Though every Englishman should hear what this particular rifle has to say about the Olympics, England and individual rights, I didn’t set out to embarrass this particular English journalist. It’s just that he had it coming.
Let’s just call him Stephen Grey, as that’s his real name. He’s not a bad sort. Grey was educated at England’s famed St. Alban’s School and studied philosophy at Oxford. He has outsized ears and somehow seems too tall for his boyish face. These features give him a look of young innocence you soon find is matched by sincerity. Then you run into his intellect and really like him. He wrote his last book, Into the Viper’s Nest, after being imbedded with soldiers in Afghanistan. He saw firsthand what the Taliban did to women. He knows all about the barbaric things al-Qaeda has done to a few of his colleagues. He knows jihadists consider civilians to be fair game. He knows about much uglier things than these. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think people should have the right to have firearms for self-defense.
Grey was seated across a table from me at a small dinner party some months ago in Washington, D.C., saying things like, “Americans need to give up their guns. They must become responsible citizens of the world.” Meanwhile, the other writers around the table—people who know my background—were glancing at me, bracing for the counterattack.
I stayed quiet as he described his utopian vision of a disarmed world like John Lennon singing “Imagine no possessions … I wonder if you can … . ” I wanted him to be fully committed before I engaged.
Minutes later, as he paused to view the effect of his anti-gun offensive on a table full of Americans, I opted for an attack he likely hadn’t encountered before. I didn’t think he’d be swayed by crime statistics. And if I cited the dramatic English history of individual rights—and the loss thereof—he’d probably quote Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil to contend there is no absolute right and wrong and therefore no real individual rights. That philosophical discussion, as interesting as it might be, would be a smokescreen for his retreat. What I needed was a way at the truth he hadn’t encountered before, so I drew him in with the true story of a particular Springfield Model 1903.
“Stephen,” I began, “I understand that a world without guns in private hands, and therefore a world where a 110-pound woman can no longer shoot down a 200-pound rapist, is appealing to you. But let me tell you about a very special rifle. Its story just might make you rethink your views.”
He eyed me over his whiskey and soda.
This particular rifle, I explained, is chambered in .30-’06 Sprg. It was built in 1905 or 1906 in Springfield, Mass. It’s a bolt-action Springfield Model of 1903 with the serial number 264631. Major John W. Hession (1877-1961), an American long-range competition shooter, purchased the rifle. He likely bought it in 1906. He topped it with a J. Stevens Co. riflescope and took it to the range. He found the rifle was so accurate that he took it to England to compete in the Olympics in 1908 at the Bisley Range. Then, in 1909, he used the rifle to set a world record at 800 yards at Camp Perry. At the time The Piqua Leader-Dispatch (a newspaper that went out of business in 1919) ran the headline “World’s Record is Broken By Hession” on its front page. The feat made him a star. So much so that the June 1911 issue of Forest and Stream reported that when Hession competed at the DuPont Gun Club they were “especially pleased to have Mr. Hession with them. He is regarded by critics as the foremost long-range rifle shot in the world. His most remarkable performance, and the one which brought him the most fame, was at Camp Perry during 1909. At this time he made 67 consecutive bullseyes at 800 yards, a record never before equaled nor since broken.”
Hession was a top long-range competitor well into the 1940s. He won the Wimbledon Cup in 1932. And that wasn’t his first victory there. The Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year-Book for 1921 lists Hession as the winner of the Wimbledon Cup in 1919 as well. In fact, a Remington ad in Arms & The Man in 1914 boasted that Hession used Remington ammunition to win the Marine Corps Cup Match in 1913.
His impact on competitive shooting earned him a parting tribute in the April 1962 issue of American Rifleman. His obituary ran just after one for Col. Townsend Whelen. It reported that “one of his major achievements was to set four world records in one day. This he did on July 3, 1925 while competing in the Eastern Small Bore Championships at Sea Grit, New Jersey. In accomplishing this he fired 102 shots all of which, including sighting shots, were bullseyes.”
Clearly Hession was a renowned rifleman. He also had an understandable attachment to this particular 1903 Springfield. Such a profound attachment, in fact, that he later did something even more remarkable with the rifle.
World War II Gun Drive
Whatever the rationale, the Firearms Act of 1920 passed and required an English citizen who wanted to own a firearm to first obtain a firearm certificate. The certificate, which was good for three years, specifically listed the firearm a person was approved to own and listed the amount of ammunition he or she could buy or possess. The police even had the power to exclude anyone who had “intemperate habits” or an “unsound mind.” Applicants for certificates also had to convince the police they had a good reason for needing a certificate. The 1920 law did not affect those who owned shotguns, but it gave government officials complete control over who could own handguns and rifles.
In 1933 the English Parliament next passed the Firearms and Imitation Firearms Bill. It increased the punishment for the use of a gun in the commission of a crime. Possession of a real or imitation firearm was also made an offence unless the person could show he had the firearm for “a lawful object.” A few years later England passed the 1937 Firearms Act. It extended restrictions to shotguns and granted chief constables the power to add conditions to individual firearm certificates. Clearly the power was in the hands of the state, not the individual.
Predictably such restrictions reduced the number of firearms in law-abiding citizens’ hands. Then came the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940. As the German war machine advanced, the British Expeditionary Force evacuated back across the English Channel. The retreat was costly. In their haste British troops abandoned most of their equipment. The massive loss of military arms, combined with the fact that the English people had been mostly disarmed, left the British people almost helpless before the advance of the Third Reich.
Luckily, they had gun-owning friends across the Atlantic. In 1940 a group of Americans, headed by C. Suydam Cutting, moved quickly to help rearm England’s citizens. They established the “American Committee for Defense of British Homes” and ran an ad in the November 1940 issue of American Rifleman that read in part: “British Civilians, undergoing nightly air raids, are in desperate need of Firearms – Binoculars – Steel Helmets – Stop-Watches – Ammunition.” The ad then said, “If you possess any of these articles you can aid in the battle of Britain by sending these materials to American Committee for Defense of British Homes.”