The crazy story shared among America’s most famous shooting range, New York and the ascent of the National Rifle Association.
Winchester Blvd offers a straight shot to all that remains of Creedmoor shooting range 140 years after the most famous target shoot in American history.
Where the World’s best once aimed before thousands of spectators, a grassy field remains within the grounds of the century-old Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital in what is now the New York City borough of Queens. The railroad built to transport shooting enthusiasts way back when fell into disuse by the 1960s. International competitors patronized hotels demolished decades ago.
However, seen through discerning eyes, the early history of the National Rifle Association and target shooting alike emerges as a New York affair.
Located on the former farm of a family named Creed, “moor” denotes the flat terrain of the area which allowed shooting up to 1,000 yards. Such features are as visible now as in 1873 when the National Rifle Range opened in 1873 to much excitement within New York City, the New York Times reported. Governor John Adams Dix disappointed constituents when he could not fire the first shot, due to a scheduling conflict, according to the Times.
The range was top-notch for its time, though American marksmanship was not.
“It was the best facility for shooting in the country at the time,” Doug Wicklund, a senior curator at the NRA Museum in Fairfax, V.A.
The 1874 shoot against Ireland would not be the first international shoot held at the facility. That distinction instead belongs to a match held in Oct. 1873. America’s performance was hardly auspicious. A Canadian named Joseph Adam won the first shoot, with U.S. shooters who would compete at the more famous 1874 shoot scoring as low as 16 out of 48, according to the Times.
Then one month later, the NRA and its associated Amateur Rifle Club received a challenge the likes of which had never come before. This was after all, 1873 — 23 years before the Olympic Games would arise from antiquity after 1,500 years. International sports competition were yet to become as common as they would be a few decades later.
Fresh off a victory against the English and Scots at Wimbledon in 1873, the Irish Rifle Association (IRA) set its sights on America. Their Rigby muzzleloaders shared with them a reputation for dependability, but it would be the 1874 Sharps that would eventually garner the nickname “Old Reliable,” according to the NRA, and help win the day for America at Creedmoor.
On Nov. 22 1873, the Irish issued their challenge to the shooters of America through the New York Herald. If they dared challenge the winners of the Elcho Shield, then America would have to put its money where its mouth was, wrote IRA founder Arthur Blennerhasset Leech who evidently enjoyed referring to himself in the third person.
“As this challenge is given to decide title of the rifle championship of the World, Mr. Leech will require a sufficient stake to be put down, not for the sake of a trifling pecuniary gain, but as a guarantee that the Irish Team will meet the representative shots of America,” Leech wrote.
The NRA Board of Directors received notice of the challenge but took no action, according to an 1875 Amateur Rifle Club executive report saved from obscurity through a 1918 donation to the Harvard University Library. On Dec. 5, 1873 the club took up the challenge, states the report.
“At this time the Amateur Rifle Club consisted of but 61 members,” reads the report. “Although it had been organized since October, 1872, it had done nothing until the opening of the Range at Creedmoor, in June, 1873; and the meeting at which the challenge was accepted was really the first meeting of the Club ever convened since its organization.”
Most club members had yet to even fire a shot at 1,000 yards, the report notes. Soon the club circulated notices throughout New York City and the nation at-large. America needed its best rifleman — Annie Oakley was 13 years-old in 1873 — but few outside the city would try to join the team. Only at Creedmoor could shooters practice at such long distances as the competitions 600, 800 and 1,000 yards, according to the report, limiting opportunities for those residing elsewhere.
With just over a week to go before the match, the club made its final selection of team members at a meeting held at 194 Broadway, now the location of the steel-and-glass Fulton Center a few blocks north of Wall St.
Every man selected to be on the American team and the reserve, with one exception, were already members of the club upon acceptance of the challenge. Their shooting scores up to that point were “ludicrously small compared with those made in the match,” according to the report.
Nonetheless, the team would score 1,244 points during their final practice on Sept. 24, 1874 — 49 points more than the Irish team garnered when they won the Elcho Shield a year before. The team was in place. Five hundred dollars in donations from E. Remington & Sons and The Sharp Manufacturing Company secured adequate funding for the match.
More than 5,000 spectators schlepped their way from Manhattan on river ferries and a special rail line built to accommodate the shooting range. The candlelit train ride was far from comfortable, the Times reported in a front-page story on Sept. 27, 1874. The fans meanwhile did not necessarily come to support the home team. Irish immigrants brought pride in their native land as well.
However, they all came for the premier sporting event of the year.
“From what I’ve read and learned about it, it was just about as popular as NASCAR is today,” said Kirk Bryan, co-owner of Shiloh Sharps Rifles, of rifle shooting in the 1870s.
The score was close, America down by one when Col. John Bodine lay in his favored face-down position for the final shot. Injured by a shattered ginger ale bottle just moments before, Bodine squeezed the trigger for what would give his team a winning margin of three points.
“A breathless silence prevailed while the shot was fired, and as the white disc came slowly in view in response, the excitement became intense.” reported the Times the next day. “The vast crowd broke through the rope and cordon of Police, which kept them back from the firing point, and crowded around the Colonel.”
America had made its mark on the international level in long-range shooting, said Wicklund.
For the next 18 years, Creedmoor was where it was at when it came to long range shooting. Militia privates and robber barons alike honed their skills there. Australians, Irish, Scots, British and Canadians would come for more competitions.
“Long-range rifle shooting has made such wonderful progress during the past three years that a metropolitan gentleman who has not a record of a good score made at Creedmoor to show to his admiring friends is looked upon as being behind the age,” opined the Times on Sept. 4, 1876.
But the pressures of a growing population were increasing, according to Wicklund. The formerly rural area of Queens was attracting new residents critical of rifle blasts so near their homes. Though New York City would not incorporate the area until 1898, by 1892 the glory days of Creedmoor were over.
“It would be premature, probably, to aver that the glory of Creedmoor has departed; but it is quite certain that, with the transfer of this year’s annual matches of the National Rifle Association to See Girt (New Jersey), the famous parent range temporarily loses its old importance for all riflemen except those of the New York National Guard,” wrote the Times in July of that year.
Long range shooting was outgrowing its New York City roots, the Times suggested two months later.
“The meeting on the New Jersey range will, in fact, be interesting in many ways, and perhaps its result may determine the future course of the National Rifle Association,” the Times reported Sept. 2, 1892. “The competitions which it offers ought to bring together teams from many different States, and especially from those that are nearest the range on which they may be held.”
The NRA gave the land back to New York State that same year, though the range itself remains relevant today, according to Wicklund.
“The match tradition that began at Creedmoor, 100 plus years later, is still in full swing,” he said.
While those living and working outside the shooting community know little about the 1874 Creedmoor shoot, it did not take long for them to express excitement once they learned. A staff member of Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital — which began in 1912 as the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital — seemed quite charmed to hear she worked upon the former site of the NRA’s National Rifle Range. Hospital officials did not respond to a written request for a tour of the grounds, though given the site’s current specialty, writing such a query on a mechanical typewriter appeared at best, quite anachronistic.
Creedmoor shooting range was ahead of its time among the ranks of publicly-funded athletic facilities, according to Richard Davies, a distinguished professor of history emeritus at the University of Nevada at Reno and a leading authority on American sports history. He said in a phone interview that while he was only just learning about Creedmoor, if its story were true then the rifle range was certainly a ‘vanguard’ of what would come to major sports nearly a century later.
“All the baseball stadiums were privately financed until the 1950s … That’s amazing,” he said after hearing the story of the great Creedmoor shoot.
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Black Powder Cartridge News.