Prelude To War: 1916 National Matches

posted on April 22, 2021

“There has perhaps never before been so cosmopolitan and motley an aggregation brought together in good fellowship by the love of making a perfect target.”
—Arms and the Man, October 1916

At the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice's January 1916 meeting, Jacksonville, Fla., was again recommended as the National Match site, although the official announcement from the War Department did not come for eight months.

On the surface, it might appear that turbulent conditions along the Mexican border accounted solely for the announcement delay as Army, Navy and National Guard forces were mobilized or occupied there. But records indicate a fierce reluctance by the War Department to conduct the National Matches at all, as some officials argued that the event was an ineffective training tool because it attracted only elite shooters, and therefore served no benefit to national defense efforts. Only after National Board members repeatedly cited their organization's chartering legislation that called for annual competition and vehemently rebutted the War Department's abolitionary attempts was the decision to hold the matches made in September—but without Army representation. In fact, the Marine Corps was the only regular service branch to attend the following month and compete (Oct. 13-26), while some 300 of them served at the National Matches in an official capacity along with an equal number of Coast Artillery troops. How then, did the National Matches of 1916 report a record number of entries in the National Team Match?

Horse-drawn carts in Jacksonville at the 1916 National Matches
Supplies reaching the Jacksonville matches by sea were offloaded at the State Camp docks and moved to issue points and storage areas in horse-drawn wagons.

The National Defense Act of 1916 [39 Stat. 166] became law on Jun. 3 and was a wartime response by the government that represented a breakthrough in federal policy. It effectively endorsed what the NRA had long espoused and what the initial National Board declared in 1903 as one of its chief directives: promote civilian marksmanship training. Specifically, the Act provided funds for this purpose and Section 113 authorized the War Department to distribute arms and ammunition to qualified civilian rifle clubs; opened military rifle ranges to civilians and directed military instructors to assist in civilian marksmanship development. The Act also led to the creation of an action arm for the National Board via the Office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM); and to the provision of $60,000 for the transportation of civilian teams to the National Matches, hence, the record attendance at Jacksonville.

What accompanied the National Match announcement in September was an amendment to this year's general orders in which civilian participation in the National Trophy Match was granted:

“The National Trophy Match is open also to teams composed of members of civilian rifle clubs organized under the rules prepared by the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and approved by the Secretary of War … One trophy shall be awarded to the highest team comprised of members of civilian rifle clubs.”

Through the National Defense Act and its ancillary regulations, the National Matches truly became a tournament that everyone could call their own.

Accommodations at State Camp, as the Jacksonville facility was commonly called, gave civilian competitors several mess options and as reported in Arms and the Man: “So complete are all arrangements that a competitor need bring with him only a blanket, and be assured of comfortable quarters and equipment.” With their needs taken care of, the match surroundings appeared most aggregable to the record number of civilians and they were quick to put their mark on the National Matches as they topped the fields in both the National Individual and National Pistol contests. The titles of national rifle and pistol champions were bestowed on the winners this year, and W.K. Spencer of St. Louis, Mo., earned the former in the largest field ever (947) for the event, while the latter went to Dr. George E. Cook of Washington, D.C.

In the National Team Match, which featured rapid fire, 600- and 1,000-yard stages, the new trophy added this year meant that four were now offered and one each went to the high teams among the regular service, national guard, civilians and military colleges. The high scoring team still received the National Trophy, and the Marines topped the field of 55 entries to win it. The Hilton went to the New York National Guard, which posted the second highest score and the Soldier of Marathon went to the California civilian team which fired an impressive score that ranked ninth overall. The fourth trophy, though not yet designed or named, was awarded to the Citadel Cadets.

In stark contrast to reports of minimal spectator interest shown, especially by women at the 1915 National Matches, was the following account in Arms and the Man regarding this year's National Team Match: “...the largest gallery of the entire series of matches was present that day, many handsomely gowned women having motored out from Jacksonville to see the wind-up of the big shoot.” Col. S.W. Miller was the Executive Officer this year and two months later was appointed the first DCM director.

In the NRA Matches that preceded those sponsored by the NBPRP, Marines earned honors in the Wimbledon Cup and President's Matches. Sgt. John Andrews and Capt. W. Garland Fay took the respective titles, while veteran Capt. W.H. Richard earned his third Leech Cup victory, the other two having come in 1905 and 1914.

Omitted from the NRA's schedule of events for lack of entries was the Evans Skirmish Match. The year before, just two teams participated in the contest, once sought after for inclusion in the Board phase and hailed as the type of match by which future National Match programs would thrive. Such a change was indicative of the evolutionary nature that embraced the National Matches. Modifications in match conditions and courses of fire were ongoing and, in most cases, encouraged in order to promote marksmanship and military preparedness, the latter of which was tested shortly after the conclusion of this year's contest when U.S. troops were called to action in Europe.

“The civilian clubs are evidencing the greatest enthusiasm as the opportunity given them to compete with military marksmen.”
—Arms and the Man, September 1916

“In the point of attendance, interest and enthusiasm, this past match has eclipsed all previous National Matches. The entrance of civilian teams into this contest promises to awaken a lively interest in the use of the military arm among all citizens of our country.”
—National Matches Asst. Executive Officer Maj. William Harllee, USMC


Lead photo: Marine Corps Maj. (later Brigadier General) W.C. Harllee earned a reputation as a builder and operator of rifle ranges. A skilled riflemen himself, Harllee was a staunch supporter of marksmanship. This formal portrait was taken about 1916. Harllee's appearance and personality demanded characterization. This pencil drawing appeared in Arms and the Man in September 1916, and gives his title as that of Asst. Executive Officer for the National Matches—a position he held in both 1915 and 1916.

Read more: All About Harry Reeves


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