Massachusetts Rifle Association

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Although there are several clubs that claim the title, the Massachusetts Rifle Association (also known as "Walnut Hill", "Mass Rifle" or the "MRA") is the oldest active gun club in the United States. It was founded in 1875, just four years after the creation of the National Rifle Association in 1871. The MRA has been continuously active since its founding and in the same location in Woburn, Massachusetts since 1876.

A General Invitation[edit]

On November 4, 1875 a notice was published in the Boston Morning Journal extending an invitation to all who would be interested in the organization of "a Boston Gun Club." At 4:00 p.m. that very day about 20 people met at the Bromfield House at 55 Bromfield Street in Boston, near what is today one of Boston’s busiest pedestrian intersections, Downtown Crossing. At this meeting Dr. Isaac H. Hazelton presided and Mr. Charles A. Sawyer (one of the authors of an earlier article in October, 1875 urging the formation of a "Rifle Association") acted as clerk. All present were in support of forming a rifle club at once.

They quickly formed a committee to look for a range and another committee to put together a set of rules and by-laws for the new club. They then signed a document expressing their desire to form an association and placed it in the window of the Remington & Sons gun store at 146 Tremont Street in Boston soliciting the signatures of others who would like to join them.

The Formation of the "Massachusetts Rifle Association"[edit]

The name “Massachusetts Rifle Association” was adopted on December 2, 1875 and on December 9 "the first meeting of the subscribers to an agreement to associate themselves with the intention to constitute a Corporation to be known by the name of The Massachusetts Rifle Association" was held. As a result of that meeting, notice this intent was sent to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on behalf of the MRA's first members:

Dr. Isaac H. Hazelton, William H. Jackson, Charles E. Sanborn, E.G. Osgood, George H. Adams, E.M. Messenger, and F.R. Shattuck

On December 15, 1875 a charter was granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (The Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth lists the date of organization as December 23, 1875.)

At 3:00 p.m. on December 17 the newly-chartered Association met at 30 Court Street, Office Number 5, Boston in the office of Charles Wheeler, Justice of the Peace, and voted to adopt its first set of by-laws and, following the adoption of those by-laws, they voted for its first set of officers and directors.

The Association's first set of officers was:

  • Dr. Isaac H. Hazelton, President
  • Charles E. Lanborn, Vice President
  • F.R. Shattuck, Treasurer
  • Charles A. Sawyer, Secretary

The minutes of the January 4, 1876 meeting the Treasurer reported a balance on hand of $17.00 and the Secretary reported the names of 12 new applicants for membership — each with the sum of $3.00 attached.

The Board of Directors was increased from seven Directors to 15 (a number that remains to this day) to adequately staff all of the various committees that the ambitious founders had in mind. By the time of the first annual meeting on January 11, 1876, another 23 members had joined and a motion at the meeting to have 50 copies of the club's by-laws printed had to be withdrawn in favor of another to have 100 copies made "on account of the increasing number of members." Among the club's new members were the following "Honorary Directors":

First Shooting Matches[edit]

During the Civil War the Union Army conducted training at Camp Sheppard near Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts.[1] While the members of the newly formed Association had been shooting at the Spy Pond Range since shortly after their initial meeting, their first "official" shoot as the newly chartered Massachusetts Rifle Association took place there on New Year’s Day in 1876.

1876 and a Home of Its Own on Walnut Hill[edit]

After a search by the Association’s members for a place to call its own, a lease was entered into with the Boston & Lowell Railroad company on September 21, 1876 for an area in Woburn, Massachusetts known as “Walnut Hill”. The name “Walnut Hill Range” was adopted on that date. Since the land was covered with woods at that time and needed to be cleared the Association continued shooting at Spy Pond until the initial work at Walnut Hill was completed. The Massachusetts Rifle Association fired its last match at Spy Pond on October 28, 1876.

On November 16, 1876, after much hard work, the first match was held at Walnut Hill. Twenty-one marksmen tried their skill (and luck) shooting targets made of cast iron that were bolted together at the back and posted at 200 and 300 yards (270 m). It was not until about 1880 when that the change to paper targets began. The competitors used the Creedmoor system of scoring in addition to the “Massachusetts” system.

On December 19, 1876 targets were erected at 500 and 600 yards (550 m) and by April 17, 1877 additional target positions had been placed at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards (910 m). A "Spring Meeting" was held on Monday and Tuesday, June 18 and 19, 1877 to open the ranges in a more "public way".

In the Fall of 1878 the MRA's first shooting house, or the "Winter Shed", was built at the 200-yard (180 m) firing point. Up until this point, the only available shelter for marksmen had been a portable canvas awning or another shed near the 900-yard (820 m) firing point that had been used as storage and for the sale of score cards. Once the shooting house was completed, the storage shed was moved near where the present club house sits and was used to shelter horses.

The MRA built its third shooting house (now part of the existing club house) in the summer of 1891 at a cost "of more than $3,000.00".

On January 13, 1880 the MRA purchased the 44.64 acres (180,700 m2) that had been leased, since September 21, 1876, from the Boston & Lowell Railroad.

Once the property was purchaed the MRA's facilities began to grow. The two targets that had been at 200 yards (180 m) since 1876 were expanded to twelve; instead of one target at 500 yards (460 m) there were now six; and the one target at 1,000 yards (910 m) had increased to four.

In 1887 a 50-yard (46 m) range with eight positions was established primarily for pistol and revolver matches and, in 1900, another range was opened with three positions at a distance of 25 yards (23 m).

Shooters, Innovators and Pioneers[edit]

"Mass. Rifle" has been home to many pioneers and innovators in the area of the shooting sports: Harry M. Pope, world-famous maker of precision rifle barrels; author Arthur Corbin Gould who published The Rifle in 1885 (forerunner to the NRA's The Rifleman and American Rifleman); Eugene E. Patridge, inventor of the sights that bear his name (often mispronounced as "Partridge" sights); gunsmith A. O. Niedner who made the very first Patridge sight for Mr. Patridge himself at Niedner's workshop in Malden, Massachusetts; and Dr. Franklin Mann, who explored and wrote about the science of shooting, were all early members of the MRA.

Mr. Patridge's sighting system has become a standard for many American handguns. His arrangement replaced the thinner front blade sight coupled with a u-notch rear sight that many earlier revolvers employed in favor of a front post sight with parallel vertical sides and a flat top and a rear sight with a rectangular rear notch. The walls of the rear sight are parallel to each other and to those of the blade providing a superior sight picture to the older sighting system. This "front post, rear notch" sight is familiar to most modern shooters.

Mr. Niedner was an active member of Mass Rifle for more than twenty years. In addition to his building Patridge's first sight, Niedner also experimented in developing and improving rifle cartridges. Once Niedner complained to Major Dooley of the U.S. Cartridge Company (headed by Benjamin Butler, an "Honorary Director" of the MRA) about the lack of accuracy of the .22 Long cartridges available at the time. Major Dooley provided Niedner with ten thousand primed .22 long cases and twenty-five pounds of powder. Niedner's subsequent experiments led to the eventual development of the .22 Long Rifle cartridge - one of the most popular calibers ever invented. Niedner also developed the .25 Niedner cartridge around 1920.

"The Bullet's Flight From Powder To Target" was written and published by Franklin Ware Mann, another MRA innovator, in 1909. It was the culmination of many years’ worth of research into how and why some bullets travel on a truer path to their intended target than others. A second printing was by Standard Printing and Publishing Company in 1942 and both Wolfe Publishing and NRA Classics Library have since issued reprints.

Pope, Patridge and Niedner all served on the MRA's Board of Directors.

Today[edit]

The Massachusetts Rifle Association, "America's oldest active gun club," has undergone many changes but remains on "Walnut Hill" in Woburn, Massachusetts just north of Boston near the intersection of routes 128 and 93. It offers firearms safety classes to its members as well as the general public and provides its membership with facilities that include the original club house along with several pistol, rifle and shotgun ranges. The MRA also sponsors competitive pistol and rifle teams and an active Juniors Shooting Program that teaches responsibility and marksmanship to younger shooters.

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