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.
Concerned over poor marksmanship during the American Civil War, veteran Union officers Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate formed the National Rifle Association of America in 1871 for the purpose of promoting and encouraging rifle shooting on a "scientific" basis. In 1872, with financial help from New York state, a site on Long Island, the Creed Farm, was purchased for the purpose of building a rifle range. Named Creedmoor, the range opened in 1872, and became the site of the first National Matches until New York politics forced the NRA to move the matches to Sea Girt, New Jersey. The popularity of the National Matches soon forced the event to be moved to its present, much larger location: Camp Perry. In 1903, the U.S. Congress created the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (NBPRP), an advisory board to the Secretary of the Army, with a nearly identical charter to the NRA. The NBPRP (now known as the Civilian Marksmanship Program) also participates in the National Matches at Camp Perry.
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 1903, the NRA began to establish rifle clubs at all major colleges, universities and military academies. By 1906, youth programs were in full swing with more than 200 boys competing in the National Matches. Today, more than one million youth participate in shooting sports events and affiliated programs through groups such as 4-H, the Boy Scouts of America, the American Legion, U.S. Jaycees, NCAA, the Scholastic Clay Target Program, National Guard Bureau, ROTC and JROTC. These programs have all continued to thrive despite political pressures to disband. The success of these programs is often attributed to an emphasis on safety and education that has resulted in an unprecedented scholastic and collegiate athletic safety record
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).
1910 – 1930
By the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 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. 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.
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.
The post war years saw the core purpose of smallbore rifle shooting changed from the need to defend the country into a solely recreational sport. Despite this, shooting remains a very popular sport with tens of 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.