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Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Associated History

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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)

Research Press

Ball-practice is thus regulated. The class is drawn up in line, a sergeant standing by with book and pencil, as when the men are being made to judge distances. At the word, each man steps forward in succession, delivers his fire, and, accordingly as he has made a good, bad, or middling shot, gets good or bad marks set against his name in the register of the firing. If he misses the target altogether, no signal is made by the marker at the butt, and he gets a 'miss' put against his name; but if he makes a hit, the marker signals by different flags whether the hit is an, 'outer' - that is, outside the outer ring - a 'centre' - or within the outer ring - or a bull's-eye. An outer counts one point; a centre, two; and a bull's-eye, three. It will be proper to observe that the width of the target employed varies in proportion to the distance from which the practice is carried on. No change, however, is made in the height of the target, that remaining always about the height of a man. At first, one target, two feet wide by six high - about the size of one man - is used, and several of these targets are placed side by side as the distance becomes greater. At nine hundred yards, eight targets are employed, representing a front of about eight men, and the bull's-eye is made four feet in diameter. Nor at such a distance as half a mile is a bull's-eye of that diameter by any means easy to hit; for it is obvious that the smallest deviation from the correct line of flight becomes of immense importance when prolonged through such a distance as that. Moreover the effect of the wind on the flight of the ball, at these long ranges, is found to be very great. A sergeant - who, as we had many opportunities of observing, is a capital shot - assured us, that when firing at the 900 yards' range during a high wind, he found his first ball driven nearly fourteen feet out of the correct course. In his subsequent shots, he allowed that much in his aim, and then succeeded in hitting the bull's-eye several times running.

For the first few hundred yards, the Enfield rifle is fired standing, like the old musket; but at greater distances, it is better to kneel if the object fired at is placed on the same level, or the great elevation given to the piece would require it to be held too low on the shoulder for steadiness. In order to shoot well kneeling, the shooter should plant him self firmly on the right heel, rest his left elbow on his left knee, and so get a capital rest for his piece in the left hand. Another mode of getting a steady aim, particularly when there is much wind - but one which can of course only be adopted under peculiar circumstances, is to lie at full length on the back, with one's 'feet to the foe' or target. The muzzle of the rifle rests on the toes of the right foot, the butt is pressed to the right thigh by the left hand, which is brought across the stomach, and the trigger is pulled as usual by the right hand, the head being raised three or four inches from the ground in order to take aim. Excellent shots are generally made in this curious position, and it may be very advantageously adopted by the sharpshooter who wishes to be particularly careful of his own person, as well as to make good shots. A sod, a few inches thick, is a complete rampart to a man lying on his back, and he could not well be hit by anything but a chance shell, for he would not expose his head and shoulders even when in the act of firing, as he must do in a greater or less degree if he lay on his stomach.

In ordinary light-infantry skirmishing, the men are extended to the right and left in pairs at about a dozen paces apart. One man fires his piece, and stepping a pace or two aside, reloads, while his companion advances before him, and fires in his turn, and so on - each man alternately advancing to fire and reloading, so long as the forward movement lasts, the 'retiring' being conducted on precisely the same principles. Now, even this drill is carried on with ball-cartridge, so that some idea may be formed of the effect likely to be produced by well-trained men in this kind of fighting, when armed with our improved weapons. Ten or a dozen single targets, of the usual size - two feet wide by six high - are placed in a line, with the proper intervals between them, thus representing a line of the enemy's skirmishers; and a party of men, extended in pairs as above described, fire at them with ball-cartridge, advancing and retiring as if in the presence of an enemy. The men we saw at this light-infantry drill were a party of about twenty of the Royal Engineers, armed with the Lancaster rifle, which is considered to be a better weapon even than the Enfield; but the number of misses compared with the hits, even under these favourable circumstances, plainly showed how much the difficulty of taking a correct aim is increased by this constant shifting of one's ground. Clearly, in the good old days of Brown Bess, skirmishing in this fashion could not have been very destructive to life. At 400 yards, the hits were very few; but as the line of skirmishers advanced, they of course became more frequent, until, at 100 or 150 yards, there were more hits than misses. In determining the average number of shots which may be expected to take effect, however, we must take into consideration a circumstance which would assuredly exercise a strong perturbing influence. If the targets were armed with Enfield or Lancaster rifles, and were returning picket for picket, the aim would certainly not be so accurate. Soldiers soon become something given to fatalism; and where bullets are singing and whizzing about their ears, they are enabled to take things all the more coolly if they have some faith in the doctrine that 'every bullet has its billet.' Without impugning any one's courage, then, we may be permitted to believe that many more bullets are billeted for the bull's-eye, whatever that may chance to be, when they are all flying in one direction. But besides this element of disturbance, there is another difficulty which must be taken into account in the calculation. When one party is skirmishing, the other party is skirmishing too; so that the difficulty of making a good shot is increased by the motion of the object fired at; and this element must be allowed for before we can calculate, from the results of target-practice, the probable percentage of hits. Perhaps the most striking result of the Enfleld rifle-firing - at least to us - was the effect of a volley, or rather of a series of volleys, fired by twenty men at ten targets, placed close together at 300 yards' distance. The balls pattered like hail upon the iron targets; and it is clear that many a gallant fellow in future will 'lose the number of his mess' before he is near enough to the foe to see the white of his eyes.