WE WERE BORN, with many others, in the Black Week of ’99; and the story of our adventures would fill a book. It is enough for the world to know that the Marquis, the Squire, and the Farmer gave us leave to lay out a thousand-yard range over their broad Downs; that the Range was made and passed to National Rifle Association specification; that we number, perhaps, sixty working members, and hope to become fair shots. You may see us, any weekend, strolling down by ones and twos to the little loft where the Lee-Enfields live, under the eye of the Sergeant-Instructor. Six months ago we should have handled a rifle as a bachelor handles a baby, but now we know the vices and virtues of all our twelve. Gorman, of the Electric Light Works, picks out Number Nine (a free-thinking old lady, near-sighted, and hard-mouthed) with a disparaging grunt. Number Seven of the light pull is his favourite, but Andrews the carpenter has just taken her. ‘Never mind,’ says Hawkins the gardener, lengthening the sling of Number Two, ‘you can change on the ground with Andrews.’ ‘M’ yes,’ says Gorman, ‘after Andrews has gone and got her fouled. She throws up like a pump when she’s fouled — Seven does.’
Last autumn, we would marvellously tie ourselves up in our slings; but skirmishing-drill once, and range-work twice at least a week, has wonted us to the heft and balance of the long rifles. The accepted fashion is to sling our gun across our back, shove both hands into our pockets, and progress at ease. The range is not fifteen minutes’ walk from the village. Hawkins hurries on ahead. He has carnations to pot this afternoon, but is taking advantage of a spare minute to get off half his allowance (each man has ten rounds free a week) at two hundred. Our time, of course, is not all our own; but the Sergeant knows our business engagements pretty closely and takes urgent cases first. ‘Jimmy the Crack’ (he that won the prize rifle at the spring competition) passes us with the cheerful news that the new regulation Bisley target is in use — a seven-inch bull at two hundred. We do not need to be told that there is also a roaring north-easter on the Downs. It catches us as a razor catches a rough face; purring and scraping over the thyme-studded turf the moment we leave the village street. A mile away, very clear in the sun-glare, the lathy youngsters of the local training-stable are dancing in their body-cloths as they file towards Windy Height Barn. The trainer’s son, on a hot three-year-old who gallops alone, comes sidling and frisking behind us. He is a very good shot in process of being made. The three-year-old (also being made) bucks at the sight of the rifles, which he has not seen more than twenty times and makes pretence of flight. The boy catches him neatly on the first bound and laughs. ‘Comin’ down this evenin’?’ somebody calls out. He nods. ‘Bad for your hand, if he pulls much, isn’t it?’ ‘Ye-es, but he won’t pull.’ He turns his youngster on to the dry turf and gets off at a stretching canter. ‘Don’t wonder we don’t hit ’em when they’re ridin’ away—the Boers-much,’ says a bad shot meditatively, as horse and rider grow small across the green. We discuss this point as we breast the slope above the Squire’s kennels, and just below East Hill. Some one delivers himself of the final argument. ‘Young Carroll, he told us that at long range it don’t matter about hittin’ ’em so much. The thing is, he said, to pick up the range of the next ridge quick enough, and to keep on sprayin’ it down near enough an’ long enough to make ’em lie quiet.’
‘Young Carroll’ was a farmer’s son who served a year in the South African Light Horse, returned to his native village, en route for the Argentine, and out of his extended experience—for he had over a dozen big affairs to his credit—gave us valuable tips. Our Downs are precisely like the veldt, in that so soon as you have crowned one ridge you are deadlily commanded by the next. For instance, here we are on the top of East Hill, and all the range is spread below us. A thousand yards to the east, at the bottom of the three-hundred-foot hummock that Nature has so kindly built for a stop-butt, the windmill-targets flicker and wheel against their dun sod-backing; a line of gorse in bloom marks the Two-hundred range; a black tarred shed where we keep our oddments the Five-hundred firing-point. Behind that, Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine rise one above the other step-fashion from the smooth turf. They command every inch of the ground, and except at the Two-hundred all shooting is a little downhill. It looks big enough in all conscience, this treeless, roadless, fenceless cup of green on the edge of the English Channel. And yet from the hill behind the butts, where the red flag streams to where we stand, cannot be more than fifteen hundred yards; and that would mean most open order if bullets were coming the other way. Young Carroll and two or three other warriors have taught us to consider these things. Already we have learned to look at the scattered furze-patches among the sheep-walks with an eye to more than rabbits, and to think over the value of little dimples and wrinkles in what to a stranger would show for level ground.
At the Two-hundred we find our much-advertised Bisley bull, not more conspicuous than the head of a bonnet-pin. Hawkins and Yeo the chemist are hammering at it. The tricky wind, focused in the bottom of the valley, playfully pats and twitches their rifles, as a kitten pats a cork. We, waiting to get our hand steady after the run down, chuckle while shot after shot drives right and right again. ‘You won’t laugh in a minute/ says the Sergeant grimly. ‘Try your last three from the shoulder, Mr. Yeo.’ That is Yeo’s strong point. He jumps up relievedly and pumps in a bull and two magpies. Hawkins, after five shots, returns to his carnations. The business of gardening teaches one to wait on the weather. Hawkins, will further ‘pot’ that bull to-morrow when it may not be so gusty. Gorman and Number Nine get down alongside of young Nutley, that was a gardener’s boy, but is now becoming a man and a shot. ‘This wind’ll about suit her,’ says Andrews with a wink, as Gorman’s cheek cuddles the stock. ‘Hold!’ cries the Sergeant, and there is a roar of laughter. We are rather a doggy community. Billy, Babette, and Tim are lying down beside their owners, but the markers have taken Flossie into the trench, and that impudent little beast has escaped and is sitting precisely under the bull’s-eye. The breech-bolts clack as Gorman and Nutley rise to their knees; our red flag goes up and the Sergeant’s whistle cuts across the wind. Out crawls a marker, but Flossie has disappeared behind the sod-banks. The marker cannot see what we would be at, for our voices are carried away by the gale, and so re-signals the last shot. ‘Oh, get up and tell him, Ted,’ says Gorman. Young Nutley uncoils himself and flings his long arms abroad. He is the star of our signalling class which the Coastguard were teaching all last winter. He semaphores Dog’ twice. Flossie is caught and dragged down; the red flag falls, and Number Nine rewards Gorman with a magpie, — perfect elevation too. She must be feeling well to-day, — the old beast!
To Gorman succeeds Lauder of the Coastguard, — trim, alert, and brown. He gets in his five rounds Navy-fashion: fitting the rough ground as though he were poured into it. He and Purvis are full members of the Club. They can make or mend anything from a new wind-flag to an old target; and their uniforms give us a pleasant air of official responsibility. The Admiralty decree that Coastguards shall fire so many rounds a year, but do not supply a range. They serve out tins stuffed with cordite chips, which they call ‘reduced charge’ cartridges. A rude target is then painted on the cliffs, and our Coastguards blaze off at two hundred yards; using the seven-hundred-yard sight! (If this should meet the eye of the Admiralty, they may be interested to know that — for a consideration — we should be most happy to open the range to neighbouring Coastguards.) For the next hour or so we cut in and out like men at whist. Lauder gives place to Scott, the baker’s son; Scott is followed by Keeley, son of a farmer; then comes Fane, the black-smith’s assistant; Anderson, the butcher; a mechanic or two; a member from Brighton (he has cycled over five miles in the teeth of this wind, but shoots none the less closely); and half-a-dozen others. A man from Burma on sick leave, his fingers itching for the feel of the trigger again; the Vicar, an Australian, and a schoolmaster make up the gallery.
‘No more for the Bisley bull?’ says the Sergeant. ‘Then go back to six hundred. The wind’s dropping! Up flags! Quick!’ ‘Please, Sergeant, mayn’t I try a shot at six hundred?’ says a man newly emancipated from the Morris tube. We do not allow men to begin even at two hundred till they are dismissed their tube-course in thevillagedrill-shed. ‘Not yet,’ is the answer. ‘We’ll give you another turn at the Two-hundred first. You had beginner’s luck to-day.’ The man obeys without protest (you are not encouraged to argue with our Sergeant), but follows up the range, for the sight and the talk of the game lay strong hold upon him. Even our substitute postman (our permanent man is at the Front), who has not yet fired twenty shots with the Morris tube, spends his rare leisure here, listening and looking and learning. One can pick up knowledge for the asking, when the light is good, and the experts come down and lie down and demonstrate.
Over the hill, his rifle cased, walks Vansittart, a man of leisure, with a dozen years’ experience of shooting, — all at the service of the Club. He attends our days as though it were his one business in life, and his advice to the colts is invaluable. He drops beside young Dixon, who has just slipped away from the frieze of huge farm-horses filing home against the skyline to the left. We have hopes of Dixon the farm-hand, for he has good knowledge of the lights and shadows tinder which he spends most of his life. He has never missed a drill or a shoot, or spoken an unnecessary word, since the Club began. The wind at the firing-point has fallen, but it still trickles up and down the valley in heart-breaking fashion. Vansittart’s eye is on the wind-flag, which we others are apt to regard as mere ornament, and he follows the changes with some seventh sense denied to beginners. Then he falls back with young Keeley and two or three others, to whom the mystery of wind-allowance is not so black as it once was, — and they work it all out together at ease on the turf. The Sergeant checks each shot, explains, suggests, and, on occasion, casts himself down alongside to show by example. Hear his wisdom: — ‘It wasn’t the rifle’s fault; give her to me. There you are! The direction’s perfect, but you’ve been dropping your muzzle.’ It is absurdly easy to get a bull when you have mastered the Sergeant’s secret. He tells it to one concerned in these very words: — ‘You hang too long, and when you hang you wobble. Never mind when she’s going off,—keep your eye on the aim. Don’t drop your muzzle, and don’t pull at her. Press her! Press her!’ Or thus: — ‘Left again! Oh, you drive — that’s what it is. Your left’s your master-hand. Try not to give that near-side jerk when you loose off. She’ll throw to the near on her own account.’ This is to Maxwell, our local flyman, who, with the trainer’s son, has hurried up in the garments of his calling. The box-cloth gaiters twitch uneasily as he strives to overcome a professional instinct to pull to the near. Oddly enough, the trainer’s son, though his hands are yet red from the reins (the three-year-old did pull after all!), shoots as straight as a die. Then Jimmy the Crack lies down to fight it off with Gorman, who, having unloaded Number Nine on an innocent friend, has been lying low for Jimmy all the afternoon. Jimmy comes to us from the high veldt so to speak, — from a little lonely village in the Downs, where there may have been rabbits. At any rate he can shoot. He said the other day before some twenty of us: — ‘If a man smokes or drinks he is no good at this game.’ Then he turned on his belly and drave home bulls to clinch the sermon. A thousand tracts could not have taught us more. But Gorman in the blue jean overalls has the level eye and the steady hand of the mechanician, and in a few weeks there should not be much to choose between him and Jimmy.
Last of all — he has business in London all the week, and comes down specially early on Saturdays to do his turn — young Foster, son of the local innkeeper, bicycles over the hill. Vansittart snaps his sight down and turns to watch. This is important, for Foster, Gorman, and Jimmy may represent us if ever we dare to enter for the Spectator’s prize at Bisley. The light softens as the day and the wind go down together, the Channel recovers its unbroken blue, and the young thyme gives out the first true smell of summer. We are all quiet now, except Tim, the terrier, digging a field-mouse with squeakings somewhere on the edge of a wheatfield. ‘Get back from behind the sights!’ The Sergeant raises a warning hand. We tiptoe backwards and squat like partridges. They are proudstomached men, these three cracks. They are not grateful, as some others, for a chance-won magpie. If they get an inner, even, they scowl and the Sergeant scowls, and they ask why they ‘dropped’ so badly. ‘Bull, Gorman! Foster, bull—five! Jimmy—high—oh, high! Inner, high, right! Gorman, inner! Hold a minute till I get my glasses. That was bad, Gorman. Remember the light’s changing every minute. Foster—bull again! Good! Now, Jimmy, your last!’ . . . It is a hang-fire — a bad one, too — and you can hear our quick indrawn ‘Ah!’ of sympathy as Jimmy’s last goes away to the right. This ends the regular work, and the Club sits on the faulty cartridge, giving its opinion of Dum-dums and Service ammunition with entire lucidity. A member hands in a new rifle — his very own — to be shot for sighting; and while the Sergeant puts her through her paces, and a couple of us gamble for cartridges (five shots at six hundred; loser to pay for the whole packet), the Committee, cleaning out its rifles, discusses the terms of a challenge that has come in from the Newhaven Volunteer Engineers. We know nothing of their record — though we have all taken to reading the scores of local clubs, a fact which country editors should note — but we fear the worst. ‘Oh, take ’em on,’ says the Vicar. ‘They won’t do more than beat us. What do you think, Sergeant?’ The Sergeant smiles, but guarantees nothing. He led us to victory against an Essex Volunteer team. He will see to it that we turn out the best eight we have, and the rest is with Allah’s wind and sun and cloud. ‘Ye-es, take ’em on,’ says the Sergeant, and packs away the spare ammunition. The red flag slides down behind the butts, and we stroll home by twos and threes through the everlasting English twilight, explaining, arguing, chaffing, and reshooting every shot. This game has enlarged the skirts of our understanding. Whether we like it or not, we must, when we black our sights, for instance, learn a little neat-handedness; when we meet a visiting team we must entertain them as men of the world: when we use the verniers we must think with an approach to precision and when we wish to describe what is the matter with our shooting we must speak to the point and quickly. Our mistakes are all our own, — pitilessly signalled from the trenches on the echo of each shot. If we lose our tempers, the target will not answer back; we cannot impress the unseen markers by our rank, wealth, or achievement in the world without. They will credit us precisely with what we make, — neither more nor less; and our companions at the firing-point, who now know us very well, will do the same. We cannot patronise any one except a rank duffer fresh from the Morris tube (and he may beat our head off in a month), we dare not tell or act a lie; and if we have a weakness for excess in any shape, the score-book will check us off as scientifically as a German penologist. Unlike cricket, football, lawn-tennis, or fives, any man can play the game; for here, no more than on the high veldt, will the discreet bullet tell its billet whether the despatcher was old, unlovely, poor, weak, or ill-clad.
There are those who say: ‘Ah, but wait till this war-fever dies down, and then the men will get tired of coming down to fire off a gun.’ One hears very little of war-fever on the range, and the wonder (infinitely pathetic in grown men) of being allowed to fire and handle a real live rifle departed long ago. We are enjoying the game for its own sake; because it is sane, and healthy, and quiet (infinitely quieter than a cricket-match), does not knock our daily work to pieces, or necessitate drinks before, during, and after; because it wakes up in us powers whose existence we never dreamed of till now; and because it opens to us a happy new world of interests and ideas, — things that men need as urgently as inland cattle need salt. But if only the range could be open on Sundays!