The Science of Long Range Shooting

By: Kenny Wasserburger

Edwin Perry's 'Modern Observations on Rifle Shooting' (1880)
It’s 1879, and since the 1874 International Match at Creedmoor there have been a lot of changes.

Edwin Perry shares, in his Third Edition of Modern Observations on Rifle Shooting (1880), some of the major changes / advancements at Creedmoor in just a short 5 years. When it comes to bullet alloys, much of what has been passed around on the internet as fact about the advent of harder alloy bullets is, frankly, nothing but conjecture. And what has been passed off as fact is in effect WRONG.

Very hard alloy bullets, were in vogue by 1879 for long range competition and were sold by Sharps and Remington. Factory ammo was no longer used by any of the big name shooters. Most had, after careful study, found that their own reloads had much better performance on the long range targets. Make no mistake about it, rapid advances in long range shooting were going on, and much of it we knew little about, until now. Rare contemporary catalogue data shows it, but no reasons as to what or why or WHO was using it. Now we have some insights, the sad part is it was always there, we just had to know where and how… to find it.

What I liked about this edition of Perry’s book, which is as different as night is to day to the First Edition, is that he does not share just an opinion: he shares what the shooters were actually using. Powder charges much heavier and the reasons why. Bullet alloys, sorry soft bullet alloy advocates, the softest bullet in use at Creedmoor by 1879, for long range was 1-14 in the Sharps Borchardt, patched with the Hyde base-pattern or method. Many were using 1-11 and the Hepburn base method. Others used 1-11 alloys, but patched with the Hyde method. Huge advancements, not just in alloy / powder charges, but also in nose shape and bullet weights are also mentioned. He goes into discourse on the need for a rifle to hold elevation (vertical) on the target, something I have never seen before in print on the subject of Black Powder Cartridge Rifles from that era. He makes mention of Frank Hyde’s methods and that his targets spoke volumes on the subject of hand loading one’s own fixed ammunition when it came to holding elevation / vertical. Talk about some eye openers! The advice given was simple, increase the powder charge until elevation required, and the vertical was reduced to the minimum, then use 1-2 grains above that! Our British cousins lamented the fact and said we used to much powder, yet we kept handing them their collective team’s asses in every international sanctioned match.

Perry states: The Men looked on as Giants in the 1874 International Match, have since been dwarfed by those willing to devote careful study to the Science of Long Range Shooting. Perry proposed a match to promote the advancement of this very thing. Proposing a long range match at that time, was nothing new to be surprised at but… The conditions / rules laid down for this match were.

The Creedmoor Rifle, 1876

"Forest and Stream" published a 'Hand-Book for Riflemen' in 1876. The Hand-Book is authored by Major George C. Starr, Secretary of the American Rifle Association. (This is NOT the US NRA, that was a separate organisation.)

The generic description for the Creedmoor long range rifle states it weighed ten lbs, had a rifling twist of 1 in 20 inches and a 30 inch long barrel. Calibre 44-100.

According to this book, the charge of powder used by most long range shooters was 90 grains. Powder should be "rather large grain, of uniform quality, well mixed, and of low density." The bullets are described; "swedged and patched bullets can be readily obtained; they are long, smooth and oval at the point, made of one part tin to twenty parts lead. They should weigh about 550 grains each." Bullet length is stated as 1 6-10 inches.

The author of the 'Hand-Book' cites Wingates 'Manual for Rifle Practice' as a source for "valuable hints and facts". I have a copy of the 6th Edition of the 'Manual' from 1878. Browsing this it can be seen where some of the information probably originated. Wingate does make some interesting observations:
"The powder should be of a uniform quality, bought in quantities, and well mixed, that of moderately large grain, and of low density, being preferred. Fine powder both fouls a gun and causes it to recoil. Hazard's F.G., or the American powder, is that generaly used at Creedmoor........
"The best shots in Great Britain and Canada insist that no advantage is gained by using a charge of over 90 grains, as that is all the rifle will burn. Mr. Hepburn (who has experimented extensively on the point), and other good shots in the country, are of the same opinion. Yet the tendency is toward heavier charges; and all the American team of 1875 used from 100 grains to 108 grains, and considered that it gave them an advantage, their bullets being less affected by wind than those of their opponents. In using 100 grains, three points less elevation is required than with a charge of 90 grains."

Lt. Colonel Peel, the Adjutant to the British team defeated by America at Creedmoor in 1877 also noted that 'heavy' charges were used:
"The Americans state that with the breech-loader they can use a heavier charge of gunpowder than can be done with the muzzle-loader. They also lay great stress upon their powder burning slower than ours. They claim that by these means they obtain a lower trajectory, and that in other respects, their bullets are less effected by external influences. The heavy charge necessitates 'cleaning out' after every shot."

Rifle Volunteers vs National Guard (1882 & 1883)

200 yard match, 1882
A shooting competition between the Rifle Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of America was agreed for 1882. On 14 and 15 September the teams of twelve met at Creedmoor in the USA. The match was 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 1,975, 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, England, on 20 and 21 July. The British team was again victorious scoring 1,951, against the American team score of 1,906.

Creedmoor Rifles, 1873

The first annual meeting of the National Rifle Association opened at Creedmoor on Wednesday, 8 October 1873.

The Sharpshooters' Championship was "Open to all comers; any rifle within the rules of the Association; range, 800 and 1,000 yards; seven shots each distance; position, any." The match was won by J.Adam (Canada Volunteers), using a Rigby muzzle-loading rifle. A Rigby was also used by the second placed competitor, A.J.Roux (22nd Regt. NY). In the remaining prize list competitors using the Remington Sporting rifle took the next three places, followed by a Metford, two Sharps and a further Metford.

A Forest & Stream reporter observed that "at the longer ranges the qualities of the finer rifles of course gave them greater advantages. This match also demonstrated the great improvement that had been made in breech-loaders. The score at 800 and 1,000 yards showed but little difference between the muzzle-loading Rigby and Metford rifles, and the breech-loading Remington, Sharpe, and Maynard."

The report concluded with some wider observation on rifles, as follows:

Questions Of Arms

The great use of rifle range is that it must demonstrate whether an arm is good or not. Skill may have a great deal to do with the merit of a high score, but as the weapons used come into the hands of not only experts, but of second and third class shots the use of Creedmoor or any other range must determine the average excellence of any gun. The Remington rifle has been fully tested and has been found to be excellent, not only as a military but as a sporting rifle. In many of the matches, as may be seen on examining the scores, the Remington has held its own with the most delicately adjusted arms. Rifles like the Rigby and Metford have most carefully adjusted sights, where allowances are made for effects of wind blowing across the line of fire, &c. The use of all such adjustments are perfectly in order, and should be encouraged in every way. If a rifle as was remarked by Punch in speaking of the complicated arrangements of the Wimbledon expert, “had a steam engine at one end and a windmill at another,” so much the better, if in a range of a thousand yards, the marksman can improve his score a single figure. There is not then the least doubt that when the Remington rifles have adjusted to them these finer sights, that they will not only shoot quiet as well, but possibly out-shoot either the Rigby or Metford. In comparing it as a military arm with the arms used by either the English, French or German, we must declare that it is to be superior as to accuracy. Its penetration was also remarkable, shown by a shot passing through three feet of solid packed dirt, perforating a thick block of wood, and then falling spent with its shape still almost perfect. Subsequent general matches yet to come may bring in prominence some other rifle, when the Forest and Stream will be the first to assert its claims, but for the present, for all work, we are inclined to think that with a steady hand, and clear sight, whether the marksman be a soldier or a sportsman, the Remington has clearly proved itself the best arm of to-day. The Sharp rifle, especially in the press match, showed its excellence, and is a weapon of great merit. In judging of all rifle contests, our readers not familiar with the subject, should always bear in mind that a windy day always effects the shooting. In concluding our remarks on the first American rifle contest, we believe that the time will come when Creedmoor will be far too small for the concourse of people who will assemble from all parts of the Union, to witness this National pastime.

Forest & Stream, New York, USA – Thursday, 16 October 1873

The observations on the qualities of the American breech-loaders were to prove to be well founded. The following year, 1874, saw the first of the short series of international long range matches in which American riflemen with their breech-loading rifles dominated.

Quoted below is an extract from a letter by the Amateur Rifle Club (ARC) of New York seeking subscriptions in support of the US team to Ireland in 1875. It's interesting contemporary comment on the lack of availability of American made rifles suitable, under the terms of the match, for long range shooting in 1873. It further underlines just how bold a move it was by the ARC to accept the original challenge from Ireland for long range competition.

New York Times, 31 January 1875
"In November, 1873, the Irish team, whose success in winning the celebrated Elcho Shield at Wimbledon had constituted them the champions of Great Britain, published a challenge to American riflemen to shoot a match with American rifles against their celebrated Rigbys. Although the extreme distances, and the rules as to weapons and position were new to American marksmen, the Amateur Rifle Club, of this City, boldly accepted the challenge. Not only were they almost wholly inexperienced, but no rifles were made in America, which could compete, under the terms of the match, with those used by the Irish team. During the brief period which elapsed before the match, however, our manufacturers succeeded in providing them with the necessary weapons."

'Amateur Rifle Club' Origins

New York Herald, 13 October 1872
A meeting of gentlemen desiring to form an organization for rifle practice upon the grounds of the National Rifle Association, with other then military rifles was held at 194 Broadway on Thursday last and resulted in the formation of a club upon the model of the Canadian small bore clubs under the name of "The Amateur Rifle Club." Mr. George W. Wingate was elected President, and Fred. P. Fairbanks, secretary and treasurer. The headquarters of the club will be for the present at No. 194 Broadway, room 7. A number of the best shots in the city have signified their intention of joining the association and showing the Canadians what can be done by Americans and American rifles against their crack small bore shots.

New York Times, 26 May 1873
The "Amateur Rifle Club," of this City, has been organized to promote the introduction and use of the most improved rifles, and to encourage long-range practice without regard to any military organization. This body, composed of young men in business, will be subject to the laws governing the practice of the National Rifle Association, on whose grounds they will shoot next month on the opening day, when, it is thought, Gov. Dix and other prominent persons will be present.