BELL TARGET SHOOTING
2. History up to 1914
It would be fair to say that the pub shooters were at the bottom of the social ladder when evaluating competitive shooting sport. At the top were The Rifle Volunteers who shot under the rules of the National Rifle Association, established in 1860. They could afford to purchase their own uniforms and kit. They were the professional class. But they had to acknowledge the abilities of the bell target shooters. On one occasion a high ranking officer of the Rifle Volunteers was accompanied by the Air Rifle Club's secretary, Mr. M. Hirst, to witness a typical pub bell target match. When he left, he said to Mr Hirst: "How anyone can hit that small target with such regularity, in such deathly silence, pressure, and in a crowded room filled with tobacco smoke as thick as a fog is beyond me, and worthy of the highest praise. Any General would be proud to have such shooters".
In a challenge match between the pub shooters and the Volunteers the pub team won, using army full bore live weapons that they found, at first, difficult to load on this their first introduction to them. The volunteers team, some of whom were experienced shots being veterans of the Boer War, were captained by Mr. Lincoln Jeffries.
The bell target team was captained by Mr. M. Hirst. The match was shot at a distance of one hundred yards, each competitor firing five shots. To the surprise of the enthusiastic spectators present to see this small but unique shooting occasion, the Air Gunners won by 13 points, proving that not only were the air gunners better shots but that their "match tension" or mental control was superior to that of the former army men. The air gunners would find that they had the advantage of being used to the more unstable standing position of their bar room sport; lying down to aim, with the whole of the body in contact with the floor, with both elbows supporting the rifle, would have come as rather a luxury to them.
Next, perhaps, in the social ladder of competitive shooting, would be the members of the Miniature Rifle clubs. They could afford to shoot live rounds, pay club fees and, in most cases, buy their own .22 rifle. They were the skilled artisan class. The Bell target shooter would usually be found in the pubs and were men who earned their living by hard, laborious work, which practically occupied most of their waking hours in that workshop of the world, Birmingham. They were the working class and in many cases they shared club air rifles. This did give the edge to that sporting pastime of airgun shooting in their local pub, which in some cases was in the same street where they lived.
Many members of the full bore clubs and of the small bore clubs looked a little askance at the mere mention of airgun clubs, particularly those found in licensed premises. But those clubs, then as now, had a certain redeeming feature that British competitive shooting has neglected to pursue for its domestic members: refreshments and a social side. You would find these left out of the Miniature and Small-Bore clubs that had been formed by a General, with many high ranking officers sitting on the Society committee with the sole intent of providing a vast reservoir of potential riflemen of marksman standard to defend an equally vast empire. Patriotism and the defence of Queen and country was the order of the day, but if it meant either travelling to a cold outdoor range for Volunteer, Territorial or small-bore rifle practice, or going to bell target shooting in a warm room with a pint of home brew, apipe and pre-match banter with ones mates, the air gunners voted with their feet in large numbers.
This tremendous shooting activity was not lost on the military leaders at that time, and must have been the inspiration to General Luard on the forming of civilian rifle clubs shooting the small bore miniature 22 calibre rifle. He founded The Society of Working Men's Rifle Clubs, later to be re-named The Patriotic Society. It was very well supported by Lord Roberts. It favoured moving targets and a little more of the positional shooting, as opposed to the English Prone position of lying down facing the target. After several years its title was changed to The Miniature Rifle Association.
The Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs, who shot the live 22 bullet under the Presidency of Lord Roberts, took a great interest in the air rifle clubs and the undoubted success that they were enjoying. But when they held their all-comers meeting in Birmingham on the 27th and 28th of April 1906, the last thing that they had in mind when organising the event was airgun shooting. It did not occur to them that it would take any part in the programme. Local opinion, however, was so strong in favour of special competitions for the air gunners, that the Society felt that an experiment would be justifiable. They accordingly devoted four of their competitions in the Birmingham programme to airgun shooting, though they could not decide whether airgun shooting would figure in their publicity.
The programme took place in the drill hall of the 1st V.B. Warwicks. What an event that must have been for the Air-Gunners. Attended by the Duke of Norfolk, as well as the Lord Mayor amongst the many dignitaries, it drew 400 competitors to fire on the twenty points provided, with two distances of 25 yds and 50 yds. Airgunners competed at 25 yds only, and this was the first time that both forms of "live" and "air" took place. It was a lesson that was not lost on the organisers.
If there were doubts about the Bell Target shooters of Birmingham and their organisation and ability, they most certainly were cleared afterwards by the two senior officers of the Society, both vice-chairmen who were representatives at the Birmingham meeting. Viscount Colville of Cullross and Mr. R. Martin-Holland were profoundly impressed with the great hold which air gun shooting had obtained in the Black Country and the Midlands. They strongly supported moves to get airgun shooting under the control of the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs. The preliminary report of the match involving .22 and bell target shooting was as follows: "It cannot but be admitted that as far as the Birmingham shooting was concerned, the airgunners were entirely out-classed by the small-bore men; in the match, airgunners versus small-bore for instance, the score of the .22 shooters was 1047 out of a possible 1200, whilst that of the airgunners was only 696; and apart from this, the highest score by an airgunner in the competitions was 86, whilst the highest score by a miniature marksman was 98".
Anyone reading that in 1906 would deduce that the airgunners had little to offer in performance or competition against their more illustrious counterparts, and there was an explanation: if ever there was a one sided match this must have been it.
The superiority of the .22 miniature-men was not down to expertise, as first thought, but superior equipment for the job in hand. It was not rifles and ammunition alone that were so different, but the air-gunners did not have the spotting scopes and field glasses to spot their shots, which would at least have given them an idea of fall of shot and the opportunity to adjust their aim. The .22 shooters used orthoptic micro sights, with a faster projectile, four times the weight of a pellet, with .177 calibre against the .22 bullet making a larger hole. It was quite apparent that the air-gunners with their open sights of a vee and blade, no spotting experience or equipment, and shooting at a distance that they were not used to, were outclassed. The Miniature Rifle Clubs did acknowledge the unfairness of the situation afterwards.
What would have put the whole thing in proper perspective would have been a return match at a bell target club with everyone shooting in the standing position instead of prone, in the licensed house atmosphere of tension and stillness and, of course, the smoke screen of the dreaded twist. Who knows, the first prize could have been the payment of a Leg of Mutton Supper by the miniature men. At least the Birmingham lads did have the opportunity and satisfaction of demonstrating that they were an organised body.
The S.M.R.C. did said that they would make a definite statement, in that they would consider what intended action they would take in the future with regard to airgun shooting. Eventually the decision to enrol bona fide air gun clubs as units of the Society was taken at a meeting of the S.M.R.C. on the 9th October 1906.
What that would do for the bell target is open to some question. Looking at it today it would seem that someone had been very impressed with what they had found the "peasants" doing in the Midlands area, because they were shooting for fun and the enjoyment of the thing. Not only that, they had been doing it for years, before the Government backed and supported .22 rifle clubs had got off the ground. Or was it that someone could see that here were people who could be "helped" to enjoy themselves better if they were controlled by a larger, national body who would channel their expertise and enthusiasm into swelling the ranks of the S.M.R.C.? Politics in shooting sport had arrived.
There is nothing on record to show that the airgunners wished to leave their own established form of shooting with its own rules and leagues. It is to their great credit that they continue to this day, albeit in much reduced numbers, doing their own thing, making their own decisions and enjoying the shooting discipline in much the same way as their forefathers did decades ago. Long may they continue wherever they exist in bell target areas.
The acceptance of both air rifle and small bore by the British male prior to the first world war, had a beneficial effect on the quality of marksmanship when it was most needed during the 1914-1918 war, a war that saw the sad loss of so many of the "shoot for fun" men over the four years of conflict. They were well versed in aiming and trigger control, long before they even received their uniforms and Lee Enfield rifles.