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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

Creedmoor Rifle Range

To trace the origins of the Creedmoor rifle range one needs to go back to the immediate post Civil War years in America. Understandably, at the time there was little interest in marksmanship or military matters from the general public, and although the US National Guard received plenty of drill and marching instruction there was scant, if any, marksmanship training.

The impetus for the development of marksmanship skills within America's National Guard units came from the pages of the Army and Navy Journal. The editor was William Church, and a kindred spirit was George Wingate, whose "Manual for Rifle Practice" appeared in six instalments in the Journal in late 1870 and early 1871. Reprinted in book form in a number of editions the manual became the standard work upon which rifle practice was developed in America.

Throughout his editorials Church urged for marksmanship training, and in September 1871 he held a meeting for New York National Guard officers interested in developing marksmanship skills amongst their troops. From this initial informal meeting and nucleus of interested parties, seeds were sown for the formation of a new association. The men set to work and progress was rapid. Just two months after the original meeting, on 17 November 1871, "the National Rifle Association", was granted a charter by the state of New York, "to promote rifle practice, and for this purpose to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of New York … …"

The first year of the National Rifle Association (NRA) existence passed by quietly. Real progress began in 1872 when, under President William Church and Secretary George Wingate, the New York Legislature was induced to appropriate $25,000 for the purchase of a range near New York City, the Association agreeing to raise $5,000 on its part.

After a protracted search for a suitable piece of land for a rifle range, at a reasonable price, the NRA was able to purchase a plot owned by the Central and North Side Railroad of Long Island. Seeing that the Association's plans were likely to stimulate rail travel, the railroad company had agreed to sell the seventy acre plot at low cost. This farmland had formerly been owned by the Creed family.

The gentleman credited with naming the new range was Colonel Henry Shaw, a member of the range committee of the NRA. On arriving at Creed's Farm and observing the open, desolate field, with coarse scanty grass and brambles he declared it a veritable moor, Creed's Moor. Hence by a happy inspiration and coincidence "Creedmoor" became the name of the new range.

Creedmoor 1873

A general view of the range at the time of the inaugural rifle match
(The Daily Graphic (New York), 21 June 1873)

The 1200 yard oblong strip of land was able to accommodate ranges up to 1,000 yards. Construction work began in 1872 but it was not until 25 April 1873 that the first shot at Creedmoor was fired. An inaugural rifle meeting was held on 21 June 1873. This was essentially a short range affair, with a rapid fire 100 yard match and two 200 yard matches (military and 'any rifle') for individuals. The main event was a regimental team competition shot at 200 and 500 yards. The winners by a wide margin were the 22nd Regiment, New York National Guard.

Amateur Rifle Club

Contests and rifles during the first year were almost exclusively military and confined to members of the militia or men shooting with their rifles. The few "any rifle" competitions were offhand at 200 yards. Public support afforded of Creedmoor as long as it remained a military institution was slight. The first season, however, witnessed the formation of a small club of enthusiasts, an offshoot of the parent association, which was destined to create a revolution within a single year.

Colonel George Wingate with a few other clear-sighted individuals organized the "Amateur Rifle Club" of New York City in 1873. It was designed to cultivate the use of the sporting rifle, and to develop marksmanship as an amusement, with no ulterior military purpose. The Club fired their first match at the Creedmoor Rifle Range on 12 July 1873. There were twelve entrants and shooting was at 500 yards. The winner was J. Bodine of Highland, N.Y. A noted crack shot in his neighbourhood, he used an English made muzzle loading match rifle by George Gibbs of Bristol. While the Club's inaugural match may have gone unnoticed by many, the names of John Bodine and another competitor, Henry Fulton, were to be on the lips of the nation a year later.

The Irish Challenge

Elcho ShieldThe establishment in 1859 of the Volunteer Movement in Great Britain and subsequent formation of the British NRA that year generated a massive growth of interest in rifle shooting. In Ireland in 1861 enthusiasts founded the Ulster Rifle Association and Maj. Arthur Leech was instrumental in founding the Dublin Shooting Club. That same year a challenge published in a Scottish newspaper that Scotland would shoot against England was taken up. The match was limited to Volunteers, in teams of eight, and was fired at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. To perpetuate the match the chairman of the NRA, Lord Elcho, presented the Elcho Shield for annual competition. The first match took place in 1862, with England emerging the winners.

The Volunteer movement was to the exclusion of Ireland, who, not having any Volunteers was not eligible to take part in the Elcho Shield match. After many applications to the NRA to allow the Irish to enter for this prize, the strictness of the rule was relaxed and an Irish team was allowed to compete in 1865. At Wimbledon between 1862 and 1872 the Elcho Shield match was won eight times by England and three times by Scotland, then, finally, in 1873 Ireland won.

Buoyed by their success in beating England and Scotland, Ireland wanted further laurels. Having enlisted the support of several of the best Irish rifle shots, Major Leech addressed a challenge to America. Not aware of the existence of the NRA in American, the Irish challenge to the 'Riflemen of America' was sent to the editor of the New York Herald. It was published on 22 November 1873. The challenge was for a team match to be fired at ranges of 800, 900, 1000 and 1100 yards. The Irish were to shoot with muzzle-loading rifles made by Rigby, of Dublin, and the Americans were required to use rifles of a bonâ fide American manufacture.

The fledgling NRA in America obviously became aware of the challenge, but was not keen to accept. It was the Amateur Club of New York City that came to the rescue and volunteered to meet the Irish champions in a match at Creedmoor. There was however one proviso; the 1100 yards range should be removed from the terms of the match. This was objected to simply because they had no range of that extent at Creedmoor. This range was duly removed from the match conditions, no doubt with some disappointment for the Irish, who considered it their strongest range.

Keenly aware of their 'greenness' in long range shooting, in March 1874 the Amateur Club circulated an appeal to the riflemen of America. This appeal was published in newspapers throughout the country. Native-born Americans interested in rifle shooting, and desiring to be considered for the team, were requested to forward scores of fifteen consecutive shots made at each distance named in the programme, on or before the 1st July 1874. Despite the publicity, the renowned 'riflemen of the plains' failed to materialise.

Since the frontiersmen, with all their vaunted skill, could not be induced to attend, it became evident that the Club would have to fight single-handedly. Six competitions were held at Creedmoor during July and August 1874 to shoot for places in the team and less than thirty men took part. Those finally being selected for the American team were; Col. Bodine, Gen. Dakin, H. Fulton, Col. Gildersleeve, L. Hepburn and G.W. Yale. The team captain was G.W. Wingate.

The Irish had experienced their own difficulties with final team selection, primarily due to the time involved in attending such a trip to America. Finding riflemen of sufficient eminence and in sufficient numbers, who were able to conclude business affairs adequately to be absent for the trip, was becoming quite a task for the team captain, Major Leech. The Irish team eventually selected was Dr. Hamilton, E. Johnson, J.K. Milner, J. Rigby, Capt. Walker and J. Wilson.

Rifles

Creedmoor rifles

Creedmoor rifles (top to bottom): Remington, Rigby, Sharps

The Irish had muzzle loading match rifles that were manufactured by John Rigby and Co., of Dublin. These rifles, along with the Gibbs-Metford, were the ultimate development of the muzzle-loading small-bore match rifle in the UK, and were superbly accurate.

In a letter by the Amateur Rifle Club (ARC) of New York seeking subscriptions in support of the US team to Ireland in 1875 is an interesting contemporary comment on the lack of availability of American made rifles suitable, under the terms of the match, for long range shooting. It further underlines just how bold a move it was by the ARC to accept the Irish Challenge.

Eyes then turned to American manufactures for a suitable rifle: both Remington and Sons of Ilion, N.Y., and the Sharps Rifle Company of Hartford, Connecticut, rose to the occasion and designed breech loading rifles suitable for long-range marksmanship. Each rifle found favour with the Americans and their use was evenly distributed through the team; Bodine, Fulton and Hepburn used the Remington and Dakin, Gildersleeve and Yale used the Sharps.