Richard North, 04/08/2005  

My piece the other day on the lack of an indigenous rifle manufacturers for the British Army was picked up by our American friend Kim du Toit, which in turn elicited some thoughtful and shrewd comments.

One obvious point raised – when you think about it – is that if there is no significant domestic demand for rifles, then these is not enough business to sustain a domestic industry. The problem is that the Army only buys 200,000 rifles every twenty years or so and, in between, there is nothing to sustain a manufacturer.

In that sense, we are suffering from the anti-gun legislative paranoia in this country, where shooting for a hobby is actively discouraged and the private ownership of guns is treated on a level with paedophilia.

We have travelled a long way since the 14th and 15th Centuries when the primary battlefield weapon was the longbow and archery practice was compulsory. I looked up some entries on this and found a site which offered the following:

A series of statutes passed in the 14th and 15th centuries banned a large number of field sports and other games in order to protect regular archery practise. Edward IV passed a law that every Englishman from the age of 16 to 60 should own a longbow (of his own height) and to practice every Sunday after church and on feast days. In 1542 an Act established that the minimum target distance for anyone over the age of 24 years was 220 yards (the modern competition maximum is 80 yards)! A trained archer could shoot 12 to 15 arrows per minute and hit a man-sized target at a minimum of 200 yards. The maximum range of a longbow was about 400 yards.

All men from 16 to 60 had a duty to protect the country in time of crisis (the posse comitatus). But a levy of archers for military service could also be taken in each county from anyone with land or rents worth from £2 to £5 (or they could pay for a substitute). In 1346 at the battle of Crecy, the English army of Edward III had 7,000 to 10,000 archers out of a total strength of 19,000 men…

The use of archery declined during the 15th century as it became impossible to maintain the strict training needed to maintain the strength and skills needed to shoot a longbow. This may partly have been a consequence of a more mobile society with a shift of former labourers to the towns. In 1477, Edward IV banned an early form of cricket because it was thought to be interfering with regular archery practice.

From its origin in the training needed for military service, archery developed as a sport from the 16th century. Henry VIII started a number of sporting archery groups – protecting them against prosecution from accidentally shooting passers-by! The "The Society of Finsbury Archery", was founded by at least 1594.
Yet, while archery is still permitted, target shooting as a sport has declined drastically. Yet, in an age where we constantly complain that our kids seem to have nothing to do with their time, except get drunk and watch TV (or play "shoot 'em up" video games), the availability of a network of gun clubs would provide an additional outlet for idle youth, teach them – and their elders – familiarity with and respect for guns, and provide a domestic market that would keep at least one domestic rifle manufacturer in business.

One of Kim du Toit's commenters also notes that, in the field of small arms, most technical innovation has come from the private sector rather than state enterprises, while gun clubs provide a means of testing ideas before they are incorporated into mass-produced weapons on which our soldiers may have to rely for their lives.

All this points to an interesting interaction between domestic policy and our defence policy: ban guns and shooters and you end up having to buy European rifles for our soldiers. Mind you, Kim du Toit has a better idea.

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