Rifle Shooting as a National Pursuit

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Rifle Shooting as a National Pursuit is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 14 june 1905.

Rifle Shooting as a National Pursuit

The Times (14 june 1905)


Sir, — Will you permit me, as one who has had some small experience of the founding and working of such clubs, to say a few words, now that Lord Roberts's splendid appeal to the nation is likely to give the movement a fresh impetus, and to turn what has been a sporadic development, depending upon local spirit and generosity, into a truly national organisation?

The first point which is worth insisting upon is that a man trained at a miniature range (whether Morris tube or otherwise) does become an efficient shot almost at once when he is allowed to use a full range. What with the low trajectory and the absence of recoil in the modern rifle the handling of the weapon is much the same in each case. I am speaking now of an outdoor miniature range, a hundred yards long, where a man must allow for windage, and where he must raise his sights to fire. Such a range is not a mere toy, but can and does produce riflemen who speedily become excellent service shots. If the country were covered with such ranges we could soon realise Lord Roberts's ideal of a nation of marksmen. Since it is becoming more and more clear that our alternative in the future will lie between some form of actual compulsory service (a hateful but possibly an inevitable measure) and a great development of the rifle club movement, it is a very serious matter to consider what are the easiest and most practical steps to bring the latter into existence.

This leads me to the second point worth insisting upon, which is that the miniature rifle range, besides being efficient, is exceedingly cheap. Given the land, which should be not less than a hundred yards long and twenty yards broad, with a natural or artificial bank at the end of it, the remaining cost of rifles, targets, markers pits and the rest of it should not come to more than £50. There are few parishes, one would hope, where some landowner would not spare a strip of his land for a patriotic purpose. Common land or heath land which has no other value, is exactly that which is best adapted for a small range. Therefore, in many cases the young club would only be faced by the necessity of finding the small sum already mentioned, with some additional subscriptions for the purpose of providing small prizes or badges for successful riflemen.

At present, in hundreds of places, this money has been found by local effort, and the club has been duly started. In many cases it has gone on running successfully. In many others it has languished after the first novelty was past. The reason for the latter state of things is sometimes, as in the district where I reside, that most of the young men have actually learned to shoot to some extent, and the clubs have therefore done their work. But indifference is also due to the fact that the man has to pay some small fee towards the upkeep of the club, and has also to pay for the cartridges which he uses. A poor working man feels very naturally, that instead of paying he should rather be paid, since he is giving up his time to the services of the State. With free clubs and free cartridges a great stumbling-block would be removed. As the long Morris tube cartridges, which are, in my opinion, the best for the purpose, can be retailed at four a penny, the drain upon the public purse would not be a serious one.

If the ranges are, as I have tried to show, both efficient and cheap, the next point is to determine how they could be best organised as a public institution all over the country. As Lord Roberts says, it was the skill acquired at the parish butts which made England the first military Power in Europe during the fourteenth century. My suggestion is that the parish butts be restored in the shape of a parish miniature range. For the establishment and control of this we have an existing organisation in the shape of the parish council. I think that if the matter were handed over to the parish councils in rural England, and to the town councils (or committees thereof) in the small towns, with definite orders to construct such ranges and with power to levy a small rate towards their formation and upkeep, we would within a twelvemonth have exactly such a network of rifle clubs as is needed to realise that condition which is our alternative to national service. With a controlling head in London and a local inspector in each county to check or encourage the parish councils, a great question could be solved with a minimum of friction and expense.

What would be needed then to attain this great end? Simply a law by which each parish council must establish a rifle club, with power to levy the money for that end. Also a trifling addition to our war budget for the inspectors and central authority. It seems a very tiny matter when compared to the revulsion of our habits and dislocation of our lives implied in national service. Having got the butts, would it be necessary to pass a further law making some use of them compulsory for every adult in the parish? We could only answer that question when we saw how far they were voluntarily used when a couple of hundred rounds were given free to every applicant. But suppose that it was eventually necessary to pass such a law, it is surely the very smallest demand that any country in Europe makes upon its citizens.

In conclusion, we should have to consider the question of Sunday shooting. It was the Sunday shooting which gave the nation the benefit of the archery butts in the Middle Ages. What is the use of the most perfect machinery if the individual has no time in which to use it? So long as the workmen have only one half holiday a week it is. I fear, useless to hope that any but a very small proportion of them will voluntarily spend it at the butts. Sunday shooting, out of church hours, is equally permitted in Catholic and Calvinistic countries - indeed, it is more characteristic of the latter - so that its reprobation seems to be not so much a matter of religion as of local custom and prejudice. For my own part it seems to me that our young men would be better employed in learning to serve their country than in standing round doing nothing at the road corners. No doubt this introduces another and very controversial subject; but I am convinced that it is bound up with the first, and is very essential to its solution.

Yours faithfully,

Undershaw, Hindhead, Haslemere.