On 14 August, 2015, Great Britain’s team won one of the oldest and most prestigious competitions in long-range rifle shooting, the Palma Trophy. Given how thoroughly rifle marksmanship has dropped from public attention since the nineteenth century – when the Queen fired the first shot in competitions for the eponymous Cup – it’s little surprise that few noticed. But all the more worthy of a cheer, particularly among gunmakers.
The Palma Match began in the United States in 1876, as part of its centennial celebrations. Then four other nations competed with the Americans for the title of sharpest-shooting country, using black powder rifles and a target with a 36-inch bullseye. The Americans won, handily. Since then, despite interruptions caused by wars as well as lack of organisation and interest, the Match has been contested 28 times. It has expanded to include a rotating cast of 20 countries. This year’s Match was held at Camp Perry, in Ohio – though the venue rotates among competing nations.
The Palma Match is named after its trophy. Created by Tiffany’s, a famous American jeweller, the original trophy stood seven and a half feet tall, and was modelled after the standard of an imaginary Roman legion. Just under the Imperial eagle was the word “PALMA”. (Nobody can quite remember why… probably something to do with laurels and glory.) Embarrassingly, the trophy was lost from outside the office of the US Secretary of War in the 1930s, when the competition was taking a break for the Depression. Given the Second World War, and the need to cobble together a smaller but still similar replacement trophy, the Palma Match was not resumed until 1966.
Today, the Palma Match is shot over three distances: 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. Rifles are 7.62mm. Only open sights are allowed. Teams are made up of 16 shooters (to use the rifleman’s word for the person pulling the trigger). They are assisted by four wind coaches and a head wind coach, to advise on the sight adjustments needed to compensate for gusts and breezes. Each shooter has 15 shots to score at each distance, and the course is shot twice over two days.
This year’s winning British team shot a combined 7,106 of a possible 7,200. That was a convincing 79 points ahead of the second-place Americans. South Africa came third with 7010. British shooter Toby Raincock had the highest individual score, with 449 of a possible 450.
The British team was captained by Jane Messer. For each competition, the Council of the National Rifle Association selects a captain, who then selects her (or his) team on the results of competitions in the years leading up to the Palma. This year’s team included engineers, a surgeon, financiers, an analytical chemist, a prep-school teacher, a plumber and a stamp dealer. All take huge amounts of time from day jobs and families in order to keep their shooting to international level.
In addition to the Palma Match, Camp Perry also hosted a number of other competitions during the two-week meeting. Here too, the British excelled. The British under-25 teams won first and second place in the World Under-25 Championship. The British Veterans won the Tony Loughman Memorial Team Match. And the British team also won the America Match, shot at 300, 600, 900 and 1,000 yards.
The next Palma Match is scheduled for 2019. The NRA is already thinking about teams. Meanwhile, for more on the history of the Palma Match, there is a long article in The Rifleman’s Journal.
Correction: The original version of this article claimed the Palma was the oldest international long-range rifle competition. It’s not. The Elcho competition is older. Thanks to John Bloomfield for the correction.