The first American presence at the United Kingdom’s storied Wimbledon Camp occurred eight years prior to the formation of the National Rifle Association of America. In 1863, an American gunsmith was demonstrating his new breech-loading rifle at the historic range during the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom’s July Meeting Matches, about 12 years prior to the first U.S. shooter competing in a match at Wimbledon.
Thanks to friends from the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom, I learned the oil painting featured in this article is also the earliest known depiction of any of the U.K. group’s rifle ranges at Wimbledon Common. The Wimbledon Camp was set up temporarily each year for two weeks in July, until the NRAUK moved to Bisley in 1990. Research has revealed this oil-painted landscape scene of Wimbledon is set in early July 1863, only a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Of interest to us here in the United States is seen on the extreme right of the landscape in the painting, the familiar Stars and Stripes and the earliest known U.S. participation at Wimbledon. Here, Mr. Montgomery Storm of New York was demonstrating his new breech-loading rifle. (More about Mr. Storm later.) Another 12 years would pass before the first U.S. shooters competed on the Wimbledon ranges following the famous match at Dollymount, Ireland, in 1875.
Some background: The NRAUK’s rifle ranges were established on Wimbledon Common and the first annual rifle meeting took place in July 1860; the Annual Prize Meeting, culminating in the competition for the Sovereign’s Prize, continues to this day at Bisley in Great Britain.
According to the NRAUK, the main features of the landscape in the painting “conform closely to the plan of the Wimbledon ranges published in July 1863 at the time of the NRAUK’s Annual Prize Meeting which began on July 7 that year. It shows the firing points to be relatively uncrowded on July 6, but competitors in large numbers can be seen entering the Camp for the new Meeting which began the following day.”
As mentioned, on the far-right hand side of the painting is the 200-yard range firing point seen below the United States flag. Here, Mr. Montgomery Storm of New York, a leading American rifle developer at the time, was readying the firing point for the demonstration of his newly designed breech-loading mechanism for a military rifle. So effective was this rifle conversion that the NRAUK’s associated competition that year was won by a British Volunteer who, in the two minutes allowed, fired no less than 11 shots for a high score. The formal report of the NRAUK recorded, “The rapid, accurate and destructive fire thus obtainable from breech-loaders has led the Council to bring the results of this competition under the special notice of Field-Marshall the General Commanding-in-Chief and of the Secretary of State for War.”
I hope that readers of this article may be able identify whether the large, seemingly slightly stooping, gentleman wearing what appears to be a beaver top hat, who is directing firing point preparations under the American flag is in fact Mr. Montgomery Storm himself, with U.S. military attendants on the firing point.
IRON STAG TARGET
In 1862, the Running Deer range was established at Wimbledon Common, but it needed essential modification for improvement and reliability. This was undertaken in 1863 by NRAUK Chairman, Lord Elcho, in association with a close friend, the painter Sir Edwin Landseer. In the middle of the painting, you can see the Running Deer range firing point, and at its focal point is the Prince of Wales (soon-to-be King Edward VII) being congratulated by Lord Elcho after christening Sir Edwin Landseer’s new iron target of a running deer with a fine shot.
The Prince of Wales ability at the Running Deer target was eventually matched by the U.S. shooting legend Walter Winans, who first appeared at Wimbledon 25 years later. Our friends across the pond do emphasize that Winans had the advantage of lighter, more accurate breech-loading rifles, compared with the heavy muzzleloaders commonly used in the early 1860s.
The 1863 Wimbledon Common painting has been in private ownership for 160 years. The current owner acquired it a half-century ago, and displayed it in his home in England until he moved abroad in the early 2000s and placed it in storage. After a recent exhibition of the painting in the NRAUK offices at Bisley, word of it reached me and the result was this article. The painting is unsigned and the artist is officially unidentified. However, the distinctive monogram in the left-hand bottom corner bears some similarities to Sir Edwin Landseer’s manuscript monograms of the early 1860s, and also found on one of his known paintings.
Special thanks to John Bloomfield, Dennis Flaharty, Howard Walter and John Webster and the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom for their help with this article.