To Shoot or Drill: the Rifle Clubs and the Great War 1911-1918 Part 1

About Andrew Kilsby

Dr Andrew Kilsby is an independent historian who has published several military history books, produced exhibitions and convened military history conferences. A graduate of RMC Duntroon he holds degrees in history from UNSW and UNE. His doctorate from [email protected] examined the relationship between the Rifle Club Movement and Australian Defence 1860-1941.

About this article: An excerpt from Chapter 7, ‘The Great War’ in Kilsby, A.J., The Riflemen, A History of the National Rifle Association of Australia 1888-1988, (Longueville Media, 2013).

In 1911 the attention of the Australian military forces was focused on the roll-out of the universal training scheme.  Meanwhile, the rifle club movement very much continued on with its usual programme of annual club, district and State association, and Commonwealth matches. With the exception of South Australia (SA), the State rifle associations seemed at times oblivious to antipathetic feelings towards them growing ever stronger in military circles.  Well-entrenched with political and by any measure, popular support, the rifle club movement felt itself impervious to criticism.  All of this would be turned on its head in the coming years.

The ongoing debate between the Army and rifle clubs over service vs. target shooting continued, with neither side accepting the other’s point of view.  In a curious move, given the tenuous state of relations with Defence, the National Rifle Association of New South Wales (NRA of NSW) decided to abolish service matches altogether from its October programme.  It reasoned that there had been such a dearth of military entries for those matches it could no longer afford to continue them, despite the fact that they were obliged to devote half of the prize money grants to such military matches.[1] Military men defended themselves when the question was asked why the citizen forces did not compete in greater numbers in service matches.  One commentator explained that soldiers were disadvantaged at the range:

having to wear equipment, conduct a route march and have points deducted accordingly while the Rifle Clubs entries have no such deductions for the same shoot as they don’t have to wear equipment and just turn up; also the service teams are not allowed to choose their teams from members of the Regimental Rifle Clubs – as these are not RAN ships, batteries, companies, squadrons but ‘rifle clubs.[2]

In ‘militarised’ SA, on the other hand, sympathy for military aspects of rifle matches ran strong. The SA National Rifle Association (SANRA) council ‘had 23 ex-officio [military] members and 12 elected…the 25th Programme included a battle firing match [a fire and movement match]; a Teams Service Match [unknown distances, pop-up targets on the advance] and Squad Snap-Shooting.’[3]

Overall however, the rifle club movement came under increasing pressure to conform as the measures associated with the universal military training scheme took effect:

In 1911 [the Military Board] required club captains to strike off any members who failed to qualify as efficient for two years in a row; next year it decided that clubs without efficient members for two years would be disbanded.  The number of riflemen fell by 5,000 in a year, but headquarters was pleased that “dead-heads”, as one Permanent officer described poor shots, were being struck from the rolls.  During 1911 headquarters staff proceeded to plan how riflemen would be used in war, and allotted the fittest club members to fill local units in war.  [4]

The newly appointed Director of Rifle Associations and Clubs (DRAC), Major Morris Marian Boam, introduced new Rifle Club Regulations, which gave him the power to administer and control every aspect of associations to rifle clubs, including the Commonwealth Council of Rifle Associations of Australia (CCRAA).[5] Somewhat controversially it was the DRAC who would now distribute grant money to associations.[6] By this stage the Universal Military Training scheme was well underway, and rifle clubs began to feel the impact as scarce rifle ranges came under even more time use pressure by increased numbers of cadets and recruits firing their musketry courses.  This was especially felt by clubs in WA, where by 1913 the frustration began to assume political overtones. A rifle association ‘Vigilance Committee’ was formed which threatened to urge a vote against Defence Minister (and WA Senator) George Foster Pearce if rifle clubs did not receive promised improvements to their resources.[7]

Meanwhile, despite the grumblings, military control of the rifle club movement in most States continued to grow tighter as universal training grew apace.  By 30 June 1912 the numbers in rifle clubs in the States (the Northern Territory did not register except as part of SA’s numbers), were as follows:

NSW       VIC       QLD        SA       WA      TAS        Total

Rifle Clubs      12,580    17,026    9,437      5,421   4,510    1,647        50,621

In addition, this 1913 report on Australia’s defences indicated that of 23,696 in the Militia, dedicated officers and NCOs in the Pay Department, rifle ranges and rifle clubs were only 77 strong. [8] The CCRAA met again in late December 1912 [9]; one attendee was Major Francis Bede Heritage from the School of Musketry at Randwick.  Heritage was a Permanent Officer with the Army Administrative & Instructional Staff, with a long record of service in the Volunteers in Tasmania. Heritage was under no illusions as what rifle shooting meant.  In his treatise Modern Musketry Training, published in 1911, he wrote:

There are so many varying influences at work in regard to musketry training in general that it is essential to consider its object.  All will agree that it is, or should be, conducted solely with a view to national defence.  Rifle training must be a duty rather than a sport.  It is necessary to insist on this because to-day many people, a few even in the army, regard all rifle shooting primarily as a sport, and advocate the use of weapons and rifle accessories which are not suitable for war conditions.

An extraordinary degree of skill in applying a long series of shots at a stationary mark when each shot is signaled and all service difficulties are carefully eliminated is of little value for war purposes.  War is not a matter for individuals.  Battles are not fought between picked teams, but between battalions, and, therefore, the general standard of marksmanship should be as high as possible. There are no spotting discs in war. A soldier must be a fighting shot – not merely a rifle club shot. [10]

Another attendee at meeting was Boam’s replacement as DRAC, Major William Henry Osborne. Osborne was a captain of engineers and had commanded No.2 Submarine Mining Company in Melbourne before his promotion to major. It is not clear what particular qualifications Osborne held to be given the role, but it perhaps the fact that this did not seem to matter was an indication of how little importance the Defence Department attached to the position and to the rifle club movement in general.[11]

Ammunition was an issue of concern in 1912.  The Ordnance Department insisted that the 1912 ammunition was acceptable but strong complaints had come in from NSW and SA about the quality of the 1912 batch:  ‘Tests were made in the presence of Major F. B. Heritage, Commandant of the School of Musketry, and showed that not only were the bullets of irregular sizes, but some cartridges were so loosely packed that the cordite could be heard rattling in the shell.’[12] The CCRAA also advised the Minister that members of rifle clubs should be utilised to coach senior cadets on their musketry course.  Major Heritage was also asked to develop a scheme by which all men over 16 in ‘exempt areas’ – and therefore not required to drill under universal training – be compelled to join the nearest rifle club.  The Military Board did not agree, citing the need to amend the Defence Act if this were the case and the cost of running such a scheme.  [13]

The CCRAA met again in October 1913 under CCRAA Chairman Colonel Charles Edward Merrett, who  was Chairman of the Victorian Rifle Association (VRA) as well as Commanding Officer of the 29th Light Horse (Port Philip Horse).[14] Welcome news arrived of a proposed tour by a British rifle team to Australia in September 1914.  The future looked bright for target rifle shooting in Australia yet it was to be the last full meeting of the Council until 1920.  Meanwhile, the debate continued as to the state of Militia shooting skills vs. those of rifle club men.  Writing in The Commonwealth Military Journal, one Militia officer opined:

I have noticed for years past, and I can say it without fear of contradiction, that the average man who joins a rifle club, within three months generally shows an improvement that is impossible to be seen in that of the average citizen soldier in three years after he has been sworn in.  The only reason by which I can account for this is, that the former has the assistance of expert brother riflemen to teach him in the beginning and afterwards splendid encouragement given to him for continuous practice.  I cannot but confess that unless a great change is made in our system of musketry training this will ever continue to be the case. I do not wish to infer for a moment that our citizen soldiers as a whole are the worst shots in the world by any means, but they are, taken as a whole, a very indifferent grade.  This is a sad state of things, for there is nothing in the wide world to hinder the average Australian from becoming highly expert in the art of handling a rifle…[15]

At this juncture, in early 1914, amid rising concern about the possibility of a general war in Europe, yet another inspection of Australia’s defence arrangements by an Imperial officer occurred. General Sir Ian Hamilton arrived at the invitation of the Government. Like Lord Kitchener before him, Hamilton toured through most of the country before providing a high level report to Parliament. He inspected rifle club parades organised for him and pronounced himself to be happy enough: ‘I have noticed that, when being assembled for inspection or to be addressed, they show themselves capable of performing the more elementary military movements’, he sniffed.  But he also had a more important comment and warning: ‘Rifle Clubs constitute the only reserve for the Militia Forces’, he said, [and] ‘so long as the Rifle Clubs form the only reserve for the active army, Australian defence must rest on too narrow a foundation.’ [16] He went on to say: ‘Everything outside of the Militia – the Regular Force for example, the Rifle Clubs and the cadets – are essentially of military interest and value only in so far as they affect the well-being of Australia’s real war instrument – her Militia army.’ [17]

In July 1914, Major Osborne completed his first report to Parliament on the state of the rifle clubs in Australia, a report informed by his visits to almost every rifle club in the country since January 1913. [18] Osborne reported that on the 1st July 1914, compared to the same time in 1913, the state of the movement was as follows:

Military

District

1 July 1913 1 July 1914
Clubs Members Efficients percent Clubs Members Efficients percent
1st Qld 211 9701 6399 66 227 9758 6963 71
2nd NSW 293 13,400 11,264 84 305 14,500 10,708 74
3rd Vic 322 15,617 10,220 65 318 14,505 10,064 69
4th SA 120 5408 3123 58 119 4093 3411 83
5th WA 142 3809 2896 76 127 3790 2826 75
6th Tas 45 1629 1148 71 46 1580 1108 70
1,133 49,564 35,050 71 1,142 48,226 35,080 73

Osborne noted that the number of rifle ranges in operation had risen to 798 and that there were a total of 64 District Rifle Club Unions throughout the country.  Government grants had been handed out as follows – CCRAA £700, State associations, £5,000, DRCUs £5,000, and remote area unions and clubs £5,000.[19]

Considering the size of the rifle club movement, this was a cheap defence reserve indeed, even when adding the cost of range construction and maintenance and salaries of the rifle club supervisors and range inspectors (the 800,000 rounds of ammunition expended annually was bought by riflemen at a discount).  Osborne’s report addressed at length the dramatic falling off of Militia riflemen competing in rifle association and district union competitions.  There was, he said, no clear reason for this occurring although he had noted that in many instances, Commanding Officers of Militia units just happened to call their weekly parades when these matches were to be held.  Osborne’s summary was damning: ‘It seems a hard thing to say, but it would seem that the Rifle Clubs are composed of men who can shoot but can’t drill, while the Citizen Forces can drill but can’t shoot; if they can, they are very modest about it.’ [20] It was clear that the soldier’s training was in the direction of making  him a ‘war shot’ and not a ‘pot hunter,’ and this being so ‘he cannot hope to compete successfully with the rifleman at prize meetings.’[21]

However, the wheel was turning in favour of the Militia and service shooting – and fast.  Mobilisation schemes were now prepared for each State.  Rifle clubs, of which the ‘efficients’ were expected to be available in time of war, were allocated to militia units – ‘3,000 to the Light Horse, 15,000 to the infantry, 1,500 to Army service and medical corps, 120 to be cable guards, and 9,000 for future allotment.’ [22] But the rifle club men still had no uniforms, few modern service rifles, and certainly were not being used in any meaningful way to assist in training the recruits into the Militia or cadet force with basic rifle skills. In a speech made in July 1914, the Defence Minister, Senator Edward Millen, increased the allocation of service rifles to clubs to bring the ratio up to 1:2 men, but still baulked at the cost of uniforms.  He noted the ongoing antipathy of Militia officers to the rifle clubs but felt that Australia had no choice but to depend on the riflemen as its own ready reserve.

In early August 1914, war broke out in Europe; the Great War had begun.  The Australian rifle associations responded by cancelling the various prize meetings planned for that year, including the Commonwealth match in Adelaide, and offering their services to train Expeditionary Force recruits in musketry.[23] In Sydney 40 riflemen were requested to support training at Long Bay while 30 Victorian club members assisted Army NCOs with training at the Williamstown range. Rifle clubs quickly subscribed to supporting activities like the Regimental Comforts Funds in NSW and the Motor Ambulance Fund in Tasmania.  In Victoria, 1,200 rifle club men paraded as part of a Patriotic Carnival in September 1914. [24]

The onset of the war also drew many riflemen into military service. In Katoomba, NSW, Senator Millen had attended the 24th Katoomba rifle club annual meeting in July where he gave a patriotic speech in support of rifle clubs and defence. As a result of Senator Millen’s visit, ‘the club rallied as never before with 77 members offering their services one August day in 1914.’[25] Still, no-one expected the war to last very long.  In South Australia, not surprisingly, the German Kingship rifle clubs were faced with anti-German sentiments.  The Hahndorf club decided not to hold any Kingship matches for the duration of the conflict, but the Tanunda, Lobethal, Metropolitan and Oakbank clubs all continued to hold their annual matches, at least at first. These were well attended by both shooters and the general public and the events were well covered in the SA newspapers. [26]

Click here for Part 2


[1] Purser, M., ‘Some Reasons why the Citizen Forces do not Complete at N.R.A. Meetings’, The Commonwealth Military Journal, v.6, 1915, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer, Melbourne,  pp.556. ‘Serious concern was caused in 1911 by an announcement from the Director of Rifle Clubs that at least 50 per cent of the Government Grant for prizes must be allotted to Service Matches and that entry fees must be limited to 1/6 per match.  The Government Grant was £1911/12/-.  A deputation succeeded, however, in having the decision deferred for, at any rate, one year.’ Cromack, C. H., The History of the National Rifle Association of New South Wales,1860-1956, Utility Press, Sydney, 1956, pp.47-48.

[2] Purser, M., ‘Some Reasons why the Citizen Forces do not Complete at N.R.A. Meetings’, The Commonwealth Military Journal, v.6, 1915, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer, Melbourne,  pp.556.

[3] South Australian National Rifle Association:  Official Programme and Scoring Book September 1911 [incl. 24th Annual Prize Meeting report for September 1910 and SANRA Annual Report for year ending May 1911], Whillas & Ormiston, Adelaide, 1911, pp.54-55.

[4] Wilcox, C., ‘Australia’s Citizen Army 1889-1914’, PhD Thesis, University of New South Wales, 1993, Ch.7 [Forced to be Free], pp.43-44.

[5] Boam had served with the NSW Forces since 1873 and was a veteran of the Soudan Expedition. was

[6] The Advertiser, 28th March 1911, p.8.

[7] Item 2616A/7b, ‘Rifle Clubs Vigilance Committee of W.A. Circular dated 10th May 1913’, State Records Office of Western Australia.

[8] Year Book Australia, No.6, Section 28, Defence, Australian Bureau of Statistics Canberra, 1913, p.1047.

[9] New delegates included George Peirce Foot, Robert Peart and Robert Reuben Rodgers.  Foot, a grazier from Cardington between Townsville and Charters Towers, was a member of the North Queensland Rifle Association.  He later served at Gallipoli. Peart was a clerk from Boulder near Kalgoorlie, while Scottish-born Rodgers, who had formerly served in the Victorian Infantry Regiment and the Victorian Rangers, was a distiller from Maylands near Perth. Rodgers also later saw active service in WWI.

[10] Heritage, F.B., ‘Modern Musketry Training’, The Commonwealth Military Journal, v.1, April-December 1911, J. Kemp, Govt. Printer, Melbourne, 1911, pp.147-148.

[11] In 1920 the now Lieutenant-Colonel Osborne was awarded an MBE for his services to rifle shooting.

[12] The Brisbane Courier, 14th October 1912, p.8.

[13] Exempt areas were those with no training zone allocated under Kitchener’s scheme.

[14] New delegates included Arthur William Skewes, a 23 year-old miner from the Charters Towers Rifle Club.  He had been a Sergeant with the Kennedy Regiment and was now a 2nd Lieutenant with the Senior Cadets. Other newcomers were Constable 1st Class John Smith Simpson of the Police Rifle Club in Perth, and Noel Augustin Webb, a solicitor, one-time Mayor of Port Augusta and president of the NRA of SA. Webb was to become a Deputy President of the Federal Arbitration Court and the SA Industrial Court.

[15] Thorn, P.J., ‘A Word in Favour of Rifle Shooting’, The Commonwealth Military Journal, v.4, 1913, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer, Melbourne, p.738.

[16] Hamilton, I., Report on an Inspection of the Military Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer, Melbourne, 1913, pp.14-16.

[17] Hamilton, I., Report on an Inspection of the Military Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia, Albert J. Mullett, Govt.Printer, Melbourne, 1913, p.7.

[18] ‘Report on the State Rifle Associations, District Rifle Club Unions, and Rifle Clubs for the year ended 30th June 1914’, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2nd December 1914, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer Victoria, 1914, pp.1-8.

[19] ‘Report on the State Rifle Associations, District Rifle Club Unions, and Rifle Clubs for the year ended 30th June 1914’, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2nd December 1914, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer Victoria, 1914, pp.3-5.

[20] ‘Report on the State Rifle Associations, District Rifle Club Unions, and Rifle Clubs for the year ended 30th June 1914’, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2nd December 1914, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer Victoria, 1914, p.7.

[21] Purser, M., ‘Some Reasons why the Citizen Forces do not Complete at N.R.A. Meetings’, The Commonwealth Military Journal, v.6, 1915, Albert J. Mullett, Govt. Printer, Melbourne,  pp.555-556.

[22] The Sydney Morning Herald, 14th July 1914, p.9.

[23] The NRA immediately cancelled the visit of the British team to Australia until after the war and Bisley was placed at the full disposal of the British Army.

[24] Anon., ‘Those were the Days –Parade of Riflemen’, The Marksman, Vol.21, No.3, March 1969, p.4.

[25] Roberts, C., From Cascade to Wentworth Creek : a History of Katoomba Rifle Club1893-1988, Katoomba Rifle Club Committee, Lawson (NSW), 1988, p.28.

[26] Potezny, V, ‘South Australian German Shooting Companies (Kingship and Ring Target Shooting)’, unpub. MS (2010), provided by author to A. Kilsby, February 2010, p.3.

MHHV Members
Previous MHHV events