On this occasion a group of my friends and fellow evacuees from the local cadet forces were given the opportunity to gain their first experience in the use of firearms. This seemed very exciting to us all as we gathered at the school gates after a day studying in school. Of course there were some amongst us thirteen year olds who boasted of previous experience in the matter but in the main we were a pretty uninformed bunch of lads with vivid imaginations, anticipating what fun the evening would be.
We had been told to report to the local drill hall which was a short walk from the school past the local pond and abattoir, the balmy evening air was polluted with a stench from the abattoir and we all held our noses for relief as we passed. We were greeted at the end of the road to the drill hall by two HG men who made us line up in threes and march down the road to the firing range near to the drill hall . The firing range was indoors in a shed about 20 yards long with a bullseye target about the size of a dartboard at the far end and backed with metal platework around the end of the wooden hut as protection from stray bullets , a rather makeshift set up crudely engineered.
We were then introduced to the light rifle to be used for the practice. It was, I recall, the sort of gun that farmers use for such activities as shooting rabbits, smaller and lighter than we had imagined. The HG man then described the main parts of the gun to us and how to operate it. However , it had been bound with wire around the barrel and the wooden stock on which it rested and one of our group, Eric, had the audacity to say ‘Ere sir, what‘s that wire doing round the gun’, to which the HG man grunted ‘Just a minor repair, lad.’ This would later prove to be a substantial understatement.
Naturally, we were all rather nervous at the prospect of actually firing this rifle and when the HG man said ‘Right then lads who wants to go first’ we all kept silent waiting to see how things progressed before it was our turn. Sensing our reluctance the HG man said ‘Come on lads there is nothing to it, you will soon get used to it’. Again no one volunteered to be first so he turned to young Eric and said ‘You had a lot to say for yourself so you will have first try’ and Eric lay down on the floor in the prone position with the rifle barrel resting on a sand bag in front of him.
The HG man loaded the rifle with just three bullets, commenting that they were in short supply and each one of us would have just the three bullets to aim at the target. Having set Eric in the correct prone position and emphasising the sighting device, the HG man retired to behind Eric and joined us at the end of the shed.
We could all see that Eric was quivering with nerves as the HG man gave the order to fire and it was no surprise when Eric’s first shot missed the target completely, causing a clattering as it ricocheted around the back of the range, making us all duck. After further instruction from the HG men Eric fired his remaining two shots again missing the target both times with the consequent clattering noise. The HG men dismissed Eric abruptly and said, turning to me, ‘It’s your turn now lad, see if you can do better’.
Although I was slightly nervous, after Eric’s poor performance, I had to put on a brave face in front of my contemporaries so I took up the challenge and set myself in position for firing. I thought I took great care in firing the rifle but to my dismay all my three shots produced the same result as Eric so I was curtly dismissed by the HG men to join Eric in disgrace at the back of the shed. Eric, with a large grin on his face said ‘ I knew you wouldn’t do any better than me’.
We could all see that the HG men were doubtful on who to select next but after a short discussion amongst themselves they alighted on Alan, the biggest lad in the group and the oldest at 14 .Being the oldest amongst us Alan was full of self-confidence to the point of arrogance as he took up the firing position and as he listened to the instruction given to him by the HG man, He kept nodding vigourously to assure them of his complete understanding of their instructions Unfortunately Alan’s first shot produced what seemed to be the loudest clattering of the day, leaving the target completely unscathed and causing the most apprehension to all present. This prompted the HG men to dismiss Alan from the firing position and Alan joined Eric and me at the back of the range looking rather miserable and downcast after his performance.
Discussing the situation amongst themselves one of the HG men announced that he would demonstrate the correct aiming of the rifle and took up the firing position, taking very careful aim he fired his first shot. The resultant clattering was just as loud as before and a complete miss on the target. This caused Eric to start giggling which proved infectious to myself and Alan at the back of the shed and we found it very difficult to contain ourselves. Raising himself from the prone position and looking rather red in the face the HG man said ‘There must be something wrong with this bloody rifle’ and turning to his companion they embarked on a detailed examination of the likely causes.
The outcome of their deliberations was that the sighting on the gun was faulty and that in repairing it the barrel of the gun had been slightly bent, causing the bullets to fire high and to the right of the target. There could be no more firing that evening so we were all dismissed ending our first experience of firearms As we made our way back to our billets, excitedly chattering and laughing about the events of the evening, we passed the abattoir and suddenly became aware of the awful stench from it, awaking us to the reality of the world around us.
Come back next week for another instalment of Arthur’s stories.