Once, we were kicking a question around the team house: “What is the oldest piece of equipment still in regular use by the military?” It’s a surprising complex question. When we first looked at it, in the 1980s, there were still a number of quite-venerable items that are now gone, like the M1911A1 pistol (1926). The Army still uses canvas cots that date to the inter-war era, too, and the Lister Bag water container (circa 1917). Another suggestion: the Browning machine gun. The M2HB has been in pretty continuous service since 1921, and was finalized earlier (1919), although now the transition to the quick-change, self-headspacing barrel M2A1 is on.
But let’s consider the humble Type E and Type F target silhouettes. The former represents a standing man, the latter a man in prone position. Originally made of cardboard (the manual specifies “bookbinder’s board”) or plywood, nowadays they’re made from vacuum-molded or roto-molded polyethylene. But their origins take some consderable tracking down, and we’re not sure, even though we’ve documented a century of using these targets, that we’re near their true service entry date.
In the Small Arms Firing Manual, 1913 (with Changes 1 through 20 through March 15, 1918) an appendix shows the various targets in use at the time. Targets A, B and C were bull’s-eyes, used in then-standard known-distance training and quaification (the Marines stlll swear by KD training today). But even a century ago, silhouette targets functionally identical to today’s were used in what was called “combat training,” and these included moving targets and reactive targets that dropped on impact (some of which, as we’ve already seen, were developed by Lt. Parker Hitt while he was at the School of Musketry in Monterey).
Target D was a scaled down representation of the F-type silhouette,printed on a rectangular target with scoring lines around it. The E- and F-type silhouettes were identical in dimension and arrangement to the modern ones, only the materials and the fact that they were made locally on each Army post, rather than centrally procured as is done today, were different in 1913.
In addition to the standard targets, numerous special-purpose targets are described in the manual. While “Class A” ranges were what we would today call “flat ranges,” suitable for known-distance firing and shooting the qualification tables, the manual clearly approves more of “Class B” ranges which offer “extended area and diversified terrain, and are used for combat firing.” The Class B range allowed the training designer or planner considerable scope in his selection and arrangement of targets.
Standing type E targets might have a trapezoidal “legs” section added beneath their usual area. Targets could be rigged in a variety of ingenious mechanical ways to fall when hit, or to pop up or bob according to the commands of a range officer. Targets were placed on sledges and pulled across the line of fire, or placed on rails that could be towed forward and back by men on detail in the butts, to simulate advancing and retreating targets. Groups of targets were placed at great distance to allow units to practice high-angle volley fire, still an important training objective with the bolt-action battle rifle of the nineteen-teens. Individual targets, perhaps E-type silhouettes and perhaps more realistic profiles of a marching sentry, were placed on long sticks and carried to and fro by the range crew. Only ingenuity and budget limited the selection of targets, and enough ingenuity could substitute for a good deal of absent budget.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the shooters of a century past were as imaginative and resourceful as the great-great-grandsons of the Great War vets are today. They might well have been more resourceful, given that they tended to come from farms in an era of “mend and make do.” We today can learn a lot from the documents they left behind for us.