Today, if you take the Grand Central Parkway east from Brooklyn, NY, to its intersection with the Cross Island Parkway in Queens, you will be close to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center and the Queens Farm Park administered by the Parks Administration of New York City. Little is left to mark the site of the 70-acre rifle range that was the first home to the annual matches of the National Rifle Association of America.
Yet, on Sept. 26, 1874, you would have been just one among 10,000 who ventured to the area on the Central Rail Road to witness the first international shooting event ever held in North America.
Competitive shooting had received widespread interest in the United Kingdom, beginning with the formation of the National Rifle Association of Great Britain in 1851. Matches between English, Scottish and Irish rifle teams had gained the imagination of the public during the years America was embroiled in its own Civil War—a war that demonstrated the dire need for the American military to step up its marksmanship prowess. A letter to Abraham Lincoln from the British NRA extolled the advantages that a military well-practiced in the art of marksmanship would have on the battlefield.
COL William C. Church and BG George Wingate set about to do just that in 1871 and chartered the NRA for that exact purpose: to make marksmanship as important as close-order drill during infantry training. As Mark Twain would later illustrate when he described how Tom Sawyer got his friends to white-wash his fence because he made it look like so much fun, marksmanship competition was designed to be the rising tide that lifted all boats. Make training a competition, and marksmanship proficiency would become a matter of honor between the companies, regiments and branches of all the services.
With this in mind, the NRA purchased 70 acres of land from the Central Railroad called Creed’s Farm and began to convert the nearly level pasture and farmland into a shooting range. Within a year of its opening in 1873, the recently crowned shooting champions of the United Kingdom, the Irish Shooting team, challenged the Americans to a match on their home turf.
Hosted by the members of the NRA-affiliated Amateur Rifle Club of NY and drawing more than 10,000 attendees, the Creedmoor matches of 1874 captured the public’s attention like no other sporting event had in recent memory.
The six members of the American rifle team consisted of luminaries such as prolific inventor Louis L. Hepburn, John Bodine and the youngest member of the team, Henry Fulton. The Americans used rifles made by Remington and Sharps for its competition, as the breechloading Remington rolling block and the Sharps falling block were considered the best of their type manufactured in the U.S. at that time.
The Irish team was also represented by a giant of the firearm world, John Rigby, one of England’s finest gunmakers. Armed with his rifles—specially designed for long-range shooting—it was thought the Irish team would sweep the Americans aside in embarrassing fashion.
After a half-day’s shooting, the matches were close, each side separated from winning only by a few points. The youngest member of the Irish team took aim and scored a bullseye, but on the wrong target, counting as a miss. It came down to the last shot of the match when John Bodine of the American team paused to quench his thirst with a ginger beer that unfortunately exploded in his hand as the day’s heat reacted with the chilled contents of the bottle. Blood gushed forth from Bodine’s lacerated hand and one of the Irish team members, who was a physician, tended to his wound and suggested he seek professional attention.
Bodine brushed away the concerns of teammates and challengers and set about to complete the final shot. With blood dripping from his bandaged hand, he laid on his back, placed the rifle between his crossed legs and took aim. The .44-caliber bullet started its flight down the 1,000-yard range and hit the target dead center, sending a resounding “clang” back to the thousands of spectators who had been holding their collective breath.
Then the cheers became deafening and telegraph wires began to sing. America had won—934 points to the Irish team’s 931. Hepburn’s rolling-block design won the day over the tried-and-true rifles of John Rigby. The world was now starting to pay attention to the importance of marksmanship skills.
No one knows who presented the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum with a Remington Creedmoor Long Range target rifle elaborately engraved by Louis D. Nimschke and won by D. Barclay during the same 1874 matches. It is the first gun in what is now a 10,000-gun museum collection that spans from 1350 A.D. to the present. From a most humble beginning in 1871, the NRA has grown into the foremost leader in marksmanship training, contributing to the strength of our military and our republic for the past 150 years.