A generation has passed since the Association was established; stalwart competitors of twenty-eight years of age were yet unborn in 1860; a generation has passed, and with it the first Patron, the lamented Prince Consort, who aided and supported the National Rifle Association from its inception; and the first President, Mr. Sidney Herbert, who, as Secretary of State for War, built up the Volunteers on the foundation laid by General Peel; while out of the first forty Vice-Presidents not more than half-a-dozen remain; and out of the first twenty-six members of Council but nine are alive, and only four are still members of Council - the Duke of Westininster, Earls Spencer and Wemyss, and General Sir W. M. McMurdo; the veteran Secretary, Captain H. St. John Mildmay, is still to the fore. The following statistics, which I have reduced to a minimum, will enable the reader to estimate the progress which has been made.
The National Rifle Association in 1860 was a very small and modest affair. There were 24 targets; 67 prizes, 40 of which were open to all comers, and 27 restricted to Volunteers; the value of the prizes was £2238: there were only 299 Volunteer competitors, and the total aggregate of Volunteers who entered for prizes was only 594. For the All-comers’ Prizes, 17 Swiss and 1 Russian competed; the number of entries being 720, giving a grand total of entries of all kinds of 1314. The result shows how little rifle-shooting was known in the Kingdom, and it also shows the inferiority of the rifles; for the winner of the Silver Medal did not make 50 per cent. of the highest possible score for the first stage Queen’s; while 11 competitors failed to hit the target at 300 yards; 36 missed all their shots at 500 yards; 59 missed the target altogether at 600 yards; one man failed to hit the target at any distance. But the quality and inferiority of the shooting in 1860 is perhaps most clearly shown by the fact that 35 points being the highest possible score and 17 the winning score, out of the 299 competitors only 98 made 10 points and upwards. The meeting has now become immense and the shooting excellent. In 1888 there were about 125 targets at Wimbledon, 2814 prizes; the value of the prizes, exclusive of Challenge Cups, was £9824 and the total aggregate of entries 41,670: in addition to which the enormous number of 80,188 entries were made for Pool, the Running Deer, and Man and Revolver Pool. In place of 299 Volunteers for the Queen’s Prize, there were 2185 competitors; and whereas the highest scorer in 1860 did not reach 50 per cent. of the highest possible score, the winner in 1880, firing no less than 66 shots, made the excellent score of 280 marks out of a possible 330; and the lowest scorer who fired through the whole of the ranges made 224, and he was 98th on the list.
But the Grand Aggregate Prize gives the most conclusive proof as to the excellent shooting. In this competition there are no less than 125 prizes, for which the competitors have to fire at eleven distances; the highest possible score was 383 marks, and the highest scorer made 337; the man who was 50th made 317, the man who was 100th made 313, and the last winner made 310.
In 1860 there were 106,443 efficient Volunteers, and the numbers have steadily increased in 1870 to 170,671; in 1880 to 196,938, and in 1888 to 220,124. I do not claim that this most satisfactory increase is altogether due to the National Rifle Association, but I remember that in the early days of Volunteering we hardly dared to expect that the movement would take root and spread. Few believed that the Volunteers would last many years or become a part, much less a permanent portion of the defensive forces of the country. That they have done so is due to a variety of causes, amongst which must be recognized the patriotism that initiated the movement, the enthusiasm which has sustained it, and the personal advantage of health, of discipline, of steady habits, which the individual members purchase for themselves by their sacrifice of time and money. Nevertheless I do claim that shooting, that target practice, company, battalion, County prize meetings, have exercised, and do exercise, an immense influence on the vitality of the force; and I claim that what the University is to the various schools – perhaps, speaking strictly, I should say – what an examining University like London is to the schools which connect themselves with it, that is the Wimbledon Meeting to class, company, battalion and County shooting. The result of the shooting training in every part of the country is made abundantly manifest at the Annual Meeting of the National Rifle Association. There are a few Volunteer officers who dispute this; they know not much about Wimbledon; they disregard the fact that Wimbledon is a meeting only for shooting, and for shooting under circumstances which will give the best shooting results; that it is not, and never will be, a meeting for drill and tactics; and that if the National Rifle Association became defunct, the County meetings, many of which can hardly now be maintained, would rapidly follow; after which battalion meetings would not long endure: class firing alone would not support the Volunteer force, and we should see a rapid and incurable consumption take fast hold of the Volunteer force; and it is well to bear in mind that for a galloping consumption such as would then set in, no cure can even be suggested.
It must not be forgotten that the National Rifle Association Meeting affords the only meeting-place of friendly competition of Army, Navy, Militia, Yeomanry, and Volunteers; the only place at which our comrades in arms from the Channel Islands, Canada, Australia, India and other Colonies and possessions can test their progress, and give visible demonstration of their Imperial brotherhood to our home soldiers, our sailors and Volunteers.