The History of Full Bore Target Rifle Competition in Victoria
The Association was formed in 1860 and held its first individual competition at the end of that year. The first intercolonial teams match, Vic vs NSW, was held at Sandridge Range (Port Melbourne) in 1862. The first "Queen's Trophy" competition was held in 1881 on a range at Emerald Hill in the Albert-Middle Park area. In 1876 an Australian Rifle Team, consisting of shooters from NSW and Victoria, was the first team ever to officially represent Australia in any sport in international competition. They toured Britain and the USA competing in various shooting competitions including the USA Centenary Celebrations and the inaugural Palma trophy. This tour was so successful that it was decided to send an official cricket team overseas the following year.
By 1876 the early Melbourne ranges at Emerald Hill, Sandridge and elsewhere had been closed and a new range at Williamstown was opened in July 1876. This became the focal point for target rifle competition in Victoria for over a hundred years.
In 1885, the first civilian Rifle Club (Melbourne R.C.) was formed with the blessing of the VRA. Many others soon followed. After Federation in 1901, Rifle Clubs came under army control, but in 1921 they were reconstituted as a purely civilian organisation, where they have remained ever since.
In 1901 a new range at Port Melbourne was opened particularly for the use of civilian Rifle Clubs. It functioned until 1937, when all activity concentrated on the 220 target range at Williamstown.
The Age of 17 August 1914 reports:
Although the ordinary course of rifle shooting competitions has been suspended for the time being, members of rifle clubs are kept busy in one way or another in connection with matters associated with the war. The latest, and perhaps the most important function they are called upon to perform is the giving of instruction in rifle shooting to the many members of the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force, who are recruits or neophytes, in the use of the service weapon. The Williamstown ranges will practically be a school of musketry instruction as long as the Expeditionary Force is in camp. As near as possible there should be an instructor to each man, so that no one of the force who requires initiating shall go away without being given a well-defined and well-grounded idea of how to use his rifle to the best advantage whenever it comes to being face to face with the enemy.
After the Great War, a system of national training was embodied in the Defence Act and the Rifle Clubs reverted to their purely sporting role. Nevertheless by 1939 Victoria had 313 Rifle Clubs and 12232 members.
Until 1933 the standard competition rifle was the standard military issue (long Magazine Lee Enfield). As military requirements changed, the target rifle diverged from the MLE, first with "heavy" barrels and vernier sights, evolving to today's single shot, Mauser (bolt) action, precision barrel, custom stock which eliminates the element of luck.
A Brief History of the Victorian Rifle Association
Compiled by Bob Caddy
The VRA was formed in 1860 for the encouragement of shooting in general, and was the single most supportive body of the volunteer forces which were the main participants of the new association. The membership fee at the time was two guineas ($4.20).
The State government of the time encouraged the expansion of he VRA by making Crown Land, as well as land around the seaside areas of Melbourne, available for rifle ranges, or butts as they were more commonly known.
The ranges around Melbourne were located at Middle Park, Sandridge, Emerald Hill, Elwood and Williamstown at Hobsons Bay.
In 1860 the VRA conducted its first meting which was an aggregate for the National Rifle Association of Great Britain silver medal.
The VRA Grand Championship gold medal was first contested in 1869 and was won by Gunner McHutchinson.
The first of the intercolonial shooting competitions was held between Victorian and New South Wales. In the years between 1862 and 1867 Victoria won only one of the series. After 1867 other States became involved.
In 1867 the National Rifle Association of Great Britain invited a team from Victoria to contest the annual British Championships at Wimbledon. The major event was to be the Victorian Challenge Shield which was staged to honour the Victorians’ visit. The match was won by England with Scotland second and Victoria third.
By 1878 the VRA was having difficulty catering for the increasing number of members. The Sandridge range was congested and was gradually being built out by the encroaching suburbs. This necessitated the Victorian Government to purchase the Williamstown Estate for fifteen thousand pounds ($30,000). The area occupied some 322 acres.
The new range was to be called the Victorian Ranges and the surveyor/designer was Captain Shakespeare. The original plans were for some 68 targets, erected by MS Willis, at a cost of fourteen hundred pounds ($3,000). The remainder of the works were performed by the prisoners held in the many prisons hulks anchored in Port Phillip Bay.
The first building erected on the site was the pavilion, also erected by the prisoners. This original building is the centre section of the building standing today.
The new Williamstown range was officially opened by Sir George Bowen, the then Governor of Victoria, on 27th July 1878. The first shot was fired by Lady Bowen from a rest at 400 yards mound, resulting in a bullseye. The bullet was retrieved, mounted in a silver casket and presented to Lady Bowen as a memento.
In 1881 the Victorian Government announced that it would present a special prize of one hundred pounds for Her Majesty the Queen’s Prize. This first Victorian Queen’s Prize was won by Gunner JJ Hanby (later Col JJ Hanby VD) of the Garrison Artillery.
1884 was the sending of the first Australian team to England to compete in the National Rifle Association of Great Britain matches at Wimbledon. Victoria was represented by Mesrs Sleep, Powell, Saker, Allen and Churchill.
It is important to note that Mr. Churchill was the third Victorian Queen’s winner in 1883 and that Mr Saker, a member of the Melbourne Rifle Club, was the first person to win the Victorian Queens on two occasions in 1895 and 1897.
Two interesting facts arose from the visit to England. First, this was the first official Australian team to represent any sport in overseas competition and secondly, the team was the only Australian team to compete at Wimbledon. The National Rifle Association of Great Britain was relocated to its present site at Bisley when on 12th July 1890, Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, officially opened the Bisly Ranges and fired the first shot.
In 1886 there were no less than 225 clubs in Victoria with 6500 members.
Efforts were being made to send a Victorian team to Bisley in 1897 to contest the Kolapore, a teams match contested by countries that belonged to the British Empire. The trophy is a pair of cups presented by His Highness, the late, Rajah of Kolapore in 1871. A generous donation of two thousand pounds ($4,000) the entire cost of the trip, was made by Mr David Syme. The Victorians went to Great Britain and rewarded the faith of David Syme by winning the trophy and bringing it back to Victoria.
Victorians should take pride in the fact that a Colony or State of Australia had never before, or since, repeated this achievement. Even when an overseas team wins it nowadays the cup does not leave Great Britain.
To honour the generous donation made by Mr David Syme a special resolution of the VRA unanimously commended him and awarded him a citation. In recognition of this generous donation the two day lead up event to the Victorian Queens is, to this day, called the Syme.
The first Great Britain team to compete in Victoria was in 1907 when Warrant Officer AJ Raven and Sgt. H Ommunsden of the Great Britain team were first and second respectively in the King's Prize meeting.
The Great Britain team went to Randwick in Sydney to compete in the first Empire Match and New Zealand was also invited to compete. The event was won by Australia by some 48 points.
This win is the more notable by the fact that Sgt. H Ommunsden was one of the finest rifle shooters prior to World War I. His record between 1898 and 1914 is superb, making the Queens/Kings finals on 13 occasions, winning in 1901 and winning the Grand Aggregate three times. Unfortunately, he was killed in action in Flanders in 1915.
The first Empire match shot at Williamstown was on the 15th and 16th November 1920. Australia won this event with Great Britain second and New Zealand third.
The Williamstown Rifle Range was renamed the Merrett Rifle Range after Colonel Sir Charles E Merrett CBE, VD, who served on the VRA Council from 1890 to 1947 and during this time held the position of Chairman from 1908 to 1947. Col Merrett was also the Commandant of three Australian teams to Bisley in 1914, 1928 and 1937.
The name Merrett is synonymous with target rifle shooting, and is commemorated in two ways, the Merrett Rifle Range and NRAA interstate competition called the Merrett Match, which is the most prestigious teams match held in this country. Col Merrett passed away in 1948.
Rifle shooting and the VRA continued to flourish until the 1960’s when the Department of Defence introduced the five year plan which saw the gradual severing of the ties binding the Rifle Clubs to the Military Command.
1990 saw the final Queen’s Prize meeting at Williamstown thus ending 113 years of history. The winner of this final event was Barry J Wood of Katandra Rifle Club.
With the closure of the Williamstown Range the VRA looked for an alternative venue and decided on the Wellsford Rifle Range in Bendigo.