Volunteer Force, 1859-1908

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During the late 1850’s there was growing apprehension as to the prospects of French invasion of Great Britain. Indeed, following the attempt on Napoleon III’s life by Felice Orsini on 14 January 1858, some French officers actually called for an invasion when it was discovered that Orsini manufactured his bomb in England. Newspapers, particularly The Times, continued to fuel the debate as to the formation of a Volunteer Force for home defence.

On 12 May 1859 the Government issued a circular sanctioning the formation of Volunteer Corps. The date on which the first company of Volunteers was formed within a county determined the county precedence. In 1881 the British Army was reorganised into territorial regiments with regular, militia and volunteer battalions.

The initial immediate rush of Volunteering was not expected to last. However, measures to secure the long-term prospects for the Volunteers were put in place late in 1859 with the formation of the National Rifle Association (NRA), its aims including “the encouragement of Volunteer Rifle Corps and the promotion of rifle shooting throughout Great Britain.” The NRA held their first rifle meeting on Wimbledon common in 1860 and with royal patronage and the daily papers and weekly-illustrated journals reporting widely on events, the ‘Wimbledon fortnight’ was marked for success. Local and regional rifle matches become commonplace and by the end of the decade of the 1860’s Great Britain, with no prior tradition for rifle marksmanship, had thousands of trained riflemen.

Great Volunteer reviews before large crowds of spectators, and sometimes royalty, were held throughout the country where the men demonstrated their skill at drill and skirmishing.

The original arm of the Volunteers was the muzzle loading Enfield rifle. In September 1870 this was replaced by the Snider, a breech loading conversion of the Enfield. The adoption of the Martini-Henry breech loading rifle by the Volunteers was commenced in 1879 but not completed until 1885. The issue of the Lee-Metford magazine rifle was authorised in 1895.

In 1908 the Volunteer Force, which included rifle, artillery and engineer corps, merged with the Yeomanry to form the Territorial Force.

Rifle Volunteers

  • The British Volunteer System – Written by Rt. Hon. Earl Brownlow, this article gives a brief history of the Volunteer Movement from its establishment to 1900.
  • War Office, Pall Mall, May 12, 1859 – On 12 May 1859 the Government issued a circular sanctioning the formation of Volunteer Corps.
  • County Precedence – Following the sanctioning by the Government of the formation of Volunteer Corps, on 12 May 1859, there was an immediate rush of volunteering. The date on which the first company in a county was formed determined County precedence.
  • Territorial Regiments – In 1881 the British Army was reorganised into territorial regiments with regular, militia and volunteer battalions.

The Literature of The Volunteers of 1859

This four part article, is published in the free download magazine (PDF), Research Press Journal. A summary of content appears below, with a link to the relevant Journal.

  • Part 1 – The Urge To Volunteer, 1850 To 1859: A study of the books influencing the Volunteer Movement must, of necessity, commence with those appearing during the years leading up to 1859. [Journal, Summer 2018]
  • Part 2 – The Volunteers Take Shape: To meet the demands of Volunteers of 1859 many books appeared discussing technical aspects of the Enfield rifle and ammunition, plus drill. [Journal, Autumn 2018]
  • Parts 3 & 4 – The Volunteers in Being: Communications from the authorities were, at first in the form of Circulars and Orders. The first Official book to appear on the scene addressed ‘Drill and Rifle Instruction.’ The next was ‘Regulations for the Volunteer Force.’ Whilst ‘Drill and Instruction’ was phased out in 1861, in favour of the ‘Regulations for Musketry Instruction’, the Volunteer regulations saw multiple updates. Wider literature included privately printed copies of extracts from official manuals, and a large mass of privately produced literature that appeared for the benefit of the new Volunteer formations. [Journal – Part 3, Winter 2018/19 / Part 4, Spring 2019]

The Volunteer Rifle and Marksmanship

Shooting competitions between the Rifle Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of America were agreed for 1882 and 1883.