Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sam Hughes the Sure Shot : Of Ranges and Ross Rifles

Sam Hughes was the irascible Minister of Militia and Defence responsible for the mobilization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in August of 1914.  Hughes was a fiery Orangemen, whose trenchant belief in the value of the gun-slinging, rough-riding, amateur militiaman never faltered. Ronald Haycock noted in his 1986 biography of Sam Hughes that "Nearly everyone in Ottawa had a favourite story about Hughes which was half-fiction, half-truth, but which captured the essence of the Minister's personality." (Haycock, Sam Hughes, 1986,p. 3)  One 1912 anecdote came from W.A. Griesbach, who would become the commanding officer of Edmonton's 49th Battalion:

Lieutenant General Sir Sam Hughes, K.C.B., M.P.
Painted by Harrington Mann
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
CWM 19710261-0394
Some weeks ago I met an old man in my part of the country who told me that he had learned to shoot while serving in Sam Hughes' battalion of infantry....He said one day when the men were shooting badly Sam Hughes, who was then a Sergeant, picked up one of the rifles and lay down on the mound.  He fire and missed the target.  Turning to one of the men he said "That's the way you shoot."  Firing again, he again missed the target and turned to another man and said "That's the way you shoot." Firing for the third time, he scored a bull's eye.  Speaking to the men, he said: "That's the way I shoot" and walked on.

Hughes' bulls-eye was no lucky shot.  He was a member of several shooting societies and president of the Dominion Rifle Association (Haycock, p. 4).  During the Laurier years, Hughes reputation was welded to the manufacture of the Ross rifle, a weapon adopted by the Canadian militia at the end of the Boer war.  From 1901 on, Hughes would support the rifle against numerous complaints in the House of Commons regarding its manufacture.  The British were none too pleased about the Dominion straying from their standard Lee Enfield rifle, and disqualified many Canadian shooters at the British National Rifle Association's competitions for light triggers or heavy barrels. (Haycock, p. 123)
"Interior View of Ross Rifle Factory" 1900-1905 Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-107378

The unfortunate results of these British rebuttals was the altering of the Mark III Ross Rifle to insure victory at these marksmanship competitions.  As Haycock notes, "Machine tolerances were tightened; fit was made better; and the weapons won.  But close bearing surfaces, complicated and fragile target-type sights, and tight chambers capable of firing only exact dimension ammunition changed the rifle from an efficient combat weapon to an efficient target one." (p. 123)

The failure of the Ross rifle in the swampy conditions of the First World War, and Hughes' persistence that the weapon was sound, would contribute to Hughes' final dismissal as Militia minister in 1916.

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