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English Rifles: The Victorian NRA

Published in Miscellanies

Lured by the romantic appeal of uniforms and guns, a craze for volunteer soldiering swept across Britain in the 1860s, prompting the creation of a British National Rifle Association. But it never gained the power of its American counterpart. 

On an early summer’s day in 1860 on Wimbledon Common, Queen Victoria fired the first shot at the first meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA). In front of an enthusiastic crowd watching from 400 metres away, the Queen ceremonially used a silken cord to pull the trigger of a pre-aimed rifle, the iron bullet hitting the target. Among the genteel and well-dressed crowd assembled to see the Queen, were a large number of men in a motley array of uniforms. They paired their forest green, scarlet red or sky blue coats with baggy knickerbockers or kilts and bright garters, wearing jaunty forage caps with huge plumes in the crown. The only constant among their colourful mock-military ensemble was that each man carried a well-polished rifle.

These were not regular soldiers but amateur members of a new Volunteer Corps who donned their uniforms a few evenings a week for drills under the watchful eye of a professional instructor, often after a long day at the office. The meeting at Wimbledon on 2 July was the final stage of a personal journey that had begun many months earlier when each man swapped his ‘civvies’ for a uniform. Since signing up, every man had shot in competition against the Volunteers in his local company of a couple of dozen men. Those from a city or region where Volunteers signed up in droves, such as London, the Midlands or lowland Scotland, had probably witnessed the prowess of the regiment to which his company belonged. But the competition at the newly erected rifle ranges on the Commons at Wimbledon was the first time Volunteers could see just how their local unit stacked up against the rest of the country. Amateur afternoons had given way to a professional competition governed by the new professional body for the sport: the NRA.

‘Best Rest for the Queen’s Rifle’, Punch, 5 June 1860.

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Today the National Rifle Association is synonymous with the enormously wealthy and influential American lobby group, an organisation many hold partly responsible for the divided and tragically unproductive debate on gun control – or lack of it – in the United States. There was no such polarised debate in Britain when, on 12 May 1859, the Volunteer Corps was authorised by the Earl of Derby’s flagging government. The country was in the grip of a French invasion scare. Newspapers fanned the flames of fear. Britain’s standing army was stretched across the Empire. Who would scramble to man the Cliffs of Dover when the French arrived? The popular answer was to create a civilian defence. Three months later, several prominent aristocratic patrons of the Volunteers hosted a public meeting at the Thatched House Tavern in West London and resolved to give this new Corps permanence. They reasoned that a national rifle organisation would appeal to the Briton’s natural love of sport and sustain the Volunteers movement after fear of invasion faded. Just one year after the government authorised the formation of the Volunteers, 120,000 men – the majority of them middle-class and middle-aged – paraded past Queen Victoria in Hyde Park on 23 June 1860. Though there were a few artillery and cavalry corps, most of those parading had signed up to the rifle corps. The message sent by the parade was unambiguous: Britain, or at least England, was safer with men who owned a weapon and knew how to use it.

This call-to-arms had been inevitable ever since the veterans of the Crimean War (1854-6) returned home with face-protecting beards, sparking a fashion for facial hair and a new vogue for soldiering. Alarm at an armed uprising in India (1857-8) was fed with hair-raising tales of attacks upon British women and children in a war where little distinction was made between soldier and civilian. Middle-class men, who would never join the working-class rank and file in the regular army, now spoke of every man’s duty to protect his home and country – with force if necessary. The third and final impetus of the Volunteers movement was a war of words with France in 1858 after an assassination attempt was made on Napoleon III with a bomb made in Britain. There was little real threat of invasion – France was an important British ally on the global stage – but the image of loyal Britons called to defend their nation and homes proved too attractive to resist.

The National Rifle Association meeting on Wimbledon Common: Shooting for the Queen's Prize.

The Volunteer craze ran counter to the isolation and passivity that characterised middle-class Victorian urban life, with its terraced houses, sedentary office jobs and police protection. Those who joined the Volunteers interacted more with their neighbours, got more exercise and spent more time outside. They were also permitted to openly carry a weapon in public, a manly practice that had been long out of fashion. Meetings such as the one at Wimbledon were the ultimate open-air adventure for Britain’s urban middle-classes. Men could spend the whole fortnight shooting and socialising in a replica military camp, sleeping on bedrolls and cooking their own meals over a fire. Unlike real soldiers, they did not have to fear the lash or punishment duties and spent their evenings singing and drinking together.

Though the movement provided an escape from Britain’s hearths and homes, the Volunteers did not wish to evade their domestic companions altogether. Large numbers of women attended NRA shooting competitions and other Volunteer gala occasions as admiring spectators. At least, men thought women admired Britain’s newly minted soldiers. ‘You do look so much better now that you’ve been taught to hold your backs straight and your heads up’ enthused one fictitious female correspondent to Punch. Each company carefully selected the uniform they thought would best show off their newly toned figures. This was met with ridicule by professional soldiers, who thought the Volunteers’ choices insufficiently military, concerned more with appealing to women’s appreciation of tunics and feathered caps. They even mixed pieces of their uniform with civilian articles. One volunteer was spotted accessorising with white cricket shoes. However, the most popular path to winning love, as well as fame and fortune, was to become a crack shot.

Rifle Fever by Henry Walker, 1860
When the Volunteers first took aim at the bullseye at Wimbledon in 1860, they were starting a new tradition but one with historical precedents. The Victorian Volunteers proudly traced their roots back to the archers of medieval England who had defended the nation at Agincourt. They reasoned that the bow was the natural weapon of Englishmen (though most of the bowmen at Agincourt were Welsh) and the rifle was merely an updated version. Archery competitions held an important place in British folklore. Romantic legends such as Robin Hood told how these contests stripped away the unfair advantages of brute strength or social position. A talented young man of humble background might not only win, but could also catch the eye of a rich man’s daughter. The archery field was a place where men and women historically could compete – and flirt. Many well-to-do Victorian women were proficient with a bow and arrow themselves. The romance of the medieval era was a potent draw for the Volunteers, but the modern rifle did not level the playing field between men – and certainly not between men and women.

Membership to the Volunteers was limited to those who could afford the membership fee, the cost of the handsome uniform and, of course, a rifle. The Volunteers were proud of the fact that they paid for everything themselves. They equated their out-of-pocket expenses with their patriotism and frequently cited their purchasing power whenever they disagreed with an official opinion. If men were denied access to rifle training because they could not afford to become a Volunteer soldier, all women were excluded from competitions on the grounds that the Volunteers were soldiers. There was no physical reason why women could not become equally good shots with a rifle. But so long as National Rifle Association events were linked to demonstrations of Volunteers’ military preparedness, female participation was sidelined. The first woman competed at Wimbledon in 1891, 31 years after the Queen fired that first shot.

It is unsurprising that some of the 120,000 Volunteers did not measure up. The ideal soldier was tall, bearded, robust without being stout, able to march without being winded and dine lavishly with his fellows without being ill. He was, above all, a good shot. Much of the Volunteers’ comedy focused on the difficulties – and dangers – of mastering the rifle alongside a slew of novices. A comic song recounts the missteps of one ‘Awkward Squad’:

The first who took an aim, somehow, the bullseye missed, but killed a cow! The next, while loading, wrong end first got shot himself! The third gun burst! The fourth his cartridge couldn’t bite, but swallowed, clean, so great his fright.

The jokes about Volunteers who ignored the danger flag at the range or who failed to check which bullets they used during sham fights betray a nervousness about the danger of the situation. The physical demands of the drilling, with which many a softened desk-worker or middle-aged body could not cope, were a prime source of humour. One cartoon showed a volunteer commiserating with a brother-in-arms after a drill weekend. ‘Footsore?’, he enquires sympathetically. ‘Um. Not exactly,’ replies the other man, bent forward at an unnatural angle. ‘I was mounted.’

The Awkward Squad by Henry Walker, 1860.

The Volunteers also represented a new market for male health and beauty products. Manufacturers descended upon their ranks to help them transform from an ‘awkward squad’ into a dashing squadron. All sorts of diet pills, teeth creams and exercise equipment were advertised in the Volunteer newspapers and books which flooded sellers’ shelves. Among the most numerous products advertised were those for creating and keeping luxuriant hair, beards and whiskers. Some dealers were not content with printed advertisements and went looking for business among their local Volunteers. One Edinburgh Volunteer bought hair tonic from a man in his company. After applying the lotion and sitting close to the fire as instructed, he was horrified to see blisters forming all over his head and face. The dealer was ejected from his Volunteer Corps.

The companies who benefited most from the Volunteers’ buying bonanza, however, were gun manufacturers. This was a new market and these dealers had a new product: affordable and accurate rifles.

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The Rifleman's Polka
Rifleman's Polka by Henry Walker, 1859
The expense of handcrafted firearms had long limited gun ownership to the elites. A pair of London-made Manton duelling pistols cost several hundred pounds in the early 19th century, with the bespoke models running into the thousands. The British Army issued their soldiers with smooth-bore muskets, which were effective only when fired collectively by a well-drilled squad. Individually, the standard-issue musket’s aim was poor and they were liable to jam, blow-up or otherwise malfunction. But the musket, unlike the rifle, was easy to load and worked well as a bayonet against cavalry charges. The few rifle regiments in the Napoleonic Wars wore dark green for camouflage and were stationed away from the combat. New designs pioneered in continental Europe and the manufacturing techniques perfected in Britain during the first half of the 19th century solved the dilemma. By the 1850s, the British Army was issuing its forces rifled muskets, including the Enfield Rifle.

The revolution in rifle technology did more than change the face of war; it created a whole new class of gun owner. Rifles became more accurate, reliable and cheap. The middle classes were getting wealthier and had more time for recreation. The Volunteers, with their NRA shooting competitions, were a new business opportunity. 'How-to' manuals and in-joke newspapers aimed at the Volunteers were full of advertisements for mass-produced rifles and the kit they required. Manuals were published by the official printer to the NRA, Harrison & Sons, or by gun manufacturers themselves, such as the Liverpool-based company W.H. Blanch. The Wimbledon fortnight was a wonderful advertisement for gun ownership with their public parades and contests. There was great interest in which rifle the Queen's Prize winners used, as well as their choice of ammunition, gun cleaner, sight glass and gloves. Suppliers set up stalls and did a brisk business at the annual NRA meeting. It was these events, with their blend of patriotism, prizes and purchasing power, that sustained the NRA after the French invasion faded.

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The NRA left Wimbledon in the 1890s for its current home Bisley Camp in Surrey, while the Volunteers were absorbed into the Territorial Army in 1908. Yet the origins of the NRA in the Volunteers craze of the 1860s has profoundly shaped how private gun ownership is viewed and experienced in Britain.

One legacy is the idea that firearm ownership acts as a deterrent for tyrannical government has never really taken root among gun aficionados in Britain as it has in the US. In adopting the shooting habits of the landed aristocracy, the urban middle-class that made the Volunteers movement such a rousing success was willing to incorporate the 'squirearchy' of the countryside. The Volunteers drew their structure largely from the old county system, with Lord Lieutenants acting as colonels and Church of England clergymen eagerly promoting the organisation. The NRA’s early patrons, who provided prizes, dinners and grounds on which to practice, came from the same upper strata of British country society. The connection between the NRA and rural society was reinforced as legitimate reasons for gun ownership in Britain narrowed to target practice, hunting and farmers’ pest control. The NRA has continued to enjoy the Royal patronage bestowed on it by Victoria: Prince Charles is the association’s current president.

Equally important is that the Volunteers movement shaped the future of Britain’s gun debate by preventing owner’s rights from becoming a party issue. The Volunteers were a popular rather than practical solution to Britain’s defence problems. Conservative and Liberal defence ministers alike needed more men in the regular ranks, rather than on Wimbledon Common. As a result, neither party championed the movement. The indifference of major British political parties to the Volunteers and the efforts of the NRA meant that members of the association, though often socially conservative, did not adhere themselves to any one political party. This has proved fortunate for Britain in the long term, as the gun question has not been weaponised by political wrangling. 

Margery Masterson is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol. She is currently working on a cultural history of the Victorian Volunteers. 

English Rifles: The Victorian NRA

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