The history of Smallbore rifle shooting
Rifle shooting originated as a skill used by hunters and the military as a modernisation of the marksmanship skills previously used by archers. and it developed into a civilian sport competed at international level during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The next few sections describe the path taken from the early beginnings through to the sport that is recognised today covering the events, key governing bodies as well as some of the main manufacturers of smallbore rifles and equipment.
During the 1800s shooting clubs and organisations developed into national shooting federations. Switzerland formed one of the earliest federations in the 1820s, England, France and Germany formed national Associations in the middle of the century, shortly followed by America in 1871. It was not until the start of the next century that an international federation would be created.
International shooting competitions were first held at the 1896 Summer Olympics, and the first World Championships were a year later in 1897. The inclusion of shooting at these events is largely believed to be the responsibility of French pistol champion Pierre de Coubertin, who was one of the founders of the modern Olympic Games.
The rifles used in competitions were either military or hunting rifles and the companies who make Smallbore rifles for sports shooting today were only just starting out. The Anschutz family started it’s business in 1856 and produced mainly pistols and shotguns. The company did not start designing and making target rifles until almost 100 years later. Carl Walther began his trade in 1886 working closely with his family to design and manufacture target rifles.
1900 - 1910
In the United Kingdom rifle shooting as a civilian sport was growing from a military requirement. Around the time of the second Boer war (1899 - 1902) a need arose in the United Kingdom to increase the shooting ability of the general population in the event that the regular army could not withstand an invasion.
In these early years there were not many formally recognised rifle clubs and those that did exist were made up from Volunteers (the organisation now known as the Territorial army) using outdoor ranges with military rifles. The ranges were often a long way from towns or cities and travelling to them was quite expensive. With ammunition costs on top of the travel there were not many people in the general public who could afford to shoot.
In 1900 the British Rifle League was created, followed in 1901 by the Society of Working Mens’s Rifle Clubs (S.M.R.C.) and it was decided that civilians could learn to shoot using the comparatively cheap "miniature" (small-bore) rifles and ammunition instead of the standard service rifle. This made shooting more to the wider population by reducing the travel required to get to ranges and was also helped by the fact that rifles of .22 calibre were readily available at modest cost, a sporting type rifle could be purchased for £1.00 or less at the time – this is roughly equal to £100 today, and the safety requirements for rifle ranges were easier to satisfy for the smaller rifles than they were for high calibre service rifles.
The cost of a gun licence at the time was 10 shillings per year, almost £50 today, and this presented a considerable barrier to shooting for most people. When the rules changed in 1906 people were exempt from paying the licence fee if they were members of a club affiliated to the British Rifle League thus making shooting as a hobby even more accessible.
The first international governing body for shooting appeared in 1907 with the joining together of a number of national associations, the name of this union was Union International de Tir (UIT - known in English as the ISU) with new members joining over the following years. The name changed in 1998 to The International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF).
The end of the decade also saw the creation of County Associations in the UK and the start of the annual ‘Queens Cup’ competition.
1910 – 1930
By the outbreak of war in 1914 a large number of UK civilians had learnt the skills of shooting because of the clubs supported by the S.M.R.C. and many of these people were willing to put these skills to use in the service of their country.
The war prevented the Olympic Games from taking place and despite some international matches being held in 1916 the ISSF member countries voted to dissolve the committee. Following the end of the war in 1918 rifle clubs in the UK suffered from a combination of increased legislation for shooting and a reduced number of club members because many of them had lost their lives in the war. The S.M.R.C. continued to work to increase the interest in smallbore rifle shooting and slowly over time the clubs began to revive.
The ISSF was reformed in 1920 and included some of the countries newly formed in Europe. The 1920 Olympics had the highest number of shooting events held since the Games began with 21 different events, this was followed in 1921 with a decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow the ISSF to govern the shooting events in the future games, thus starting the relationship that continues to exist in 2010.
The end of this period saw the interest in smallbore shooting increase and attendance at national and international events was very good. However, this caused some problems for the still new relationship between the ISSF and IOC. ISSF World Championship events awarded prize money and this went against the IOC amateur standards. The disagreement between the two governing bodies was such that shooting was excluded from the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.
During this time both Anschutz and Walther continued to design and manufacture new types of gun but neither has started to work on Smallbore Target rifles. Walther developed shot guns and pistols, including the famous PP range (The original James bond used a PPK) and Anschutz continued to make pistols and military rifles.
1930 – 1950
Following an appeal by the ISSF shooting was reinstated as an event in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. However the number of events was reduced to two with only a single rifle event. The attendance at the games was low and many of the best marksmen in the world were missing because they had won money prizes in competitions and thus did not meet the IOC amateur standards required for the Olympics.
In the last few years before the Second World War the World Championships provided the stage for the first woman entrant in an international event, Catherine Woodring shot for the USA team and helped the team win the gold medal. During the same period between the wars shooting in the UK had grown once again into a common sport with over 2000 clubs and 60 County Associations across the country.
With Europe once more at war the number of affiliated Clubs in the United Kingdom increased aided by the formation of the Home Guard which is responsible for the founding of many of the clubs that exist today. The S.M.R.C. again assisted with training and range certification work and again, as in 1914, tribute was paid to them in the House of Commons, by the Secretary of State for War. By the end of 1945 there were over 4,000 affiliated clubs and other organisations in the S.M.R.C., of which 1,000 were former Home Guard Units. In 1947 the S.M.R.C. changed it’s name to the National smallbore Rifle Association (N.S.R.A.) which remains today the Governing body for smallbore rifle shooting in the UK.
The post war years saw the reappearance of international rifle events as well as the Olympic Games in 1948, although the number of shooting events was still far below the pre 1924 high of 20+ events. It was also a fresh start for two of today’s main rifle manufacturers, Anschutz and Walther. Both companies suffered at the end of the war having to restart almost from scratch and although similar to the originals both had new company names. Anschutz returned to pistol designing and repair with a small operation of fewer than 10 people. This new start was particularly difficult for Walther which went from a pre war high of over 2,500 employees to being just Fritz Walther with a small case of design drawings and patents. Prior to the war the Walther business had manufactured both weapons and early calculators and it was the calculator business that provided the basis for the new company.
1950 proved to be a pivotal year for both companies with Anschutz rifle sales gaining great momentum after achieving target shooting successes at events with their new rifles and Walther expanding the business to once again design and build air rifles by the end of the year.
1950 – Today
With the sport fully established on the world stage the next half century provided the developments that turned the sport into what it is today. New competitions appeared at both National and International levels, more event types were added to existing competitions and new associations formed to help facilitate the development of new and experienced shooters.
In the UK, the post war years saw a decline in the number of clubs affiliated to the N.S.R.A. As the Home guard units disbanded and the core purpose of smallbore rifle shooting changed from the need to defend the country into a solely recreational sport, the total number of clubs dropped to around 1000. Despite the reduction in the number of clubs, shooting remains a very popular sport with thousands of people competing at levels from beginner through to world class.
Gender equality was established in shooting and in the mid 1960s the ISSF recognized all of its open events as “mixed” events where women could participate with men. The IOC also agreed to apply this standard to Olympic shooting events. For four Olympiads, from 1968 through 1980, the Olympic shooting events were mixed, with opportunities for women and men to participate regardless of gender. This has now developed into separate events for men and women as seen in today’s events.
Rifle design developed steadily with manufacturer’s working with world class shooters to refine the designs. Some notable success were achieved in the 1960s and 70s for the Anschutz Match rifle. Towards the end of the century advances in materials and manufacture techniques enabled designers to increase the levels of precision in their rifles to such an extent that when coupled with the ever increasing skill of the shooters it became harder to distinguish between the top shots at events. The solution to this difficulty was a reduction in diameter of the target by roughly 20%. This change made it harder to hit the centre ring of the target and made it easier to differentiate between the scores of the top shooters. Today there are a number of core rifle designers and manufacturers providing complete rifles with, among others, MEC, Feinwerkbau and HPS joining the already established Walther and Anschutz.