A Village Rifle Club

(notes edited by John McGivering)



ORG Volume 5, page 2564 records the first publication of this item (Uncollected No. 236) in The Spectator of 22 June 1901. It is also collected in the Sussex Edition (Vol XXX) and Burwash Editions.

The text is reprinted with notes in Michael Smith’s Kipling’s Sussex (Brownleaf 2008) Appendix VII. See also his Rudyard Kipling, The Rottingdean Years (Brownleaf, 1999) page 13, and in this Guide.

The article

This is an account of the formation of a rifle-club in Rottingdean, a charming village some five miles east of Brighton on the coast of Sussex. Kipling had known the place since his young days and stayed there with his Aunt and Uncle Sir Edward and Lady Burne-Jones before he sailed for India in 1882. The Burne-Jones’s also owned The Grange, North End Road in Fulham in south-west London. where Rudyard spent holidays from Southsea. The Grange bell-pull is now at Bateman’s, the estate at Burwash in East Sussex which Kipling bought in 1902 and where he lived for the rest of his life. (Something of Myself, page 11) .


Kipling’s experience in 1899 in South Africa, where Boer marksmanship was particularly lethal, had convinced him of the need to develop similar skills amond the British, through village rifle clubs up and down the land. See “Champions of Civilian Markmanship” written by Philip Bourjaily for The American Rifleman..

It is possible that Kipling had read this note by Winston Churchill in the Morning Post of 29 December 1899 [quoted in Henry Pelling Winston Churchill Macmillan 1974] :

The individual Boer, mounted and in a suitable country, is worth from three to five regular soldiers. The only way to deal with them is either to get men equal to them in character and intelligence as riflemen or failing that, huge masses of troops…. there is plenty of work here for a quarter of a million men. Are the gentlemen of England all fox-hunting ?

See also the headnote to “The Parable of Boy Jones” in Land and Sea Tales for background information – other references to the same story are noted below.

See also “Mr. Kipling” by Lucy Hilton, (KJ 169/14) reprinted in Kipling, Interviews and Recollections, ed. Harold Orel, (Macmillan, 1983) page 163. Lucy Hilton tells of the formation of the Rifle Club and how Kipling leased land on the site of what is now the Convent of St. Martha and had a building erected which was used as a drill-hall and miniature range.

Michael Smith has reninded us that Carrington’s transcript of Mrs. Kipling’s diary for 21 October 1904 records:

‘Old shed is being removed to Burwash for a ‘reading-room…’

We have not traced what happened to it after that.

See the Notes to “Baa, Baa Black Sheep” in Wee Willie Winkie, page 279, lines 1-2.

The Kiplings rented “The Elms” for three guineas per week just across the green from North End House ( Harry Ricketts, page 338).
Charles Carrington (p. 314 ff.) prints a letter to Dr. James Conland dated 24 July, 1900, in which Kipling tells of the formation of the rifle-club and the building of the miniature range. During the voyage to South Africa in the winter of 1900 Kipling was working on “The Army of a Dream” (Traffics and Discoveries) a vision of the United Kingdom prepared for war on a grand scale – so much so that the countries of Europe were worried when we mounted an amphibious exercise – in a manner not seen since Napoleonic times which was not repeated until the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers – later the Home Guard – in 1940.
[This Editor joined at 18 on the strength of his training in the cadet force at school prior to joining the Navy in 1941. He was issued with a rifle and five rounds of ammunition which he kept in the wardrobe in his bedroom – mercifully he never had to fire a shot in anger while a member of that organisation. After brief and undistinguished service he was invalided out with measles.].
A Note from the National Rifle Association

The official title of the competition was “The Spectator (S.R.)” – S.R. = ‘Service Rifle’. Otherwise known as “The Rifle Clubs Tyro Competition”, it was for teams of five tyros representing their club and consisted of 7 shots each at 200 and 500 yds. The prize was 5 rifles, one for each member of the winning team.

The ‘Windmill’ target apparatus (Wood’s Patent) consisted of two frames of equal size and weight with a centre pivot. One frame held the target and the other the shot’s value panel. They pivoted sideways, counterbalanced, like windmill sails.

The Rottingdean Rifle Club was registered with this Association in 1900 and given the No 74. Listed as having 58 members with Hon. Sec. A.E. Coe, Preston House, Rottingdean.

[Information by courtesy of the National Rifle Association Museum]

Notes on the Text

the Black Week of ’99 This refers to 10-15 December 1899, during the Second South African War, when the British Army suffered three humiliating defeats by the Boer Republics at the battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso.

Kipling, very concerned at the inability of our army to defeat the mainly irregular forces of a small country, recognised that the Boers were expert riflemen and excellent shots, unlike the British, and was determined to do what he could to remedy this state of affairs. He also heard that the poor physique of the recruits coming forward made them unsuitable. This inspired some verse – see “The Lesson”, “Song of the Old Guard” and “The Islanders”.

Marquis the Marquis of Abergavenny, William Nevill, 1st Marquis, KG MVO (1826 –1915) Eridge Castle, Tunbridge Wells. He was also the Lord Lieutenant of the County of Sussex.

Squire Steyning Beard of , Down House, who died in 1909; he was also Chairman of the Parish Council.

the Farmer We have not identified him.

a thousand-yard range the thousand-yard firing-point is not shown on Ordnance Sheet LXXVII 4.
The Sussex Downs, with their sequestered hanging valleys, are well suited to rifle ranges. See the picture of the Cissbury range above, some twenty miles from Rottingdean.

National Rifle Association. See the note above.

Lee-Enfields bolt-action magazine repeating rifles which were the main firearms used by British and Commonwealth military forces from 1895 until 1957. The bore was ·303 inch (·77 cm.)

Sergeant-Instructor This was Sergeant-Instructor Johnstone, the spelling varies – Kipling’s letter of 14 March 1901 is addressed to Sergeant Johnson which is the spelling used by Lucy Hilton in KJ 169/14. Birkenhead (page 234) quotes part of the letter and says, rather peevishly:

This illuminating letter indicates clearly Kipling’s burning anxieties about military preparedness, but it suggests too the soldier manqué, in its terse peremptory sentences and pseudo-military phraseology.

The letter is, in the view of this Editor,, well-expressed in language that indicates that Kipling had picked up some soldiering over the years, despite his remarkably short service in the 1st Punjab Volunteers.
[See Harry Ricketts page 61]

Johnson was an instructor at St. Aubynës School in Rottingdean which John Kipling attended before going to Wellington.
[Ricketts page 301]

Electric-Light Works not traced, but possibly the generator for Volk’s seagoing railway that ran along the beach from Brighton to Rottingdean, situated on the jetty from which Kipling occasionally fished. [See Michael Smith, page 81].

hard-mouthed a metaphor from horsemanship – such a horse is difficult to control.

light pull a very slight pressure on the trigger will fire the rifle.

fouled The grooves in the barrel, called ‘rifling’, impart spin to the bullet, but can become clogged and less efficient if not kept clean.

skirmishing-drill simulated fighting between small parties of troops.

prize rifle see the note above from the National Rifle Association.

Bisley target as used at the National Shooting Centre at Bisley, Surrey, headquarters of the National Rifle Association.

seven inch bull a circle 17·8 cm. in diameter at the centre of the target, scoring 4 points. This type of target which rises and falls replaced the ‘Windmill” targets – see the note above from the National Rifle Association.

lathy in this context long-legged young horses.

Windy Height Barn an appropriate name, though not on the Ordnance Survey sheet for the area.

if he pulls much Lucy Hilton in KJ 169/14. says that this refers to F. Wheeler exercising a horse for his father – the horse does pull!

Boers the ‘Afrikaner’ people of Southern Africa, originally settlers from the Netherlands, with whom the British had been at war from 1899 until 1902. See Themes in Kipling’s Works under “Army” and “South Africa” on this site, and Michael Smith, Kipling’s Sussex. Page 211.

kennels the Brookside Harriers.

East Hill Lucy Hilton in KJ 169/14. says that the 1,000-yard firing-point was on the hill, but it is not shown on the plan.

big affairs actions in the Boer War.

veldt – pronounced felt – bare grassy uplands in South Africa, scene of much fighting in the Boer War; see Something of Myself, Chapter 6, “South Africa”

deadlily commanded we have not found ‘deadily’ in a dictionary and take it to be a portmanteau word compounded by Kipling to imply deadly danger for one cresting a ridge who will readily be shot by a rifleman on the next one.

stop-butt the bank behind the targets to stop bullets flying over the countryside.

windmill-targets See the National Rifle Association note above.

the red flag streams Lucy Hilton in KJ 169/14. confirms that the flag uas indeed hoisted when firing was in progress. She tells of two gentlemen strolling on the downs who did not notice it or were unaware of what it signified, and walked onto the range, causing a cease-fire. (Orel, Interviews and Recollections, page 166).

open order the men advance in widely-scattered groups with intervals between them so as to present a smaller target than a party moving in column or line

furze-patches clumps of gorse and depressions in the ground. Dimples and wrinkles could conceal hostile riflemen

bonnet-pin usually called a hat-pin, a pin some 8 inches long (20 cm.) used for securing the large hats of the era to a woman’s long hair.

markers in this context, the men in the butts who attend the targets and signal the value of the shots.

red flag goes up this in wrong – the red flag should fly when shooting is in progress and be hauled down when it stops.

semaphores a system of signalling (right), often using flags, in which the positions of the arms indicate letters or figures.

magpies in this context the second circle on the target, counting two points.

Coastguard Coast Guards were responsible for patrolling Britain’s many miles of coastline, combatting smuggling, saving lives and acting as a form of naval reserve. In 1856 the Coast Guard Act passed control from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty.

See this passage set in Rottingdean from “Brother Squaretoes” in Rewards and Fairies (page 147 line 20):

Cordery, the coastguard, came out of the cottage, levelled his telescope at some fishing-boats, shut it with a click and walked away. He grew smaller and smaller along the edge of the cliff, where neat piles of white chalk every few yards show the path even on the darkest night.

‘Where’s Cordery going?’said Una.

‘Half-way to Newhaven,’said Dan. ‘Then he’ll meet the Newhaven coastguard and turn back. He says if coastguards were done away with, smuggling would start up at once.’


By 1900, however, advancing technology in ships and arms had outmoded this style of naval reserve and the organisation acquired many functions of great service to mariners – working in close collaboration with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Control passed to the Board of Trade in 1923. Now known as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, it was reformed in 1998 from the amalgamation of the Maritime Safety Agency and HM Coastguard.

Navy-fashion a Coastguard would have served in the navy, but shooting on a range is much the same in any service .

Admiralty the headquarters of the Royal Navy in Whitehall until the final formation of the Ministry of Defence in 1964 from the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry.

tins stuffed with cordite chips This seems most unlikely, ammunition was and is loaded in the factory.

whist a highly skilful game of cards for four people which was fashionable in Britain in the 18th and nineteeth centuries. More recently it has been supplanted by Bridge.

Burma At that time part of the British Empire. He would probably have been a soldier or an official. See Themes in Kipling’s Works under “Burma”.

Vicar Pike’s Directory for Sussex for 1901 lists the Rev. Fredrick Tower, M.A.

Morris tube inserted into a rifle-barrel to convert it to take smaller .22 inch (·56 cm.) ammunition.

village drill-shed see “The Parable of Boy Jones” (Land and Sea Tales).

the front in this context the front-line positions in a theatre of war. The Boer War was still in progress in South Africa.

the colts young male horses, but in this context usually applied to young men of fifteen or sixteen in a school sports team, still learning to play the game, but not yet in the first eleven – or fifteen.

wind-allowance ‘aiming-off’ to allow for the effect of wind blowing across the target – some rifles were fitted with a vernier (screw mechanism) for this purpose.

You hang too long … .press her ! classic advice to a trainee-rifleman, don’t dwell over-long on your aim, and squeeze the trigger gently.

flyman the driver of a horse-drawn cab.

box-cloth gaiters garments of a heavy cloth, covering the legs from just below the knee to the instep – cheaper than riding-boots.

drave drove.

Spectator’s prize See the National Rifle Association note above.

inner in this context the ring on the target counting three points next to the bull

hang-fire the rifle fails to fire when the trigger is squeezed

Dum-dums The expanding bullets made at the arsenal at Dum-Dum outside Calcutta. They inflicted fearful wounds, and were banned for use against humans under the Hague Convention of 1899,

to be shot for sighting a few trial shots to see if the sights need adjustment.

Newhaven Volunteer Engineers probably the 1st Sussex Royal Engineers (Volunteers) which became 2/1 Sussex (Fortress) Royal Engineers after the 1908 reform which established the Territorial Army. Their Drill-hall was beside the road up to the Fort gate. [Information courtesy of Newhaven Fort (right)].

red flag slides down the flag was hauled down when firing had finished.

black our sights light reflected from the metal would distract the marksman.

verniers screw mechanisms for fine adjustments to the sights

penologist one who studies the administration of prisons. German scientists were legendarily systematic and painstaking.

[J. H. McG.]

©John McGivering 2009 All rights reserved