During the late 1850’s there was growing apprehension as to the prospects of French invasion of Great Britain. This culminated in 1859 with the Government issuing a circular authorising Lords Lieutenant to raise Volunteer corps. There was an immediate rush of Volunteering, but it was not expected to last. Measures to secure the long-term prospects for the Volunteers were, however, 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 Queen further offered encouragement by founding an annual prize that Volunteers competed for in two stages; the first at 300, 500 and 600 yards, and the second at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. The first stage was shot using the long Enfield, this, however, was deemed of insufficient accuracy for the second stage. Trials were held at Hythe in May 1860 to select a suitable rifle. Joseph Whitworth and a deputation of Birmingham gun makers contested the trials, with the Whitworth rifle being the clear winner. With one exception (1865 when a Rigby rifle was issued), the Whitworth rifle continued to be issued to Queen’s Prize finalists until 1871, when for the first time the match was shot throughout with breech-loaders. The Snider replaced the Enfield in the first stage, and the War Office made a special issue of Martini-Henry’s for the second stage.
Following the principles established by Whitworth, gun makers developed a special class of ‘small-bore’ target rifle. The majority of these rifles were around .451 calibre, and the term ‘small-bore’ was used to distinguish them from the ‘large-bore’ service rifle of .577 calibre. Captain Heaton, in his 1864 ‘Notes on Rifle Shooting’ describes a number of small-bore rifles: Baker, Beasley, Bissell, Crockart, Edge, Henry, Kerr, Lancaster, Newton, Parsons, Rigby, Turner and Whitworth. These are just a few of the gunmakers connected with the history of the small-bore rifle.
|A Whitworth military match rifle|
Although Volunteers using the service arm of issue carried out much of the shooting, other matches permitted the use of any rifle and were open to all-comers. It was here that the small-bore rifle came to the fore. Rifles used in these competitions evolved, during the decade of the 1860’s, from variations of the military pattern to specialised items not suitable for military use.
Whitworth's military match rifle was introduced late in 1859 and this is the form used in the Queen's Prize final.
The classic form of the full match rifle was introduced by Whitworth in 1862. The full length military stock had reduced to a half stock (incorporating a ‘pistol grip’) and the ramrod was no longer attached to the rifle stock. These features allowed more weight to be concentrated in the barrel (the overall weight limit of the rifle being restricted to 10lb for NRA competitions). Open sights had been replaced with aperture sights taking interchangeable elements, and incorporating a spirit level to eliminate cant.
By the mid-1860s other gunmakers had developed rifling systems to rival Whitworth's, and his dominance on the rifle range was to wane.
Rifle courtesy: Dr. Ron Dillon
Photograph by: Fred Stutzenberger