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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

Source: Murray's Magazine, London, July 1889

“THE object of the Association is to give permanence to Volunteer Corps, and to promote rifle-shooting throughout Great Britain,” is the first clause in the constitution of the National Rifle Association. Her Majesty the Queen inaugurated the Wimbledon Meetings by firing the first shot on Wimbledon Common on July 2, 1860; since when, year by year, with almost continuous progressive prosperity, the meetings have been held on the suburban common, and the Wimbledon Meeting, Wimbledon Camp, Wimbledon rules and regulations have passed into household words throughout the English-speaking portions of the world. The Meeting of 1889 is the last that is to be held on Wimbledon Common, and it has been thought that this great crisis in the affairs of the Association affords a fitting opportunity to take stock of its work. Originally it was intended to hold an annual shooting meeting “in such part of Great Britain, varying from year to year, as shall be deemed by the Council most advantageous for the advancement of the objects of the Association,” and it was decreed that “every third meeting shall take place in Scotland.” But the magnitude and cost of the preparations for the meeting of 1860 led to the abandonment of the proposed peripatetic character of the shooting meetings; the representatives of Scotland, Lancashire, and Yorkshire acquiesced in this decision; and men from all parts of the Empire have come up to Wimbledon, year after year, agreeing that all the conditions necessary for such a Camp and Prize Meeting, were combined in complete perfection on the healthy, breezy Surrey common. When it was known that the Association were obliged to give up Wimbledon, proposals for land for the shooting came from many places, some that were impossible, and but few that combined all that was wanted. The Secretary’s office for months looked like a map shop; plans and sketches littered tables and floor, while the walls were literally covered with Ordnance and other maps. Seldom have a body of men had a more difficult task than fell to the lot of the Council: it was not easy to find a site that would do, it was perhaps harder to reconcile all the interests involved. The duty became all the more delicate and responsible, in that the Chairman, Lord Wantage, most generously offered an admirable site, suitable in every single particular save one, worth about £20,000, which, with characteristic liberality, he offered to convey to the Association as a free gift. This noble example was not less nobly followed by the landowners of Staffordshire, who expressed their readiness to buy, and convey free of cost to the Association, an excellent site on Cannock Chase. I need not dilate on the numerous proposals of varying character; on the work and labour of love; on the enthusiastic devotion with which the members of the Committee set themselves to weigh the merits and demerits of the various sites, most of which were inspected, several of them being visited on several occasions; but it will suffice to say, up to the very day on which the Council arrived at their decision, Lord Wantage’s site on the Berkshire Downs, Cannock Chase, Bisley Common, Dunstable, Lewes, and two sites near Brighton were still left for choice. I am betraying no secrets when I add that the three first-named sites were the three which were left in for final choice, and that a numerical majority voted for Bisley Common. The chief hesitation which any one felt in voting for Bisley arose from the fact that it might look as if the liberality of Lord Wantage and of the gentlemen of Staffordshire had not been fully appreciated.

Nothing was further from our mind: the paramount necessity for being as near London as possible weighed most, and with a majority; the advantage of drawing more closely the connection between the army at Aldershot and the National Rifle Association influenced many; while the admirable fitness of the site itself and the interest shown by the military authorities in the selection of Bisley, completed the conquest of some who were doubtful. It is satisfactory to be able to add, that at the General Meeting of the Association held the other day, at which the Duke of Cambridge presided, some of those who had vigorously opposed the adoption of Bisley, expressed their approval of the site, and their intention of supporting the Council in their endeavour to make the New Wimbledon as successful as the Old. I wonder whether any rich man, member of Council, Volunteer, or otherwise, may chance to read this article who wishes to give undoubted evidence of his patriotism, for I beg to inform such an one that the move from Wimbledon will swallow up all our reserve; in what we conscientiously believe to be for the interest of the Association we have been constrained to refuse the free gift of a site; we shall have considerable expense in establishing ourselves at Bisley, and the gift of a few thousand pounds would be most acceptable. The L. & S.-W. Railway are helping in many ways to smooth over the change, and the military authorities are giving the National Rifle Association such help as is in their power.

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.

I am firmly convinced that we may expect to make progress and to improve in many respects at our new and beautiful shooting-ground; for Bisley will not be more distant in time from London than Wimbledon: we can only get 1000 yards at Wimbledon, while Bisley will allow ranges of 2500 yards.

We have about 125 targets now, to be increased to perhaps 170 at Bisley: at Wimbledon competitors shooting in the late afternoon are bothered by the sun in their eyes, from which they will at Bisley be free. Our buildings will, after 1891, be permanent; while, owing to our tenure at Wimbledon, they have been temporary; thus the expenditure of yearly erection and removal will be avoided. We shall be free from the effusive crowd of the “Middle Sunday.” Though the residents at Putney and Wimbledon will miss us more than they think, we shall henceforth be guiltless of causing any annoyance to our neighbours, for we shall not have any neighbours except the Guards in the adjoining camp, Last, though not least, we shall be able to make new developments to meet the requirements of the altered condition of things military. Many other advantages might be enumerated, but the above will tend to show that having fought as hard as we knew how to fight on behalf of our old love, we intend very much to get on successfully with the new.

With more targets and longer ranges, with improved rifles and more favourable atmospheric conditions, the meetings at Bisley will convince the most sceptical that the advance which has been made in the art and science, the practice and skill of rifle-shooting has been as distinct and indisputable since the first meeting at Wimbledon as the advance in any other branch of modern life. In 1857 Brown Bess was still, in use in India: in 1860 the Enfield rifle was not a very reliable weapon: in 1862, so imperfect was the Government manufacture that thirty-four rifles issued for use at Wimbledon did not pass the Government test: in 1860 but few men in England had ever fired a rifle: those who shot best, shot badly: the match rifles of that day, except Mr. Whitworth’s, were of a very inferior quality. But little was known of ammunition, of wind-gauges, of the flight of bullets; while the experience of rifle-shots was almost restricted to the few deer-stalkers who shot their quarry at very short distances. Our match rifles and those who use them now take the highest rank in the world; the Government rifles are of infinitely better quality. Our Wimbledon shots have beaten all previous records; while the science of shooting is known and thoroughly understood, I think, by more men in these islands than in any country in the world. As Sir Henry Halford said not long ago, “We have taught the army to shoot”; and to the National Rifle Association is it mainly due that many hundreds of thousands of men in this country have added rifle-shooting to the pastimes of England; and though cricket and foot-ball are our national games, there are more men in the country who shoot than play cricket. So far as numbers are concerned, the rifle has more than taken the place of the bow.

I look forward to the influence which the proximity of Bisley to Aldershot will have on the shooting of our soldiers and the friendly rivalry between the services as amongst the most important of the advantages we shall gain. It has been suggested that the Queen’s Prize should be thrown open to all branches of the service; there is much to be said for this, but also against it. It must rest entirely with the Queen to say whether the valuable prize which Her Majesty has generously given for thirty years, the thoughtful presentation of which exercised untold influence on the early days of the National Rifle Association, and which was given to encourage the unpaid Volunteers, shall be thrown open to others. There is something very pleasant in looking forward to the friendly rivalry of soldier, sailor, militiaman and volunteer for the Blue Riband of rifle-shooting, but the conditions under which the competitors would be trained would differ in toto and it might well happen that in many a regiment a very promising young shot would be exempt from duty and encouraged to practise every day, and all days, with a view to his obtaining the much-coveted prize for the honour of the regiment, while most Volunteers have difficulty in finding time for practice. The Queen’s Prize has been won by men of most classes and almost all ranks of life: by a barrister, an artist, a clerk, a merchant, a farmer, a shopkeeper, a secretary, an undergraduate, and by those of many other classes and professions, but never, I think, by an idle man. The winners of the Queen’s Prize have been found amongst men actively engaged in the affairs of life, and for the most part hard-working Volunteers; and I, for one, am of opinion that the time has, at any rate, not yet come, when we should ask Her Majesty’s permission so to alter the conditions of the Queen’s Prize as to render it possible that it might be taken by an officer or private of the army, the navy, or the militia. But I should like to see a new prize commenced at Bisley in 1890, at the same distances and on the same conditions as those of “The Queen’s,” open only to the army, navy and militia, provided there were not, less than 2000 competitors: it might well happen that after a few years such a prize might be merged in the Queen’s, and all shoot together. Doubtless gradual changes will be made as the years roll on at Bisley. I believe these changes will be beneficial, and will tend to advancement and improvement; and although from the very nature of things the year 1919 cannot be expected to show as material an advance over 1889 as this year, does on 1860, yet we may hope and expect that the National Rifle Association will in 1919 have as large a measure of the confidence of those for whose benefit alone it exists, as it has obtained in the past, and enjoys at the present time.