The Wimbledon Rifle-Match

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Source: Chambers’s Journal, 4 August 1860

SPECIAL trains had been running from Waterloo to Wimbledon throughout the ‘rifle-week,’ as fast as passengers accumulated at the station. On Saturday, when the Queen’s Prize was contended for, when what has been called the examination for double-first in rifle-shooting came on, crowds filled the carriages as fast as they could be got ready. We went down in the morning. Volunteers in all shades of uniform, with rifles, and pouches well stored with ammunition, were waiting on the platform, and took the train by assault as soon as it was formed. I sat opposite a gentleman in braid, with a long Enfield, and very positive opinions about the match. The carriage was full. We talked butts and projectiles all the way down. Wimbledon Station was reached in about a quarter of an hour, and we found an irregular stand of cabs waiting to take us to the common. ‘Here you are, sir; Hansom! half-a-crown; two shillings.’ ‘Bus! plenty of room inside; shilling each.’ We went by the bus. It bristled with arms, and was double loaded outside; the volunteers sitting with their legs dangling down like those of mutes on a return-hearse. There was quite a study of pendent boots from the window at which I sat. In about a mile and a half, we were set down out-side a fence like a hoarding round a half-built house. Passing through the entrance, where we paid one shilling, we found ourselves on the common – a wide heath, with patches of furze, and a fringe of tents. The eye took in the arrangements at a glance. Within the fringe of tents, which contained mainly refreshments, were a row of others in pairs, about a hundred yards apart, opposite and corresponding to pairs of butts 500 yards off. These were mounds of earth, some 15 feet high, and 30 feet wide. Beyond them was a still more distant line, nearly a mile off. In front of each stood the targets – plates of iron about half an inch thick, and six feet square, white-washed, with a black centre two feet in diameter. The furthest were so distant that the centre was just visible as a little black dot not much bigger than that of an ‘i’.

The tents from which the firing was going on were surrounded by crowds of people, who were kept from interfering with the shooters by a rope passed round a ring of stakes driven into the ground. The firing-tents to the right were occupied by the candidates for the Queen’s Prize of £250; those on the left were hard at work at ‘Aunt Sally.’ We visited these first. ‘Aunt Sally’ is adapted from the popular venture of that name at fairs and races. You pay a shilling for your shot, and the receipts are divided at the close of the day among those who hit the centre. I walked up to the tent opposite the third pair of butts; a crowd of gallant volunteers were waiting for their turn to shoot. The tent from which they fired in rotation was about eight feet wide, open before and behind. At the entrance, a man sat with pen, ink, and paper, ready to receive the moneys, and put down the names of those who hit the centre. Some twenty men were standing in single file, treading close on each other’s heels, and shuffling forward as the turn of the leading man came to fire; after which he moved off to the right, round the tent, reloaded, and took his place again in the line – like the processions in the smaller theatres. You might fire in any position. This liberty was freely used. Some stood; some knelt in the approved Hythe posture; others sat down, and gathered up their knees as if they were going to take their place in a circle of ‘Hunt the Slipper;’ others lay flat down upon their stomachs. The mistakes made were occasionally odd enough – ‘Hollo! sir, you have forgotten to cock your rifle.’ ‘You have not put up your sight’. ‘That is the wrong butt you are aiming at.’ One fat fellow sat down with a jolt and fired right up into the air!

Close beside each target was a bullet-proof iron shed, shaped like the body of a Hansom cab off its wheels: in this the marker sat, and signalled the result of each shot. A dark-blue flag shewed that the centre was hit; a white one, that the white part of the target had been struck; a red, waved close to the ground that the ball had fallen short.

Armed with a race-glass, lent to me by one of the bystanders, I sat down on the grass at the entrance of the tent, and watched the shooting. The target, I have said was 500 yards off, and the centre two feet in diameter. No one was allowed to fire from a rest. This, then, was no child’s play, though many of those present joined in it with great merriment. The party who were firing belonged to a genuine London corps; many of them, till within the last few months, never had a rifle in their hands. The shooting however, was remarkably good. One smart young fellow was telling me how he knew nothing whatever about shooting until lately. When his turn came, he laid himself flat down on the ground, and quietly drove his bullet right into the centre – that is, he would have hit a man more than a quarter of a mile off. I stood by the tent for some time; again and again the distant flag was waved, shewing that the target had been struck; and this was the skill of men who hitherto had spent their lives behind the counter or at the desk. Think of that, ye sneering martinets and swaggering French colonels! Here were thorough-bred Cockneys, poking fun at one another, but all the while making practice that would rival or even beat the famous Chasseurs de Vincennes, without seeming to think they were doing anything out of the way. A soldier alone, who stood by me, expressed any surprise.

Presently the order came to cease firing; and the markers, waving large red flags to indicate danger, came out of their holes, and went to dinner. Most of the spectators turned into a huge refreshment marquee, furnished by Strange, the caterer at the Crystal Palace. All tastes were suited; you could dine at any figure at well-ordered tables, or be happy on the grass with a slice of bread and cheese and a pot of porter.

During the armistice, I walked up to the butts. For many yards in front of them the ground was covered with flakes of lead, the bullets that struck the iron having been, not flattened – that is too gentle a word – but actually splashed about The targets were spotted all over with hits. Those untrained, inexperienced Londoners would have utterly cut up a body of horse or foot half a mile off!

When the firing began again, I went to see the conclusion of the contest for the Queen’s Prize – the highest honour of the week. The competitors had already been shooting at the 800 and 900 yard ranges; and when I walked up, a party of the Scots Fusilier Guards; in undress, were fixing up the tent to fire from at the final distance of 1000 yard. The target was also in this case white, with a centre two feet in diameter. It looked hopelessly distant.

Imagine yourself standing at the Oxford Street circus, and expected to hit a tea-tray in Tottenham Court Road.

There was quite a purple haze, that made the butt look like a distant hill, the target shewing like a white cottage at its foot with one small window.

Thousands of spectators had now assembled to watch the progress, or rather final struggle, of the match. The signal-flags were so distant, that many would not trust their naked eyes, but used a telescope.

In a very short time, the strife became exceedingly interesting. Mr. Ross and another gentleman were ahead of the rest, and equal. It was Mr. Ross’s turn. He knelt down, aimed deliberately, and pulled the trigger. Alas! his rifle was only at half-cock. This threw him out for a minute. Several voices sympathetically enough, said: ‘Ah, now he will miss.’ A shade of nervousness crossed his mind. His close competitor, strung up to the tightest strain of excitement, lay down flat upon the grass, and hid his face. Ross, having now cocked his rifle, missed as was predicted.

The other gentleman picked himself up from the ground, and came forward. See! he kneels down, steadies himself upon his heel, and puts his rifle to his shoulder. No – not yet – something dazzles him. He takes it down for a moment, and passes his hand over his eyes. Another aim – crack! Yes – up goes the white flag; the target is hit – he is one ahead.

Now, Mr. Ross, this is the crisis of your fame: miss, and you lose the prize; hit the centre, and you win – that will count two, and leave you victor by one point. It is a trying moment. The little dot on the white target seems to move further off; you can barely see it; but to hit it, with that small candle-end of lead you have just pushed into your rifle, shade of Robin Hood, behold! Now for nerves of steel, and a pulseless heart.

All hold their breath. The marker’s hand stops midway with fresh-dipped pen; the very policemen on duty shade their eyes with their palms to catch sight of the possible signal. The gallant young volunteer kneels coolly down in the door of the tent, and raises his rifle. Crack! a puff of smoke; no other sound breaks the silence. No! – yes, yes, it is the dark flag; he has struck the centre, that little hopeless dot, no bigger than a parasol, nearly a mile off; and the suppressed breath of the multitude bursts forth into a well-earned cheer.

After this, he shot off one or two ties, and established his victory.

And now fresh bodies of volunteers came pouring into the common, dusty, and, to judge of the rate at which they rushed into the refreshment-booth, when they had piled arms, thirsty as sand.