NRA, Creedmoor, and Palma
1871-1882

The origins of the NRA go back to the immediate post Civil War years. At the time there was little interest in marksmanship or military matters from the general public, and although the National Guard received plenty of drill and marching instruction, there was little marksmanship training.

The development of marksmanship skills within the National Guard units came from the Army and Navy Journal pages. William Conant Church was the editor, and along with George Wood Wingate, whose “Manual for Rifle Practice” appeared in six instalments in the Journal in 1870 and 1871. These articles were printed in book form and became the standard on which rifle shooting was taught and practiced.

Throughout his writing William Conant Church urged for marksmanship training, and in September 1871 a meeting was held for New York National Guard officers interested in aiding marksmanship skills amongst their men. From this first meeting and group of dedicated men, the idea of the formation of a new association was hatched. The men started to work and it didn’t take long. Only two months after the first meeting, on November 17th, 1871, the “National Rifle Association” was granted a charter by the state of New York, “to promote rifle practice, and for this purpose to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of New York”

Then in 1872, under President William Church and Secretary George Wingate, the New York Legislature appropriated $25,000 to buy a range near New York City, with the NRA agreeing to raise an additional $5,000.

After a long search for acreage for a rifle range at a reasonable price, the NRA was able to purchase land owned by the Central and North Side Railroad of Long Island. The railroad believed that the NRA’s plans would stimulate rail travel, so they agreed to sell the seventy acre property at a low cost. This had been farmland that had been owned by the Creed family.

Colonel Henry Shaw Briggs, a member of the NRA range committee, has been credited with naming the new range. On arriving at Creed’s Farm and observing the wide open field, with long, wide grass, he said it was “a veritable moor”. Creedmoor became the name of the new NRA range.

The 1,200 yard long strip of land was able to accommodate shooting ranges up to 1,000 yards. Work began in 1872, and on April 25, 1873, the first shot at Creedmoor was fired. The first rifle shoot was held on June 21, 1873. This was a short range match with a rapid fire 100 yard match and two 200 yard matches. There was a “Military Rifle” match, and an “Any Rifle” match. Then main event was a team competition shot at 200 and 500 yards.

Amateur Rifle Club of New York

Matches and rifles were almost exclusively military and confined to members of the militia or men shooting with their rifles, during the first year. The few “any rifle” competitions were standing at 200 yards. There would be little public support of Creedmoor as long as it remained a military institution. The first year saw the formation of a small club of shooters organized the “Amateur Rifle Club of New York City”, led by Colonel George Wingate.

It was created to cultivate the use of the sporting rifle and to develop marksmanship as an amusement with no military purpose. The Amateur Rifle Club conducted their first match at the Creedmoor Rifle Range on July 12, 1873. There were twelve shooters, shooting from 500 yards. The winner was J. Bodine of New York. He was a known as a good shot in his community. Although the Club’s first match has gone unnoticed by many, the names of John Bodine and another competitor, Henry Fulton, were to be on the lips of the country a year later.

The Irish Challenge

In 1859 the Volunteer Movement in Great Britain was established, and formation of the British National Rifle Association that year created a large growth of interest in target shooting. In 1861 in Ireland, enthusiasts created the Ulster Rifle Association and Major Arthur Leech was key in founding the Dublin Shooting Club. That same year a Scottish newspaper published a challenge that Scotland would shoot against England. The shooting event was limited to Volunteers in teams of eight, and was shot at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. To continue the match, the chairman of the British NRA, Lord Elcho, presented the Elcho Shield for annual competition. The first match took place in 1862, with England emerging the winners.

After many applications to the NRA to allow the Irish to enter for this Elcho Shield, the strictness of the rule was relaxed and an Irish team was allowed to compete in 1865. At Wimbledon between 1862 and 1872 the Elcho Shield match was won eight times by England and three times by Scotland, then, finally, in 1873 Ireland won.

Based on their success of beating Scotland and England, Ireland wanted further recognition. They enlisted the support of several of the best Irish rifle shots, and Major Leech offered a challenge to America. He was not aware of the existence of the US version of the NRA, the Irish challenge to the “Riflemen of America” was sent to the New York Herald editor. The letter was published on November 22, 1873. The challenge was for a team match to be fired at ranges of 800, 900, 1000. The Irish were to shoot with muzzle-loading rifles made by an Irish gunmaker, and the Americans were required to use rifles of an American manufacturer.

The NRA in America became aware of the challenge, but was not excited to accept. It was the Amateur Club of New York City that accepted the challenge and volunteered to meet the Irish champions in a match at Creedmoor. Aware of their weakness in long range shooting, in the Amateur Club of New York published an appeal to the riflemen of America. This appeal was circulated in newspapers throughout the country. Americans interested in rifle shooting and wanting to be considered for the team were asked to forward their scores of fifteen consecutive shots made at each distance, or before the July 1, 1874. There were very little takers.

Since the western frontiersmen, with all their skill, could not be compelled to attend, it became clear that the club would have to fight alone. Six competitions were held at Creedmoor during July and August 1874 to shoot for places in the team and less than thirty men participated. Those being selected for the American team were; Col. Bodine, Gen. Dakin, H. Fulton, Col. Gildersleeve, L. Hepburn and G.W. Yale. The team captain was G.W. Wingate.

The Irish had difficulties with their own team selection as well, mainly due to the time involved in taking the long trip to America. Finding riflemen of adequate skill level and in enough numbers, who were able to wrap up their business affairs to be gone for the trip, was becoming very difficult. The Irish team eventually selected was Dr. Hamilton, E. Johnson, J.K. Milner, J. Rigby, Capt. Walker and J. Wilson. The team captain was Major Leech.

Rifles

The Irish had muzzle-loading match rifles that were made by John Rigby and Co., of Dublin. These rifles were the ultimate development of the muzzle-loading small-bore match rifle in the UK, and were very accurate.

In a letter by the Amateur Rifle Club of New York seeking in support of the US team to Ireland in 1875 is an interesting commentary on the lack of availability of American made rifles suitable for long range shooting. Eyes then turned to American manufactures for a suitable rifle: Remington and Sons of N.Y., and the Sharps Rifle Company of Hartford, Connecticut, both rose to the occasion and designed breech-loading rifles suitable for long-range marksmanship. Each rifle was well received by the Americans. Bodine, Fulton and Hepburn used the Remington, with Dakin, Gildersleeve and Yale using the Sharps.

Rifle Championship of the World

The Irish team arrived in New York on September 16, 1874. On September 26, the match took place before an audience of five thousand. The riflemen were each to fire 15 shots at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. No sighting in or shooting rests were allowed. The targets were the same as used at Wimbledon in 1873; a three feet square bull’s eye was in the middle of the “center” target, measuring six feet square, with a three feet wide by six feet high outer margin at each end of the target, the whole measuring six feet high by twelve feet wide. Scoring was ‘bull’s eye’ 4, Center 3 and Outer 2.

The Americans made a great start at 800 yards, taking the lead with 326 points against the Irish with 317. As the shooting distance increased, the Irish began to gain back points. At 900 yards the Americans scored 310 and the Irish scored 312. The Americans’ lead was eroded further at 1,000 yards, where the Irish finished with 302 points, for a total of 931. The Americans were still shooting, and by the time it came to the last shot to be fired, the Irish were leading by one point.

It was all up to John Bodine, he was the last to shoot. He approached the firing line with a handkerchief wrapped around his bloody hand, he had cut himself while opening a bottle. The pressure was enormous, with thousands of spectators watching the final shot on which American victory depended. Bodine pressed the trigger, and there was the four second wait for the bullet to travel the thousand yards to the target. “SMACK!” That glorious sound as the lead bullet smashed into the iron target, indicated a hit. Then came the flag indicating a bull’s eye! The American’s were victorious, and Bodine was carried off on the shoulders of his teammates.

The final score was America with 934 and Ireland with 931. The American win gave the sport of long-range rifle shooting a boost, and assured its future as a sport within the US for at least a decade.

In 1875, the return match was held between Ireland and America in Ireland to the same conditions as the 1874 match. The match took place near Dublin, before an audience of forty to fifty thousand people. The Americans again won, tallying 967 against Ireland’s 929.

The American Centennial

In 1876 the ‘riflemen of the world’ were invited by the American NRA to compete at Creedmoor for the Centennial Trophy. The trophy was commissioned from Tiffany’s by the NRA, and was a replica of a Roman legion. Beneath an eagle clutching a wreath was a plaque bearing the word PALMA. It is this that the trophy became known. The shooting match was for teams of eight and was to be held over two days, with shooting at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. Competitors were to fire fifteen shots at each distance on each day.

The final line-up of countries accepting the invitation to attend the Grand Centennial Rifle Match was: America, Australia, Canada, Ireland and Scotland. And again the American team were to use breech loading rifles while their competitors were to shoot the match with their trusted Rigby and Gibbs-Metford muzzle loading match rifles.

Targets for the Centennial Match were changed from the previously matches. The old square bull’s eye was replaced with a round one, like that was usedby the NRA of Great Britain in 1875. The target used was six feet high and twelve feet wide. It was divided: Bull’s eye was a 36 inch white circle, 5 points; Center was a 54 inch red circle, 4 points; Inner was 6 x 6 feet white circle, 3 points; and Outer, the remainder of the target, being a strip 3 feet wide on each edge and counting as 2 points.

After the two day match, the final results were America 3,126; Ireland 3,104; Scotland 3,062; Australia 3,062; Canada 2,923. The best shooting was made by J.K. Millner of Ireland who shot fifteen bull’s-eyes at 1,000 yards for an unprecedented maximum score of 75 x 75. The Centennial Trophy was presented to the American Team by General Hawley at Gilmore’s Gardens on September 15th with 15,000 people in attendance, as much as the Gilmore’s Gardens could hold. Overflow crowds lined Madison Avenue.

A week after the Grand Centennial Rifle Match, on September 21st 1876, there was another international match at Creedmoor which is seldom reported today. This was a return match between the old adversaries, America and Ireland. The teams of six fired at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards and the match was another American win, scoring 1,165 against Irelands 1,154.

America vs Great Britain

In May 1877 the NRA of Great Britain received an invitation from New York to compete for the Centennial Trophy the following September. Sir Henry Halford was appointed captain of the British team and organisation was left entirely in his hands. The team was chosen following a three day trial shoot held at Cambridge. On August 25th the British riflemen arrived at New York. Booming cannon and an American reception party aboard the steamer Nelson K. Hopkins greeted them. Scheduled for two days shooting, on September 13/14, this was to be the first time that a Great Britain rifle team had competed against an American team.

About 10 o’clock on the 13th the British team arrived from their quarters in Garden City. After visiting the butts and examining the targets, they proceeded to the tent of the American team captain, General Dakin, where they met the American riflemen. In the tent, the captains of the respective teams drew lots for position, the Americans winning the choice. The British team used Metford and Rigby muzzle loading rifles, and the American team Remington and Sharps breech loading rifles.

The day did not go as the British would have wished, and it closed with aggregate scores of 1,655 for the Americans and 1,629 for the British, leaving the latter with a daunting 26 point deficit to make up in the next day’s shooting and the Americans in buoyant mood.

On the second day, the Americans finished shooting at 5:35 p.m., and ten minutes later the British completed their shooting. The British team had floundered and with grand aggregate totals of 3,334 to the Americans and 3,242 to the British the match was over. Both teams had in fact shot astonishing scores, bettering those made in other matches to date. America’s team score on September 14, 1877 of 1,679 was, however, an amazing achievement.

Long Range Faltering

The 1877 match marked the end of an era. Waning public interest in match shooting had nothing to inspire it in the following two years. In 1878 no invitations were accepted for another international long range match, and the United States fired the Palma Match without competition. Invitations were again declined in 1879.

In an effort to revive public interest in long range shooting, Ireland extended an invitation to America for a friendly competition in 1880. The match took place on 29 June. Five of the Irish team used new Rigby breechloaders and the sixth man a Farquarharson-Metford. Four of the American team used Sharps-Borchardt rifles, one a Remington and one a Ballard. The Americans won the match with a total score of 1292 to 1280. On 29 July a self appointed American team, under Frank Hyde, fired a long range match at Wimbledon against a British team captained by Sir Henry Halford. The match, fired at 800, 900 and 1000 yards, was a disaster for the Americans. They lost by 79 points, scoring 1,568 against the British score of 1,647.

At this time the NRA of America suffered severe blows to its activities. The Army decided not to send further teams to matches sponsored by the NRA. Additionally, the newly elected governor of New York, Alonzo B. Cornell, made stringent cuts in National Guard funding particularly focusing on rifle practice. Another invitation to compete for the Palma Trophy in 1881 was declined by the NRA of Great Britain and the match now faded away until it was revived in 1901.

Military Matches

Despite the demise of the Palma Match, a competition with military rifles between the Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of America was agreed to for 1882. On 14 and 15 September teams of twelve representing the British Volunteers and the American National Guard met at Creedmoor. The match fired at 200, 500 and 600 yards on the first day, and at 800, 900 and 1000 yards on the second. The rifles used were of military pattern, although not necessarily one authorised for service. Each man fired seven shots at each distance, and no cleaning between shots was permitted. The British team won scoring 1975, against the American team score of 1,805 out of a possible 2,530.

In 1883 the American National Guard team had a return match against the British Volunteers at Wimbledon, on 20 and 21 July. The British team was again victorious scoring 1,951, against the American team score of 1,906.

Great Britain was invited to send a team of British Volunteers to shoot at Creedmoor in 1885. With Britain on a war footing due to the Sudanese rebellion the NRA felt that they were unable to accept the invitation.

NRA Decline

With the lack of an international match to revive public interest, the Long Island Railroad facing bankruptcy and sponsors withdrawing support, the NRA was fighting for survival. In 1890 Creedmoor was deeded back to the state of New York although the NRA match program was permitted to continue at the ranges. When in 1892 the new Inspector General of Rifle Practice, Capt. B.M. Whitlock, gave free use of Creedmoor to state troops a further source of income was removed from the NRA.

The ailing NRA put its records into storage and, following negotiation with the New Jersey State Rifle Association, transferred its matches from Creedmoor to Sea Girt. By 1900 these matches had grown significantly and the Board of Directors of the NRA met in December that year, the first such meeting since 1892. One of the outcomes of that meeting was plans to resurrect competition for the Centennial or ‘Palma’ Trophy.