The Manitoba Provincial Rifle Association was formed in 1872. An extract from the Manitoba Gazette of August 10th, 1872 describes the first meeting of the Association: “A large and influential meeting was held in the mess room at Fort Garry. Col. Robertson Ross. Adjutant General of Militia in the Chair, for the purpose of forming a provincial rifle association, for the encouragement of rifle shooting amongst the Militia and inhabitants of Manitoba…the following gentlemen were elected officers of the Association: Patron, the Lt.Governor of the Province; Vice-Patron, The Hon. D.A. Smith, M.P. President, Major Irvine.” The Hon. D.A. Smith (later to become Lord Strathcona) was a patron of the Association for forty years. He always took a very keen interest in shooting and donated a great many prizes, especially for Cadets.
Among the founders of the Association was Edwin Brokovski, son of a Polish army officer, who was a director for many years and who became prominent in the political and cultural life of Manitoba.
It is not surprising that such an association was formed at this time. It will be recalled that in 1870 Winnipeg was a village with a population of just 200-250. There were few stores, no schools, no railroad, no telegraph, no banks and NO TAXES. It will also be recalled that at that time there was discontent between the Metis and there was fear of the Fenians and the possibility of them invading the Province. Relations with the Indians were by no means certain. It is apparent that the forming of the rifle association was an important step in national and local defence.
The annual rifle competitions began September 25th, 1873. The first trophy was a sterling silver cup presented in that year by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which is still competed for in 2003. The first ranges were located in St. Boniface just north of where the CathedraI now stands. The rifle used at that time was the .577 Snider. The weight of the bullet was 530 grains and the propellant was black powder. It is no wonder that matches consisted of only live shots and (the distances fired were 200, 300 and 400 yards. The position taken up by the first firer was standing at 200 yards and any position with “head to the target” at the other ranges.
In the early days of the Association’s competitions it was customary to have a grand opening ceremony. Many of the meetings were opened by a distinguished lady firing the first shot from a rifle fixed in a rest. One of these occasions was in 1876 when Mrs. Morris. wife of the Lt.-Governor of the Province fired this opening round. It was reported that a bullseye was scored at 500 yards.
The highlight of these occasions was in 1877 when the Governor General and his wife, the Countess of Dufferin, attended the competitions. The Countess fired the opening shot. Following luncheon at the ranges, the Governor General, replying to the toast to his health, stated that he took a “deep interest” in the success of the Manitoba Rifle Association. “I regard this Association as one of those means which your Province possesses of connecting itself practically with the rest of Canada and the Mother Country. Though I am but imperfectly acquainted at present with that square which represents on the map the form of the Province, I shall not probably by far amiss if I come to regard it on further experience as the bullseye of the Dominion.”
In 1877 the first railway reached Winnipeg. As this passed close to the ranges in St. Boniface these had to close down and a new location found. The competitions from 1878 until 1882 were fired on a range at Point Douglas, “north of the C.P.R., east of Main Street,” However, because of building in this part of the city a new site had to be found in 1883. There were two possibilities, Silver Heights or Stoney Mountain. The choice fell to the latter and the matches of 1883 were fired at Stoney Mountain. The range was situated just northeast of the Penitentiary (which had been built ten years previously). It was laid out so that the firing was in a northeasterly direction and behind the targets was natural rise of ground to a height of 75 feet which made an excellent stop butt. At that time it was considered to be probably the finest range in Canada. It was possible to fire at ranges from 200 to 1000 yards. Transportation to and from the range was by railroad. At this time many of the short range matches were fired with the Snider rifle but at ranges beyond 400 yards the Martini Henry rifle was generally used.
The Stoney Mountain range proved to be too far from Winnipeg for regular practice. At this time Louis Riel’s uprising “threatened to plunge the West into the chaos of an Indian War” and it was obviously necessary that a rifle range be built nearer to Winnipeg on which the Militia could practice. In 1885 a range was built in Kildonan just north of the present bus barns on Main Street and this was used until 1904. Again because of the growth of the city the Kildonan range was closed and a new range built at Sturgeon Creek. This range was also considered to be very fine and, next after the Rockcliffe Range in Ottawa, probably the best in Canada. The Sturgeon Creek range was opened on May 25th, 1905 by His Hon. The Lt.-Govemor, Sir Daniel McMiIIan. Lady McMillan fired the first shot from 200 yards.
It was at this range that the Ross rifle made its appearance in Provincial competition. This rifle was very accurate and, in the hands of our better marksmen, won many prizes at Ottawa and Bisley U.K. In 1905, Pte. Youhill was the first Manitoban to win the Governor-General’s prize, which is the premier prize of the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association and is still competed for annually at Ottawa. However, the most outstanding marksman of those days was A.M. Blackburn. In 1909 alone, he won the Empire Service Rifle Championship, Prince of Wales Competition, Wingrove Trophy, Binningham Silver Cup, Martin’s Rapid-Fire Cup and the London Financial Times Cup, all at Bisley in the UK.
In 1911 the Provincial Rifle Range was relocated again, for the sixth time since 1872; from the Sturgeon Creek location to a site slightly West of Winnipeg on the North side of Sturgeon Road. Beginning in 1911, the newly opened St. Charles Rifle Range would become the site of many impressive annual Provincial shooting competitions. In 1911, the very first Lt. Governor’s Gold Medal was presented to H. Koster, the winner of the Lt. Governor’s Match. In 1912, there were four Manitobans on the Bisley Team – A.M. Blackburn, J.W. Battershill, W. Davidson and H Auld. Lt.-Col. J.W. de C O’Grady of Winnipeg was Commandant. No competitions were held during World War I but the Association was re-activated in 1920 and annual Provincial competitions were held at the St. Charles Rifle Range until the outbreak of World War II. During this period the rifle used was the short magazine .303 Lee Enfield (S.M.L.E.). Matches were fired from 200 yards back to 1000 yards. One of the outstanding achievements at this time was the development of a remarkable team of Cameron Cadets. These boys not only won local competitions but also Dominion and one Empire competition and several members later qualified for Bisley Teams.
Following World War II, the M.P.R.A. annual competitions began again in 1946. Since that time Manitoba teams have won the Provincial Team Match and the London Merchants Team Match in the Dominion Matches at Ottawa. Manitoba has had at least two and often more individuals on each Canadian Bisley Team in the past 45 years.
The Queen’s (or King’s) Prize at Bisley has never been won to date by a Manitoban but, as stated earlier, the Governor-General’s Prize at Ottawa was first won by Pte. Youhill in 1905. it was 52 years before the feat was repeated when it was won by G.N. Colville in 1957. It was won by R.A. Pitcairn in 1962, B.E. Bestick in 1963 and again by R.A. Pitcaim in 1964. It is not too surprising that only four Manitobans have won this prize in the past 125 years as they average a small percentage of the competitors shooting the National Matches at Ottawa.
The rifle used since World War 11 has been the .303 No.4 Lee Enfield but this rifle was later re-barrelled and used with the 7.62mm (.308) cartridge. In the 60′s the “target rifle” was adopted which meant any rifle of .308 calibre could be used in competition. In the 90′s the 5.56mm calibre (.223) was added. A new era began in 1996 when hand-loaded ammunition was introduced.
Present day notables that have represented Manitoba on Canadian Bisley Teams. Larry Clavelle, Ron Dawson, Joe Gribben, Paul Gutnick, George McCartney, Don Sewell, Mrs. Doran Sewell, John Whitecross, Gordon Paetkau, John Chapman, Murray Sloane, Bruce McDonald, and Leo Poulin. In the smallbore discipline, Henry Gerow, Monica Fyfe, and Conner Deneka have represented Canada in International competitions.
We have four Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame inductees, J.W. Houlden as a Builder and Doran and Don SewelI, and Henry Gerow as athletes.
In the early days of the Association the opening of the Annual Provincial Championships was an impressive formality. In recent years the matches have begun rather inconspicuously, but the final day, which decides the winner of the major event – the Lt. -Governor’s Match, is marked by the “chairing” of the winner and presentation of prizes. Our collection of cups and trophies is one of the finest in the country.
Now, in 2012, as the Association reaches its 140th birthday, the majority of the membership is civilian or ex-service and by deleting only two words from the slightly archaic language of the Manitoba Gazette of August 10th, 1872 we find its present purpose – “for the encouragement of rifle shooting amongst the inhabitants of Manitoba.”
The Association continues to promote rifle shooting and continues to work closely with Cadet Corps throughout the Province.