By: J.C. Templer, Captain Commanding 18th Middlesex
(Source: MacMillan’s Magazine, August 1860)
Tom. You were at Wimbledon, at the great national rifle meeting. By all the accounts I have seen of it, it must have been a great success; but I should like to hear some of the details from an eye-witness; so tell me about it, for I was confined to my post here by work of all sorts.
Jack. Well, in a desultory sort of way, I will; but, remember, I was not present the whole time, as my avocations called me back to London nearly every day. You shall have, and welcome, what passed under my own observation; and I will also give you some thoughts that have occurred to me since.
T. Do so.
J. The first thing that struck one was the complete mixture of classes; – it forced itself on your notice immediately, and although in the formation of our company I had been somewhat accustomed to it, it did not come so home as when I saw it on a large scale, and amongst strangers. There were men holding the highest social positions mixing us equals with others not so fortunately placed, and along the whole line of civil society. It came off something in this shape: the volunteers were formed into squads, each about sixteen strong, and the officer in charge took the names down on a paper, the surnames only, and then called them out-as they came, without titles or additions of any kind, thus, Bowling, Buckshorn, Johnson, Childers, Clasper, &c. The first might be a peer, the second a working man, the third a shopkeeper, the fourth a yeoman, the fifth a captain in the Guards, and so on. There they stood, shoulder to shoulder, intent on the same object, to test their skill in a generous rivalry and the volunteer uniform showed no difference. You will see the Times, in giving the names, does the same. It was the old public school custom over again, and is a sure sign of healthy feeling. Men stood upon their merits alone, their personal merits in the use of the rifle. Besides, the inter-mixture of classes did more; it showed us to each other, and we found the mind of the gentleman was common to all. It was “Fair play and old England;” each man did his best, without striving after any small advantages; we stood upon honour with each other.
T. Do you mean that you all became acquainted at once with each other?
J. Quite so; and it was not long before there was great clanship amongst us – just like the old feeling of sides at football and cricket, and, in spite of our individual rivalry, we cheered a successful shot as reflecting credit on the squad, – “Well done, Johnson,” “Well done, Buckshorn,” when they got centres. And so high did this run, that, at the close of the day, we wished to challenge any other of the squads; and, had there been time, no doubt plenty of such matches would have come off. Talking of centres, I think General Hay should alter the nomenclature at Hythe. You are perhaps aware that bulls-eyes are confined to distances up to 300 yards only; after that, there are no bull’s-eyes, properly so called, but the central part of the target is called the centre. I observed the north countrymen, Yorkshiremen, and Swiss, always spoke of it as the bull’s-eye, and certainly this name conveys to the uninitiated a better idea, besides being more agreeable to the marksman. The division should be – up to 300 yards, bull’s-eyes, centres, and outers; and, after that distance, bull’s-eyes and outers.
T. There is not much in that, I think.
J. Perhaps not; but we may as well have it correct at first, and now is the time to rectify these little matters.
T. But now tell me about the shooting; for, after all, that’s the main thing.
J. It was surprising, and, to a spectator who carried back his memory but one short year, must have seemed a marvel. Fancy the squad in which I was. Our third round at 500 yards, but two men missed the target, and one of them shot from the shoulder, having permission to do so, from some disability in the knee, which prevented his kneeling. All the others either got outers or bull’s-eyes, as we will now call it. Why, a sheep could not have lived for a minute there, much less a horse or a man. The average merit of the squad for five rounds was 3.66; and you must remember this was the first year, with but little opportunity selection. I came myself, not because I was the best shot of my company, but simply because, having had no opportunity of testing the capabilities of any one by reason of our butts not being erected, I thought in case of failure, my shoulders were the broadest to bear the responsibility, and, besides, not having had the advantage of a course at Hythe, I was willing to run the risk of some little discredit against the certainty of the advantage of the practice; so, without having fired a round of ball cartridge, I trusted to the position drill and the mechanical truth of the rifle; and no doubt there were numbers of others, who, if not quite in so forlorn a position as my own, at the longer ranges could have had little or no practice.
T. Was there much question as to the rifles?
J. The contest, virtually, was confined to the long Enfields, the Whitworths, and the Westley Richards. The two former, as you know, are muzzle-loaders; the latter breech-loaders. As far as my own observation went, the long Enfield, up to 600 yards, was equal to either for precision – indeed I should have preferred mine. You will remember we shot with those that had been supplied us by the National Rifle Association; and these were more carefully adjusted in their sights than those issued by Government to the corps. Besides, the pull of the trigger was reduced from some 8 or 9lb, which is the ordinary pull of the Government Enfleld, to about 4lb; indeed, every ninth or tenth rifle in our company will bear its own weight on the trigger without springing it. Now this should not he, and it is a pity that all the rifles issued by Government should not be adjusted to a 3lb or 4lb pull. It is a great disadvantage, drilling with one and shooting with another. Now no man can shoot with great accuracy with a 9lb pull at a trigger; the effort to get the piece off is sure to derange the aim. Nothing is more nice than the adjustment of the finger to the trigger; and, out of fifteen shots, a 4lb pull, as compared with a 9lb pull, is worth three points, if not more.
T. Did you like your own rifle? I mean the Enfield you shot with.
J. Exceedingly – so much so that I have applied to the Association to he allowed to purchase it for the Company. The decision rests with the War Office and it would seem a pity to return it into store to remain unused for another twelve months. The government might put an enhanced price on it-say £9 or £5; but it would be a great advantage to the first-class men, or, at least, the marksmen of the Company, to be able to practise with it constantly. I doubt if you could get a better weapon for its range – say of 600 yards. I know nothing of its virtues beyond that distance; but, if the War Office insist on these rifles being returned to them, we shall be in the same predicament next year – that is, practising with rifles with a heavy pull, and shooting for prizes with rifles with a light one.
T. Did you shoot at the long ranges?
J. Yes; I competed both for the Duke of Cambridge’s and for the Duke of Wellington’s prize, and only got on the target at 1000 yards with my ninth shot in the second contest. This was with a Westley Richards, which I had to sight for myself; and it was greatly guess-work. I should have preferred a Whitworth; but they were all engaged by the volunteers who came to shoot for the Queen’s prize, and therefore I had no opportunity of trying them. But, though not successful myself; I saw some good practice with the Westley Richards at these ranges. The rifle I used struck me as too light – not eight pounds in weight, I think – to carry such a flight with certainty; and it certainly kicked more than the Enfield, as my shoulder testified the next morning. The breech-loading principle is an advantage in loading; but it has the disadvantage of the cartridge greasing the fingers, and thus preventing the firm grip both of the left and right hands. This, unless carefully guarded against, by rubbing the fingers quite dry (which takes time) is much against a true shot. Indeed, the nicety of all the points required at these distances to make a successful shot is wonderful. It is eye, hand, nerve, and perhaps the “electricity” of the man that all comes into play; and the singular thing is, you can tell, as you pull the trigger, if you are right. I always felt certain, the moment I fired, whether I had hit or missed. It is an indescribable some – thing that conveys it to you, of which the white or blue flag, some seconds after, is only the communication; and this I found was common to all. I saw Jacob Knecht of Zurich fire the last shot that won the Duke of Cambridge’s prize: he was 8, Lieutenant Lacey was 9. Knecht pulled, and instantaneously exclaimed, “Ah, gute, gute, a bool’s eye, a bool’s eye,” and made almost extravagant exhibitions of delight. I stood by, I confess, incredulous; but, some ten seconds afterwards, the blue flag showed at the butts. A bull’s-eye it was; and, thus scoring two, Knecht made ten, and won the prize. It was an exciting moment. Lieutenant Lacey, standing by, was second, when he might well, a moment before, have felt almost certain of the prize. Knecht fired sitting. His position was admirably steady; he brought his rifle at once to the aim, and then, after a single moment’s dwell, fired. In this lies the rifleman’s dexterity – to pull at the instant his sight tells him he is on. It will not always come off right even then; for the slightest failure of finger to give the impulse will defeat him; but to pull when he is not on – and this he must wait for and work for, if it does not, as it often does not, come at once – is just sheer folly, as the shot is sure to be wasted. The art of shooting is one of the mental phenomena; “trace home the lightning to the cloud,” and you will find it resolves itself into a brain action, a sense. “It strikes the electric chord wherewith we are darkly bound,” and it is this that creates the excitement. Nothing can be more thrilling than the feeling of the successful shot. Thence arises the affection for the rifle itself. You love it; you talk to it. I could not help whispering to mine in the tent, “If you’ll be true to me, I’ll be true to you and out of this little social compact I got a centre at 600 yards. No doubt this would be much enhanced by longer familiarity. By continued practice you could reduce distances to such a certainty that every 20 yards might be lined off on the slide. The sighting the rifle is the first grand secret. With that all right the rifleman has confidence; and confidence is the second grand secret in the shot.
T. But tell me, what did you do when you first came on the ground on the Monday?
J. In truth there was not much to do. The volunteers fell in at one o’clock and were marched to the sides of the approach of the Royal Pavilion, under the command of a good natured gentleman, who screeched “Shoudr-r-r-r-r-a-ar-r-r-r-ms!” at us; which we were in no hurry to do, as shouldering arms, even for a short time – is not the best preparation for accurate shooting. Every tittle of physical power should be carefully husbanded in a match. I had an enthusiastic young Sherwood Forester near me; and I could not help thinking of Robin Hood, and what a contrast the scene before me must have presented to an archery gathering in his day. Twelve score on 240 yards was an outside shot then; with the rifle it could be multiplied by 4.
T. Tell me about the Common itself. Of course every Londoner knows Wimbledon Common; but what was it like on the day of the meeting?
J. Well, England is a glorious country. She has capacities for everything; her Epsom, her Goodwood, her Doncaster and Newmarket, are all race-courses made to our hands by nature, and requiring but little of art to make them as perfect as they are. Look at the broad stretches of the Thames and Isis for an eight-oar match; the sunny spots by thousands that are spread on her green lap for cricket; or the glad waters of the Solent, or the Channel, for a trial of speed in a fore-and-aft rigged yacht. They are each and all excellent in their way; but none surpass in their peculiar features the complete, the perfect, natural rifle-range that Wimbledon Common presents. Stretching across the common from left to right, there was ample room for ten pairs of butts, twelve feet high, and twenty-five feet wide at the base; while between every second pair stood four others of the same size, but farther back, for the longer ranges; so that there was no difficulty in accommodating from three hundred to four hundred riflemen at a time, and, from the level nature of the ground, at any range from 200 yards to 1000. It looks as if it was intended by nature for the national rifle practice-ground; and, thanks to the kindness of Lord Spencer, no pains were spared to make it worthy of the first meeting. Within an easy distance of London, a nearly worthless soil, heather and ling growing on a great bog, – a little drainage, and the consent of the owners and neighbours, is all that is necessary to secure it as a first-rate ground for the country.
T. Yes; but that consent, I hear will be hard to get.
J. So I hear; but, as to the owners and commoners, their rights are purchasable; and, were I interested, I should prefer the money-value to the right to feed geese and donkeys – which is about all that the spot seemed worth. With the neighbours it is, however, different; and I can well understand that the place, under a constant repetition of such an excitement as was witnessed at the meeting, might be frightened out of all its propriety. Servant-girls had lots of volunteer sweethearts – to say nothing of the gipsy hordes of tinkers, hawkers, and vagabonds of all sorts that are attracted to such gatherings, as a matter of course. But much of this was entirely dependent on the novelty of the thing; and, were the common once purchased by the nation, and enclosed, and the different sites let out to the London Rifle Corps, reserving the right of one or more general meeting, the novelty would be over.
T. Still, for the work of the annual meeting, it would be a sort of Epsom jubilee; would it not?
J. I hope not. I do trust the tone of our riflemen will be healthier and more robust than the tone of the turf – from which at the very outset I would draw the broadest line of demarcation. I do not see why the gipsies and vagabonds should be allowed to congregate at all, especially as the ground will be enclosed; and, besides, I should like to cut away from it everything like betting. Why not assimilate it to cricket and boating? We never played or rowed for money. If gambling be once admitted – legitimatized I might say – as it has been on the turf, depend on it, rifle-practice will degenerate. Do let us try and keep the thing pure at first; and, if our children let it down, the fault will rest with them, not with us. It a little goes against the grain with me that there should be a need of prizes. The nobler and manlier the lesson would surely he the generous rivalry of being first.
T. My good fellow, the thing would not work. You won’t get men to come distances simply to get a name: and, besides, they must look to something to pay expenses.
J. Consider how few after all can attain the prizes; and I’m not so sure that the fame of being a crack rifle-shot would not with a large number be enough. Still, if there must be prizes, let the contest be for them and them alone, cups and medals, and such like. Let us forego money prizes, and discountenance all bets and betting, and sweep away all the hideous devilries of ring and turf. The thing has been inaugurated in the right tone. If there was a spice of the devil in it at all, it lurked beneath the smiles of Aunt Sally.
T. Tell me about that lady; was she like what she is at Epsom?
J. Something, but with an improved character; and there was, no doubt, sport in the thing. Any one, whoever he was, by paying a shilling, was entitled to a shot, and, if he got a bull’s-eye, shared in the pool at the close of the day with the others who were equally fortunate. This would be innocent enough, if the betting could be kept out of it; but occasionally you heard the “five to one,” or larger odds against the shot, break out. This, however, might be corrected by a rule to meet it; and, while the management is in the hands of the admirable staff of men, from General Hay downwards, who did duty at Wimbledon, it would be easy both to impose the rule, and to see that it was kept. The officers were educated gentlemen, and held their men in first-rate working order; hence the absence of all accidents, and the avoidance of all unpleasantness in the agreeable week passed there. If the national meeting be made the standard, you would have the true spirit given to all the provincial meetings throughout the country. Depend on it, if once gambling is allowed to take place at rifle-meetings, the thing will become a curse instead of a blessing.
T. Well, I agree with you, and will come some day with the best of mine to shoot with the best of yours, for honour and glory alone.
J. Agreed; and I can show you a splendid range – a thousand yards – as level as a bowling green, and with a fine lay of sheep-walk beyond it. It is beautifully situated in the very heart of England.
T. You have told me nothing of the meeting as a demonstration to other countries. How, think you, will it appear to them?
J. It left on my mind the deep conviction that you will hear nothing more of the invasion of England. In this respect it beat the review hollow. That was a grand thing, a noble thing; but it was soldiering, and there are others who can play at soldiers besides ourselves. The French can, the Austrians can, the Prussians can; but they can’t shoot – I mean, it does not come so natural to them as it does to us. Why, I stood in a squad of sixteen men, to shoot for the Whitworth rifles; perhaps, with three or four exceptions, not one of those men had ever fired a rifle a short year ago; and yet, as I said before, not a sheep could have lived a minute before them at 500 yards. Why, any four of them would have silenced a gun in a couple or three discharges, by striking dead every man and horse attached to it. It is true, we had the Victorias and the Inns of Court men in the squad (and right well they shot), and generally, perhaps, the volunteers who assembled at Wimbledon, in some sense, may be looked upon as picked men; but you may be sure it was but a matter of small degree, and that in any company or corps you would find the next fifteen or twenty nearly, if not quite, as good as the men that were sent. Next year I believe 1000 yards will be as readily and truly gauged as the 500 were then. All our men want now is the opportunity of practice. The position drill is a truth, and a little actual shooting is all that is now needed to turn it to account. The north countrymen did better than the south from this very cause. With us southerners, and particularly with the Londoners, it was a very difficult thing to get at a range at all, and much interest had to be used to get even the selected men a shot before the day. When once we have got ranges – and it will not now be long first – the Saxon eye, and steadiness of hand and temper will be sure to tell, and you will find the mountaineers neither from Scotland or Switzerland will beat us.
T. Talking of Switzerland, how did the Switzers do?
J. They were first-rate. They were no doubt almost without exception admirable shots, and could well be entrusted with their liberties against a whole army of Zouaves and Turcos. They were intelligent, well-conditioned men, who quickly learnt to appreciate the English rifle; and I really believe the best thing that could have happened to them was the detention of their own weapons in the French Douanes, for it was the means of introducing them to a better weapon. In this way the accident may bear upon the fortunes of Europe, should the unequal game of war be tried.
T. Some objection has been made, I believe, to opening the competition to all comers, as teaching the foreigner to beat us with our own weapons.
J. I heard of it; but don’t agree with the objectors. I believe open competition is the soul of all excellence; and, of all nations, the English are sure to profit by it. But, of all people, the Swiss should be admitted to share in the advantage as a matter of policy; because, in the game of European politics, their sympathies are sure to be with England, and thus, in giving them a better weapon, we are in fact assisting an ally.
T. Were there not some complaints of the cartridges at the meeting?
J. Yes, great complaints; but I was unable to judge of them, because, as I mentioned to you, I had not tried ball cartridge before.
T. No doubt the controversy will lead to the best thing being procured in the end; for there is nothing to prevent celerity of loading, which is the object of the easy fit, being combined with accuracy of shooting, as soon as the right measures both in powder and lead are hit. Did you witness the conclusion of the contest?
J. No, I did not. I was obliged to leave after the rifle given by the Swiss was shot for. But the practice seems to have been admirable. Twenty-four points obtained out of thirty shots – ten shots at 800, 900, and 1,000 respectively – won the Queen’s prize; and the victor was a young man, not of age – a strong argument in favour of the public school corps, which I should like to see instituted at once. It will be long a question between the young and the middle-aged men. If “years steal fire from the mind, and vigour from the limb,” in rifle-shooting at least they will impart steadiness and judgment. Still, the keenness of sight and the pliancy of body are with the youth, and they are wonderful aids in such a contest. It is, however, a great thing for the middle-aged men of this generation to find a new pastime opened to them, and one in which they can largely utilize the love of sport and exercise that they cherished in their youth, at a time when cricket and boating must be perforce foregone. The rifle is in their hands; and they can use it up to a green old age, and improve year by year in the knowledge and practice of their piece, and, if the boys beat them, they will, as was the case here, have the satisfaction of being beaten by their sons.