HL Deb 18 February 1897 vol 46 cc667-70

rose to call attention to the effect produced upon rifle ranges in the country by the adoption of the Lee-Metford rifle, and to ask the Secretary of State for War whether any arrangements had been made to assist Volunteer corps in getting facilities for rifle practice at their present ranges or within easy reach of their headquarters. His Lordship said that the question he desired to ask the noble Marquess the Secretary for War involved a subject of considerable importance to the large Volunteer force of which the country was so proud. Up to the present time nearly every Volunteer corps had had its rifle range close to its headquarters. Rifle shooting was of importance to the Volunteers, not only as making them more efficient soldiers, but because it served to keep in the ranks a large number of young men who made it a national pastime. As matters now stood, he entertained some fears lest the change in the character of the rifle issued to the Volunteers might be attended with most important, if not disastrous, effects upon the Volunteer force. He did not question the desirability of having the same arms and ammunition issued to the Army, the Militia, and the Volunteers; but, at the same time, considerations of moment were certainly involved by that course being adopted. The rapid issue of the new weapon to the Volunteers had caused Her Majesty's Government to make minute inquiries into the character of the various rifle ranges, with the result that a large number of them had been closed as being dangerous owing to the great range of the new weapon. He knew that in Northamptonshire two ranges had already been closed, while it was possible that three others would also be closed. The result was that, instead of the Volunteers having their rifle ranges close to their headquarters, they had now to go to a considerable distance to practise rifle shooting, and probably had to share their ranges with several other corps. In these circumstances he wished to ask the noble Marquess what he proposed to do in order to overcome the difficulty he had pointed out. He had been informed that one or two expedients for overcoming the difficulty had been suggested. In the first place, it had been proposed that Volunteers should be allowed to fire at their old ranges with the new rifle, using a diminished charge of powder; but he need scarcely point to the disadvantage of Volunteers practising with a less charge of powder than they would have to use in time of war. ["Hear, hear!"] That proposal had been unanimously condemned by the council of the National Rifle Association. Another expedient proposed for adoption was that only the best shots should be allowed to fire at particular ranges, the less proficient shots being allowed to fire at the shorter ranges only. He understood that a considerable number of ranges might be made safe by means of a certain expenditure of money, and he wished to ask whether the Government were prepared to make a grant that would cover the cost of the necessary alterations. Unless the Government were prepared to take that course, he should certainly question the wisdom of issuing the new weapon to the Volunteers, who could not practice with it; and it would be a great national misfortune if our Volunteer Force were diminished in consequence. ["Hear, hear!"] He need not apologise to the Government for putting these questions to them, seeing that he had always taken a great interest in the Volunteer Force, with which he had been associated for so long. ["Hear, hear!"]


said the same difficulty in making rifle ranges safe existed in Kent; he knew of a case in Kent where a range was likely to be closed, but which might be made safe if it were raised or otherwise altered so as to avoid danger from ricochet shots. He hoped the noble Marquess would be able to give a satisfactory reply to his noble Friend's question. ["Hear, hear!"]


I frankly admit that if any Member of your Lordships' House has a right to call attention to this subject it is the noble Earl opposite, whose name is so honourably connected with the Volunteer movement in this country. ["Hear, hear!"] The subject to which he has called attention is one of the utmost importance to the Volunteer Force, and I can assure him that it has engaged the earnest attention of the War Department. It is quite true that the range of the Lee-Metford rifle is greater than that of the Martini-Henry, but the difference is very much less than is commonly supposed. I am assured that where an existing range was really safe for use with the Martini-Henry rifle it is, as a rule, safe for use with the Lee-Metford rifle, or, at all events, it may easily be made safe for it. The introduction of the Lee-Metford rifle has, I think, added to our difficulties in this way—namely, that it has attracted a considerable amount of public attention to this question, and has made people consider a great deal more anxiously than they did before whether the ranges in their locality are or are not safe. What really has rendered so many ranges dangerous is the increase of population and the spread of buildings in the neighbourhood of large towns. For example, in the neighbourhood of the metropolis the difficulty of obtaining suitable rifle ranges has become almost insurmountable. The attention which this matter has aroused led us, as the noble Earl has told the House, to make an inquiry into the condition of the whole of those ranges, and I may give your Lordships some idea of the extent of the matter when I tell you that of the 1,200 ranges in this country no fewer than 1,130 are ranges which are used solely by the Volunteer Force, most of them local ranges entirely under the control and management of the Volunteers themselves. A few of the larger of these, used by whole corps of Volunteers, had been under Government inspection. The smaller ones had not.


Not under inspection? I imagined that every range was inspected by a Government officer.


Not, at any rate, in the sense in which large ranges have been inspected. The Returns we have received are incomplete, but so far as they go at present, they show that a few of the existing ranges are unsafe and will have to be condemned. Most of these ranges were, I believe, unsafe even for the use of the Martini-Henry rifle, although, perhaps more by good fortune than any other cause, they have been used for a great number of years without the occurrence of accidents. In some cases we have been obliged to resort to one of those expedients the noble Earl described, and for the present, at all events, to restrict firing at the longer ranges to men who have arrived at a certain degree of proficiency in the use of the rifle, and in similar cases it has been found also desirable to restrict volley firing; but, so far as we are able to judge from the Reports which have reached us up to the present time, the great majority of these local ranges can be made safe without any great difficulty, and I think that until we know a little more of the condition of these ranges throughout the country it would be premature to discuss the question of a grant for the purpose of improving their safety. I assure the noble Earl that we shall do all we possibly can to meet this difficulty, but I certainly should be very sorry to contemplate the possibility of our assuming responsibility for the whole of that large number of small local ranges of which I spoke just now. We have, I think, been able to achieve something, at all events, in the direction desired by the noble Earl. In the year 1892 a Bill was passed now known as the Military Lands Act, under which the Loan Commissioners can make loans to Volunteer corps for the purpose of acquiring land for ranges, or of acquiring existing ranges; and we have at this moment passing through the other House of Parliament an amending Bill under which the borrowing powers are extended to loans for the construction of works necessary to form new ranges. Then, besides that, the Military Works Bill, which is now passing through Parliament, provides for a sum of about half a million to be expended on new ranges. These, of course, are for the general use of the Army, and will be in central positions, but I shall be much disappointed if we are not able so to arrange matters that Volunteers in the neighbourhood of these ranges shall derive considerable advantage from their creation. We recognise as fully as the noble Earl that practice with the rifle is absolutely essential to the efficiency of the Volunteer Force, and we also fully admit that, were facilities for that practice diminished, the Force would be rendered, as the noble Earl has said, much less attractive than it is at present. We shall certainly bear these considerations in mind, and I hope I have said enough to convince the noble Earl that we shall spare no pains to meet the difficulty to which he has called attention.

House adjourned at Ten minutes before Five o'clock, till To-morrow, a Quarter past Ten o'clock.