Hap's Corner June 2016

Published 06/03/2016


It has been said that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. While it may be true I, as shooter who has had some experience in Anglo-American marksmanship competition, tend to think more parochially. I believe that it is a case of two shooting communities separated by rapid fire. The British centerfire rifleman generally eschews rapid fire, perhaps even looks down his nose at it, while his colonial counterparts revel in the practice. This development seems a bit odd to me as the British were early practitioners of massed infantry rapid fire, but seemed to drift away from rapid fire after World War I.

The two nations fielded two of the three greatest and fastest firing bolt action rifles know to man. The British Enfield Number One Rifle, more commonly known as the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), and the US Rifle, Caliber .30 M1903 Springfield was used most effectively against the Kaiser’s soldat while they returned the compliment with the granddaddy of them all, the Mauser Gewher 98.

The British and the United States War Offices were parsimonious, to say the least. To that end both the SMLE-known to generations as the “Smelly” because of its initials, and the ’03 were viewed as single shot rifles. The rifles’ magazines functioned simply as storage for reserve cartridges. Tommy Atkins and the US Doughboy would pop away single shot, thereby saving precious ammunition. When ordered by an officer they would flip a “cut off” switch making the ammunition in the magazine available to engage in rapid fire.

While deliberate slow fire was preferred, the British infantry did practice volley fire, the famous “Mad Minute.” In this exercise a platoon of trained riflemen could loose 30 well aimed shots, scoring 15 hits on a 12 inch round target at 300 yards, within 60 seconds. The well trained British infantrymen delivered such a high rate of fire from their SMLEs that German intelligence often overestimated the number of British machine guns facing them because of this astonishing volume of fire.

The eminent shooting historian Ian V. Hogg reports that Sergeant Instructor Alfred Snoxall, of the Royal Army’s famous Hythe School of Musketry, set the bolt gun rapid fire record in 1914. It is not known whether he shot prone or from a supported trench fire position as he fired 38 rounds into a 12 inch bull’s eye at 300 yards in 30 seconds.

Presuming he started with a full magazine, the SMLE holds ten rounds in its magazine, compared to just five for the 98 and 03, he had to complete six reloads as chargers, known as stripper clips in the United States, only contained five rounds. To make it all the more difficult the SMLE cocks on closing so it needs a bit more force than the other two rifles complete a reload.

Performing this historic feat meaning he let off each round in less than half of a second.  Presuming a uniform spread of hits, and extrapolating his 38 shots to 40, he likely would have scored an average of 95-2X on the current SR-3 target. Not a bad showing at all.

To maximize his rate of fire he probably employed a few old tricks of the competition trade. The bolt was probably manipulated with his thumb and forefinger while he pulled the trigger with his third finger. Buffing the charger guides made for quick insertion and extraction of the chargers. A careful selection of chargers, as well as polishing them inside and out with a dab of “Bluebell” or “Soldier’s Friend” on a soft cloth, helped. A cartridge slid through the charger before filling them opened the raceways and insured the cartridges would slide out more easily. 

Snoxall was certainly no neophyte for assignment as a Hythe instructor indicates he was at the very top of the pyramid of Royal Army riflemen. There is no doubt that he spent hours perfecting his skill at bolt manipulation and reloading. Snoxall was, above all, practiced, economical in movement, and sure handed.

In the United States National Match Competition, with its inherent military overtones, became the heart and soul of centerfire competition. Between the wars it was ten rounds slow fire standing at 200 yards, followed by 10 rounds rapid fire sitting at the same yard line. Moving back to 300 yards the rifleman shot ten rounds rapid fire at 300 yards. The final two stages ten shots were slow fire prone at mid ranged 600 and long range 1,000 yards. When the National Matches resumed after the Second World War the 1,000 yard stage was dropped and its ten rounds were added to the 600 yard stage.

Perhaps because modern semiautomatic military style rifles are not available to subjects of The Crown the ability to compete in rapid fire competition in Britain has been diminished. No matter what the reason, the flame of the proud tradition of well aimed rapid fire has been banked in the United Kingdom.

On the other hand the British have made a near religious cult out of slow fire long range competition. This tradition dates from 1862 when the Elcho Shield was offered as a prize between England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales for long range shooting supremacy. With two or three riflemen on ‘the mound” alternating shots at a single target there is a lot of time between shots for conditions to change. Detailed record keeping and wind reading skills are the heart and soul of long range shooting as practiced by the British. The days of Britannia rules the waves may have passed but there is no question that today Britannia rules long range rifle shooting.

The French have never produced a rifle that is even worthy of mention in the same breath as the 98, SMLE, or 03, but they do have a way with words. Perhaps the United States infatuation with rapid fire and the British love of long range all comes down to the cliché French phrase, chacun à son gout: to each his own.