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A Short History of the the Sling

Hap Rocketto has generously offered to provide some of his writings and articles to pronematch.com. Here is the first. Thanks, Hap!
-Dan Holmes

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A Short History of the the Sling
By Hap Rocketto
Editor-in-Chief, pronematch.com
(a subsidiary of CPL Digby Hand Schützenverein International)  

“Rifle training was serious business, and we worked at it for several months each year. The positions were standing, or offhand as we called it, sitting, kneeling, and prone, all using the rifle sling for support. The sling, a leather strap attached to the rifle for carrying the piece, was a necessary aid for accurate shooting.” So remembers Victor Vogel, in his elegantly simple memoirs of life as an enlisted infantryman in the United States Army between the World Wars, entitled Soldiers of the Old Army.

Like the young Vogel and his messmates, most of us take our rifle training and competition seriously and rely on the sling as a ‘necessary aid’. However, how much do we know about this omnipresent and essential, piece of shooting equipment? After riffling through the pages of the various NRA Rule Books that govern the several rifle disciplines one finds that they agree on only two points concerning slings. The first is that the essential information on slings is contained in NRA Rule 3.13. The second is that it may be used in connection with only one arm to steady the rifle. After these two agreements are made the rules go off in their own directions.

The international shooter’s rule deals with size, the sling may be no wider than 40mm (1.57 inches). The NRA style shooters’ rule allows the use a cuff and sling pads, if and there seems to be no limit on width or type or amount of sling keepers allowed.

High Power shooters have the most elaborate Rule 13.3. The centerfire version states that a sling “may be a strap or straps made of leather, webbing, or synthetic material, and hooks, buckles and keepers as necessary for attachment to the rifle and adjustment to the shooter.” When shooting in position competitors are informed that they do not have to attach the sling to the buttstock sling swivel in prone, sitting, or kneeling. Standing is a different matter, and the shooter is referred to Rule 5.12 to find that a sling is not permitted.

The shooter would be wise to be familiar with High Power Rule 5.12 as it, like its smallbore cousin, forbids the use of the sling. If a sling is attached to a match rifle the rule requires it to be fixed to the rifle at the forearm and buttstock sling swivels. On the other hand the service rifle shooter must have the sling attached at the sling swivels with the sling placed either on the bottom or to the left or right of the magazine on an M-14 or M-16. In either case the sling may be included in the shooter’s grasp.

A shooter who uses a service rifle is reminded that the sling must be used as issued. The use of metallic wraps and reinforcements to the sling keepers are not authorized. The shooter had better use the rolled up end of the feed end of the sling to tighten and lock the sling and not a cartridge case, spotter spindle, or any other item. Failure to obey this rule will cause the rifle to be declared a match rifle.

The earliest sling was nothing more than a simple carrying strap, a hank of rope perhaps, that enabled the firearm to be toted so that the hands would be left free. As European powers began to expand the number of soldiers carrying muskets, in the late 17th and early 18th century, sling swivels first began to appear on military firearms. A sturdy length of canvas webbing that allowed for some adjustment in length was issued to make transporting the rifle easier. And, while it made marching easier it also made other work for the private soldier. It added another accoutrement that had to be cleaned and polished to the sergeant’s satisfaction.

Washington’s troops during both the French and Indian Wars and The American revolution had sling-equipped rifles. The sling was there when ‘The Grand Old Duke of York” marched his 10,000 men up and down again across the Netherlands and later, when Wellington’s riflemen harried the French in the Peninsula Campaign the sling was again along for the ride. American sharpshooters in the Civil war had slings, but preferred to rest their rifles across a branch or a convenient log. Even the great long-range shooters of the 1870s, who fired the first Palma Match, did not use the sling.

The Springfield trapdoor .45-70 rifle was equipped with the Model 1887 sling, as was the first bolt-action rifle adopted by the United States, the Krag-Jorgensen. This sling known as the ‘Long Tom”, was a single piece of leather 68 1/2 inches long. When the Springfield ’03 was adopted it used the same Krag sling. However, it was redesignated the Model 1903 and would last just another year. In 1904 two new sling types were approved. In addition to the traditional metal claw and holes for adjustment these slings also had a metal button.

A 1906 report made mention of slings. It stated, in part, that the sling in question had been subject to “considerable criticism from expert shots” and that the sling’s “primary object” was ” to serve as a carrier for the musket” The report further mentions that there were experimental slings being devised to have as “a primary object the support of the gun in firing” In the end a Colonel Wright, from the Ohio National Guard, designed the Model 1907 sling. This is the sling, which almost every living shooter has used in some form or another, and became the first specifically designed to support the rifle while shooting as well as marching.

Just prior to this time a young lieutenant in the 15th Infantry spent hours personally instructing his troops in the fine art of holding and squeezing and the use of the ‘gunsling’. The young officer later wrote, ” I do not remember that there was anyone in the regiment who knew how to use the gunsling, although all the officers and men had heard of “Gunsling Dave”, a very celebrated rifle shot of the old army before the war. The use of the gunsling to assure steady holding is rather unnatural and sometimes very uncomfortable at first, and must be practiced, always correctly, for about a week before it becomes comfortable and natural.”

Charles G. Finney fondly remembers the legacy of the young lieutenant in The Old China Hands, an account of his experiences as a private in the elite 15th Infantry during its deployment to China in the 1920s. In it he recalls the hours of ‘snapping in’ and dry fire practice where the choreography of shooting, just as ritualized and formal as a corps d’ballet, was practiced before a single live round was fired. He relates all the minute details including that, “…the rifle’s sling had to be adjusted with the tightest nicety around one’s arm…”

The young lieutenant would grow old in the service. He would earn scores of shooting awards and the respect of all as both a marksman and a technical innovator. When he retired, as a colonel, he moved into a second career as America’s foremost shooting writer. The young lieutenant would become ‘Mr. Rifleman’. He was Townsend Whelen.

For most of us our sling is just a strap, made of leather, canvas, or some synthetic material, with metal hardware attached at various points and some holes punched in it to help adjust its length. It does not seem the stuff of elaborate rules. In reality the sling is a bit more complex and even has its own nomenclature. Take a look at the most ubiquitous of all rifle slings, the ‘Sling, Small Arms: leather M1907’, Federal Stock Number 1005-714-1245. It is the touchstone by which all other slings are measured, including its lesser relations the ‘Sling, Small Arms: Webbing M1’ and the ‘Sling: Small Arms’.

The M1907 sling has been around a long time. The M means Model and 1907 is the year it was adopted. It is made of a high quality russet cowhide and consists of two sections. The short strap is about two feet long, an inch and a quarter wide, and quarter inch thick. A claw hook fastened with three strong rivets is at one end and a metal ‘D’ ring is sewn on by means of a loop on the other end. Between these two pieces of hardware are 16 pairs of punched holes. This is the end of the rifle that attaches to the lower sling swivel of the rifle. Until 1938 the metal parts were made of blackened brass. This was replaced by Parkerized steel, although some parts manufactured during World War II were blackened steel.

The long strap is about 46 inches long with a claw hook, also called a ‘frog’, on one end and the opposite end, the feed end, rounded off. The sling weighs in at about a half of a pound. Ten pairs of holes start from the feed end and progress toward the center with another 18 pairs originating at the claw end. This leaves about 16 inches of unpunched leather in between. The long strap also includes two three quarter inch wide leather loops known as sling keepers which are used to keep loose ends tidy and the sling snug around the shooter’s arm. It is reeved through the forward sling swivel.

There were two brief failed attempts to replace the M1907. The Kerr Sling, named after is manufacturer, was made of canvas. It kicked around through the years between World Wars and ended up as the ‘Sling M-3’ on M1928 A1 ‘Tommy Gun.” The Model 1928 was another web sling that managed to hang on because of the both the Great Depression and World War II. It ended its days a few months before the end of World War II when it was designated to be third choice, of the three available slings, for the ’03. Both slings were more complicated to use and maintain than the M1907 and as a result were not popular.

The ‘Sling, Small Arms: Webbing M1’ is a single canvas strip, one and one quarter inches wide and weighing about a quarter of a pound, adopted in 1942. It is adjusted for length and fit by using a metal clip on the feed end and a slide buckle on the loop end. The loop that fixes to the butt end has a sheet metal hook to attach it to the sling swivel, while the other end is passed through the forward sling swivel. The M1 is quick and simple to use, but stretches easily when under tension.

The current ‘Sling: Small Arms’ is a length of black nylon webbing with a slide buckle at each end. It is run through the sling swivels of the M-16 and, in reality, is not so much a sling as a carrying strap. It is the same width as its predecessors and has both ends fused to keep from fraying. It also comes with a piece of auxiliary equipment called a ‘top sling adaptor’ which a loop that fits around the butt stock and a clamp that is worked through the front sight. The sling is then attached and the rifle is suspended from above.

United States Army Technical Manual 9-1005-249-10, the operator’s manual for the M-16 series rifles, states that the ‘Sling: Small Arms’ “provides the means to shoulder-carry the weapon”. After almost a century the United States Army’s sling development has seemed to come full circle, and the sling is again relegated to the status of a carrying strap.

Competitive target shooters use a variety of sling styles, with the international style the most popular. Many American smallbore prone shooters use a sling that attaches to a wider arm cuff that is less restrictive to blood flow, and far more comfortable, than the international width sling. Some slings are cobbled together out of pieces of the venerable M1907. Metal sling keepers that act, as clamps to keep the sling from opening up and slipping down the arm are popular sling accessories. Of course, service rifle shooters tend to stick with the M1907, both for esthetics and reliability.

A hunter usually uses the sling as a carrying strap. If the need rise for a steadying hand the shooter’s arm can be twisted around the carrying strap into what is known as a hasty sling. This use of the sling in this manner is also a popular military expedient. The nature of combat shooting is such that the more elaborate use of the rifle sling is not usually practical. The hasty sling is quick to use, and it has probably lead to the return of the general issue military sling to its original form, the simple strap.

A sling can also provide a defining moment for a shooter. On September 1, 1981, a hot late summer afternoon, I was perched on my shooting stool in the assembly area behind the 600-yard line at the Arkansas National Guard’s Camp Robinson rifle range. It was ‘Leg Day’ at the National Guard Rifle Championships and I was sitting on 28 points, of the 30 required, towards Distinguished designation. Much to my dismay I was down about 20 points going into the final stage of what I hoped would be the last Excellence In Competition Match I would ever have to shoot. I was not a strong 600-yard shooter and competition for a leg at The Winston P. Wilson Matches is tough. It would be a long winter if I did not leg now.

Sensing my rising anxiety my team captain, and long time friend, Dick Scheller ambled on over to me. He stopped, crossed his ankles, and, in one fluid, well practiced motion, slithered into a perfect sitting position next to me. Chewing on a blade of grass, he bantered with me for a while until my relay was called.

As we stood up Dick suddenly asked, “Hey, do you know the difference between a jackass and a shooter?”

Preoccupied with thoughts of wind, light, and disaster I absently mumbled, “No”.

He plucked at my sling, smiled, winked and retorted, “A shooter harnesses himself.”

Dick’s rejoinder swept away the tension. Laughing, I crawled into position and banged off a 600 yard score deep into the 190s. The earthy insight about the sling had brought me from the brink of panic to a calm and an eight-point leg, and with it, my Distinguished Rifleman Badge.

By definition a sling is a looped strap used to lift or support. For the rifle shooter it is a bit more. It is an essential piece of equipment that can help steady your aim or, as in my case, your nerve, when a tight hold on both is needed.

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Category: Shooting Histories

About the Author: Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com.

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