It is the summer of 1860. The British government, rattled by a French invasion scare, seeks to train a sizable corps of volunteers armed with the new rifles, much as the Americans had done to them eight-five years earlier. To properly kick things off the queen herself pulls a silken cord and fires the first shot from a Whitworth rifle towards a target 400 yards away, hitting an inch or two from the center of the bull. Even given that the rifle was pre-aimed in a rest, it is still an impressive feat.
Margery Masterson recounts the origins of the Victorian National Rifle Association and the Volunteer movement in Britain.
This call-to-arms had been inevitable ever since the veterans of the Crimean War (1854-6) returned home with face-protecting beards, sparking a fashion for facial hair and a new vogue for soldiering. Alarm at an armed uprising in India (1857-8) was fed with hair-raising tales of attacks upon British women and children in a war where little distinction was made between soldier and civilian. Middle-class men, who would never join the working-class rank and file in the regular army, now spoke of every man’s duty to protect his home and country – with force if necessary. The third and final impetus of the Volunteers movement was a war of words with France in 1858 after an assassination attempt was made on Napoleon III with a bomb made in Britain. There was little real threat of invasion – France was an important British ally on the global stage – but the image of loyal Britons called to defend their nation and homes proved too attractive to resist.
The Volunteer movement took off, and every man wanted one of the new long-range rifles. Along with drills there were matches, some out to 1000 yards. Below is a humorous look at some of the shooting positions by national origin.
When the Volunteers first took aim at the bullseye at Wimbledon in 1860, they were starting a new tradition but one with historical precedents. The Victorian Volunteers proudly traced their roots back to the archers of medieval England who had defended the nation at Agincourt. They reasoned that the bow was the natural weapon of Englishmen (though most of the bowmen at Agincourt were Welsh) and the rifle was merely an updated version. Archery competitions held an important place in British folklore. Romantic legends such as Robin Hood told how these contests stripped away the unfair advantages of brute strength or social position. A talented young man of humble background might not only win, but could also catch the eye of a rich man’s daughter. The archery field was a place where men and women historically could compete – and flirt. Many well-to-do Victorian women were proficient with a bow and arrow themselves. The romance of the medieval era was a potent draw for the Volunteers, but the modern rifle did not level the playing field between men – and certainly not between men and women.
Membership to the Volunteers was limited to those who could afford the membership fee, the cost of the handsome uniform and, of course, a rifle. The Volunteers were proud of the fact that they paid for everything themselves. They equated their out-of-pocket expenses with their patriotism and frequently cited their purchasing power whenever they disagreed with an official opinion. If men were denied access to rifle training because they could not afford to become a Volunteer soldier, all women were excluded from competitions on the grounds that the Volunteers were soldiers. There was no physical reason why women could not become equally good shots with a rifle. But so long as National Rifle Association events were linked to demonstrations of Volunteers’ military preparedness, female participation was sidelined. The first woman competed at Wimbledon in 1891, 31 years after the Queen fired that first shot.
The Volunteer movement and match shooting had a noticeable effect in the American Civil War. Many of the rifles developed for match shooting, such as the Whitworth, Kerr, and others saw use as sharpshooter rifles, particularly by the Confederacy. Volunteer rifles also ended up in American hands, these being distinguished by their fine finish and stock checkering. Confederate buyers were always ready to buy them for top dollar. Until 1862 Volunteers were able to use just about any rifles they pleased, but after that the War Department insisted on using the standard service P53 .577 Enfield. However this did not stop men from ordering fancy rifles, and some of the more enterprising ones bought a “small bore” (i.e. 451 cal.) barrel that could be installed on match days.
Of course that was then. Today’s Britain has almost completely disarmed itself, and it’s hard to imagine any Royal encouraging skill with a rifle today.
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