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19thC Riflemen

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Source: The Strand magazine, London, 1893

Wistow Hall stands in one of the most picturesque parts of Leicestershire. It is the home of the man who may honestly by titled "The Grand Old Man of Shooting." Sir Henry Halford has revelled in records almost from the very first meeting at Wimbledon in 1860 [1], and it is a remarkable fact that amongst his prizes - and there are twenty-one of them - are those of the Albert at Wimbledon in 1862 and the same trophy at Bisley [2] in 1893, a record lapse of thirty-one years!

Wistow Hall

Wistow Hall

Ten years ago a lady remarked at Wimbledon, "What a very old man to be shooting!" but on the 9th of last August, when he was forced to remember that it was his sixty-fifth birthday, he adjourned to the field adjoining the house, which makes a capital range, and rattled off a dozen or two bull's-eyes with as much deliberation and more certainty than he did when he first handled a rifle.

Sir Henry is of medium height. His hair is snowy white - his eyes look you through and through. He wears a comfortable knickerbocker suit, and a drab coloured, broad-brimmed, soft tennis hat. He talks rapidly, though always thoughtfully. Success with the rifle and gun - he has brought down his stag, too, with the best of them - has not spoiled what I soon discovered was the original foundation of his constitution - modesty. He converses with extreme enthusiasm on all things connected with shooting weapons, and discusses the Volunteer movement with equal heartiness. His days are passed in experimenting. Go into his workshop - it abuts from a magnificent conservatory where, among the flowers, oranges and lemons are making satisfactory progress. It is a working man's room indeed. Sir Henry is a practical gun-maker, and here you will find every known appliance for making tools associated with the gun-maker's art. Immediately after breakfast the veteran enters his experimenting apartment, though he has before now stuck to his task till eleven at night and started work at three in the morning. And his dog, "Numa Pompelius," invariably keeps its master company. Sir Henry admits that he lives with his dogs. He kept them as a lad and has grown up with them.

Sir Henry at work

Sir Henry at work

The interior of Wistow Hall is in every way interesting.

The dining, drawing, and morning rooms run one into the other, terminating in the conservatory. The only two associations of shooting are noteworthy ones. The great silver cup on the table is the Albert Cup of 1893, whilst on the massive oaken sideboard is a bronze figure of "Fortuna," presented by the National Rifle Association of America to the winners of the International Military Match between the Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of the United States, competed for on September 14th and 15th, 1882. Sir Henry captained the winning team, who gave him this token [3]. Here, too, is the Cambridge Cup, won in 1865 at 1,000 and 1,100 yards [4].

The reception-rooms are full of works of art, cabinets of bric-à-brac, sculpture, and pictures, whilst the number of miniatures about are as numerous as they are precious. Photos of the "English Eights" of the early days of shooting abound - very quaint some of the competitors look in their queer-cut coats and the most approved of "Dundrearies."

English Eight, 1863

English Eight, 1863
Standing, left to right:
Capt. Williams, A.Ashton, Lord Bury, M. Smith, Lieut.-Col. Halford, WM. Palmer
Seated, left to right:
Capt. Drake, Capt. Heaton, Lady Bury, Earl Ducie, E.J. Hawker, Capt. Rowland

Notes

  1. Queen Victoria fired the opening shot at the first NRA rifle meeting on 2 July 1860.
  2. The Princess of Wales opened the first Bisley meeting on 12 July 1890.
  3. The British won by 1,975 points to 1,805.
  4. Using a Gibbs-Metford rifle.

 It is not before you settle down in Sir Henry's den that you get a firm idea of his past career and present-day work. A table crowded with everything suggestive of guns - from on old-time powder-flask to a delicate pair of scales for weighing grains of explosive - take up considerable room. He is always experimenting - always trying to get better work out of rifles, as they vary so tremendously; but he thinks the future of the match rifle about settled now, and but little remains to be done.

The Den

The Den

The mahogany gun-cabinet stands in the centre of the room, and provides accommodation for ten weapons - match rifles, magazine rifles, express shooting rifles, and the little American .22 rifle for rabbit shooting. I examined the gun with which Mr. Bagshaw won the Wimbledon Cup this year at Bisley, making the record score at 1,100 yards of seventy points out of seventy-five, whilst the rifle used by Sir Henry this year at the same camp comes in for attention. It appeared with the grand old shot at his twentieth time of shooting in the English Eight, and helped to make him his biggest score of any year. Mingled together with many trophies on the mantel-board are relics of the hunting field. A curious chart is plastered all over with representations of targets showing extraordinary scores. Gibbs [5] stands first with the finest ever made, on October 4th, 1886, with forty-eight bull's eyes out of fifty at a thousand yards, and Sir Henry comes a good second with forty-three out of forty-five at the same distance, in October, 1885.

Around the room is an excellent collection of books - including all works bearing on the sport with which Sir Henry's name is inseparably associated - the sideboards and spare spaces are taken up with portable reminiscences of travels in foreign countries, whilst the pictures are for the most part shooting subjects, in which Sir Henry plays no small part. The trio of rifle shots who comprise an aggregate of ninety-five years' shooting at Wimbledon is surely a record. The three gentlemen are Captain Pixley, a Queen's Prize Winner [6]; Mr. Henry Whitehead, a noted shot; and Sir Henry Halford.

Portrait Group

Portrait Group
Left to right:
Capt. Pixley, Mr. Henry Whitehead, Sir Henry Halford

Sir Henry refilled his pipe and laid aside his spectacles. Whilst he was handling the tobacco I noticed the difference between the shape of the right hand as compared with the left.

"Ah!" said Sir Henry, in reply to my query, "you can always tell the hand of a man who has shot much. Look at that second finger it is quite disjointed; indeed, the whole hand is turned. Then many men bear the kiss of the butt on the jawbone. The eyes, too, are a guide in singling out the rifle shot. I always think that blue or grey are the best shooting eyes; that's why the Scots are so successful at the target, for apart from their thoroughness in all they undertake, there are more blue eyes amongst them. An eye with a very small pupil is a great advantage. Brown eyes seldom come in; the marked exception to this, however, is Lamb, who is as good a shot as any man, and his are chestnutty brown."

A great cloud of smoke from Sir Henry's briar was blown with a satisfaction that blessed the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh. Then I learnt that amongst shooting men the larger proportion of them are non-smokers. The veteran is a persistent smoker, and, practically, never shoots without a pipe in his mouth.

"Let me put a plea for the pipe," he said merrily. "I was once shooting in one of the matches for the Elcho Shield [7] - shooting very badly.

"'Why, where's your pipe?' somebody asked. 'Light up - you'll do better.'

"And I did. I hadn't been smoking for some little time, but with the first few puffs, my very next shot was a bull's-eye!"

I tried some of Sir Henry's tobacco.

Notes

  1. George Gibbs, a Bristol gunmaker and manufacturer of the Metford rifle.
  2. Sgt. S. Pixley of the Victoria Rifles won the Queen's prize in 1862.
  3. The Elcho Shield match was first held in 1862 and competed for by England and Scotland. The teams of eight shot at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. An Irish eight shot for the first time in 1865.

Sir Henry St. John Halford, C.B., was born at Maidwell, Northamptonshire, on August 9th, 1828, and curiously enough his family motto is: "To exercise, unambitious of glory, the silent arts." His first lessons were learnt at a dame's school when five years of age, and at seven he was promoted to a grammar school at Market Bosworth, and after a term at a preparatory tutor's, went to Eton at twelve.

"I left Eton in 1845, and went to Merton, Oxford. Out of twenty-eight under-graduates, nineteen of them were Etonians. After taking my degree I travelled a good deal, and was the first with four others to row a four-oared boat on the Rhine, Maine, and Moselle for a distance of 600 miles."

Up to 1860 Sir Henry did nothing but magisterial work in the county - he has been Chairman of the Quarter Sessions for twenty years, and chairman of the County Council for the first four years. When in 1860 the Volunteer movement [8] was started, he was appointed captain of a company formed in Leicestershire. Soon afterwards he was made a major, and finally took command of the Leicestershire Rifle Volunteers in 1862. In those early days the men found their own clothes and rifles. He remained - with a brief lapse of six years - in command until 1891, when he retired; having in 1886 been made a C.B. for his services to Volunteers. It should be mentioned that in 1880 Sir Henry was placed on the Small Arms Committee, and was one of those who had much to do with the selection of the Lee-Metford rifle.

"I was eight years of age when I had my first gun, and went in for rabbit shooting. I was always fond of burning powder, and when rifle shooting came to a head with the Volunteer movement, I got my rifle, went to the Wimbledon meeting of 1861, but found I had not learned enough. In 1862 I got a 'Whitworth,' practised hard all the spring and went to compete in the English Eight at Hythe [9]. I came out first. In the match against Scotland, in that year, for the Elcho Shield. I made top score. It was an exciting match, but ended in England scoring 890 points to Scotland's 724. That year I won £265.

Shooting for the Cambridge Cup

Shooting for the Cambridge Cup

It was in that year that old Captain Ross was very much in evidence at Wimbledon camp, with his three sons - Hercules, Edward and Colin. In 1863 they formed part of the Scottish team. Edward won the first Queen's prize. I knew Ross well. The father and boys had been deer-stalkers all their lives. Ross at this time must have been close upon sixty, and was the finest shots in the world. He was very averse to duelling - pleading that it enabled good shots to insult men with impunity - and told me that he had been appointed second in sixteen duels, and had always got his men apart without allowing a single shot to be fired. So great was he with the use of a pistol that a Spaniard came over specially to study his methods, querying whether Ross was as proficient with the weapon as report avowed. A match was arranged between the two men with duelling pistols - the distance being twenty yards, and the target a bull's-eye the size of a sixpence. The Spaniard hurried off home after seeing Ross hit the bull's-eye with twenty consecutive shots."

"You ask me whom I consider the most representative Irish shot. Rigby, now head of the Small Arms Factory at Enfield. He was a well known Dublin gunmaker and has shot more times in an International team than any man. He shot for the Irish Eight for the Elcho Shield in 1865. Wales really has not got a representative man, for you must remember that the land of the leek never won a big prize until this year, when it captured the Queen's. Wales is particularly deficient in long ranges, and I should say we could not get a representative Welsh team. The Scot's rifle shot, though - in proportion to its population - is the most successful of all. In the final stage of the Queen's at Bisley this year there were 45 Scots, 43 English, 5 Welshmen, 2 each from Jersey, Guernsey and the Cape, and one from Canada.

Sir Henry considers Continental shooting very much behind - they only fire at short range. No foreigners come here who are calculated to frighten, though it is worthy of note that in the very first year at Wimbledon a team of Swiss rifle shots came over, took away some of the best prizes, and were acknowledged superior to the Britishers.

Sir Henry's success in the early sixties as a rifle shot won him immediate recognition. He did not stay to have his powers tested only at the now-departed Wimbledon, but journeyed to the various meetings about the country, particularly distinguishing himself in Northamptonshire, Somersetshire, Inverness, etc.

Sir Henry Halford at Belvoir

Sir Henry Halford at Belvoir

Notes

  1. Sanction for the formation of Volunteer Corps was given by the War Office on 12 May 1859.
  2. The Hythe School of Musketry was founded in 1853.

"In 1877 I captained the first English Eight that went to America [10]. We lost, but in 1882 we atoned for this by winning well [11].

"Almost immediately I landed with the team I received a letter from a man pleading with us not to drink. You see, the Americans are often over-hospitable. They take you about, drink with you, and give you too many big dinners. Yet they are often very keen and very much in earnest, and their team was up at six o'clock every morning practising for dear life. They bet outrageously - putting their money on single shots. It is a very good thing that nothing puts me off a shot, otherwise, when competing under a volley of 'Go it, Harry,' when I made a bull's-eye and derisive yells if I made a miss, might have upset me. It cost £900 to take that team over.

"Your American wants a thing settled then and there. For instance, we went to Chicago. I arrived there - with the team - at five o'clock in the morning, and had not been in bed an hour when I was aroused and told to get up, as there was a match on! It was at 300 yards standing. They talked a great deal about standing shooting being the only business shooting, and did not care for long range shooting. There is a five-dollar piece I won; I have worn it on my chain ever since."

"And whom do you regard as the most representative American shot?" I asked.

"Colonel Bodine," was the reply. "He is the man who brought the American rifles to perfection. I regard the Americans as coming second to ourselves in the matter of rifle shooting, though they are not so formidable as they used to be, owing to the fact that they have dropped all the long range shooting. They are generally considered to be au fait in the way of fancy shooting - I mean the glass ball business, such as Buffalo Bill and Dr. Carver go in for - though as a matter of fact, there are plenty of men in England who could do it if they would take the trouble. I can break 80 percent of the balls myself. Dr. Carver is extremely clever at trick shooting, but when asked to come to Wimbledon he said; 'No, that is not my business!'

"Yes, I have shot under severe difficulties. I remember one occasion at Altcar [12], in a competition for the English Eight. There was a change of wind requiring an alteration in allowance of sighting of 34ft. The thermometer went down twenty degrees in five minutes, and old rifle shots put this down as a record change in atmospheric conditions. I shall never forget shooting at Wimbledon on half a teaspoonful of laudanum and making a big score; but for sticking to your guns, recommend me to Major Young.

Sighting a shot

Sighting a shot

"I am speaking now of ten years ago. The Major unfortunately put his hand out of joint the very day before the match for the Elcho Shield. Notwithstanding this he went to the fray, and had to have his wrist put in three times during the competition! He made top score!"

Sir Henry Halford in 1893We talked over many things. Sir Henry regards Bisley as a much better ground for shooting than Wimbledon, where the light was often bad. Though Mr. Winans has done much to popularize the pistol in this country, the veteran shot does not think there is any future in it. Still, every officer should learn to use it. Stick to scarlet for your men's uniforms - it is not seen so far as many other colours. The men of the Rifle Brigade, as they are now clothed, are "spotted" at a greater distance than any other. He considers the future of the Volunteer assured, but he would like to see him armed with a better gun. The Regular's rifle is now a really serviceable weapon, Mr. Metford, with whom Sir Henry has worked since 1863, being the inventor; and the Volunteer should have it as well. Still, it is not the rifle which will make or mar the man. All depends on the way a corps is officered. Every Volunteer officer ought to feel that his commission is as important as one in the line.

These little fragmentary though notable remarks were gathered as we walked together down the elm-lined avenue which led to the road to Glen. As I wished him "Good-bye," Sir Henry said:-

"The primary necessities to make a good shot are nerve, carefulness, a calm temperament, eyesight, and power of concentration. I don't think you will find any man who is not a steady liver last long at shooting. Let young Volunteers remember that the student of habit and a good shot must run together."

Pictured above right is Sir Henry Halford in 1893.

Notes

  1. This was infact a British Team, not English.
  2. The 1882 match was between the Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of the United States.
  3. Altcar rifle range was originally the private shooting ground of the 5th Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps. One target and an 1100 yard firing point were available on 28 July 1860. Shortly afterwards there were 30 targets available; more than the NRA had at Wimbledon at the time.

 

Footnotes by David Minshall ©2016