Service Rifle and the .303

The Historic Service Rifle Competition at Bisley Camp 

There is nothing quite as exciting as a service rifle shoot. The marksman has to take all the principles of marksmanship and compress them into seconds, as a small target appears in a flash, holds for a moment and then drops below the mantle. Standing, kneeling, sitting and prone shooting are all required within minutes or seconds of the previous position. The shooting is almost instinctive, but when the wind gets up and the distances increase, there is no avoiding a mental ballistic calculation, that simply has to be done in seconds. The service rifleman’s body has to be flexible, the brain agile and the hold on the rifle rock steady. Add into this equation a heavy wooden rifle that was designed over a century ago, for a conflict on the highlands of Africa, and you end up with a monumental challenge. This is the world of historic service rifle competitions. 

By Raf Jah

Service rifle shooting with Lee Enfields was once very popular amongst NRA members, but it fell by the wayside. That was until 1998 when a new discipline was started, that of civilian service rifle (CSR) shooting. The UK CSR league is now a large part of civilian shooting. Within a few years, the Lee Enfields were replaced by more modern, user friendly rifles. But there was always a desire to shoot old rifles amongst the members. So in 2014 the NRA and the Lee Enfield Rifle Association (LERA) got together and created the first historic service rifle competition. Indeed CSR shooting is now perceived to be the fastest growing shooting sport in the UK. So successful was the first year of historic shooting that a second historic shoot was added at the end of the CSR Season. 

It was with this background in mind that I found myself in the butts hauling down a target. All historic and civilian service rifle competitions require the shooters to work the targets for the other shooters. The 303 round cracked over my head and deep into the sand. It was well wide of the target. 

“Do you want to tell the shooter where he is going?” I asked the butts officer.

“He’ll ask if he needs to” he replied sagely. 

The second sighting shot was closer but still missed. 

The butts’ officer looked at me and said “I don’t have much sympathy- this is supposed to be a F***** shooting competition”.  He strode off busying himself with the last seconds of preparation. No one asked any more questions and all too soon the newly patched targets were ready to be hoisted.

“Targets up” came the command from the venerable butts officer. I hoisted mine and with that the shoot started. 

Thankfully my shooter must have seen the splash of his missed shots as bullet after bullet smacked into the target.  45 seconds passed, and the shout went over the loudspeaker:

“Targets down”.  

I obeyed the command, counted up the shooters scores, noted them on a scrap of paper and inserted orange spotting disks. There is no time to waste on a service rifle shoot, the targets must be up and shown quickly, so that the next shoot can begin. My biggest concern is to avoid underscoring a fellow shooter. 

“Did this cross the line?”- I show my neighbour, Blair, a very experienced professional. 

Blair is an old Africa hand, and a superb shot with a 303. Often he is asked to work as an official at such competitions.

He glances at my target and the round that has come oh so close to breaking the line of the 5 ring. 

“Yes mate, give him that one”. Blair goes back to his own target as I wait for the scorer to come down and take scores. As soon as the scores are given and the shooters decline to challenge, we haul down the targets and patch them for the next practice. It’s speedy stuff, usually done by a two man team.  By chance I am on my own, but my neighbours lend a hand now and again.  Soon enough the practices are all over and we walk swiftly back to the car park, collect our kit and hurry on to the firing point. 

Less than a quarter of an hour later, I find myself lying prone on a damp Bisley mound with a Canadian made Long Branch 303 clenched in my clammy hands. A DP1 target appears as if by magic in front of me. The black and white swirls are the civilian version of the “charging Ivan” figure 11. I raise the Long Branch into my shoulder and let the foresight rest on the centre of the DP1. 

I fire, reload rapidly and fire again. I repeat  the process until my magazine is empty. By this time I have broken out into a sweat. The stress of trying to get all the rounds on target is by now very noticeable. Everyone around me is still shooting. I look about and eventually the targets disappear. It seems I might have been faster than was necessary. 

“You had 45 seconds,” says  Peter Cottrell, the head of the shooting division, and the inspiration behind the Historic Service Rifle competition.

“But I think you got your rounds off in 10!’’

He was joking but he made a valid point. My scores were commensurate with my speed rather than care. I took more time on the next practice.  

Using 180 grain Sellier and Bellot ammunition requires some thought. The bullet comes out faster than PPU at 2400 ft per second, but the weight means that it does drop slightly more inconsistently than the ladder sights on a 303.

The wonderful thing about it is that it does not waver in slight to mild wind. The 303 round is what Richard Utting of sharpshooting UK calls “a very slippery pill”.

Slightly annoyingly the wind is neither slight nor mild, but comes in occasional sneaky but  powerful gusts which seem to appear in consonance with the DP1. The DP1 flashes up and I line the sights up with the swirl, the wind picks up suddenly and blows past my face, I hold off on the edge of the target and squeeze the trigger. Taking my time, my scores are far more respectable. They are still nowhere near the top shooters but thankfully a good distance from the bottom.  

The shoot works its way back to 300 yards and volley after volley of 303 bullets go downrange. 

All too soon the final practice is over. The shooting stops, the hooter goes, and Bisley falls silent once again. Some shooters have shot incredibly well, dropping only a few points.

They are recognized at the informal prize giving ceremony at the end of the day. Peter Cottrell asks Mick Kelly of the Lee Enfield Rifle Association, and an invaluable source of information on all things Enfield,  to present the medals.  The sky darkens, winter is ever closer, and as soon as the final medal has changed hands, we retire in good order.


The next NRA shoot will be at the end of the CSR season. Contact the shooting division for details. www.nra.org.uk

Transcontinental Shooting runs global Service Rifle Shoots at Bisley Camp. Use the contact form to get in touch.

If you live in Australia and wish to shoot matches like this, the Australian Lee Enfield Rifle Association has an excellent shoot calender.  Use the contact form on this site for more details.