R. Blake Brown
[This essay is part of a series of contributions to be published over the coming years by members of the research group “Military Service, Citizenship, and Political Culture: Studies of Militias in Atlantic Canada.” Any questions about the project can be sent to Gregory Kennedy, Research Director of the Acadian Studies Institute at the Université de Moncton at email@example.com.
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The Nova Scotia Rifle Association proudly claims to be the oldest provincial rifle association in Canada. It leaves unstated that it was largely a product of the state. A key skill possessed by effective military forces in the 1860s was accurate rifle shooting. However, military leaders in the early 1860s were appalled by the state of the militia in Nova Scotia, and the lack of sufficient musketry practice. They responded by encouraging ‘citizen-soldiers’ to train in rifle shooting.
Changing firearm technology contributed to the desire to spur interest in rifle practice. Smooth-bore, muzzle-loaded muskets firing round bullets had long served as the primary military weapon of European armies. Such firearms had a relatively short effective range – a good shot could hit a target at approximately 100 meters. This led European armies to practice drill and mass volley fire as an infantry tactic. More accurate rifled weapons had long existed but tended to build up residue that fouled the musket until the introduction of new conical ammunition that expanded upon being fired. Britain began to replace smooth-bore muskets with more accurate muzzle-loading Enfield rifles in the 1850s as the primary weapon issued to troops.
Some military planners believed that a well-trained militia using modern rifles could effectively defend against a more numerous enemy. This was a popular idea in British North America given the recurring threat of United States aggression. Nova Scotia passed legislation in the 1850s that allowed for the arming of ‘volunteer’ units. By the early 1860s, several volunteer rifle companies had formed. These units were usually organized by location or nationality, which contributed to a sense of pride in each company, as well as competition between units. In the Halifax area, volunteer forces included the Scottish Rifles, Chebucto Greys, Mayflower Rifles, Halifax Rifles, and Irish Volunteer Rifles. In addition, a unit of African Nova Scotians formed – the Victoria Rifles. The volunteers selected and paid for their own uniforms and elected their officers. Often organized and led by local prominent men, the volunteer forces were both military units and social groups. In March 1862, there were 2500 active volunteers in Nova Scotia.
Rifle shooting was a key aspect of volunteer training. Authorities provided 3000 Enfield Rifles to arm the volunteer companies in 1859. The Adjutant-General of Nova Scotia, Colonel R. Bligh Sinclair, was committed firmly to encouraging volunteers to train at rifle shooting. In his 1862 annual report, Sinclair delivered a scathing analysis of the colony’s militia system, including that musketry was insufficiently practiced.
Sinclair believed accurate rifle shooting was important to defending Nova Scotia. Riflemen could take advantage of the colony’s geography and topography in case of an attack. In his view, a well-led company of riflemen, if assisted by the population, could “give a good account of opponents much superior in numbers” by using the terrain to their advantage. Sinclair noted that in many places standing armies had to be formed from men who had never used firearms. In Nova Scotia, on the other hand, there were only a “few young men” who were “unacquainted with the use of a fowling-piece,” but they had little training in use of military arms. Sinclair believed that was “likely to exercise great influence on the zealous and active youth of the Province, in stimulating them to acquire and maintain those military qualifications which enable them to compete at the useful contests which occasionally take place.” Providing prizes might lead to a “general interest in the rising importance of rifle shooting.”
In his 1863 report, Sinclair pointed to the Swiss scheme of training all male citizens in the use of arms as a model worthy of emulation in Nova Scotia. Encouraging rifle shooting competitions was an important part of achieving this. “A reasonable and more liberal support of rifle practice and annual contests affords the least expensive and best expedient for exciting a wholesome competitive rivalry.” He recommended that the competitions be limited to participants in uniform who could pass a basic military examination, as this would stimulate involvement in the militia and voluntary units.
In 1861, Sinclair organized a competition at Windsor. Shooters fired at targets placed as far as 300 yards away. Sinclair planned a second competition in Truro in September 1862. Advocates for a greater martial spirit in Nova Scotia deemed the Truro event a great success. The Halifax Morning Sun described the scene. Truro “presented a strikingly different appearance from the Truro we had known in other and less war-like-looking times. The numerous groups of Volunteers to be seen in the streets, in the hotels, and everywhere, gave the picturesque and habitually quiet little capital of Colchester, quite the appearance of a garrison town.” Volunteers came from many corners of Nova Scotia, including Digby, Annapolis, Cornwallis, Windsor, Lunenburg, Tatamagouche, Pugwash, Wallace, Pictou, and Antigonish, Arichat, Sydney Mines, Albion Mines, Halifax, and Truro. Prominent public figures attended, including the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia, Major General Charles Hastings Doyle, the provincial chief justice, and the attorney general. The spectators, uniforms, the crack of the rifles, and music provided by a band, “combined to form an extremely enlivening and pleasant scene.” “Such spectacles,” continued the Morning Sun, “cannot fail to render rifle matches very popular in the catalogue of public amusements.”
A provincial rifle association formed in 1864 with the state’s guidance and assistance. Like other voluntary organizations of the period, membership was optional, but the make-up of the association’s leadership suggested it was more of a military organization than a civilian one. The president of the Association in 1865 was lawyer and politician Henry Pryor, a lieutenant colonel of the 2nd ‘Queens’ Halifax Regiment. The Council of the Association consisted of men with ranks ranging from Captain to Lieutenant-Colonel.
The Association was part of a web of imperial relationships. The organization paid an annual fee to the national rifle association of England. This would eventually allow Nova Scotian marksmen to attend the annual shooting event at Wimbledon against the best marksmen from across the empire. The founding of the English and Nova Scotian rifle associations preceded the formation of the American National Rifle Association, which was established in New York 1871. In fact, the early NRA looked to rifle shooting organizations in British North America as models to emulate.
The Nova Scotia association held its first competition in 1864 in Truro, though in 1865 the Association began using a rifle range at Bedford secured by the provincial government. The prizes awarded by the Association came from several sources including donations by groups and prominent citizens, subscription income, and entrance fees. The provincial government also made a substantial grant to the Association. In 1866, the legislative committee on the militia recommended that the government provide $1500 because the committee appreciated “the numerous and great advantages derivable to the militia service from the establishment of this association.”
The press emphasized the sense of excitement that surrounded large shooting matches. For example, the Halifax Citizen breathlessly described the first match at Bedford in 1865. Lieutenant-Governor Richard Graves MacDonnell and his wife attended, adding a regal aura. Their suite stood on one side of the range. Other “militia and mercantile temporary tabernacles” dotted the grounds. Some competitors brought camping equipment and stayed on site. The volunteer and militia units, all in their respective uniforms, created a spectacle. Trains from Halifax “thronged with militia and volunteers; red, gray, green and blue uniforms blending together like the ingredients of a mammoth lobster-salad.” The Citizen said the range looked “as lively as a fair,” and noted the interesting mix of urban and rural units, thus highlighting the coming together of Nova Scotians in this martial event:
Competitors from all quarters and spectators mingled together. Smart, knowing-looking, City Volunteers with natty caps and jackets without a wrinkle, strolled amid sturdy, sun-browned country marksmen, whose stout arms could hold the rifle as fast as a magnet, and whose keen, cool glance could travel between the trigger and the target without much winking.
The Morning Sun also lauded the 1865 event, highlighting that it showed the martial spirit of Nova Scotians: “We really never saw better fighting material than this citizen soldiery presented. Stalwart, active, good-looking and good-natured, they seemed just the fellows to stand between their home and ‘war’s desolation’.” With the support of a few veterans, Nova Scotia’s riflemen “would bulwark their country against the aggression of all but overwhelming odds.” The writer in the Morning Sun felt emotional: “Moving to and fro among the Provincial guardian of our liberties, we could not feel but possessed of a certain degree of martial spirit.”
Sinclair was pleased by the early work of the Association. In 1864 he noted that, unlike the English rifle association, the Nova Scotian organization was “an exclusively military institution.” Sinclair felt that the rules of the Association were “calculated greatly to advance the training, organization, and musketry practice of the local forces of the Province.”
While the military leadership had its own goals in fomenting interest in rifle shooting, the participants likely took part for a mixture of reasons including loyalty, notoriety, a love of competition, a desire to impress loved ones, or the opportunity to win valuable prizes. Regardless of their reasons, Nova Scotians took part in exhibitions of rifle shooting that allowed men to develop martial skills without having to experience the devasting effects that rifles could have on human bodies. That lesson would be learned by many of Nova Scotia’s citizens in the twentieth century.
R. Blake Brown is a professor of History and Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary’s University. He is the author of Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada (University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 2012). You can find him on Twitter at @RBlakeBrown.
An Act to continue and amend the laws relative to the Militia, S.N.S. 1855, c.10.
Thomas J. Egan, History of the Halifax Volunteer Battalion and Volunteer Companies, 1859-1887 (Halifax: A. & W. Mackinlay, 1888), 1-12; Greg Marquis, In Armageddon’s Shadow: The Civil War and Canada’s Maritime Provinces (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 20-23; Constitution and Bye-Laws of the Scottish Volunteer Rifle Company (Halifax: James Barnes, 1860).
“Volunteer Rifle Companies,” British Colonist, 26 November 1859.
Adjutant-General’s Militia Report for the Year 1862, 7, 8, Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia, 1863 (Halifax: Compton & Co, 1863), in Appendix 4.
Adjutant-General’s Militia Report for the Year 1863, 9, Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia, 1864 (Halifax: Compton & Co, 1864), in Appendix 7.
“Militia General Order,” British Colonist, 17 August 1861.
“The Rifle March at Truro,” Morning Sun, 15 September 1862.
“Provincial Rifle Association,” Morning Sun, 17 August 1864; Report of the Provincial Rifle Association of Nova Scotia for 1865, Nova Scotia Archives, MG 20, vol. 1016, No. 5a. On associational life in mid-nineteenth century Nova Scotia see David A. Sutherland, “Voluntary Societies and the Process of Middle-class Formation in Early-Victorian Halifax, Nova Scotia,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 5 (1994): 237-263.
Kevin Wamsley, “Cultural Signification and National Ideologies: Rifle-shooting in Late 19th Century Canada,” Social History, 20 (1995), 70; R. Blake Brown, Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 2012), 50.
Report of the Committee on Militia, 1 in Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia, 1867 (Halifax: Compton & Co, 1865), Appendix 35.
“Provincial Rifle Contest,” Halifax Citizen, 5 September 1865.
“Rifle Tournament,” Morning Sun, 6 September 1865.
Adjutant-General’s Militia Report for the Year 1864, 6, Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia, 1865 (Halifax: Compton & Co, 1865), in Appendix 5.
Featured image: Private Richard Lawson of the Chebucto Greys Volunteer Rifle Company in full dree uniform with Enfield rifle (c. 1862) Source: Collections of the NS Historical Society, vol. 17 (1913), p. 107, via the Internet Archive.