The Field Gun Race

A Gun Race is a military competitive team event that involves a team taking a small artillery piece (the Gun) through an obstacle course at speed, usually run against the clock. Variations on this competition have been run in many places around the world, but traditionally it is associated most strongly with the Royal Navy and the forces it has fostered.

Pre-War History

Elements of the Gun Race can be found in competitive field artillery drills in many European countries that date back to the advent of field artillery and professional militaries. However the ‘Modern’ Gun Race stems from the Second Boer War and the actions of the Naval Brigade in the conflict. Lacking up to date artillery to match that of the Boers the British Army were assisted by naval guns landed from HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful that were fitted on improvised mountings under the supervision of Captain Sir Percy Scott and taken into action by their naval crews. One of these guns with its detachment was a popular exhibit at the Royal Military Tournament in 1900 and naval guns continued to parade as part of this annual event. In 1903 the first obstacle, a ‘wall’ was added to the parade, with a ‘bridge’ (to narrow for the gun) added in 1905. In 1906 with a move to Olympia the larger venue allowed the display to traverse two walls and two bridges. The first organised competition came the next year where six teams of 18 men from the three Royal Dockyards competed publicly every afternoon of the Tournament week for aggregate points towards a trophy as well as performing the evening display.

Over the next few years a number of changes were made to the obstacle course and an inter command cup was introduced, until by 1913 the form was largely set for the Field Gun Race with the ‘Chasm’ established at 30’ wide needing sheerlegs and rigging to cross and the competitions replaced the evening display. The Royal Military Tournament and the Gun Race held over for the First World War, recommencing in 1919 and running to the Second World War. To this point the Gun Race was a strictly Naval affair run between the seaman and marines of the three primary naval Depots (Chatham, Devonport and Portsmouth).

Post War

The Royal Tournament resumed in 1950, now at Earls Court, as part of the Festival of Britain, a rather strained attempt to inject some liveliness into the dour days of post war Britain. The Gun Race returned along with such treats as competitive shepherding, artistic ploughing, a Mine Sweeping completion, bricklaying races and variety of ‘Music Hall’ turns. The principal difference in these early post war Gun Races was the introduction of teams from the British Army and Royal Air Force. 1951 saw yet more teams, this time from various Police Forces, and HM Coastguard ran a ‘Life Boat’ race modelled along the same lines. Such a bumper crop of races forced a return to afternoon heats and proved to be too much of a good thing for both the organisers and the public. The Life Boat race only lasted a year, which was a pity as the Coast Guard turned on a good show, but by 1955 the Police teams had been reduced to an ex- Tournament competition with only the champion attending, and the service teams reduced to eight, most casualties coming from the Army and RAF.

By 1960 the RAF had dropped out altogether with the Army following the Police example in running a separate completion and only sending their champion to Earls Court. This left the floor to the RN once again, who now fielded teams from the three Dockyards, Royal Marines, Fleet Air Arm, and a second Portsmouth team from HMS Excellent. In 1977 for the Silver Jubilee a 9th team was added to the competition, drawn from the Royal Australian Navy training ship HMAS Endeavour which was part of the RAN flotilla present for the celebrations, the RAN turned out a creditable performance placing 5th out of nine. 1977 also saw the end of Police participation in the Gun Race, and the Indian Navy, who had been frustrated bystanders after the RAN had nipped in first and secured the only available gun, were invited to send a team for the next year to replace them.

This led to the open slot being set aside for international sides. Canada was offered the place for 1978 but declined, and Australia sent a team in their stead. Given the historical foundation of the Gun Race, it seemed a little tasteless to invite South Africa to the 1980 Tournament that would mark the 80th anniversary of the Second Boer War. But they volunteered before India could be invited back again, and a regular calendar emerged, with India, South Africa and Australia alternating as the 8th team. While the Royal Tournament remains the Wimbledon of Gun Racing, the Diamond Cup between South Africa and Australia takes place triennially when India is competing in the UK, likewise the Hood Holdfast (the worlds heaviest trophy, a chrome plated 15” AP shell) pits the INS against the RAN every three years while South Africa is attending the Royal Tournament. Persistent efforts by Australia to link these into a three-way competition around the Indian Ocean or to get the Indians and South Africans to meet each other have as yet fallen on stony soil. Likewise the Thai’s have not chosen to join three-cornered match with India and Australia, at least not in ‘classic’ Gun Racing. Canada retains a standing invitation that it has yet to take up, and the door remains open for anyone else who might care to send a team, although the bar for entry is set pretty high. 12pdr 8cwt guns on 1895 pattern Admiralty field carriages with limber are moderately uncommon and scratch time over the standard course is 4 minutes.

The Future

The axe fell on the Royal Tournament in 1988, with ticket sales falling and the TV rights locked up with the BBC, the treasury were unwilling to carry the increasing deficit and felt the Tourney no longer offered enough return in ‘Positive PR’ to justify its existence. With the end of the Royal Tournament set for 1989 the MoD were forced to withdraw the special allowances provided to HM Forces to support the Tournament. This in effect cut the rug out from under all but Military Music and the Brigade of Guards in terms of ‘display’ units in the UK services, as funding them had long since been shifted to the Tournament account. In some ways this was no great loss, for all their skill the Royal Signal's motorcycle display team didn’t really do that much for the taxpayer, but the Kings Troop RHA were only saved by administrative slight of hand and the RN were all set to lose their Field Gun Teams. The end of Gun Racing raised a howl of protest from many quarters, both the usual letters in the Times and in more august quarters. It’s pleasant to record that for once this pressure had some effect and the Gun Race was transferred to the Edinburgh Tattoo, but we lost the Army along with the Fleet Air Arm and the Chatham team transferred to Rosyth as the Dockyard was set to close in 1989 too. Edinburgh isn’t quite so congenial to Gun Racing, again time has forced the running of heats during the day with only the Final held ‘on the night,’ but its far better than seeing the end of this institution.

International Gun Racing

Antipodean Events

The success of Endeavour’s crew at the Jubilee Royal Tournament and the prospect of another invitation in 1979, prompted an outgrowth of this competition ‘down under,’ most likely because as a highly competitive, intensely physical and utterly pointless exercise, it is perfectly suited to the Australian temperate. A suitable gun and carriage were procured from some dark forgotten corner of a store, and a ‘Crew’ were set up as part of the training establishment on French Island in Westernport Bay where conveniently both the Physical Instructional and the Gunnery Branch share the depot. The RAN crew’s first outing was a display at the Royal Melbourne Agricultural Show in 1978 and feeling a little left out the other two services challenged the Navy to a match at the same venue in 1980.

Lacking suitably archaic artillery, this competition was to use the standard 3.7” Pack Howitzer over a modified course that substituted a ‘Mountain’ for the naval Chasm. By 1985 this completion had expanded along the lines of the Military Districts that Australian territory is divided into to, with the local inter-service heats taking place at the annual State Agricultural Shows and a Grand Final being run on the lawn, and since 1988 over the top, of Parliament House in Canberra on Australia Day (26th of January). These are all ‘amateur’ teams, as by unwritten agreement the ‘professional’ RAN team from French Island do not take part.

Other International Events

The relative ubiquity of the Pack Howitzer has also encouraged a modest internal competition within the Triple Alliance. Without a permanent fixture such as the Royal Tournament to revolve around, ‘Pack Racing’ is on a far less formal basis, usually organised as part of a larger ‘event’ like joint military exercises and Skills At Arms meetings. The most regular competition is again mostly naval, a ‘Fleet Gun Race’ being part of the regular Singapore Regatta Week following the annual Trident series of exercises, and followed by a second series when the combined fleet visits Thailand before breaking up. In this at least the Thai forces are regular participants, and teams from Singapore, Malaysia and on occasion the Philippians take part, Malay/Singapore matches in particular having a reputation for being ‘interesting.’ The Canadian Army also has an active Pack Gun competition, that sees some limited international exposure.

King of the Kopje

A South African competition that is a simple timed race at moving a field piece up Oudbass Kopje, records are kept according to the type of gun and foreign ‘teams’ are often invited to what is really part of Corp introductory training for the South African Artillery.

The Standard Course

The purpose of the Gun Race is to mimic the extremes of field service in South Africa, which has taken on a little licence over the years. The Race is divided into three phases and run by a crew of 18 men, usually two teams compete together each over their own course, but it is the times that count. The ‘Gun’ and its limber break down into nine components plus the rigging spars:

Weight of Equipment

Barrel 900lb Limber Boxes 74lb (x2)
Carriage 350lb Sheerlegs 170lb
Wheels 120lb (x4) 10' Spar 70lb
Limber Frame 215lb 28' Spar 100lb

The Run Out

The outward leg starts with an exploding thunderflash. The Crew race their gun and limber to the far end of the course, turn and manhandle the gun over a 5’ wall (the Home Wall). The next obstacle is a 30’ gap (the Chasm), which is crossed by jackstay (flying fox), this involves erecting a pair of sheerlegs (each spar is 170lb), ‘launching’ a man over the gap to secure the other side, and then the disassembled gun and its crew are ferried across. Once back on terra firma the gun has to be taken through a narrow hole in another 5’ wall (the Enemy Breech), which requires it to be partly disassembled again, and reassembled on the other side. Once the gun and limber are though and the crew fallen in, they ‘engage the enemy’ with three rounds rapid. An average time for this is about one minute and twenty five seconds.

The Run Back

This is really the intermediate leg and reverses the run out, that is over the wall, back across the Chasm, disassembling the jackstay, and defy the foe with another three rounds across the gap. This is a bit quicker, about a minute and twenty-one seconds is a good average.

The Run Home

This last leg is back through the ‘Home Wall’ from a standing start, then wheels back on and they race back to the starting position, call it twenty one seconds flat.

As of 1999 the World Record is held by Portsmouth at a smidge under two minutes forty seconds.

The Pack Gun Course

This is a modification of the above, but adapted to fit far more complicated weapon that’s a lot harder to drag around by crews that don’t counting rigging as a traditional skill and rather more fragile. The 3.7” Pack Howitzer No.2 comes in twelves parts, 14 with the two boxes of ammunition, the heaviest of which is only 250lb and normally has a detachment of eight men, but ten are the used for a race crew.

The course has the same length as the traditional one, and follows roughly the same pattern, but substitutes a ‘Mountain’ for the Chasm. The exact profile of the Mountain is a source of constant debate and while there is an informal standard, each one is slightly different. In theory the Mountain has four sides, which are represented by two sets of ramps. One is symmetrical and allows the gun to be hauled up it and braked down by men on drag ropes, these are supposed to be 12’ in hight, but up to 15’ is not uncommon. The second set of ‘ramps’ are stepped in two 6’ increments, the lower ones being 10’ wide and ‘The Ridge’ being 15’, this is supposed to replicate the North West Frontier of India, were the gun is fired from a narrow footing, then portaged over a ridge to cover a withdrawal from the reverse slope, and is then carried back down to the valley. The rules stipulate that the gun must be fully assembled on both lower steps and cannot cross the ‘Ridge’ without being totally stripped down. This has led to a number of ‘debatable’ shenanigans, involving ‘throwing’ the gun whole up on the lower step and ‘dropping’ it likewise intact off the other side.

It is hard to give representative times for the Pack Gun Race as there is so much variation in the courses, only the domestic competitions in Australia and India maintain a rigorous standard and both of those are different, the Indian Army insisting on a three layer Mountain with 5’ steps as being more in keeping with actual service conditions. Times are roughly twice that of the Classic race, mostly due to fewer people moving more items of greater complexity and usually a lower standard of training, but its still a most impressive run.

Danger

Much has been written in breathless prose about the Gun Race being the most intense and dangerous team sport in the world. While it is certainly gruelling and an extreme test of physical fitness and coordination the ‘danger’ side of things is rather exaggerated. The potential is certainly present, one hardly casts 1250lb lumps of iron about at racing speeds with immunity, yet to date there has one death in competition, A.B. Allen in 1982, and that from a drill error. For the most part the risk is only one of minor injuries, broken limbs, crushed fingers and the like, no worse than vigorous game of Rugby.

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