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Massachusetts Rifle Association History


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 and was founded in 1875, just four years following the creation of the National Rifle Association in 1871. The MRA has been continuously active since its founding and has been in the same location since 1876.

America in 1875

In 1875 the 44th Congress (1875-77) convened and Ulysses S. Grant was in his second term as the eighteenth President of the United States. During President Grant's 1872 re-election campaign 71.3% of eligible voters participated. (Later, in 1883, former President Grant would be elected president of the National Rifle Association.)

The total population of the thirty-seven states and territories comprising the United States was approximated at 38,558,371 with Boston as the nation's seventh largest city with a population of 250,526 (U.S. Census Bureau, Ninth Census, 1870).

Since almost all of the Civil War’s fighting had taken place in the South, the North was not faced with the immense challenges brought about during Reconstruction. Although the war had been costly, the North had prospered economically. Factories that had met the demands of the Union Army now found new markets and their profits helped finance new inventions and more efficient ways to produce goods. The spirit of innovation also extended into how leisure time was enjoyed.

In sports, on March 3, 1875, the first recorded ice hockey game was played in Montreal and May 12th saw the first recorded shutout in professional baseball (Chicago 1, St. Louis 0). On May 17th, Aristides, a Thoroughbred named after an ancient Greek general, won the first Kentucky Derby. Another new form of entertainment appeared in the New York “Daily Graphics” on September 11, 1875, with "Professor Tigwissel’s Burglar Alarm" becoming the first newspaper cartoon strip.

In science, Alexander Graham Bell, in his Boston laboratory, developed the “harmonic telegraph” in June of 1875 that would eventually lead to his development of the telephone the following year.

During the summer of that year, joint ratifications of a treaty between the United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom under King Kamehameha III gave Hawaiian sugar a favored position in U.S. markets (Hawaii was an independent nation until August 12, 1898) and, in July, Mark Twain completed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Elsewhere in the world, on November 6, 1875 a banquet was held at the Hotel du Louvre in Paris to raise funds for the concept of a "Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World" designed by Frederic Bartholdi. Work began on the statue itself in the winter of 1875 (it wasn’t until July 4, 1884, in Paris, that the completed statue would be presented to the United States and statue was not officially dedicated in New York until October 28, 1886).

 

While Bartholdi and his artisans were hard at work building Lady Liberty during the winter of 1875 Dr. Hazelton, Mr. Sawyer and their associates began to build what eventually grew into America’s oldest continuously active gun club - The Massachusetts Rifle Association.


Detail of MRA “Victory” Medal

A General Invitation

On November 4, 1875 a notice was published in the Boston Morning Journal (the first newspaper in America printed on wood pulp paper) extending an invitation to all who would be interested in the organization of “a Boston Gun Club”. At 4:00 pm that very day about twenty 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"

The name “Massachusetts Rifle Association” was adopted on December 2, 1875 and on December 9th was held "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". 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 pm on December 17th 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 bylaws and, following the adoption of those bylaws, 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 twelve new applicants for membership - each with the sum of $3.00 attached.

The Board of Directors was increased from seven Directors to fifteen (a number that remains to this day) in order 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 twenty-three members had joined and a motion at the meeting to have fifty copies of the club's bylaws printed had to be withdrawn in favor of another to have one hundred copies made "on account of the increasing number of members". Among the club's new members were the following "Honorary Directors":

  • His Execellency, Governor Alexander Hamilton Rice
  • Major General (later Governor) Benjamin F. Butler
  • Major General Henry W. Benham
  • Rear Admiral Henry K. Thatcher
  • His Honor, Mayor (of Boston) Samuel C. Cobb

Stevens “WALNUT HILL” Number 49 on the 44 Ideal Frame in .28-30 Caliber

First Shooting Matches

During the Civil War the Union Army conducted training at Camp Sheppard near Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts. 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.

Matches in Arlington

1876 and a Home of Its Own on Walnut Hill

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. 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 and by April 17, 1877 additional target positions had been placed at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. 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 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 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 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 since 1876 were expanded to twelve; instead of one target at 500 yards there were now six; and the one target at 1,000 yards had increased to four.

In 1887 a 50 yard 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.

Shooters, Innovators and Pioneers

Harry Pope (Seated in Middle) 1935

"Mass. Rifle" has been home to many pioneers and innovators in the area of the shooting sports. Harry M. Pope, the world famous maker of the precision rifle barrels, and the author Arthur Corbin Gould who published "The Rifle" in 1885, the forerunner to the NRA's "The Rifleman" and "American Rifleman”, Eugene E. Patridge, the inventor of the sights that bear his name (and are often mispronounced as "Partridge" sights), gunsmith Adolph 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 more superior sight picture than 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 (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 (.22 LR) - one of the most popular calibers ever invented. Niedner also developed the “25 Niedner” around 1920 (more commonly known today as the “25-06 Remington”). Mr. Neidner

"The Bullet's Flight From Powder To Target" was written and published by Dr. Franklin 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

The Massachusetts Rifle Association, "America's Oldest Active Gun Club", has undergone many changes but still remains to this day 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 with several pistol, rifle and shotgun ranges. The MRA also sponsors competative pistol and rifle teams and an active Juniors Shooting Program that teaches responsiblity and marksmanship to younger shooters.