The Rifle Range
In addition to being farmed, the Rifle Range was used to train army volunteers shooting skills from the mid nineteenth century onwards. The last shot was fired here sometime in the mid 1980's, and the area then became uneconomical to farm & was allowed to go 'wild'. Local residents began to use it for recreational purposes & in 2007 the owners, The Wiston Estate, decided to turn the land into a community conservation area, & the Steyning Downland Scheme was born.
Why Rifle Ranges came into being
The mid 19th century was a busy period to be a soldier of the British Empire. A succession of wars had raged around the world, fought by the British with an eye on protecting their interests. The worst of these was the Crimean War of 1853-56 which had proved to be a major drain for the army and navy – both of which had sent thousands of men abroad resulting in the unpleasant situation that there were few trained men left at home in defence of the nation. Only a few years after fighting alongside side the French in the Crimea, Britain now found itself looking to France as the next aggressor, a country so close that an invasion was a very real possibility. To bring the required numbers of soldiers back to Britain to defend its shores would leave the Empire protected by too few. A solution had to be found quickly. The answer to the problem was found in 1859 by the formation of a part time army made up of civilians: The Rifle Volunteers.
Sussex, on the front line of a potential new war, formed 19 Corps of Volunteers, based around the major towns along the coast. The 18th Corps was centred at Henfield, incorporating Steyning and the surrounding area. One criteria for being accepted as a recognised Corps was to be able to provide a safe area for musketry practice – the place that was chosen is what is now known as the Steyning Rifle Range.
Old Rifle Range Map
Ready to Fire
The William Figg Map of Charlton Court Farm
Initially, as the Corps of Rifle Volunteers could choose their own uniforms, there was a huge variation up and down the country in their appearance, the designs being drawn from fashions of the day – brightly coloured uniforms were popular. Towards the end of the 19th Century there was a move to bring the Volunteers in line with the regular army, in both training and they way they looked - in 1908 this culminated with the Volunteer Rifles transforming into the Territorial Force. Drill halls were commonly used by these groups (www.drillhalls.org), however was no drill hall in close proximity to the range, and around 1905 the rifles were stored at Windsor Cottage in Steyning.
Who used the Rifle Range
The spirit of the Volunteers (civilians as part-time soldiers) continued through the First World War with the Volunteer Training Corps and in the Second World War the Home Guard. Both were made up of men too young or too old to join the army or those in a reserved occupation and all took up the challenge of Home defence eagerly. Both officers and regular army members used the Range because they had different guns with different bullets. Other groups have also used the range over the years, including police officers using shot guns and various gun enthusiasts using antiques with reproduction musket balls and other bullets. Tommy guns were also probably used there. Maps from 1932 show just two targets. In the time after the war, the use of Steyning Rifle Range increased as other ranges were closed down (see MOD document) and the number of targets increased as well.
How the Rifle Range Valley was used
In the 1980’s after 120 years of use, the range was closed down, the changing times putting an emphasis on civilian safety rather than rifle training. That is not to say, however the range was unsafe. It was, in fact, a perfect choice – a steep sided valley, with a long level floor, the targets located at the head of the valley. All of these ingredients combine to make the range a secure place to practice musketry skills, the slopes minimising stray shots from inexperienced riflemen from wandering too far, the head of the valley catching the bullets from the shots that went through the paper targets. Flags raised on poles around the range announced that firing was in progress and that entry was prohibited to the general public. In the target area, ‘markers’ (the people chosen to operate the targets and score the people firing) were fully protected from bullets by the large earth bank supported by a brick wall. All aspects of safety were observed, both for those practicing and those who living in Steyning.
What can still be seen of the Rifle Range
The remains of the targets can still be seen by going over the stile at the head of the Rifle Range valley. The metal frames probably date from the First World War, but these frames were commonly re-used at different rifle ranges, and so they may have arrived at the Steyning Rifle Range at a later date. The buildings and structures date from the Second World War, so it is likely they were all put in place at the same time. The 100 yard and 200 yard lines can still be clearly seen on the floor of the valley and a little bit of imagination could conjure up again the busy working range it once was.
Justin Russell November 2012