Riflemen In No Man’s Land
RIFLEMEN IN NO MAN’S LAND
The Untold Story Of How The NRA Saved The American Expeditionary Force.
-by David T. Hardy-
Buried in Woodrow Wilson’s presidential archives is an almost unknown aspect of the NRA’s history -- the story of how its leadership lobbied Wilson and helped avert an American disaster in World War I.
For nearly fifty years before we entered that war, NRA had played a key role in a now-forgotten debate over infantry tactics. NRA’s role traced back to Civil War Captain George Wingate of the 22nd New York Infantry, who had been appalled to discover that most of his company could not hit a barrel’s lid at 100 paces. He looked for a marksmanship manual to train them, and found that there were none in print in the United States. After the war, Wingate (now a general officer in the National Guard) teamed up with Col. William Church, publisher of Army and Navy Gazette, to found the National Rifle Association.
Wingate and Church found a lesson in the war’s staggering roster of casualties. Although Confederate forces had almost always fought at a numerical disadvantage, and often with inferior muskets, they had succeeded in inflicting far greater damage on their opponents (various estimates put the Union KIAs at 14% to 50 % higher than the Confederate). To Wingate and Church, the distinction lay in the fact that the Confederate troops were recruited from rural marksmen, and Union troops largely from city boys who had no firearms experience. The disparity in shooting experience was indeed considerable. In 1864 General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of II Corps, surveyed his men and found that a third of them had never fired their musket, even in practice. They were mostly new replacements, trained to load with wooden dummy cartridges, who would get their first shooting experience when they went into the line against Lee’s sharpshooting veterans.
Through the NRA, Wingate and Church set out to promote marksmanship, both civilian and military. They succeeded brilliantly on the civilian side, as the international Palma Match became the 19th century’s equivalent of the Olympics. Thousands of spectators turned out to watch teams compete with black-powder rifles and iron sights at ranges out to 1,000 yards.
In a strange contrast, NRA and its leaders faced an uphill battle where the military was concerned. When NRA was founded, it was not unknown for a soldier to be issued five or ten rounds of practice ammunition per year. Marksmanship was laughed off: after the first volley, black power smoke would make the enemy invisible, and if troops couldn’t see the enemy, how well they could aim at him was unimportant.
On the frontier, where fighting was still occurring, many regiments turned to reloading to give their men enough ammunition for target practice. Army leadership could have cared less. When the Army discovered that arsenal-produced 45-70 rounds would string badly in the vertical axis, its response was simple. It started printing targets with oval bulls. Reprinting targets was easier than improving the ammunition.
Why not improve the ammunition and the troops’ marksmanship? Many in the military hierarchy believed that the enlisted man lacked initiative and judgment, primary qualities of a marksman. "Enlisted men are stupid, but very cunning and deceitful and bear considerable watching," an 1894 officers’ manual instructed.
Even supposing the trooper could be taught . . . making a soldier a marksman would teach him independence, responsibility, and confidence -- and that would be the very death of discipline! One writer sneered:
In the race for a record, men known to be good shots have been coddled and petted until there was no living with them. Men of this class have even set up their own will against that of the officer . . .
Two inventions underscored just how far this attitude went. The German army seriously proposed to remove the sights from rifles, and replace them with an adjustable spirit level; the officer would call out the appropriate elevation in degrees, the troops would set the level, elevate until the bubble was centered, and fire in the enemy’s general direction. In the United States, two officers patented a refinement of the idea. Their device would lock the trigger mechanism unless the rifle were elevated to the required angle. Soldiers were not to waste time aiming, but simply lay out sheets of bullets in the direction and at the elevation dictated by an officer.
That might do for barrage fire on the defensive, but what about an assault? Here the opponents of marksmanship argued that troops could not both advance and shoot: once men went prone and began to fire, they would inevitably stay right there, and end by being shot up by the better-protected defenders. Improving rifle skills would merely cause an assault to bog down even farther away from its objective, since marksmen would start shooting at greater ranges. The best assault force would be composed of men who were terrible shots, and knew it: these could be counted upon to rush home with the bayonet!
The debate led to a growing split between the regular Army, which embraced barrage fire and cold steel, and NRA and the National Guard, which held out for marksmanship and the rifle. "With this idea I am at war," Guard officer and future NRA president Smith W. Brookhart said of barrage fire, "and it is a fight to the finish."
NRA’s views enjoyed a temporary triumph with the election of Theodore Roosevelt, an NRA life member. Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union speech told the nation:
The Congress has most wisely provided for a National Board for the promotion of rifle practise. Excellent results have already come from this law, but it does not go far enough. Our Regular Army is so small that in any great war we should have to trust mainly to volunteers; and in such event these volunteers should already know how to shoot; for if a soldier has the fighting edge, and ability to take care of himself in the open, his efficiency on the line of battle is almost directly proportionate to excellence in marksmanship. We should establish shooting galleries in all the large public and military schools, should maintain national target ranges in different parts of the country, and should in every way encourage the formation of rifle clubs thruout all parts of the land. The little Republic of Switzerland offers us an excellent example in all matters connected with building up an efficient citizen soldiery.
Under his administration, soldiers who qualified as expert were given a monthly bonus of a dollar, later raised to five dollars -- an enormous sum in days when a private only drew $15 a month.
When Roosevelt left office, however, the emphasis on marksmanship quickly declined. American military leadership fell back into agreement with that of Britain and France. As one French drill manual put it, "Brave and energetically commanded infantry can march under the most violent fire, even against well-defended trenches, and take them." The British, learning from the Boer War, at least allowed that long-range marksmanship was of value to the defense, but believed there was no substitute for rushing home in the attack.
With the outbreak of WWI, the approach was put to the test. In the initial allied retreat, the British professional army, the "Old Contemptibles," repeatedly saved itself by its long-range rifle skills; German cavalry which tried to ride them down were taken under fire at 1,000 yards and annihilated before they got within 600.
(Unable to believe that the hail of fire had come from riflemen, the cavalry reported that it had encountered massed British machineguns. In fact, the British then deployed machineguns at a minuscule rate, about one per five hundred men.) Then the Allies were over to the offensive, and reverted to matching cold steel and elan against barbed wire and belt-fed Maxims. Within a few months the "Old Contemptibles" lay in mass graves. Their quickly-trained successors did no better.
At the First Somme, they went over the top, in lines, some with officers waving riding crops to show their disdain for enemy fire, others kicking a soccer ball across no-man’s land and promising rewards for the man who put it into the Hun’s trenches. By sundown, 58,000 British troops had fallen. A German machine gunner wrote: "When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them." A British officer angrily commented: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further."
The story was to be told and re-told for the next three years: each time the explanation was that with more troops or more artillery preparation, the next rush would surely get to grips with the Huns.
In America, NRA was still waging its struggle for marksmanship training -- a struggle which, in retrospect, should have been a hands-down winner anywhere but in Washington or in an insane asylum. In 1914 NRA used its National Guard allies to talk the War Department into loaning its surplus Krags to rifle clubs.
Soon rifle clubs were forming at the rate of 25 a week (the Woodrow Wilson papers contain a rather snippy War Department memo to Harvard University: no, Harvard cannot get ‘03 Springfields, and will have to take Krags like everyone else). NRA membership soared to 110,000, and its magazine, Arms and the Man, continued to pitch for civilian and military marksmanship training.
But while the NRA, the Guard, and American riflemen sensed what was needed, the War Department did not. When we declared war in 1917, the new Secretary of War, Newton Baker, was a solid advocate of the "cold steel" approach.
Marksmanship training for the newly-mustered troops was almost nonexistent; many were being sent overseas without having fired a single round from their rifles. American troops were heading for their own First Somme.
NRA had one last weapon: its president. William Libbey was a National Guard colonel, but he had another attribute. He had been professor of chemistry at Princeton when Woodrow Wilson was professor of law and later university president there, and had become a personal friend of the future President.
Col. Libbey used his connections. Wilson’s presidential papers contain numerous letters from Libbey, handwritten on NRA stationary. In one, he asks for a White House meeting during the NRA convention:
At the risk of seeming importunate, I take the liberty of writing again -- for I am afraid that Mr. Baker has not as yet heard all the facts. I would like to talk the matter over with you or with him, as what I have to say would make a rather long letter. I expect to be in Washington for our (NRA) annual meeting on Jan. 9th. May I have fifteen minutes of your time that morning?
Whatever came of the meeting, Libbey did not carry the day -- yet. That would take the effort of another rifleman. Wilson had appointed General John "Blackjack" Pershing to head the forces sent to Europe. Tough and determined, Pershing was a dedicated competitive shooter -- taking second in rifle and fifth in pistol in the All-Army matches -- and son-inlaw to a future NRA president, Warren E. Francis. After the war he would donate the Pershing cup to the NRA, and establish the match still known by his name.
In 1917, Pershing sailed to France for observation and "hands-on" command of the final preparations for American involvement. What he found was appalling. British and French troops had replaced mass assaults with desultory trench warfare, where the grenade was the favored weapon. "The armies on the Western Front in the recent battles had all but given up the use of the rifle," Pershing would later write, " and numerous instances were reported in the Allied armies of men chasing an individual enemy throwing grenades at him instead of using the rifle." He witnessed American battalions being instructed to attack trench lines with the bayonet and without covering fire.
Pershing’s cables back to Secretary Baker were adamant: American troops must be trained with the rifle, and before they were sent overseas. "You must not forget that the rifle is distinctly an American weapon," one cable read, "it is highly important that infantry soldiers be excellent shots."
Faced with both the NRA and America’s military leader, Secretary of War Baker gave in. He covered his retreat somewhat by treating Pershing’s cables as a change of heart on their author’s part. Baker’s September 29, 1917 memo to President Wilson read:
September 29, 1917
My dear Mr. President:
You will be interested to know that in a cablegram recently received from General Pershing he tells us that careful study has caused him and his associates to take an entirely new view of the importance of good rifle shooting on the part of soldiers; and he, therefore, urges us to see that target practice is extensively used in our training. This will confirm the opinion which Colonel Libbey expressed to you and, of course, completely upsets the view which I expressed to you.
Our arrangements are made to comply with this suggestion, and in a very little while a large amount of practice ammunition will be in the hands of the soldiers, and suitable ranges provided for extensive practice. President Wilson responded: "I have your letter about the change of General Pershing’s opinion in our rifle practice. It would tickle Colonel Libbey to death if I could show it to him, and it is very generous of you to send it to me."
The Department of War’s view that military rifle training was best left to the regular military changed as well. To get the troops trained, the United States turned to the nation’s largest collection of marksmen and firearms instructors -- the NRA. The military’s new Small Arms Training School was directed by NRA president Libbey, with NRA Executive Committee member Col. Smith W. Brookhart as head instructor. An updated version of General George Wingate’srifle manual became the standard Army training text.
Pershing’s insight proved prophetic. As the trench lines began to fold and fighting came into (relatively) open conditions, American rifle markmanship came to thefore. A machinegun nest was impregnable to a man who could not hit an enemy head -- and a fixed target to one who could. In the Argonne Forest, Sgt. AlvinYork and Sgt. Sam Woodfill won Medals of Honor by silencing German machine gun nests with deadly accurate gunfire. Between them, Woodfill and York killed 49 enemies with 49 shots. (To this day debate rages over which was the greater feat; 132 enemy soldiers surrendered rather than continue to face York’s rifle, while Woodfill silenced two machinegun nests with long range pistol fire.)
At Belleau Wood, Germans posted artillery observers in trees at what was thought to be safe range. Marine riflemen adjusted sights and annihilated the observers. German forces quickly found that American sharpshooters were a bigger menace than machineguns. "Isolated Americans lying flat in the field caused us very heavy casualties," a surprised enemy reported. None of this would have happened if the U.S. had stood by its original plan for massed assaults with the bayonet, launched against barbed wire protected by belt-fed Maxims.
By the end of the war, Pershing could reflect: "We had the satisfaction of hearing the French admit that we were right, both in emphasizing training for open warfare and insisting upon proficiency in the use of the rifle." He celebrated the Armistice in appropriate fashion, hosting the largest international rifle competition in history (and witnessing the Marine team winning it).
World War I was a turning point. The physical damage it inflicted on the combatants was incalculable. The major combatants on the Western Front had mobilized tens of millions of young men; by war’s end, 15% of these were dead and another 50% wounded or missing. A generation was all but obliterated on the Somme and the Marne, at Verdun and Passchendaele and countless fights with no name.
At one French military academy, plaques commemorating the losses of each class bear an entry: "The Class Of 1914" -- not a single member of the class survived. The moral damage was equally severe, and some maintain it lasts to this day: a decision to fight for principle (whether in 1939 or today) is seen differently by nations filled with mass graves of a generation butchered, all too often by tactical incompetence. That the United States escaped the damage, and rose to become the new defender of the West, is largely the legacy of the NRA and a handful of competitive shooters.
The author is indebted to Russell Gilmore, The New Courage: Rifles and Soldier Individualism 1876-1918, Military Affairs 40:97 (Oct. 1976), and to to Frank W. Sweet, whose paper, Evolution of Infantry Assault Tactics 1850-1918 (Amer. Military Univ. 1997) places the rifle issue in a broader tactic context. Additional information was obtained from Gen. John Pershing, My Experiences in the World War pp. 151-54. The Wilson-Baker correspondence can be found in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Papers Collection at the Library of Congress, Ser. 42, docs. 34045, 34348, 34361.
David T. Hardy, firstname.lastname@example.org (520) 749-0241.
Mail: 8987 E. Tanque Verde, PMB 265, Tucson AZ 85749.