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Queen Victorias Rifle Volunteers and Yeomanry 1859-1908

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Volunteer Force, 1859-1908

During the late 1850's there was growing apprehension as to the prospects of French invasion of Great Britain. Indeed, following the attempt on Napoleon III's life by Felice Orsini on 14 January 1858, some French officers actually called for an invasion when it was discovered that Orsini manufactured his bomb in England. Newspapers, particularly The Times, continued to fuel the debate as to the formation of a Volunteer Force for home defence.

On 12 May 1859 the Government issued a circular sanctioning the formation of Volunteer Corps. The date on which the first company of Volunteers was formed within a county determined the county precedence. In 1881 the British Army was reorganised into territorial regiments with regular, militia and volunteer battalions.

The initial immediate rush of Volunteering was not expected to last. However, measures to secure the long-term prospects for the Volunteers were put in place late in 1859 with the formation of the National Rifle Association (NRA), its aims including "the encouragement of Volunteer Rifle Corps and the promotion of rifle shooting throughout Great Britain." The NRA held their first rifle meeting on Wimbledon common in 1860 and with royal patronage and the daily papers and weekly-illustrated journals reporting widely on events, the 'Wimbledon fortnight' was marked for success. 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.

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.

The original arm of the Volunteers was the muzzle loading Enfield rifle. In September 1870 this was replaced by the Snider, a breech loading conversion of the Enfield. The adoption of the Martini-Henry breech loading rifle by the Volunteers was commenced in 1879 but not completed until 1885. The issue of the Lee-Metford magazine rifle was authorised in 1895.

In 1908 the Volunteer Force, which included rifle, artillery and engineer corps, merged with the Yeomanry to form the Territorial Force.

Rifle Volunteers

  • The British Volunteer System - Written by Rt. Hon. Earl Brownlow, this article gives a brief history of the Volunteer Movement from its establishment to 1900.
  • War Office, Pall Mall, May 12, 1859 - On 12 May 1859 the Government issued a circular sanctioning the formation of Volunteer Corps.
  • County Precedence - Following the sanctioning by the Government of the formation of Volunteer Corps, on 12 May 1859, there was an immediate rush of volunteering. The date on which the first company in a county was formed determined County precedence.
  • Territorial Regiments - In 1881 the British Army was reorganised into territorial regiments with regular, militia and volunteer battalions.


The British Volunteer System

The early years of the 19th century found England in the possession of a large body of volunteers. They were not a part of the permanent military organization of the country, but were raised in a hurry, and for a special purpose, and were only intended to meet a sudden emergency. At that period, Napoleon I had massed a great army at Boulogne in sight of the British coast; but the British cruisers held the Channel, and day after day and month after month passed, until the naval battle of Trafalgar put an end forever to his ambitious dream of the conquest of England. It was to meet this contingency that the Volunteers of 1803 were raised, and the danger having been averted, they were disbanded and never brought together again. With the organization and efficiency of this force, this article is in no way concerned, and it is only mentioned here to explain that volunteering for defense of the country is no new idea, but that the volunteers of 1803 have no relation to those of 1858. They served their purpose; they came together to the number of 463,000 men, and when the emergency ceased, they died out and disappeared.

Read more: The British Volunteer System

Enfield Rifle Team Shooting: Bristol vs Staffordshire

By the mid-1860s the Volunteer Movement in Great Britain was well established and rifle shooting, thanks also to the establishment in 1859 of the National Rifle Association, had become a popular pastime. On 8 April 1865 there was a hugely supported ‘simultaneous Enfield rifle match’ fired. Volunteer Battalions and/or Companies throughout the country had opportunity to compete, shooting on their own ranges and submitting scores.

Read more: Enfield Rifle Team Shooting: Bristol vs Staffordshire