St Albans School shooting, and therefore OA shooting as well, has always had to fight against the odds for its continued existence. Montague Jones started it probably as soon as he became Headmaster in 1902. He certainly started a school cadet force then. Monty always claimed that St. Albans was the first School to have an OTC! Monty was himself a keen Bisley shot and had a hut built there in 1930, the year he retired.
In 1908 the school entered a team for the ‘Ashburton’, for the first time and every year (except the war years) until 1932, Monty himself coached the team with later help from W J Baumgartner who was his protégé from 1916. Under W T Marsh, the new headmaster, only small-bore shooting was continued. This took place in the old ‘underground playground’, before the miniature range was opened at Belmont in the early 1920’s.
From 1923 until about 1925, boys went by char-a-banc on several Wednesday afternoons to the ‘Open Range’, at Old Welwyn and there are few references to shooting by the old boys at that time. Monty founded the 0A rifle club in 1929 and remained president until his death in 1938. His son, Brigadier Montague-Jones, fired the opening shots on the small-bore range at Beech Bottom in April 1962, and himself became president in 1964.
The success of full-bore shooting at school in the 60’s & 70’s was paralleled by that of the OAR + PC which gained prominence in the world of smallbore. Owen Simmons shot in the Hertfordshire county rifle team for many years and in one particular season gained a county pistol team badge as well as one for prone rifle, a rare combination. lain Conacher and Andrew Wilkie were likewise members of the twenty strong county rifle team. Others, such as David Buxton had occasional invitations to shoot in specialist county matches such as the ‘Time Limit’.
In 1968, prompted by Owen’s success and a general interest within the club, it was decided to take the plunge and add pistol shooting to the disciplines on offer. Several working parties later, a pit had been excavated in front of the 25 yard firing point on the outdoor range at Beech Bottom. Standing in the pit kept the sightline the same as for prone rifle. This enabled pistol shooting to start with only minimal modifications to the range. After the initial flush of “let’s have a go” enthusiasm there was a quiet spell where the pistols would only come out if there was some time to spare at the end of a rifle shoot. The object of these early practice sessions was to succeed in getting ten shots on the target, not as easy as it sounds at twenty yards with a short barrel and shaky hand. But once that had been mastered, interest in the new discipline grew.
For a period in the late 70’s the amount of shooting which took place during the summer season at Beech Bottom required sessions on both Saturdays and Sundays. This overcame the conflicting demands for range time between pistol and long range rifle shooting. On top of this, Monday evening sessions at the 25 yard school range continued – as did visits to Bisley to shoot in annual two way competitions against the Old Lawrentians, the Old Alleyians (for the Arnold Cup) as well as the larger scale Ashburton Supporters Match, Malvern Cup etc.
It was in 1967 that the OAs achieved their most notable full-bore coup when, for the first time, a team of three schoolboys and three OAs was entered in the Malvern Cup competition and won with the record score of 560 despite some of the worst weather that Bisley can offer. The record stood until only a few years ago.
At the start of 1976 the original wooden school range burnt down leaving the club in considerable difficulties with the seasons indoor winter shooting calendar. It was time to seek help from the contacts made in our associations with the county. Eventually the problem was overcome through the kind offices of the Marconi rifle club who allowed OAs to become associate members of their club and to use the 25 yard range in the canteen of Ballito’s old stocking factory in Fleetville, which Marconi Instruments had taken over.
Eventually the school range was rebuilt allowing the club to return to the regular Monday evening meetings, this time in the relative splendour of a brick built building. Since that time the OAR + PC have maintained a close relationship with the Marconi Club who would still join us to shoot long range competitions on the outdoor 100 yard range at Beech Bottom.During the period when the school continued to flourish in the full-bore world it was important to maintain and foster the links with the OAR + PC. To achieve this the Clubs met three or four times a year at Bisley for various full-bore matches including the annual match for the Montague-Jones clock, presented in 1965. Bisley was also a regular meeting place for our country members including such stalwarts of the day as F A Messenger, Howard Ridge and Roger Cluff, and many others too numerous to mention.
For a time the CCF was able to use the ranges at Colchester for early season training. Whilst the facilities were better suited to military rather than sports shooting the opportunity to get in some early season full-bore practice for the OAs was welcome despite the somewhat raw weather conditions in March. On a number of occasions the OAs were able to assist Sam Kilpatrick in coaching the lads but escaping from the office became increasingly difficult and this combined with range availability difficulties led to the eventual demise of this annual session. In order to build on the links between school shooting and the OAR + PC the Coles family, of which three generations had shot at school, presented the Coles Trophy. This is an annual small-bore event (as opposed to the full-bore clock match) shot between teams of schoolboys and OAs. In its most recent history the match has been held at the school range as part of the founders day activities.
As with any organisation, things are never static and from the early eighties there has been a notable decline in the number of schoolboys taking up shooting as a sport. The retirement of L G Walker and Sam Kilpatrick brought to a temporary end a long-standing era of shooting excellence at school. Pressure on the school to succeed as an independent meant that shooting had to take something of a secondary importance with a reduction in members joining us from school. Then came a series of body blows in the guise of public outcry and legislation resulting from events at Hungerford and elsewhere. Added to this was a loss of numbers due to people moving away from the area.
Just prior to the departure of the Conachers to a new home in Scotland, the rifle club went ‘open’ in order to leave the way clear for members to be recruited from outside the school. Later, in 1990, following the departure of other members meant that membership fell to an all time low. Since that time, membership has remained steady with a small but enthusiastic group; occasionally boys join us on Monday evenings and there are tentative signs that things may be improving. Owen Simmons is currently our President & Secretary; Andy Moore the Treasurer; and Andrew Wilkie the club captain. The club and individual members continue to take an active role on the committees of the OA club, and the sports association. Despite the small numbers there is no lack of enthusiasm and sporting representation continues at county level with four members of the club holding positions in county team leagues. We also keep in touch with our “country” members, who, unable to join us on a regular basis, support our activities in various ways, usually a much-needed cheque!
The nature of shooting has undoubtedly changed over recent years and nowhere is this more evident than at Bisley. Gone is the almost overwhelming presence of the military and slowly a more sport-orientated attitude is emerging. Improvements in weapons and ammunition have brought about a succession of reductions in the size of the bull to the point where the emphasis is now very much on the mental and physical approach of the shooter. Gone also now is the pistol shooting as a result of the terrible events in Dunblane and the over-reaction by the government. We were a small band of pistol shooters but enjoyed reasonable success at various levels. We have enjoyed the presence of ladies in the club for some years now and they are quite capable of holding their own in shoulder-to-shoulder competition. Indeed, Jane Knighton was the first of our county ladies champions, and since then Jan Conacher and Priscilla Simmons have both represented the club at county levels. With the demise of pistol shooting, there was a lesser need to use the outdoor range at Beech Bottom and the OA shooters drifted away from the club to the less windy confines of the school range. We have always enjoyed a special relationship with the school and all pupils are always welcome to join us. So we have tended to concentrate our small-bore shooting at the school range. Our small numbers and restrictions on use make any move to the new ground impossible and we will continue to make best use of the kind hospitality of the school.
As ever, we are always seeking new members to join and swell our ranks. So if you were a shooter or wish to start, come and see us sometime. Shooting is undoubtedly a precision sport offering a challenge to both personal skills and determination individually or as part of a team. Pursuance of this sport fits well with the ideals of the school and we in the rifle club look forward to continuing those ideals long after schooldays have ceased and potentially beyond retirement. ‘straight barrels!’