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The Riflemen: A History of the National Rifle Association of Australia 1888-1988

In this frank and detailed history of the development of the rifle club movement and its national councils, historian Andrew Kilsby has unravelled the reality behind the traditional ties through war and peace between the movement and Australia’s defence. With their origins deep in Volunteer and Militia soldiering, the first colonial rifle associations were established from 1860, and the first national council in 1888, making it the oldest national sporting body in Australia.

This was a paradox which bedevilled the movement from the beginning – was it in fact an adjunct to Australia’s defence or were rifle club men simply ‘pothunters’, enjoying their pastime at Government expense? Even though formal ties with the military were severed in 1959, Defence representatives remained engaged with the NRAA Council until well into the 1970s.

‘It seems a hard thing to say, but it would seem that the Rifle Clubs are composed of men who can shoot but can’t drill, while the Citizen Forces can drill but can’t shoot; if they can, they are very modest about it.’

– Captain W. H. Osborne, Director of Rifle Associations and Clubs, reporting to Parliament, July 1914

John Fitzgerald, Chairman NRAA 2013 writes: It would be fair to say that the rifle clubs, with their democratic spread to most small towns and urban centre by the time of Federation, were as much a part of, perhaps even more a part of the colonial cultural and societal landscape of Australia than any of the great sports with the possible exception of horse racing. The two were indelibly linked in those early years in any case by mounted riflemen and light horsemen. The top riflemen were the sports champions of the day, even if many wore a uniform at least part-time. Most of all, rifle shooting was an everyman’s sport. It was cheap, sociable and accessible, if not inclusive (women were for the most part excluded from mainstream, i.e., long distance rifle shooting, until 1965).

It took being sidelined in two world wars, massive social change after World War Two and the ambivalent attitude of the Army towards the movement for the rifle club movement to go into decline, stabilising at its current membership levels only in the last 20 years. The Army cut the rifle clubs loose in 1920 only to have them fight to return to the Army’s aprons again in 1931. In 1941they were placed in recession, and in 1948 remained with Defence, not Army. Finally in 1959 the Government itself severed ties with Defence in the strongest way it could – endorsing a change to a more modern service rifle exclusively for the Army and cutting ammunition supplies to the clubs for their older types. By 1988, while the NRAA still had regulatory and legacy ties with Defence even then, at least it had largely accepted that it was time to look forward to a ‘sporting’ future.

The rifle club movement, represented through the colonial, then State and national bodies, was slow to change. It was a deeply conservative movement. It had developed and prospered in its formative years with the help of the military forces and defence departments and most of its national council delegates had served, or were serving in the military at some point, whether as Volunteers, militia or permanent soldiers, sailors and later, airmen. Almost right from the start, the colonial military forces and then Australian Army wanted to control the rifle clubs as a defence asset; and when it found that it could not mould it to its own image, it turned away from the movement despite good relations at a personal level.

How the rifle club movement, through its national council, met the challenges of its first 100 years, is the subject of this fascinating history.

‘… followed either as an art or a sport – for it has two sides – there is nothing in the way of recreation that can compare with rifle shooting.’

– Arthur G. Leslie, Rifle Sketches, 1906

‘The Riflemen: A History of the National Rifle Association of Australia 1888-1988’, Longueville Media, NSW 2013, for the National Rifle Association of Australia. ISBN 9780646904658 Copyright @ Andrew  Kilsby