The story of Colonel Blair, King’s Prizeman, and Bisley’s tensest shoot-off
W. W. MURRAY
ON AUGUST 15 a medium-sized and rather sparely built British Columbian, approaching, one would judge, his middle years, sat in the luncheon hall of the Chateau Laurier at Ottawa, and amid the acclaim of hundreds of his compatriots heard himself thanked on behalf of the government and people of Canada for the honor and distinction he had brought to his native land. The modest centre of this unique demonstration was Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Mills Blair, commanding officer of the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver, and the only man who ever, in the same year at Bisley, won both the King’s Prize and the Grand Aggregate. Either one of these accomplishments would justifiably encourage the thought that the acme of marksmanship had therein been achieved: to secure the double event was surely to attain finality. Appropriately, the encomiums on this occasion were pronounced by the Prime Minister of Canada, and the ceremony was further graced by the Governor-General and Lady Willingdon. Lieutenant-Colonel Blair divided the honors of the day with Mr. Winston Churchill, but it is only fair to say that not by any stretch of the imagination was he overshadowed by the splendors of that illustrious figure.
The token of Canada’s appreciation took the form of a large silver tray, suitably and simply inscribed, which Mr. Mackenzie King presented to the King’s Prizewinner; and modestly, even shyly, the Empire’s crack rifleshot received it. This was the culmination of years of endeavor, the conic point upon which at last had converged decades of strenuous and valiant effort. It is a far cry from the banks of the Saguenay River to the Yukon; from Dawson City to Vancouver; and it is farther still from the western slopes of the Rockies to the famous chair at Bisley wherein the Empire riflemen enthrone their annual victor. To Colonel Blair it represents in point of time nearly thirty years—years filled with interest, and punctuated with adventure and achievement.
A British Columbian? Colonel Blair admits the soft impeachment; at the same time, however, he further admits that, although more than half of his life has been spent on the West Coast, those years have not erased his childhood memories, and these are of days spent in and around Chicoutimi, his birthplace. For he is a Quebecker born. It was in the woods of the Saguenay and the Lake St. John district that he first learned what a rifle was, and how to handle it. As a boy, imbued with all of a boy’s love for the outdoors, he played, canoed and hunted over the streams of the “Marie Chapdelaine” country, learning early, and in the natural course of things, the lore of the woods. Of how he came to fire his first shot he has no recollection: it must have been at a tender age. But it was the ambition of every youth in that pioneer region to excel in arms, and perhaps—although it is not admitted—the future King’s Prizewinner had a slight margin of advantage over his boyhood companions. His father had large timber interests in the Lake St. John district, and the boy became a habitué of the lumber camps. He lived with the men, worked with them both in the bush and on the rivers; he hunted with them, and practised his shooting with them. The rifle was not an uncommon article of the bushman’s equipment; nor were moving or stationary targets scarce. Camp bottles set on tree stumps or strung over a limb, distances measured by guess, a few shells doled out from the common store, or contributed by like enthusiasts, and these forest Bisleys were on.
And thus, as the twig was bent, so did the tree incline. The clean, clear life of wood and river inevitably conceived within him those qualities of mind and body which later burgeoned forth in the sureness of eye, the steady nerve and the complete self-control that challenged opposition, and at a critical moment on a critical occasion rewarded him with the realization of one of his highest ambitions. To have a rifle of his own was an overmastering urge as a boy. By a long and painful process, one which demanded from him the wistful sacrifice of everything that Canada Junior holds dear, he saved up his pennies. He became an exacting financier, with a regular fixed tariff for such industrial pursuits as chopping the kindling-wood, trimming the lawn, or running to the corner-store for groceries. His remuneration for those activities was religiously banked. The sum swelled until it reached the amazing total of fourteen dollars. He was twelve years old. Taking these youthful savings, he blossomed forth into a man of property, for with them he treated himself to the luxury of a Winchester repeater. It would be a pleasing climax to be able to say that he still possesses it; but unfortunately one cannot go quite that far. It is not too much to believe, however, that this fourteen-dollar rifle marked the beginning of a course that led unerringly, and step by step, tothe King’s Prize and the Grand Aggregate.
Colonel Blair was educated at Quebec High School, where, his flair for soldiering manifesting itself at an early age, he joined the 8th Royal Rifles. He was then thirteen years old. Too young for admission into the ranks, he was inscribed on the roll as a signaller, and it was as a signaller that he shot on his company team at the provincial meet. Two years later, he became a member of the regimental team and paid his first visit to the Dominion Rifle Association at Ottawa. His love for musketry was thus born and cradled in the province of Quebec.
Up the Yukon
A FEW more of his adolescent years on the Saguenay, however, closed that chapter of his career, for in 1902 the siren call of the Yukon summoned him. With six companions he set out for the West. Forewarned of the privations to be encountered, the party took with them 12,000 pounds of supplies and two Peterboro canoes, and all of this they portaged safely from Skagway over the Chilkoot Pass in April of that year, and sledded down to the head of Lake Bennett. Like so many other goldseekers they were driven to build their own boats in order to continue the trip down the lake. But they were experienced men; whipsawing the timber from the woods bordering this sheet of water and hewing the knees for the boats out of the tree roots, they constructed three 35foot vessels, double-enders of the river driver type. These they launched on the perilous journey northward.
About forty miles above Cariboo Crossing, now known as Carcross, a station on the White Pass and Yukon Railway, is the head of Miles Canyon. Of this spot a recently published government guidebook has this to say:
“Here was encountered by those sturdy gold-seekers who had survived the hardships of the White Pass trail the most severe test of their nerves. The river closes in abruptly, and races with terrifying velocity through a dark, narrow canyon and then over a series of turbulent rapids. Canyon and rapids together make five miles of rushing, seething, foaming waters that well might cast terror into the hearts of the bravest. Whirlpools and rocks add to the dangers of the otherwise still dangerous passage. From the ‘white horses’ that foam over the rocks at the foot of the canyon, the rapids were named. Many lives were lost in shooting these waters in the early days.”
Some time previous to the arrival of the Blair party at the head of Miles Canyon, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police had taken a hand, and insisted that all craft navigating this section carry qualified pilots. The fee for this service was twenty-five dollars a boat. The money was of small concern to the Quebeckers, considering that they were convoying nearly six tons of stores; but they accepted the river, its canyon, rapids and rocks as a challenge. They had been brought up to ride “white horses” all their life and with the robust confidence of youth saw no reason for surrendering to the Miles Canyon. They decided to go it alone. Before the police patrols quite realized what had transpired, the first of the three boats was being calmly poled out into the stream, young Blair in the bow and a companion from the St. Maurice in the stern. The constables, thunderstruck and horrified, shouted and gesticulated; but their words were lost in the thunder of the waters which drew the vessel swiftly out of earshot and into the roaring, boiling tumult of the canyon. Mounting their horses, the policemen raced along the bank, intent, presumably, on recovering the corpses when the river was finished with them. But to their amazement they witnessed an exhibition of scientific rapids-shooting that could not be excelled by even their own most competent pilots. At White Horse, where the river quietens down, they met the two boatmen as they poled sturdily ashore. No charge for speeding or passing the red light was preferred against them; instead, the future winner of the King’s Prize received the accolade then and there—he was appointed a pilot of Miles Canyon, vested with full authority to conduct boats down this turbulent channel, and to collect twenty-five dollars each for such service, if, as, and when rendered. The Quebeckers returned for the other boats.
Col. Blair was not one of those who made a fortune in the Yukon. In the summer of 1902 he and a fellow prospector poled up the headwaters of the Stewart River, searching for gold. His woodland Bisleys of the Saguenay days then stood him in good stead, for the two were obliged to live on the country. Thanks, however, to his early training he kept the larder well stocked with moose, cariboo— even grizzly, on occasion. Members of the original septette had staked properties at Bonanza, Eldorado and Lower Dominion Creek, which were worked by the customary primitive methods of the Yukon of over a quarter of a century ago. Some claims were productive; others were not. But an added interest was contributed to life in the northwest when Lieutenant-Colonel H. S. Tobin, a former Ottawan, secured for Blair a Commission in the Corps of Guides. Thus, even on the farthest frontier of civilization he continued to identify himself with the Canadian Militia.
A Citizen Soldier
'“TWENTY years ago, following a brief L period when he succumbed to the Wanderlust, he returned to Vancouver. It may be said that his real career as a citizen-soldier then began. He had devoted himself closely to the study of small-arms, and the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders being in process of formation, he threw in his lot with them. (Here let it be interjected in parenthesis that Colonel Blair comes naturally by his love of the tartan. His grandfather was a native of Edinburgh, who came to Canada in 1832; his mother was a Scotswoman, and the gracious lady who now presides over his domestic life is also Scottish. So, the land of brown heath and shaggy wood may be pardoned for urging some small claim upon the honor and distinction he has won!)
The war saw him responding to the call, and he proceeded overseas. But his knowledge of small-arms robbed him of continuous service with his unit—the 72nd Battalion, for he was withdrawn for technical employment. His advice being sought in connection with the Ross Rifle, which came in for such devastating criticism following the Battle of St. Julien, Colonel Blair was able to evolve for Sir Charles Ross a serviceable arm by cutting down the barrel, inserting a new magazine, and enlarging the bolt-stop. The tests were conducted under the Experimental Department of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France, England and Canada. The troops being now armed with the short Lee-Enfield, however, the Ross was never re-issued. Throughout the conflict he was engaged variously in the ramifications of musketry. When the Armistice brought hostilities to a close he was evolving a new weapon to supersede the Lewis Gun; it was to have been lighter, better balanced, more mobile, and with a slower rate of fire which would enable the average gunner to follow his sights.
Since the war Colonel Blair has immersed himself more deeply than ever in the science of small-arms. He is recognized as one of Canada’s outstanding authorities, and his counsel is widely sought. From the abstract studies involved therein to their practical application on the rifle-range is only a short step; the one, in fact, is necessarily a complement of the other. Consequently, his continued interest in the affairs of the Canadian Militia in Vancouver, particularly of his own regiment, is one that finds expression in promoting the advancement of rifle-shooting and in • surrounding it with all the attractiveness of a “popular science.” Seven times in the last ten years he himself has qualified for the Canadian Bisley team, and he was present at the National Rifle Association meet in 1923 and 1926, as well as this year. His visits to the D.R.A. in Ottawa have, naturally, been much more frequent: on each occasion he has brought powerful groups from the Pacific Coast, for he believes literally in “training the young idea how to shoot.”
On his first Bisley appearance, naving no bedded rifle, he accomplished little; but three years ago he found himself in the King’s Hundred—eight points in arrears of the top man. What he achieved a few months ago was unprecedented in Bisley history.
The Famous Tie-Shoot
GENERAL excellence characterized the entire Canadian team. In past years the Dominion may possibly have sent as good all-round representatives: they never sent better. In Colonel Blair’s opinion the Canadians performed marvellously, and for that there was a reason. In the first place they were not forced to practise to excess before the competitions began. Each man was master of his rifle; he had complete command of what was required of him under any conceivable combination of circumstances. Thus the marksmen were not stale; in fact, they did not reach the , ',eak of their form until toward the end of the meet. They had all the qualities of concentration and nerve in abundance, and those elements tell most on the ranges. The winning of the City of London and the Kolapore Cups in team shoots was sufficient evidence of the fine calibre of the Canadian representatives; the individual scores attained in all of the competitions show where their excellence lay.
In the Grand Aggregate Colonel Blair was obliged to contend for first position with another Canadian, Master-Gunner Collings, of Esquimalt, who had tied him in the final count. This feature was duplicated in the King’s Prize, and it is noteworthy that on the latter occasion his opponent was that sterling Ottawa marksman, Lieutenant Desmond Burke, of the Governor-General’s Footguards, himself King’s Prizeman in 1927 and runner-up in 1928. Here, then, were all the elements of a contest, the like of which may never again be witnessed at Bisley. Out of the 1,400 competitors drawn from every part of the Empire— crack shots of the nations they represented—a remorseless process of elimination had whittled the number down to the last pair. This was a battle for the survival of the fittest. When the cards were checked it was found that the top scorers were Colonel Blair and Lieutenant Burke: the coveted King’s Prize, blue riband of marksmanship, had resulted in a tie, and a shoot-off would be necessary.
Usually when the score is notched’ in Bisley contests a “sudden-death” decision is sought; on this occasion, however, it was ruled that each of the two be issued with four shots—on the final 1,000 yards range. The first was to be a sighting-shot, and the aggregate of the next three would determine the victor. Marksmen and visitors from all over the camp had crowded to the range, held back from the two Canadians by a triangle of rope. Within the enclosure were only a few necessary officials. It was a clear sunny day, with scarcely a breath of wind to ruffle the grass. In tense, almost uncanny silence behind the finalists thronged the thousands of spectators. The three shots were slowly fired—all bull’s-eyes. The tie remained unbroken, and the crowd gasped. Lying prone on the ground facing their targets, the friendly opponents heard the radio-announcers behind broadcasting the news to the outside world, and also heard the hurried colloquy of the officials as they sought ways and means of breaching this unprecedented impasse. They decided that, after all, the old way was perhaps the better, but resolved to give the new notion another trial. A sighting-shot and three more rounds were therefore issued. Still the contestants were tied.
Scarcely believing the evidence of its own eyes, the crowd stared and listened; and once more the officials went into committee. They were now convinced that the old way actually was the best: it was consequently proclaimed that cartridges would be issued round by round until one or the other fell down.
Colonel Blair fired his seventh—another bull. Lieutenant Burke pressed the trigger—an inner! An audible sigh rose from the crowd, and a shout from the radio-announcer galvanized everybody into action. Before Colonel Blair had scrambled to his feet Burke had raced over, and was warmly shaking him by the hand. The barriers were broken, and a stampeding, tumultuous mob swarmed and seethed about the victor. Helpless in the human torrent, the King’s Prizeman was elevated into the famous chair, borne in triumph around the camp to the riotous cheering of the hundreds, who, coming from every corner of the Empire, had set out in such high hope to achieve the honor, each one for himself and his country.
Nothing had inspired him more, Colonel Blair told his Ottawa hearers when he received the expression of Canada’s recognition, than this sight of fellowBritons, their own aspirations shattered for one more year at least, nevertheless relegating their own disappointment into the background, and giving to the victor the very best that was in them.
Felicitations from Earl Jellicoe, president of the British Empire Service League, from Lord Milne, president of the N.R.A., and Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Charles Madden, quickly followed. Colonel Blair was received by the Prince of Wales at St. James Palace, while His Majesty the King telegraphed his congratulations, and presented the winner with an autographed photograph of himself.
The actual monetary value of the King’s Prize is $1,250. With it goes the Gold Medal, just as the Grand Cross goes with the winning of the Grand Aggregate. It is for these contests only that the victors’ names are inscribed in gold on the tablets of the N.R.A. at Bisley. There have been marksmen who in different years won both, but it has been left to a Canadian to combine the two in any one year—that Canadian being Colonel Blair.