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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)

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Royal Patronage

Queen Victoria fired the inaugural shot at the first rifle meeting on 2 July 1860. A Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle placed in a mechanical rest had been aligned with a target at a distance of 400 yards. Joseph Whitworth handed a silken cord attached to the trigger to Her Majesty and the rifle was discharged by a slight pull on the cord. The adjustment was so accurate that the bullet struck the target within 1.25 inches from the centre.

The Queen had further offered encouragement by founding an annual prize that Volunteers competed for in two stages; the first at 300, 500 and 600 yards[2], and the second at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. Prize money was £250.

With royal patronage and the daily papers and weekly-illustrated journals reporting widely on events, the 'Wimbledon fortnight' was marked for success and established as a fashionable summer attraction. By the mid-1860s, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Manchester newspapers had correspondents on the ground throughout the meeting, while the results of the chief competitions were telegraphed from day to day.

Lords & Commons match

The Prince and Princess of Wales witnessing the match between the Lords and Commons
(Illustrated London News, 25 July 1863)

Private SharmanQueen's Prize winners became local heroes. In 1865 Private Sharman, of the 4th West York Rifles, won this coveted distinction. As a matter of course he was chaired and cheered; his health heartily drunk by all his friends; he was photographed, lionized, and finally received his prize with the band playing "See, the Conquering Hero comes!" But, bewildered as Private Sharman must have been by his hearty reception on the scene of his victory, he must have been still more astonished at the remarkable demonstration which awaited him on his return to Halifax. Here he was received in state by the town officials, and conducted in procession, as the man his townsmen wished to honour, through the principal streets. There were many thousands to see the champion - the crowd, reportedly, being greatly in excess of that which filled the streets on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales to Halifax!

Right: Private Sharman, winner of the Queens Prize, 1865
(Illustrated London News, 29 July 1865)

Contrary to expectations in some quarters the Volunteer movement became firmly established. In 1860 there were 106,443 efficient Volunteers, and the numbers steadily increased in 1870 to 170,671; in 1880 to 196,938, and in 1888 to 220,124. Great Volunteer reviews before large crowds of spectators, and sometimes royalty, were held throughout the country where the men demonstrated their skill at drill and skirmishing. Local and regional rifle matches become commonplace and by the end of the decade of the 1860's Great Britain, with no prior tradition for rifle marksmanship, had thousands of trained riflemen.

Note
2. From 1861, 200 yards replaced the 300 yards range.