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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.


Rifle Championship of the World

The Irish team arrived in New York Harbour on 16 September 1874. On 26 September, the great match took place before an estimated audience of five thousand people. The riflemen were each to fire 15 shots at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. No sighting shots or artificial rests were permitted. The targets were as per those used at Wimbledon in 1873; the three feet square 'bull's eye' was in the middle of the 'centre', measuring six feet square, with a three feet wide by six feet high 'outer' at each end of the target, the whole measuring six feet high by twelve feet wide. Scoring was 'bull's eye' 4, 'centre' 3 and 'outer' 2.

The Americans made a strong start at 800 yards, taking the lead on 326 points against the Irish team on 317. As the ranges increased in distance, so the Irish began to claw back points. At 900 yards the Americans scored 310 whilst the Irish finished on 312. The Americans lead was gradually eroded further at 1,000 yards, where the Irish finished on 302 points for a total of 931. The Americans were still shooting. By the time it came to the last shot to be fired, the Irish were leading by one point.

John Bodine was the last man to shoot. He approached the firing point with a bloody hand wrapped in a handkerchief having shortly before his last shot cut himself whilst opening a bottle. The pressure must have been tremendous, with thousands of spectators straining to see the shot on which American victory depended. Bodine pulled the trigger, then there was the four second wait for the bullet to travel the thousand yards to the target. "Clap!" That welcome sound as the lead bullet flattened on the iron target, indicated a hit. Then came the marker indicating a bull's eye! The American's had won and Bodine was carried off in triumph.

The final scores were America 934 and Ireland 931. The American team win gave the art of long-range shooting a considerable boost in the country, and assured its future as a sport within the US. At least for a decade.

In 1875 a return match was held between Ireland and America on Irish soil to the same conditions as the 1874 match. The match took place on 29 June at Dollymount, near Dublin, and, according to the Illustrated London News before an audience of between forty and fifty thousand people! The Americans again won, scoring 967 against Irelands 929.

Dollymount 1875

The International Rifle Match Between American and Irish Teams, at Dollymount, near Dublin
(Illustrated London News, 10 July 1875)

 

The American Centennial

In the American centennial year of 1876 the 'riflemen of the world' were invited by the NRA to compete at Creedmoor for the Centennial Trophy. The trophy, commissioned from Tiffany's by the NRA, was a replica of a Roman legionary standard. Beneath an eagle clutching a wreath of palm leaves was a plaque bearing the word PALMA. It is by this word that the trophy later became known. The match was for teams of eight and to be held over two days, 13 and 14 September, with shooting at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. Competitors were to fire fifteen shots at each distance upon each day.

The final line-up of nations accepting the invitation to compete in the Grand Centennial Rifle Match was: America, Australia, Canada, Ireland and Scotland. Once again the American team were to use breech loading rifles while their rivals were to contest the match with their trusted Rigby and Gibbs-Metford muzzle loading match rifles.

Targets at the Centennial Match underwent a change from those previously adopted. The old square bull's eye was now replaced by a new circular one, as had been adopted by the NRA of Great Britain in 1875. The target used was six feet high by twelve feet wide, and was divided as follows: Bull's eye, 36 inch circle, signal, white disc, counting 5; Centre, 54 inch circle surrounding the bull's eye, signalled by a red disc and counting 4; Inner, 6 x 6 feet enclosing the centre, signalled by a white disc with a black cross, counting 3; Outer, the remainder of the target, being a strip 3 feet wide on each edge, signalled by a black disc and counting 2.

After the two day battle, the grand aggregate results were America 3,126; Ireland 3,104; Scotland 3,062; Australia 3,062; Canada 2,923. The most outstanding shooting was made by J.K. Millner of Ireland who shot fifteen bull's-eyes at 1,000 yards for an unprecedented maximum score of 75 x 75. When one considers that this was achieved without the benefit of sighting shots it makes the achievement all the more remarkable! The Centennial Trophy was presented to the American Team by General Hawley at Gilmore's Gardens on 15 September in the presence of 15,000 people, as much as the Gardens could accommodate. Further crowds, unable to gain access to the Gardens, lined Madison Avenue.

A week after the Grand Centennial Rifle Match, on 21 September, there followed another international match at Creedmoor which is seldom reported today. This was a return match between the old adversaries, America and Ireland. The teams of six fired at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards and the match was another victory for the US, scoring 1,165 against Irelands 1,154.

America vs Great Britain

Creedmoor 1877

Sir Henry Halford coaching (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 22 September 1877)

In May 1877 the NRA of Great Britain received an invitation from New York to compete for the Centennial Trophy the following September. Sir Henry Halford was appointed captain of the British team and organisation was left entirely in his hands. The team was chosen following a three day trial shoot held at Cambridge.

On 25 August the British riflemen arrived at New York. Booming cannon and an American reception party aboard the steamer Nelson K. Hopkins greeted them. The fifth annual fall prize meeting of the NRA opened on 9 September. As these opening individual matches drew to a close so attention shifted to the great international rifle match. Scheduled for two days shooting, on 13 and 14 September, this was to be the first time that a Great Britain rifle team had competed against an American team.

About 10 o'clock on the 13th the British team, consisting of Sir Henry St. John Halford, H.S. Evans, Lieut. G. Fenton, Lieut.-Col. J. Fenton, Sergt. Ferguson, A.P. Humphry, J.K. Milner and W. Rigby, arrived from their quarters in Garden City. After visiting the butts and examining the targets, they proceeded to the tent of the American team captain, General Dakin, where they met the American riflemen. The American team of Maj. Gen. T.S. Dakin, I.L. Allen, C.E. Blydenburgh, L.C. Bruce, F. Hyde, W.H. Jackson, Maj. H.S. Jewell and L. Weber appeared in their neat brown shooting costumes. In the tent, the captains of the respective teams drew lots for position, the Americans winning the choice. The British team used Metford and Rigby muzzle loading rifles, and the American team Remington and Sharps breech loading rifles.

The day did not go as the British would have wished, and it closed with aggregate scores of 1,655 for the Americans and 1,629 for the British, leaving the latter with a daunting 26 point deficit to make up in the next day's shooting and the Americans in buoyant mood.

On the second day, the Americans finished shooting at 5:35 p.m., and ten minutes later the British completed their shooting. The British team had floundered and with grand aggregate totals of 3,334 to the Americans and 3,242 to the British the great match was over. Both teams had in fact shot astonishing scores, bettering those made in other matches to date. America's team score on 14 September 1877 of 1,679 was, however, an outstanding achievement.

Long Range Demise

The 1877 match marked the end of an era. Waning public interest in match shooting had nothing to inspire it in the following two years. In 1878 no invitations were accepted for another international long range match, and the United States fired the Palma Match without competition. Invitations were again declined in 1879.

In an effort to revive public interest in long range shooting, Ireland extended an invitation to America for a friendly competition in 1880. The match took place on 29 June. Five of the Irish team used new Rigby breechloaders and the sixth man a Metford. Similarly, five of the American team used Sharps-Borchardt rifles and the sixth a Ballard. The Americans won the match with a total score of 1292 to 1280. On 29 July a self appointed American team, under Frank Hyde, fired a long range match at Wimbledon against a British team captained by Sir Henry Halford. The match, fired at 800, 900 and 1000 yards, was a disaster for the Americans. They lost by 79 points, scoring 1,568 against the British score of 1,647.

At this time the NRA of America suffered severe blows to its activities. The Army decided not to send further teams to matches sponsored by the NRA. Additionally, the newly elected governor of New York, Alonzo B. Cornell, made stringent cuts in National Guard funding particularly focusing on rifle practice. Another invitation to compete for the Palma Trophy in 1881 was declined by the NRA of Great Britain and the match now faded away until it was revived in 1901.

Military Matches

Despite the demise of the Palma Match, a competition with military rifles between the Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of America was agreed to for 1882. On 14 and 15 September teams of twelve representing the British Volunteers and the American National Guard met at Creedmoor. The match fired at 200, 500 and 600 yards on the first day, and at 800, 900 and 1000 yards on the second. The rifles used were of military pattern, although not necessarily one authorised for service. Each man fired seven shots at each distance, and no cleaning between shots was permitted. The British team won scoring 1975, against the American team score of 1,805 out of a possible 2,530.

In 1883 the American National Guard team had a return match against the British Volunteers at Wimbledon, on 20 and 21 July. The British team was again victorious scoring 1,951, against the American team score of 1,906.

Great Britain was invited to send a team of British Volunteers to shoot at Creedmoor in 1885. With Britain on a war footing due to the Sudanese rebellion the NRA felt that they were unable to accept the invitation.

NRA Decline

With the lack of an international match to revive public interest, the Long Island Railroad facing bankruptcy and sponsors withdrawing support, the NRA was fighting for survival. In 1890 Creedmoor was deeded back to the state of New York although the NRA match program was permitted to continue at the ranges. When in 1892 the new Inspector General of Rifle Practice, Capt. B.M. Whitlock, gave free use of Creedmoor to state troops a further source of income was removed from the NRA.

The ailing NRA put its records into storage and, following negotiation with the New Jersey State Rifle Association, transferred its matches from Creedmoor to Sea Girt. By 1900 these matches had grown significantly and the Board of Directors of the NRA met in December that year, the first such meeting since 1892. One of the outcomes of that meeting was plans to resurrect competition for the Centennial or ‘Palma’ Trophy.