“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.
In Vogel’s time the various services’ rifle teams fought ferociously on Camp Perry’s greensward for the honor of taking home the National Trophy, a massive bronze casting mounted on a well-polished piece of hardwood. The bronze bas relief is of an ancient warrior holding four dogs, all straining at their leashes. The bronze is evocative of Mark Antony’s soliloquy in Act 3 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which he reveals his plan to incite violence against Caesar’s assassins with the phrase, “Cry ‘Havoc and let slip the dogs of war! ” It is but a short leap to understand why the National Trophy is commonly referred to as the “Dogs of War Trophy.”
Rifle training was serious business for the Army and the Marines. The Army, in a draft document entitled Marksmanship-Rifle General, published by the Infantry School in 1923 outlined the training regime, stating that,
“Under ordinary conditions the annual practice season for the regular army, exclusive of competitions, will cover a period of six weeks for each organization. A period of two weeks is devoted to preparatory exercise and gallery practice and four weeks to range practice.”
Six weeks is a lot of time in a training year and no other soldierly skill was allowed that much time.
Much the same may be said of the Marines, for whom marksmanship is a high and holy thing. They first demonstrated it at Belleau Wood where an official German report classified the Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen …” Army General John Pershing, himself a Distinguished Marksman, said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.” And that rifle was the United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903.
The ’03 was the Doughboy’s and Devil Dogs’ biggest source of military training, hard work, and sport. As for training and hard work, until they were perfect, recruits spent countless hours under the watchful eye of an experience non-commissioned officer learning how to manipulate their ‘03 through the formal choreography that is the manual of arms.
The rifle had to be kept spotless, so gallons of hot soapy water were pumped through their bores after shooting to wash away the corrosive salt left behind by the detonation of the primer. This was followed by oiled patches and then the rifle was oiled again, a light coat of machine oil for the metal and linseed for the stock.
Speaking of hard work, the Old China Hands of the 15th Infantry carried it one step further. According to Charles Finney a private in the 15th in 1927, “…every rifle had to have two sets of stocks, one scuffed and scarred and used for drill, the other boned and polished, wrapped lovingly in linseed-oily rags and only used for parades and guard mount.” To bone a stock one had to first cadge a soup bone from the company cook, clean it, and then spend hours pressing it hard into the stock in the direction of the grain with a bit of linseed. This tightened the wood grain and polished the wood to a high sheen.
Soldiers and Marines took qualifying seriously for in June 1922 Congress provided that an enlisted men who qualified with their primary weapon could receive extra pay. In 1923 extra qualification pay varied from $1 to $5 each month, depending on the shooter’s skill, Congressional appropriations, and army regulations. During the days of the Great Depression, when Congress was tightfisted, the bonus money only went to those who qualified as Expert.
That was big money in the days when a private was getting $21 per month, much of which went to deductions starting with 10¢ for The Old Soldiers Home and followed by barber and tailor bills, tobacco, tickets to the post theater, and personal hygiene supplies. Qualifying meant enough extra money for a few tickets with a taxi dancer at the local dance hall, a carton of tailormade smokes as opposed to a pouch of Bull Durham and rolling papers, or a few extra schooners of beer.
Some enlisted men were so serious about earning the extra money and moving on to Camp Perry with their service’s team that they took advantage of a regulation which allowed them to purchase a rifle from the Ordnance Depart for the princely sum of $35. These rifles had star gauged barrels and were essentially Match Grade.
A man on his way to Distinguished would buy a spare tunic, one size too large to allow for the various positions, and convert into a shooting jacket by sewing leather or sheepskin pads onto the shoulder and elbows. A glove was optional but the ‘Sling, Small Arms: leather M1907’ was mandatory. He might buy a rifle fork to support the rifle while he used his O’Hare micrometer to adjust the rear sight. With a scorebook and a pencil the man was fully equipped to try for a spot on a Camp Perry team or, possibly more importantly, qualification pay.