The National Rifle Association was founded in 1859 in reaction to fears of French invasion ‘to give permanence to Volunteer [Rifle] Corps and to encourage rifle shooting’ throughout Britain and the Empire. Early prize meetings were held on Wimbledon Common until, for reasons of space and safety, they were transferred to Bisley, near Brookwood in Woking, in July 1890 on a site purchased for £13,439 3s 11d. A branch line from Brookwood station was built to carry passengers into the camp during annual prize meetings, along with two stations, one at the entrance and one near the refreshment pavilion. The tramway previously used at Wimbledon was transferred, and skirted the east side of Bisley Common, to the rear of the principal firing points. The refreshment pavilion, first used at Wimbledon in 1871, was also transferred. A clock tower was located centrally at the highest point in the camp, some 226′ above sea level, and the new butts and ranges, established on land belonging to the War Department, were named Stickledown, Shorts, Century and Long and Short Siberia.
Membership of the Association was open to private individuals and, at discounted rates, to members of the armed forces and of County Rifle Associations. Local rifle clubs could join as affiliate members and membership extended across Great Britain and its colonies and dominions: affiliated Surrey clubs included Albury; Byfleet; Dorking; East Surrey Regiment (5th Battalion); Epsom; Esher; Frimley, Yorktown and Camberley; Godalming; Guildford; Haslemere; Knaphill and Brookwood; Putney; Queen’s Regiment (4th Battalion); Reigate; Surrey Brigade Company of the ASC (Territorial); Surrey Yeomanry; West Surrey; Wimbledon Park; Woking Working Men’s; Woking and Horsell; and a large number of miniature shooting clubs. Members were admitted to the annual Bisley Prize Meeting in July and could take part in shooting competitions; they could also use the range tramway and travel on the London and South Western Railway to Brookwood at Territorial rates.
All this activity came to an end with the outbreak of war. Competitions were suspended, and the chairman of the NRA immediately met with Lord Kitchener and placed the camping ground and ranges at the disposal of the War Office and offered to raise a Corps of Musketry Instructors who would train officers and NCOs as musketry instructors within the divisions, brigades and battalions of the New Armies. The Commandant of the School of Musketry was Maj-Gen Lord Cheylesmore, KCVO, later succeeded by Lt-Col P W Richardson, who had served as the first Chief Instructor, Major J P Somers taking over from Richardson in that role. Originally it was intended that the Corps should comprise 18 officers and 80 staff sergeant instructors, selected from skilled members of the NRA who were over the age of active military service or unfit for general service; however by the end of the war its staff consisted of 66 officers and 400 warrant officers.
These instructors would provide, over the course of 2-4 weeks of training at Bisley, instruction in such subjects as the care of arms, the mechanism of the rifle, firing positions, the art of aiming and trigger pressing, how not to ‘flinch at the recoil of the rifle’, the influence of wind and atmospheric conditions, the use of ground and cover and the art of rapid fire. Successful students who passed the exams would be sent back to their units to instruct the men who had volunteered for the new armies. In the 1915 report of the School (SHC ref 6227/1/54) it was estimated that indirectly the School had trained around 1.5 million men to shoot straight. The newly qualified instructors, the 1915 report claimed, came from all walks of life, and included a dentist, a professional cricketer, and organ builder and a fishing tackle maker among their number. Once the needs of Kitchener’s new armies had been met, the School moved on to train Territorial officers and NCOs and some officers of the Volunteer Training Corps. Instructors from the School were also sent out to France to share their expertise with students at the sniping schools that were established behind the lines and Lt-Col Richardson’s lectures on sniping and the use of telescopic sights were published and distributed.
In January 1915 a machine gun training centre was also set up at Bisley, which used the ranges at Stickledown and schooled officers and NCOs in the use of Maxim, Vickers and Lewis guns. In its first year, 527 officers, 506 NCOs and 400 privates successfully completed the fortnight-long training course. The machine gun school as a separate entity was discontinued in September 1916 but Lewis gun and Hotchkiss gun classes were run in 1917-1918. In addition, in March 1915 until May 1916 the School took on the calibration of telescopic rifle sights for snipers and over that period dealt with 3537 rifles. In 1918 Captain C W Wirgman ran revolver classes for officers.
The new School of Musketry took over all the NRA’s buildings at Bisley, along with the club houses and pavilions established by rifle clubs; even then, more accommodation was needed for instructors and students and many wooden buildings had to be erected on the site; as the NRA’s 1915 annual report states, ‘every corner of Bisley has been filled up’. The Brookwood and Bisley Camp railway was extended to Blackdown and Deepcut Camps and was taken over by the military authorities.
The School came to an end on 14 December 1918, its closure marked by a shooting competition among its staff, a dinner and a musical entertainment. The staff-sergeants of the School formed a rifle club to preserve the comradeship that had developed among them. Over the course of the School’s existence, 87 officers and 571 NCOs qualified as NRA instructors; 1881 Territorial officers and 4566 Territorial NCOs similarly passed their rifle shooting examinations; 1049 officers and NCOs qualified in the use of the Hotchkiss gun, 976 in the use of the Lewis gun, and 189 qualified in range finding. In addition, 203 officers passed the tactical handling course and 108 officers passed in pistol shooting.
Annual reports of the National Rifle Association (SHC ref 6227/1/53-57)