.E. Blydenburgh, L.C. Bruce, F. Hyde, W.H. Jackson, Maj. H.S. Jewell and L. Weber appeared in their neat brown shooting costumes. In the tent, the captains of the respective teams drew lots for position, the Americans winning the choice. The British team used Metford and Rigby muzzle loading rifles, and the American team Remington and Sharps breech loading rifles.

The day did not go as the British would have wished, and it closed with aggregate scores of 1,655 for the Americans and 1,629 for the British, leaving the latter with a daunting 26 point deficit to make up in the next day's shooting and the Americans in buoyant mood.

On the second day, the Americans finished shooting at 5:35 p.m., and ten minutes later the British completed their shooting. The British team had floundered and with grand aggregate totals of 3,334 to the Americans and 3,242 to the British the great match was over. Both teams had in fact shot astonishing scores, bettering those made in other matches to date. America's team score on 14 September 1877 of 1,679 was, however, an outstanding achievement.

Long Range Demise

The 1877 match marked the end of an era. Waning public interest in match shooting had nothing to inspire it in the following two years. In 1878 no invitations were accepted for another international long range match, and the United States fired the Palma Match without competition. Invitations were again declined in 1879.

In an effort to revive public interest in long range shooting, Ireland extended an invitation to America for a friendly competition in 1880. The match took place on 29 June. Five of the Irish team used new Rigby breechloaders and the sixth man a Metford. Similarly, five of the American team used Sharps-Borchardt rifles and the sixth a Ballard. The Americans won the match with a total score of 1292 to 1280. On 29 July a self appointed American team, under Frank Hyde, fired a long range match at Wimbledon against a British team captained by Sir Henry Halford. The match, fired at 800, 900 and 1000 yards, was a disaster for the Americans. They lost by 79 points, scoring 1,568 against the British score of 1,647.

At this time the NRA of America suffered severe blows to its activities. The Army decided not to send further teams to matches sponsored by the NRA. Additionally, the newly elected governor of New York, Alonzo B. Cornell, made stringent cuts in National Guard funding particularly focusing on rifle practice. Another invitation to compete for the Palma Trophy in 1881 was declined by the NRA of Great Britain and the match now faded away until it was revived in 1901.

Military Matches

Despite the demise of the Palma Match, a competition with military rifles between the Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of America was agreed to for 1882. On 14 and 15 September teams of twelve representing the British Volunteers and the American National Guard met at Creedmoor. The match fired at 200, 500 and 600 yards on the first day, and at 800, 900 and 1000 yards on the second. The rifles used were of military pattern, although not necessarily one authorised for service. Each man fired seven shots at each distance, and no cleaning between shots was permitted. The British team won scoring 1975, against the American team score of 1,805 out of a possible 2,530.

In 1883 the American National Guard team had a return match against the British Volunteers at Wimbledon, on 20 and 21 July. The British team was again victorious scoring 1,951, against the American team score of 1,906.

Great Britain was invited to send a team of British Volunteers to shoot at Creedmoor in 1885. With Britain on a war footing due to the Sudanese rebellion the NRA felt that they were unable to accept the invitation.

NRA Decline

With the lack of an international match to revive public interest, the Long Island Railroad facing bankruptcy and sponsors withdrawing support, the NRA was fighting for survival. In 1890 Creedmoor was deeded back to the state of New York although the NRA match program was permitted to continue at the ranges. When in 1892 the new Inspector General of Rifle Practice, Capt. B.M. Whitlock, gave free use of Creedmoor to state troops a further source of income was removed from the NRA.

The ailing NRA put its records into storage and, following negotiation with the New Jersey State Rifle Association, transferred its matches from Creedmoor to Sea Girt. By 1900 these matches had grown significantly and the Board of Directors of the NRA met in December that year, the first such meeting since 1892. One of the outcomes of that meeting was plans to resurrect competition for the Centennial or ‘Palma’ Trophy.