Rifle Shooting In England

The following article provides a brief overview of the progress of the National Rifle Association and rifle shooting in England in 1861, from a US perspective. This was the second year of the NRA's Annual Rifle Meeting - Research Press

Source: Scientific American, 10 August 1861

Great attention is now given by the people of England to acquire skill in the use of the rifle, and laudable efforts are made, by those in authority offering prizes, to foster and encourage this spirit. The whole nation appears to have become a vast volunteer corps of riflemen. No less than 300,000 volunteers have become organized into regiments, companies and squads throughout the different cities, towns and counties, and for the past two years nearly they have been drilled under experienced officers and fuglemen belonging to the regular army; and now, it is stated, that in point of drill they rival the regiments of the line, while they far surpass all the soldiers of Europe as marksmen.

In the regular army there is a school for training soldiers to shoot with the rifle at marks ranging from 200 to 900 yards distance, but this practice is limited in comparison with that of volunteer riflemen who can fire away at their own expense as they please. To give unity and coherence to the different regiments, they have formed a “National Rifle Association,” which holds an annual meeting to contend for prizes at Wimbledon Common, near London. The best rifle shots of all the volunteer regiments and companies in the Empire contend for victory on these occasions, the second of which took place on the second week of last month and continued for three days. The highest prize was the “Queens Silver Cup,” valued at £250, which was awarded to the best shot; the “Prince of Wales Prize,” valued at £100; Duke of Cambridge Prize, £50; twenty prizes of Whitworth rifles, each worth £25, besides numerous smaller prizes. The Queens prize is only allowed to be contended for by those who have made the best shots at the successive distances of 200, 500, 600, 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. Seven shots were allowed to each trial, excepting the last, which was reduced to five shots. The twenty best shots at 200 yards received each a Whitworth rifle, and the best marksman of the lot a silver medal additional.

At 600 yards the best shot obtained the Prince of Wales prize, and at 1,000 yards the best received the Queens prize. The best shot at 600 yards was Capt. Robertson, of the 10th Perthshire rifles; the victor of all, who obtained the Queens prize, was Mr. Joplin, of the Second South Middlesex Rifles, who scored twenty points at the ranges of 200, 500 and 600 yards, and eighteen points at the ranges of 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. He gained the prize just by one point from J. Bingham, of Bristol.

The shooting this year is said to have greatly excelled that of last year, and the prizes were taken by persons who had obtained all their knowledge of the rifle through their company practice. Each contest- ant had to fire with an Enfield rifle of the army up to 600 yards; then, for the ranges beyond this, Whit- worth rifles were used, as the Enfield rifle cannot be relied on for such long distances. All those who gained seventeen points and upward had the right to contend for the chief prize, but none below this. The victor of the cup made a total of thirty-eight points out of forty shots.

The extreme range for target rifle shooting in England is four and a half times greater than the American, which is 220 yards.

As we understand the descriptions given in English newspapers of the rifle practice at Wimbledon Common, it surpasses the Swiss and American rifle shooting. When a bulls-eye of eight inches in diameter is struck in the center, it counts three points: when a bullet strikes within the circle of five inches it counts two points, and within one of twelve inches it counts one point. Mr. Joplin, the winner of the Queens Cup, made thirty-eight points out of forty shots, four points being made with five shots at 1,000 yards, which is the best shooting ever made so far as we know. The rifleman, Mr. E. Ross, who won the first prize last year, was also a competitor for it this year; but he was beaten easily by forty others.

As a whole, the shooting of the English rifle volunteers was twice as good this year as the last. Our most accurate American rifles - those which are most esteemed for prize target shooting - are all muzzle- loaders, but the best rifles for long ranges used in England, seem to be breech-loaders. All the shooting is executed off-hand, no rest is allowed, and the rifles are the common kind used in the army drill.

Wimbledon & the Volunteers (5)

Introduction | Royal Patronage | Competitions | Volunteer Camp | Serious Aims

By: D.B. Minshall

Where the serious work took place (Illustrated London News, 25 July 1863)

Serious Aims, For Some …

For many the Wimbledon Meeting was regarded as a fourteen days' picnic with no particular aim other than pleasant enjoyment, but for many others it was a fortnight of work with serious aims. Following is an affectionate portrait of the 'shooting man' written in 1883:
"At roll-call he is the only individual properly dressed; at breakfast he is not visible - nor at lunch, nor at dinner, nor at tea; the mess tent knows him not, and if he eats at all, he must do so invisibly in holes and corners. By nine o'clock he is at the firing point, and there or thereabout, he remains all day. At gun-fire (seven p.m.) he returns to his tent, after perhaps a single sententious pipe in his doorway. His speech is composed of scornful monosyllables; his manner seems based on a careful study of the snub direct. These peculiarities are due, I suppose, to deep thought on such matters as wind-pressure, fore-sights and back-sights, inners and outers, and bulls - which, if you once yield to them, bind you with an insatiable fascination. But, eccentricities apart, the shooting man commands respect. He works hard, he maintains the credit of his corps, and he makes not a little money. In short, he sets a good example; for unless they were decent marksmen, Volunteers would not be of very immediate service in an emergency."
Shooting began each day at nine, by which time the bulk of the camp population was to be found at the various firing points or loitering in the 'high street' of trade tents or the refreshment rooms. Others remained amongst the tents devoting their mornings to rehearsals of amateur theatricals, to the tuning of pianos, to the pretence of reading the daily papers, or to the serious business of the morning pipe.

After the lunch time break opportunity might be taken to stroll around and see what there was to be seen. With the stream of visitors increasing throughout the afternoon there was the added distraction of ladies to the scene. Chairs were provided inside the ropes at the firing points for the ladies, and this an area "which no male dared enter but the shooting man, the scorer and the officer in charge." The officer was regarded with not a little envy, managing to combine his duties with flirtation!

If the weather changed for the worse, then the scenes of gaiety melted away as the officer in charge developed a view of life which was little less than blasphemous. The shooting men were the same though and "that strange product of Wimbledon existence, the offensively robust person who parades a pair of knickerbockers of a remarkable check pattern and a head-covering of no known shape or designation" was to the fore as usual, "with his field-glasses and comforting flask of sherry."

The Sunday in camp was one of noise and bustle. Throughout the preceding week the papers had long accounts of the events, and those that could not get away from business on the weekdays availed themselves of the Sunday to visit Wimbledon and see what had excited so much attention. These large crowds were not without their problems.

Common Problems

The use of the common was not unopposed in 1860 and Lord Spencer received a deputation from local residents. In 1865 a complaint was received by the NRA council about bullets passing over the Coombe Estate, belonging to the Duke of Cambridge, a member of the council. Further complaints were received from the Duke of Cambridge's solicitor in 1869, and compensation of £100 was paid to the Duke's tenant Col. Clifton.

Over the years objections continued from other householders in the growing neighbourhood. The large crowds of visitors troubled them and their free use of the common was restricted. The Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 introduced some regulation to the use of the common, a rent of £100 per annum payable by the NRA and free passes to local householders.

In 1879 a charge of sixpence was introduced for admission after gunfire. This was an attempt to keep out the increasing crowds, and partially to recoup some of the receipts that had been lost by the issue of the free passes. This was not a popular move! Paraffin was used to set fire to the Common and hoardings and there were conflicts with the police which developed into riots. The fee was dropped in 1880, and the fence made of corrugated iron; not readily combustible…

By 1887 Wimbledon was a rapidly growing suburban neighbourhood. The residents were disturbed by the crowds from London, and were upset at having their rights of access to the Common curtailed. With the NRA about to embark on some costly repairs and enlargements, the Duke of Cambridge, who had long suffered the danger of bullets going over the butts into his grounds, this year gave the NRA notice to quit the common prior to any commitment to large expenses.

Due to difficulties associated with finding and preparing a suitable location for a rifle range, the prize meeting remained at Wimbledon until 1889. In 1890 it moved to Bisley, where it remains.

Introduction | Royal Patronage | Competitions | Volunteer Camp | Serious Aims

Wimbledon & the Volunteers (4)

Introduction | Royal Patronage | Competitions | Volunteer Camp | Serious Aims

By: D.B. Minshall

Volunteer Camp

The Volunteer Camp
(The Graphic, 21 July 1888)
In 1861 Lord Radstock and a very small detachment of the Victoria Rifles encamped throughout the NRA meeting at Wimbledon. In 1862 there were 674 men in camp, of whom 212 were Volunteers and by 1866 this had increased to 1,292 Volunteers, with a total of 2,151 in camp. As the numbers continued to grow the annual Volunteer camp at Wimbledon became an established spectacle.

In addition to the Volunteers, regular troops also camped at Wimbledon. In 1865 the total number stationed there during the meeting was 539; being chiefly employed as markers at the butts. That year there were also 221 of the metropolitan police force present.

John Wyatt, Secretary of the NRA, makes some interesting observations on accidents and health at Wimbledon in his report of 23 July 1865:
"The number of casualties admitted into hospital on account of gunshot injuries have been six, of which three occurred at the review on the 22d August.
"The volunteers and regular troops requiring medical treatment during the entire period have been 107, or less than a daily average of 2 per cent. 
"The most severe of the 107 medical cases which came under my notice were those of two policemen stationed at the camp; one was affected with a severe form of English cholera, the other had smallpox of a confluent character, and was immediately removed to the Fever Hospital in London.
"Of the very few casualties from gun-shot accidents which occurred, the most severe were the cases of Sergeant Cousins, of the 1st Lincoln Volunteers, who shot himself through the upper part of the great toe, requiring subsequent amputation, and Private Walton, of the 2nd City of London Volunteers, who was shot at the review by the accidental discharge of the rifle of the rear-rank man, carried full cock at the trail. The whole of the blank charge with a porting of the trousers were removed from a deep wound at the back of the thigh, and the man taken home in the evening by the surgeon of the corps"
Sergeant Cousins accident had been brought about by the practice of capping off against the polished toe of his boot. Sadly the rifle had been left loaded!

With the camp increasing in size the necessity for regulations arose, and the NRA Council were obliged to issue certain rules with reference to the conduct of their camp. Life at the camp became an odd mixture of military exactitude and laughing unconventionality. Reveille sounded at half past six and after that hour Volunteers were not permitted slumber; all must attend parade. One Volunteer recalled being awoken by an orderly-sergeant who "wore nothing but his cross-belt, forage cap, and cane, and who swaggered rather more than if he had been in full uniform at a royal inspection." Another Volunteer recalled a somewhat ruder awakening:
"You catch hold of his head and I'll catch hold of his feet."
"Methought in my dreams that I heard a gruff voice utter these words; and then I experienced a sensation of being lifted up and carried through the air. The sensation was brief, its conclusion unpleasant, for I was roughly awakened by being dropped, and starting up, found myself on the ground in front of the tent, and two stalwart Volunteers standing beside me with pails of water in their hands. Before I could utter a word, splash came the contents of one pail over me, quickly followed by those of the other."
The morning parade was somewhat unorthodox if this 1883 description is anything to go by: "I have seen the captain commandant appear on parade in dressing-gown and socks; and I have seen a man present himself in a piece of Turkish carpet, a fez, and a cigarette; and another actually enjoying his morning tub in the ranks."

'Field-Marshal Punch' inspected camp in 1875 and, with a view to insuring uniformity, published in the magazine bearing his name a number of regulations for Wimbledon, some of which are reprinted below:
"Officers ordered to attend Full Dress Parade, will not appear in white neck-ties, lavender kid gloves, and swallow-tailed coats. A projected visit to the Opera (after the Parade has been dismissed) will not in future be accepted as an excuse for disobeyance of this order.

"Non-Commissioned Officers taking part in Battalion Drill should never unfurl their umbrellas without the command of a Brigadier General.

"Fancy grey Overcoats (with black velvet collars and cuffs) should not be worn over tweed shooting-jackets and regulation trousers on parade in fine weather.

"A Major (in the absence of his Commanding Officer) should never hold a Church Parade in a straw-hat, a sword, and a pair of galoshes.


"The Order "March at ease" will not be considered, in future, as tantamount to a permission for a Company to ride home on the outside of an omnibus.

"Guides should not explain the theory of Billiards or the rules of Lawn-tennis to their Markers during the formation of a four-deep square.

"No more than a dozen Privates (to each Company) should speak at once on the call of "Attention!" Constant disregard of this rule will be found to cause some confusion, especially in the performance of brigade movements."

Wimbledon & the Volunteers (3)

Introduction | Royal Patronage | Competitions | Volunteer Camp | Serious Aims

By: D.B. Minshall


In 1859 Volunteering was new, rifle shooting almost unknown. The NRA Council had not only to draw up the rules and regulations, but themselves had everything to learn. Discussion, of course, arose as to the rifles to be used, the form of target at which to fire, the best distances, the number of shots, the proper position in which to shoot, the system under which the firing was to be conducted, together with the nature and value of the prizes.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Duke of Cambridge presented valuable prizes to be annually competed for. With these and other donations the 67 prizes of 1860 amounted to a value of £2,238. Enthusiasm for the annual prize meeting blossomed. By 1866 the number of prizes had reached 835 with a value of £8,884 and in 1888 there were 2,814 prizes valued at £9,824, exclusive of challenge cups. The apparent disparity between the increase in number of prizes and their value was due to the urging of the competitors themselves that prize money be distributed over as wide an area as possible. With competitors travelling from every part of the country, it was important that they should if possible not only win honour and distinction, but also sufficient money to defray their unavoidable expenses. It was far better to give ten prizes of £5, than one of £50.

There were 24 targets at Wimbledon in 1860 and of the 67 prizes, 40 were open to all-comers and 27 restricted to Volunteers. Only 299 Volunteer competitors took part and the total aggregate of entries for Volunteer prizes was 594. For the all-comers' prizes the number of entries was 720, giving a grand total of entries of all kinds of 1,314. By 1888 the meeting had become immense. Target numbers had increased to 125 and the total aggregate of entries was an astonishing 41,670. In addition to this, the enormous number of 80,188 entries was made for the various Pool shooting and Running Deer events.

The Last Shot of the Queen's Prize
(Illustrated London News,
27 July 1872).
Note the large number
of spectators. 
At the inaugural rifle meeting of 1860, ranges for Volunteer competitions were 300, 500, 600, 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. At 300 yards, shooting was 'off the shoulder' (i.e. standing) while beyond that, from the kneeling position. In 1861, 200 yards replaced the 300 yard distance; 300 yards being deemed too great for effective fire with the Enfield while standing. For the all-comers matches and at distances less than 500 yards shooting was from the standing position. At the remaining distances any position was allowed, although artificial rests (including slings) were not permitted.

Competitions were broadly separated into Volunteers using the military arm of issue, all-comers shooting 'small-bore' rifles, and team shooting (including the Elcho Shield, Lords and Commons match and a day set aside for Public Schools matches).

Although the targets, number of shots fired, positions used and distances competed at varied over the years, the competition format would largely be familiar to today's marksmen… … fire a set number of shots at a target at a given distance and achieve the highest possible score. There have, however, been less 'conventional' competitions which are worthy of review, if not revival!

Wimbledon & the Volunteers (2)

Introduction | Royal Patronage | Competitions | Volunteer Camp | Serious Aims

By: D.B. Minshall

Royal Patronage

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

Private Sharman,
winner of the Queens Prize, 1865
(Illustrated London News, 29 July 1865)
Queen'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!

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.

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

Introduction | Royal Patronage | Competitions | Volunteer Camp | Serious Aims