Long-Range Rifle Fire

Introduction | Minie to Martini | Long Range Skills

JUDGING from some recent despatches and War Correspondents' letters, the expression "long-range rifle-fire" is acquiring a meaning more significant than that actually indicated by the words which make it up. In speaking of the target practice of the army and of match-shooting generally, the distance between 700 and 1,000 yards are usually called "long," just as those under 300 yards are called "short"; 400, 500, and 600 being middle, or intermediate. The French make very nearly the same distinction. But the expression we are noticing seems to suggest that not only is the distance (which may be any number of yards between 600 and 3,000) generally unknown, but also that there is more or less uncertainty on the side of those under fire as to the actual direction from which the bullets come. It gives, in fact, an idea of a harassing and annoying fire, de-livered almost with impunity from a point all but vanishing.

Just after Plevna a good deal was heard about long-range rifle-fire; but it is hardly too much to say that an idea of its probable power when skilfully applied was only definitely brought home to the great mass of Englishmen on the receipt of Sir Redvers Buller's reports, viâ Korti, on Saturday and Sunday, the 21st and 22nd of February last. The whole situation was, of course, intensified by the recent news of Sir Herbert Stewart's wound, by the reported death of General Gordon and the certain fall of Khartoum, by the withdrawal from Gubat, and, to some extent, by the departure of the Guards for the East. In addition to the uncomfortable feeling that things were going generally wrong, all England became for forty-eight hours exceedingly anxious. When, a day or two later, it was known how Major Wardrop had proved almost literally one too many for the Soudanese sharpshooters, the feeling of relief showed how great the anxiety had been. Of course undue importance may be given to long-range fire, just as it can, and sometimes is, for example, to the value of the bayonet as a weapon; but it will be generally agreed by those who know anything of the matter that at the proper time and place long-range rifle-fire has, like lobs at cricket, its very great uses, but, also like lobs at cricket, if not good of its kind, it will be useless and expensive.

There is no precise record when rifles were first used in war. "The middle of the seventeenth century" expresses as well as limits the vagueness of the date. It is known, however, that in 1680 each troop of our Life Guards was supplied with eight rifled carbines; and that in 1800 the 60th Rifles were armed with the "Baker" rifle. Long-range rifle-fire, in its present sense, is of much more recent date. During the first half of the present century the distance to which a rifle-bullet would range must appear to the modern rifleman wholly insignificant. Indeed, so far as actual flight was concerned, old "Brown Bess" of the Peninsular War time would throw a bullet (if you could trace it) a good deal further than could the Baker rifle, which won for our rifle regiments a goodly string of "honours," from Roleia to Toulouse. In those days the difference in shooting between two hand-made arms of the same pattern was often considerable. But, whereas an average Baker rifle could make it very dangerous for a "head and shoulders" 250 yards off, the smooth-bore musket was so erratic that it was of little use trying to hit a single man at distances over a hundred yards. On the other hand, while the smooth-bore loaded easily, the loading of the seven-grooved Baker rifle was always troublesome, and, after a few rounds had been fired, generally very difficult. Many a time must those old rifle-men, while grunting and sweating over a weary load and under a Spanish sun, have envied the nimble business of the smooth-bore ramrod. In 1836 (already following foreign example) we gave the two-grooved Brunswick rifle, firing a belted bullet, to our rifle regiments. It loaded a little easier and shot a little better than the Baker, but the improvement was one of a few degrees only. The Brunswick, like the Baker, fouled very considerably; and the fumbling, especially in cold weather, to get the belt of the bullet into the groove at the muzzle was a horrid drawback. The most that could be said for it was that it was as good as other peoples, better than the Baker, and probably the best that could be got. Doubtless there were soldiers of a good old sort who voted both the "Brunswick" and the "Baker" more plague than profit. But, notwithstanding the plague of loading, those old rifles - meaning thereby both the men and their arms - had a profit all their own. There was a distinct speciality not only in name and in the jacket but in the arm and in its use. The brunt of that kind of fighting which comes under the general head of sharpshooting fell naturally to the share of the men and the arms who could do respectable business at distances treble as great as could the ordinary "firelock"; and well, parenthetically be it said, did the old 60th Rifles and old 95th (afterwards the Rifle Brigade) uphold their special and honourable rôle, demanding, as it taught, increased intelligence and greater self-reliance. We look now with wonder at the old pattern rifle, but the work done in the Peninsula, in the Punjaub, and in the old Cape wars was too good for either masters or workmen to complain much about the tool. It may be that the Baker-Brunswick tradition is still bearing fruit. But when all is said and done, there was nothing in those days of the nature of long-range rifle-fire. The whole combat was within easy view of the commanders on both sides. However carefully the good rifleman kept out of sight, the smoke of his rifle was plainly seen at the moment of firing. No bullets came humming over the zareba (nor now and again into it with a deadly pat) at uncertain intervals by day and night from an unseen enemy at an unknown distance. It was simply not in the rifle or musket of our own or any other army to do it. Fire at the longest range was too short to be called long-range rifle-fire as we now understand that expression.

Source: The Saturday Review, 4 July 1885