By: J.C. Templer, Captain Commanding 18th Middlesex
(Source: MacMillan’s Magazine, August 1860)
Tom. You were at Wimbledon, at the great national rifle meeting. By all the accounts I have seen of it, it must have been a great success; but I should like to hear some of the details from an eye-witness; so tell me about it, for I was confined to my post here by work of all sorts.
Jack. Well, in a desultory sort of way, I will; but, remember, I was not present the whole time, as my avocations called me back to London nearly every day. You shall have, and welcome, what passed under my own observation; and I will also give you some thoughts that have occurred to me since.
T. Do so.
J. The first thing that struck one was the complete mixture of classes; – it forced itself on your notice immediately, and although in the formation of our company I had been somewhat accustomed to it, it did not come so home as when I saw it on a large scale, and amongst strangers. There were men holding the highest social positions mixing us equals with others not so fortunately placed, and along the whole line of civil society. It came off something in this shape: the volunteers were formed into squads, each about sixteen strong, and the officer in charge took the names down on a paper, the surnames only, and then called them out-as they came, without titles or additions of any kind, thus, Bowling, Buckshorn, Johnson, Childers, Clasper, &c. The first might be a peer, the second a working man, the third a shopkeeper, the fourth a yeoman, the fifth a captain in the Guards, and so on. There they stood, shoulder to shoulder, intent on the same object, to test their skill in a generous rivalry and the volunteer uniform showed no difference. You will see the Times, in giving the names, does the same. It was the old public school custom over again, and is a sure sign of healthy feeling. Men stood upon their merits alone, their personal merits in the use of the rifle. Besides, the inter-mixture of classes did more; it showed us to each other, and we found the mind of the gentleman was common to all. It was “Fair play and old England;” each man did his best, without striving after any small advantages; we stood upon honour with each other.
T. Do you mean that you all became acquainted at once with each other?
J. Quite so; and it was not long before there was great clanship amongst us – just like the old feeling of sides at football and cricket, and, in spite of our individual rivalry, we cheered a successful shot as reflecting credit on the squad, – “Well done, Johnson,” “Well done, Buckshorn,” when they got centres. And so high did this run, that, at the close of the day, we wished to challenge any other of the squads; and, had there been time, no doubt plenty of such matches would have come off. Talking of centres, I think General Hay should alter the nomenclature at Hythe. You are perhaps aware that bulls-eyes are confined to distances up to 300 yards only; after that, there are no bull’s-eyes, properly so called, but the central part of the target is called the centre. I observed the north countrymen, Yorkshiremen, and Swiss, always spoke of it as the bull’s-eye, and certainly this name conveys to the uninitiated a better idea, besides being more agreeable to the marksman. The division should be – up to 300 yards, bull’s-eyes, centres, and outers; and, after that distance, bull’s-eyes and outers.
T. There is not much in that, I think.
J. Perhaps not; but we may as well have it correct at first, and now is the time to rectify these little matters.
T. But now tell me about the shooting; for, after all, that’s the main thing.
J. It was surprising, and, to a spectator who carried back his memory but one short year, must have seemed a marvel. Fancy the squad in which I was. Our third round at 500 yards, but two men missed the target, and one of them shot from the shoulder, having permission to do so, from some disability in the knee, which prevented his kneeling. All the others either got outers or bull’s-eyes, as we will now call it. Why, a sheep could not have lived for a minute there, much less a horse or a man. The average merit of the squad for five rounds was 3.66; and you must remember this was the first year, with but little opportunity selection. I came myself, not because I was the best shot of my company, but simply because, having had no opportunity of testing the capabilities of any one by reason of our butts not being erected, I thought in case of failure, my shoulders were the broadest to bear the responsibility, and, besides, not having had the advantage of a course at Hythe, I was willing to run the risk of some little discredit against the certainty of the advantage of the practice; so, without having fired a round of ball cartridge, I trusted to the position drill and the mechanical truth of the rifle; and no doubt there were numbers of others, who, if not quite in so forlorn a position as my own, at the longer ranges could have had little or no practice.
T. Was there much question as to the rifles?
J. The contest, virtually, was confined to the long Enfields, the Whitworths, and the Westley Richards. The two former, as you know, are muzzle-loaders; the latter breech-loaders. As far as my own observation went, the long Enfield, up to 600 yards, was equal to either for precision – indeed I should have preferred mine. You will remember we shot with those that had been supplied us by the National Rifle Association; and these were more carefully adjusted in their sights than those issued by Government to the corps. Besides, the pull of the trigger was reduced from some 8 or 9lb, which is the ordinary pull of the Government Enfleld, to about 4lb; indeed, every ninth or tenth rifle in our company will bear its own weight on the trigger without springing it. Now this should not he, and it is a pity that all the rifles issued by Government should not be adjusted to a 3lb or 4lb pull. It is a great disadvantage, drilling with one and shooting with another. Now no man can shoot with great accuracy with a 9lb pull at a trigger; the effort to get the piece off is sure to derange the aim. Nothing is more nice than the adjustment of the finger to the trigger; and, out of fifteen shots, a 4lb pull, as compared with a 9lb pull, is worth three points, if not more.
T. Did you like your own rifle? I mean the Enfield you shot with.
J. Exceedingly – so much so that I have applied to the Association to he allowed to purchase it for the Company. The decision rests with the War Office and it would seem a pity to return it into store to remain unused for another twelve months. The government might put an enhanced price on it-say £9 or £5; but it would be a great advantage to the first-class men, or, at least, the marksmen of the Company, to be able to practise with it constantly. I doubt if you could get a better weapon for its range – say of 600 yards. I know nothing of its virtues beyond that distance; but, if the War Office insist on these rifles being returned to them, we shall be in the same predicament next year – that is, practising with rifles with a heavy pull, and shooting for prizes with rifles with a light one.
T. Did you shoot at the long ranges?
J. Yes; I competed both for the Duke of Cambridge’s and for the Duke of Wellington’s prize, and only got on the target at 1000 yards with my ninth shot in the second contest. This was with a Westley Richards, which I had to sight for myself; and it was greatly guess-work. I should have preferred a Whitworth; but they were all engaged by the volunteers who came to shoot for the Queen’s prize, and therefore I had no opportunity of trying them. But, though not successful myself; I saw some good practice with the Westley Richards at these ranges. The rifle I used struck me as too light – not eight pounds in weight, I think – to carry such a flight with certainty; and it certainly kicked more than the Enfield, as my shoulder testified the next morning. The breech-loading principle is an advantage in loading; but it has the disadvantage of the cartridge greasing the fingers, and thus preventing the firm grip both of the left and right hands. This, unless carefully guarded against, by rubbing the fingers quite dry (which takes time) is much against a true shot. Indeed, the nicety of all the points required at these distances to make a successful shot is wonderful. It is eye, hand, nerve, and perhaps the “electricity” of the man that all comes into play; and the singular thing is, you can tell, as you pull the trigger, if you are right. I always felt certain, the moment I fired, whether I had hit or missed. It is an indescribable some – thing that conveys it to you, of which the white or blue flag, some seconds after, is only the communication; and this I found was common to all. I saw Jacob Knecht of Zurich fire the last shot that won the Duke of Cambridge’s prize: he was 8, Lieutenant Lacey was 9. Knecht pulled, and instantaneously exclaimed, “Ah, gute, gute, a bool’s eye, a bool’s eye,” and made almost extravagant exhibitions of delight. I stood by, I confess, incredulous; but, some ten seconds afterwards, the blue flag showed at the butts. A bull’s-eye it was; and, thus scoring two, Knecht made ten, and won the prize. It was an exciting moment. Lieutenant Lacey, standing by, was second, when he might well, a moment before, have felt almost certain of the prize. Knecht fired sitting. His position was admirably steady; he brought his rifle at once to the aim, and then, after a single moment’s dwell, fired. In this lies the rifleman’s dexterity – to pull at the instant his sight tells him he is on. It will not always come off right even then; for the slightest failure of finger to give the impulse will defeat him; but to pull when he is not on – and this he must wait for and work for, if it does not, as it often does not, come at once – is just sheer folly, as the shot is sure to be wasted. The art of shooting is one of the mental phenomena; “trace home the lightning to the cloud,” and you will find it resolves itself into a brain action, a sense. “It strikes the electric chord wherewith we are darkly bound,” and it is this that creates the excitement. Nothing can be more thrilling than the feeling of the successful shot. Thence arises the affection for the rifle itself. You love it; you talk to it. I could not help whispering to mine in the tent, “If you’ll be true to me, I’ll be true to you and out of this little social compact I got a centre at 600 yards. No doubt this would be much enhanced by longer familiarity. By continued practice you could reduce distances to such a certainty that every 20 yards might be lined off on the slide. The sighting the rifle is the first grand secret. With that all right the rifleman has confidence; and confidence is the second grand secret in the shot.
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