Rifles > Historical

The Hession Rifle

With the London Olympics now over, it’s time for a little history lesson on British disarmament. It is a tale told best by one very special rifle.

8/23/2012

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
After World War I England passed gun-control laws that mostly disarmed its citizenry. The belief that there should be “a rifle in every cottage,” as proposed by England’s Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, in 1900 was finished. According to the 1689 Bill of Rights “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This changed with England’s Firearms Act of 1920. Its restrictions on the private ownership of firearms was partly sold to a war-weary public by politicians fanning fears that a surge in crime might occur because of the large number of firearms available following the war. Another justification for severely restricting firearm ownership was to fulfill a commitment to the 1919 Paris Arms Convention.

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.”

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16 Responses to The Hession Rifle

Garth Hahn wrote:
April 03, 2014

This particular article itself has helped me reach out to those on the fence about gun control and bans for years now. Thank you American Rifleman. God bless our second amendment rights!

James Macklin, NRA Life 1966 wrote:
November 25, 2013

Besides civilian disarmament as described in the article it should be noted that after THE WAR TO END ALL WARS, England dumped most of the WWI weapons in the Channel. These were the arms that should ahve been available to the 'home guard' [[]aka unorganized militia] buy surplus purchase or issue in an emergency. The United States has turn most education over to a group that does not truly support the entire Constitution or Bill of Rights. Thus 'the right to keep...arms' and the right to bear arms have been forgotten by many if ever known. The 1939 Miller Court pretty clearly said that so-called :assault weapons' are exactly the kind of arm protected. Butthe truth about Miller is unknown to many, including NRAmembers. The Court DID NOT rule on the case, rather it was remanded for trial in Arkansas. The Court said the laws could remain in effect pending that trial when there would be actual evidence 'within judicial notice' [[]a trial transcript and submissions]. The USA is one vote away from an Obama Court overturning HELLER and McDonald and destroying the Bill of Rights and the Constitution itself.

Sandy Elliot wrote:
January 13, 2013

Bravo for most convicting point of article -- gun-control harms women first and foremost. In order to protect ourselves and family we must have fire power. The very political party -Democrats - who claim to best represent us, has become 'The Enemy'. When they disarm their body guards, as for Ambassador Stevens, I might again believe they have my best interests at heart.

KEN BORGIE wrote:
October 24, 2012

What a wonderful article about the difference between British and American citizens. Americans are still citizens, while British people are subjects subjected to government control while robber barons run free with guns killing innocents - even unarmed Bobbies. Admiral Yamamoto made the statement why Japan never invaded America - "Because there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass pointed at the Japanese invaders." Just remember that - you U.N. Blue-Helmeted troops that are ready to invade American cities.

Russell Middleton wrote:
September 22, 2012

An indication of just how committed the British authorities are to keeping their country disarmed. Less than 12 hours after two unarmed female police officers were ambushed and killed, Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy of the Greater Manchester Police said, his force believed "passionately" that police should remain unarmed, despite the tragedy.

Richard W. Hughes wrote:
September 07, 2012

Hession was most fortunate. The others who sent guns to England were thanked by having their guns destroyed after the War. And kudos to Martin Sheridan. Would that our current President had such love and respect for the Flag. History repeats itself. I'll keep my guns here, where they will do the most good.

John E Hamman wrote:
September 04, 2012

I don't know if the author is on staff, but I wanted to congratulate him on an excellent article. Great history presented. Unfortunately much of the legal justification criteria mentioned for England sounds very similar to what we have here in CA for CCW permits. Thanks for a great article.

TexAxe wrote:
September 02, 2012

Just an outstanding, simple story illustrating such a simple principle, it's amazing we have to continually fight to keep our Second Amendment from being further eroded. Irrational phobias being what they are, I know some people are unreachable, but I am distributing this link to everyone I know who may still have an open mind, and to those who I know agree and will distribute further. Sincere thanks to AR for this gem!

Hal Vinson wrote:
August 31, 2012

Great article. Our club has a 22 rifle which was engraved and sent to Britain and was returned a number of years ago by Val Forgett of Navy Arms.

Martin wrote:
August 29, 2012

Jeez, we have a similar problem in New Zealand, though not as bad. At least, once you pass a firearms competency test and can have a firearms license, you can buy any rifle or shotgun you like - just not the military style ones. To own a pistol is very expensive and time consuming. You have to be a member of a pistol club for a year, buy a special safe, apply for an extension to your license, and only ever transport your pistol to the firing range. But drug dealers and gang bangers seem to own whatever they like… Mind you, we are fairly safe from casual violence, but the inner cities are best avoided after dark.

Savvas Toufexis wrote:
August 28, 2012

Just to let you know ,shotguns went on licence in 1968 and not 1937.

alfie wrote:
August 28, 2012

WWII hit an ill-armed Australia too. My Dad trained initially without a rifle and they used broom handles. This is true.

Jason wrote:
August 27, 2012

I beg to differ. Gray should fret, and deeply. Another old adage is, 'fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.' You, Gray, and your fellows have made your beds. Now you can lay in them. When you are besieged and inevitable overwhelmed by the next, great threat to your way of life you can console yourselves with the knowledge that you were subjugated like good, civilized citizens of the world.

ConcernedUSCitizen wrote:
August 26, 2012

In olden days, the difference between a slave and a free person was that a free person could own weapons and property. The two things standing between a utopian one world government and freedom are the Swiss populace and the American populace, armed with small arms. These useful idiot journalists who are being used to create a positive mindset for diarmanent of law abiding free people, will be the first to be led to the new labor camps. Let's hope it never comes to that.

Jake Smart wrote:
August 26, 2012

REGARDING THE HESSION RIFLE AND THE BRITISH POSITION ON GUN CONTROL We really shouldn’t give our British friends too much flack because they want to keep their citizens from owning firearms. We must remember they learned a very nasty lesson back in the 1770’s about what can happen when the citizens have the means to “forcibly protest” the governments mis-treatment.

Peter Halliday wrote:
August 25, 2012

Excellent Article and all so true. I am British and a legal resident alien in the USA. I own seven handguns and target shoot regularly. I am sensible and responsible and had a concealed carry permit when I lived in Georgia. One of the reasons I choose to emigrate to the USA is the fact that the majority of the US population understands that people are the problem and not guns. Thankfully the NRA have shared statistics that show that crime has dropped as gun ownership has risen. God Bless America.