The History of Smallbore Rifle Shooting

Rifle shooting originated as a skill used by hunters and the military as a modernisation of the marksmanship skills previously used by archers and it developed into a civilian sport competed at international level during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The next few sections describe the path taken from the early beginnings through to the sport that is recognised today covering the events, key governing bodies as well as some of the main manufacturers of Smallbore rifles and equipment.

Pre 1900

During the 1800s shooting clubs and organisations developed into national shooting federations. International shooting competitions were first held at the 1896 Summer Olympics, and the first World Championships were a year later in 1897.


The rifles used in competitions were either military or hunting rifles and the companies who make Smallbore rifles for sports shooting today were only just starting out. 

1900 - 1910

In the United Kingdom rifle shooting as a civilian sport was growing from a military requirement. Around the time of the second Boer war (1899 - 1902) a need arose in the United Kingdom to increase the shooting ability of the general population in the event that the regular army could not withstand an invasion.


In these early years there were not many formally recognised rifle clubs and those that did exist were made up from Volunteers (the organisation now known as the Territorial army) using outdoor ranges with military rifles. In 1900 the British Rifle League was created, followed a year later by the Society of Working Men’s Rifle Clubs (S.M.R.C.) and it was decided that civilians could learn to shoot using the comparatively cheap "miniature" (small-bore) rifles and ammunition instead of the standard service rifle. This made shooting more available to the wider population by reducing the cost of rifles by the fact that rifles of .22 calibre were readily available at modest cost, a sporting type rifle could be purchased for £1.00 or less at the time – this is roughly equal to £100 today, and the safety requirements for rifle ranges were easier to satisfy for the smaller rifles than they were for high calibre service rifles.


The cost of a gun licence at the time was 10 shillings per year, almost £50 today, and this presented a considerable barrier to shooting for most people. When the rules changed in 1906 people were exempt from paying the licence fee if they were members of a club affiliated to the British Rifle League thus making shooting as a hobby even more accessible.


The first international governing body for shooting appeared in 1907 with the joining together of a number of national associations, the name of this union was Union International de Tir (UIT - known in English as the ISU) with new members joining over the following years. The name changed in 1998 to The International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF).

1910 – 1930

By the outbreak of war in 1914 a large number of UK civilians had learnt the skills of shooting because of the clubs supported by the S.M.R.C. and many of these people were willing to put these skills to use in the service of their country.


Following the end of the war in 1918 rifle clubs in the UK suffered from a combination of increased legislation for shooting and a reduced number of club members because many of them had lost their lives in the war. The S.M.R.C. continued to work to increase the interest in Smallbore rifle shooting and slowly over time the clubs began to revive.


The 1920 Olympics had the highest number of shooting events held since the Games began with 21 different events, this was followed in 1921 with a decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow the ISSF to govern the shooting events in the future games, thus starting the relationship that continues to exist in 2017.

The end of this period saw the interest in Smallbore shooting increase and attendance at national and international events was very good. However, this caused some problems for the still new relationship between the ISSF and IOC. ISSF World Championship events awarded prize money and this went against the IOC amateur standards. The disagreement between the two governing bodies was such that shooting was excluded from the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.

During this time both Anschutz and Walther continued to design and manufacture new types of gun but neither has started to work on Smallbore Target rifles. 

1930 – 1950

In the last few years before the Second World War the World Championships provided the stage for the first woman entrant in an international event, Catherine Woodring shot for the USA team and helped the team win the gold medal. During the same period between the wars shooting in the UK had grown once again into a common sport with over 2000 clubs and 60 County Associations across the country.

With Europe once more at war the number of affiliated Clubs in the United Kingdom increased aided by the formation of the Home Guard which is responsible for the founding of many of the clubs that exist today. The S.M.R.C. again assisted with training and range certification work and again, as in 1914, tribute was paid to them in the House of Commons, by the Secretary of State for War. By the end of 1945 there were over 4,000 affiliated clubs and other organisations in the S.M.R.C., of which 1,000 were former Home Guard Units. In 1947 the S.M.R.C. changed its name to the National Smallbore Rifle Association (N.S.R.A.) which remains today the Governing body for Smallbore rifle shooting in the UK.

1950 – Today

With the sport fully established on the world stage the next half century provided the developments that turned the sport into what it is today. New competitions appeared at both National and International levels, more event types were added to existing competitions and new associations formed to help facilitate the development of new and experienced shooters.

In the UK, the post war years saw a decline in the number of clubs affiliated to the N.S.R.A. As the Home guard units disbanded and the core purpose of Smallbore rifle shooting changed from the need to defend the country into a solely recreational sport, the total number of clubs dropped to around 1000. Despite the reduction in the number of clubs, shooting remains a very popular sport with thousands of people competing at levels from beginner through to world class.