HL Deb 01 March 1900 vol 79 cc1362-73

My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the great difficulty in providing safe and accessible rifle ranges, they will consider the establishment in towns and villages of short range shooting galleries of 100 yards, to be open at night as well as by day, where Militiamen and Volunteers may, under a qualified instructor, practise the use of the regulation or some similar rifle adapted for a short range. I would venture to ask your Lordships' indulgence while I say a. few words on the subject of the question of which I have given notice. It is one which I think your Lordships will all admit is of national and of almost Imperial importance. Upon the encouragement of our Volunteers and Militiamen to practise rifle shooting depends to a very great extent their efficiency when called to the front. Unfortunately, it has happened, just at the time when this most important want is felt in the country, that there is an increasing difficulty in keeping up the existing ranges at which this practice has hitherto taken place. The noble Earl on the opposite side of the House told us the other day that even in the town of Winchester, which one would think from its natural position was admirably adapted for this purpose, there has been the greatest difficulty in providing ranges for the troops who are stationed there. And not only is it difficult to find new ranges, but the original ranges, as time goes on, are becoming so dangerous through the increased power of the rifle that it is necessary to move them greater distances from the towns in which the majority of the men who use them live. A good many years ago, at the time when the Wimbledon ranges were being abolished, the noble Earl on the cross benches, the father of the Volunteers, endeavoured to get those ranges re-established at Richmond Park. On the 27th July, 1888,* Lord Wantage introduced this subject to your Lordships in presenting a Petition in favour of using a portion of Richmond Park as a site for the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. In the course of the discussion on that occasion, the noble Earl on the cross benches pointed out that in his opinion the danger of these ranges was greatly exaggerated. He alluded to the case of a man who had lived in a house within a very few yards of the butts, and who remained in that house during the whole fortnight of the Wimbledon meeting, with the bullets in thousands pattering on the targets near him. The noble Earl said this man did not suffer in any way, and he used this as an argument to show that the ranges would not be dangerous in Richmond Park. The noble Marquess the Prime Minister, in his very terse reply, said that if it were true that the man referred to lived in that house with the bullets pattering round him every day for a fortnight from morning till night, except Sundays, then all he could say was, that man was worthy of his race. "But," added the noble Marquess, "I do not think you can expect everyone else to follow that great example, and rifle ranges must go further a field." From that day to this the tendency has been to drive rifle ranges further out, until to-day they are very much fewer and less accessible than they used to be, and the great majority of Volunteers find it extremely difficult to travel the increased distances in order to practise. It is of the highest importance that our Volunteers should have every facility we can possibly give them to practise the use of the rifle. In these days a thoroughly efficient rifleman in active warfare is worth considerably more than he used to be. We do not have great masses of men to fire at now, and every man must be able to "pick out" the individual enemy and hit him. The training of men for that purpose has become a national necessity. What is it *See The Parliamentary Debates [Third Series], Vol cccxxix, page628. we really want to make our Volunteers good riflemen? The noble Lord on the opposite side of the House told us that the first and one great essential was that they should learn to hold their rifle absolutely still while they pressed the trigger. This sounds a very simple thing, but it necessitates much practice to enable a man to pull the trigger quite steadily without in any way moving the rifle. It does not require an ordinary range to learn this. The knowledge can be acquired in a confined space, and what I would really propose is that the Government should give assistance so as to establish in villages and towns throughout the country shooting galleries of short range similar to those which are very frequently met with in Switzerland, in Southern Germany, and throughout the United States. I mean ranges about 100 yards long by 30 or 40 yards wide, and if they were under proper Government control you would have the people running in during their spare half-hours to practise. They would thereby be offered facilities which for beginners largely excel those existing at the present ranges. It is a great drawback to men to have to practise at long ranges in the open, with the wind blowing and mist and rain obscuring the target. With the smaller ranges such as I have suggested the ammunition would be much less expensive, and if they were established in towns and villages where Militiamen and Volunteers might practise the use of the regulation or some similar rifle adapted for a short range the advantage would be considerable. I have ventured to bring this question to the attention of Her Majesty's Government in the hope that they will give it their serious consideration, and if my proposal is carried out we shall be able to count our riflemen not by thousands but by millions.


Before the noble Marquess replies, I should like to invite the Government to consider the desirability of affording facilities for acquiring rifles at a cheaper rate. It has comes to my knowledge that in the county of Kent a great many rifle clubs are being established, and there has been some objection raised on the ground that they will interfere with recruiting for the Volunteer force. That difficulty has been overcome in one club by the condition imposed by those who are forming the club—namely, that each member should provide a rifle and pay an annual subscription. As a Lee-Metford rifle costs about £7, it would be regarded as a great boon by many young men who would like to have an opportunity of practising rifle shooting if the Government could afford facilities for acquiring rifles at a cheaper rate, and it would also have the effect of making them thoroughly efficient shots.


The advantages of miniature rifle ranges were brought home to me a short time ago. Colonel Hill, who commands a battalion of the Gloucester Militia, put up a Morris tube range at his own expense in his camping ground, and he found that the men spent every spare moment practising at it, with the result that the shooting of his corps last year was the best in the Militia service.


I have already said enough in this House to make it clear that the War Office is entirely favourable to the principle of encouraging small local ranges and enabling Volunteers to obtain that amount of instruction in the use of the rifle which can be obtained at such ranges. I am, therefore, entirely in agreement with my noble friend in regard to the question of principle, but I am not quite sure whether I am ready to travel quite so far and quite so fast as he appears to be. His demand, as set forth in his question, is somewhat exacting, but I do not want to quarrel with him as to details, because I think his main idea is a perfectly sound one—that idea being, as I take it, that we ought to do all we can to encourage shooting all over the country, and that it is possible, at miniature ranges—I rather prefer that term to shooting galleries —to teach men to handle a rifle, and to shoot, at any rate, with a certain amount of accuracy and skill. There are several ways in which attempts have been made to arrive at the object which my noble friend has in view. There are, in the first place, short open-air ranges. I confess that the result of my inquiries as to these is not very encouraging. A report from the Commandant of Hythe says— It is exactly these short ranges of 200 yards that are so dangerous—that is, if they are ranges laid out in a practical manner in the open. For it stands to reason that, if a bullet does get out and over the stop-butt or to one side, it will range a greater distance than it would if it bad been tired, say, at 1,000 yards, for it will have 800 yards further to fly. People do not seem to think of this when advocating these short ranges: just as much care must be taken to guard the public as in the case of the longer ranges. I believe that to be a very sound view. Then there are the screened or protected ranges. There are one or two of these ranges in existence. There is one, I believe, at Wormwood Scrubbs and another at Hounslow. I am told that the drawback to them is, in the first place, that they are very costly. Then, they cannot be used at night, and there is the further drawback that the man has to shoot through a small aperture, so that it is impossible at those ranges to indulge in practice at the running deer and running man, and other practices of the kind which, I believe, are so popular. Then there remains the closed range. There are, I am told, some of these in existence, and they have the merit of not being so costly as the screened ranges. There is one, I believe, at Kennington and another at West Ham. The Kennington range was put up by the 4th V. B. of the Royal West Surrey Regiment at a cost of £900, and I am told it does not cost more than £30 a year to keep it up. The West Ham range—100 yards—cost £320. These ranges are really very useful institutions, although, of course, it is impossible to regard them as a complete substitute for open-air ranges. My noble friend seemed to think it most fortunate that at such ranges it was possible to exclude wind and other climatic variations, but the fact that those climatic variations are not present diminishes considerably the value of the instruction which can be obtained at these ranges. The Government are perfectly ready to give encouragement to these miniature ranges. We prefer, however, to give the encouragement to others rather than attempt to create such ranges for ourselves. The matter is one of local, as well as of general interest; the money will go further; and there is also this to be said, that local agencies are much more likely to obtain the land upon reasonable terms than a great central department. The Volunteers are already, under the Military Lands Act, 1892, in a position to purchase land compulsorily for ranges, and the same Act empowers the Public Works Loan Commissioners to lend money to Volunteer corps for the purchase of land.

In such cases it would, I think, be for the War Department to consider whether a subsidy from the public funds might not be given. There is the question of the provision of such ranges by local authorities, by county or borough councils. I believe I am right in saying that the councils can under the existing law purchase land compulsorily for ranges. In the ease of a county council the Military Lands Act (1892) empowers it to defray the expense of the purchase from the county fund, and in the case of borough councils from the borough fund or borough rates. The Act also empowers a borough council to borrow money on the security of the borough fund or borough rate for acquiring land under the Act, but, as far as I can make out. it does not give power of borrowing to the county councils. It is possible, however, that the councils have such powers under some other Act, but I have not been able to ascertain. At any rate, I am able to say that if these local authorities determine to exercise their powers and to provide small local ranges, we should be ready to consider whether they should not be assisted in the same way as the Volunteer corps by means of moderate grants of public money. I may, perhaps, tell your Lordships that we intend to provide, in addition to the sum already taken under the Military Works (Loans) Act, an additional sum of £100,000 for the purpose of assisting local ranges. There is another step which I have in contemplation to take, and which I think might have useful results. It is to depute an officer to visit some of those small ranges, on the Continent especially, to see whether we have not something to learn. A noble Lord asked me to define our attitude with regard to rifle clubs. I think that is a matter which requires a good deal of consideration. Our feeling is that if we give too much encouragement to rifle clubs and make it too easy for such clubs to obtain grants of public money we may deal a very hard blow to the Volunteers. We wish to avoid that. The noble Earl's other suggestion was that we might sell Lee-Enfield rifles at cheap rates—I presume to persons who are not Volunteers. If my noble friend will consider what that means he will see that it would involve really the equivalent of a money subsidy to such persons. I cannot help thinking that if aid is to be given it is better to give it openly and above board rather than to sell below the cost price a rifle or any other article of equipment.


I entirely sympathise with the views of the noble Earl who brought forward this question, but I think it is a pity that he limited the range definitely to one hundred yards. This is a very short distance, and I think it will be possible to obtain ranges of two hundred yards quite as easily as ranges of one hundred yards. The latter should only be considered where the two hundred yards ranges are absolutely impossible. While I do not think it will be possible for the Government to dot these short ranges all over the country, I do think they might very well consider whether there should not be attached to, or somewhere near, the headquarters of every regiment, Regular and Auxiliary, a short range of such a character, at which either soldiers or Volunteers might practise and acquire efficiency under comfortable and easy conditions. Probably some revenue might be obtained out of such ranges by allowing the rifle clubs in the district to use them at such times as they were not required by the Regular troops or the Volunteers. The noble Marquess the Secretary of State expressed the sympathy which he has shown all through whenever this subject has been raised, but he did not speak too favourably of the opinion of military authorities with regard to short ranges. Now, what is the reason why short ranges are not popular, and are not used more by military and Volunteer authorities? It is because proficiency at short ranges is not recognised for the purpose of efficiency. If you allowed Volunteers to acquire efficiency by firing a certain number of shots at short ranges, the practice at the longer ranges could be deferred until the men were able to shoot accurately at the shorter ranges. I think it would be well to go back to the earlier practices of rifle shooting, and to insist to a much greater extent upon standing shooting at short ranges. When I learnt rifle shooting at Harrow we had to shoot standing up at 300 yards. A man who will make an accurate practice standing up at 300 yards will find very little difficulty in making accurate practice at 600 yards in any position, and I think that should be more considered in the matter of regulations for musketry and musketry instruction. The noble Mar- quess quoted the opinion of the commandant at Hythe, who said that ranges at 200 yards were even more dangerous than long ranges, because if a bullet got out over the stop-butt or to one side, it would range a greater distance than if it had been tired at 1,000 yards, for it would have 800 yards further to go. But a man to tire so wide of the target at 200 yards as to create great danger must let his rifle off accidentally, and if you have to provide against accidental shots of that sort I do not think that any range can strictly be described as safe. The noble Marquess then went through the various kinds of ranges. I think he will find that screened ranges up to 200 yards can be erected at a very reasonable cost. A screened range is a range which has three or four or more screens across it, with holes for the targets to be seen through from the firing point. These screens need not be of very costly construction. Probably the cheapest way of putting up the first screen—which is the most important one, as it receives the greater number of crooked shots—is to put up an iron screen, giving it a timber facing of old sleepers. This will prevent any stray shots going off the screen, as they will go into the timber and be caught on the iron. The other screens are required only for the purpose of catching bullets which happen to hit against the edges of the aperture of the first screen. This kind of range is, I believe, exceedingly common in Switzerland. They can be put up at an extremely reasonable cost, and I am told that a range of 200 yards for as many as thirty targets can be accommodated on one acre of ground. I think it is rather remarkable that in Switzerland, a country which has been alluded to more than once tonight, practically all the ranges are short ranges. Of, I think, 2,700 ranges which are under Government inspection in Switzerland, none exceed a distance of 600 yards, while no fewer than 02 per cent. of the 2,700 are ranges only going up to 100 yards. I think it will be found that the Swiss shooters are at any rate equal to our own. I would suggest that it would be a very good plan if Her Majesty's Government would consent to institute an inquiry, not only as to ranges, but as to our muskety regulations. That inquiry might be carried out by a small commission consisting of two experts in military musketry, two civilians, and a man acquainted with the practice abroad. We might improve the efficiency of our shooting, both in the Regulars and in the Volunteers, by giving greater facilities for shooting, and, above all, by encouraging efficiency at short ranges which are easily accessible. In the matter of ammunition the War Office are extremely stingy, and as an instance of their stinginess I may mention that to Lord Lovat's Highland gillies who are going out to South Africa there have been served out 7,000 rounds of cartridges, or not quite thirty rounds a man. The efficiency of these men as shots has turned out to be very high indeed, and their experience has only been acquired at short ranges. But in order to enable them to attain their high efficiency, we have been obliged to purchase 15,000 additional rounds of ammunition to keep them going at the targets, and I maintain that such economy on the part of the War Office is very shortsighted. The noble Marquess said he did not consider it desirable for the Government to create such ranges themselves. I am afraid I rather join issue with my noble friend on that point. So far as your own forces are concerned, whether Regular or Auxiliary, you should provide ranges yourselves and not leave their provision to private enterprise. The noble Marquess said that at the present moment county councils are able to acquire land compulsorily for ranges, providing the Volunteer corps within their jurisdiction ask them to do so. But I am practically sure they have not the power to do anything in the way of helping Volunteer corps in their district to rent ranges. In that respect the Government might consider the advisability of enlarging the powers of the county councils. Further, I should like to ask whether the Government, in the proposals they are going to put forward for aiding Volunteer corps to acquire ranges, would be willing also to help them to rent ranges. As I understand the noble Marquess, their only idea is to help corps to purchase ranges, but I think it would be a good thing if the Government could give an annual subsidy towards the renting of ranges.


Your Lordships may like to know, with regard to the action of county councils in this matter, that the subject was considered yesterday at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the County Councils Association, and everyone who spoke expressed a desire to assist the Government in every possible way. My noble friend the Secretary of State for War has explained the law on the matter. The county councils have, no doubt, power to acquire land compulsorily for ranges, but the power can only be exercised under the system of Provisional Order, which is a long and, in the case of opposition, a very expensive process, because the Provisional Order then has to go before the Committees of both Houses of Parliament. Therefore, my own opinion is that compulsory power is hardly likely to be exercised by county councils or Volunteer corps under the present conditions of the law, but a great deal might be done if the county councils were given power to hire land by voluntary agreement for ranges. The Secretary of State was right in saying that in matters of this kind it is wise for the Government to use the local authorities, and that county councils are able to deal with cases of this kind probably with greater facility and greater economy than the Government. There would be an inquiry held on the spot, and I do not conceive that it would be difficult to acquire or hire land in the neighbourhood of any small town where there is a company of Volunteers. The question of hiring land for ranges compulsorily is much more difficult. The Executive Committee of the County Councils Association has referred this question of ranges to a committee which has been called together by the County Council of Middlesex. Mr. Littler, the chairman of that council, who is, as your Lordships know, a distinguished lawyer, has taken up this question very carefully, and I hope we shall be able to propose to the Secretary of State some legislation, and that the Government will either introduce a Bill or allow a private Member on behalf of the County Councils Association to do so. I am sure that the statement made by my noble friend, to the effect that the Government are prepared to reimburse the county councils the cost of hiring these ranges, or buying them, will facilitate matters very much, because there might be opposition on the part of county councils to charge the rates with the expenses of either buying or hiring ranges. And for this reason. This is not a matter which would affect the whole of the county. Nine-tenths of the county might receive no advantage, and only one particular part might profit by the construction of the range. Therefore, there might be opposition on the part of the county generally to pay for what would benefit only a small portion. I do not say there will be any opposition to bear some moderate expenditure in the matter, because the whole country is anxious to support the Government in every way in the present war, and more especially to encourage efficient rifle shooting by the Regulars and Volunteers.


I should like to ask my noble friend the Secretary of State for War whether he can say how long it will be before the War Office are likely to receive the report of the officer who is to be sent abroad to inquire into the provision of miniature rifle ranges. There is a hot fit on at the present time, and it would be useful if we could know how soon the Government will be able to tell us the best form of rifle ranges.


I am not quite sure whether the noble Lord who spoke last is reasonable. I said that I was prepared to send an officer to examine some of these miniature ranges which have been so favourably spoken of, but I cannot yet tell the noble Lord who the officer will be. I shall have to find him, and how long he will require to make his report I cannot say. I am glad to hear that the Executive Committee of the County Councils Association have taken this matter up. They can do so with advantage, and I gladly assure the noble Earl that I shall be ready to communicate fully and freely with him in the hope that between the committee of the association and the War Office we may hit upon a practical solution of the difficulty.


May I ask the noble Marquess whether he is prepared, out of the money which the Government propose to devote to the provision of ranges, to make contributions towards the renting of ranges required by Volunteers?


I I know of no objection to doing so, and I should like to consider each case on its merits.


With reference to what has been said as to the practice of foreign nations in the provision of rifle ranges, I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether there are not innumerable reports on this subject which have been sent during past years to the Intelligence Department. Surely it is part of the duty of a military attache to report on questions of this sort, and I shall be very much surprised if it is not found that there are already a long series of reports from our military attachés on the; practice of various countries in the matter of rifle ranges.


I will gladly make inquiries on that paint, but I have not seen any papers of the sort myself.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.