The metallic roar of machinegun fire in the suburban air caught a young Mark Currie’s attention. So did finding empty brass shell casings in his backyard near the Bedford Rifle Range.
“The earliest memory I have of any of this stuff is playing in the backyard as a small boy and our house had a cement slab at the back door,” he says. “And here’s a bullet encased in the cement slab.”
It sparked an abiding fascination that led him and his friends to sneak onto the range.
“When I was a kid, I used to go out and hang around with the caretaker,” he says. “Back in the 1970s, it was very relaxed. For the most part there was no fence. We used to walk down the road, knock on the caretaker’s door, and hang out.”
His is a second-generation fascination. His father Mike was a 10-year-old boy in Bedford as the Second World War bled toward an end in 1944. He delivered newspapers along the range and remembers popping in to watch movies in the dry canteen with the soldiers, who always treated him to a bottle of Coke. He’d watch awestruck as soldiers threw dummy grenades and drove fire-throwing tanks.
Mark Currie grew up a bullet’s throw away from the range. Poring over old photos, maps and documents, he’s piecing together the range’s 151-year history.
The province paid George Lister $3,795 for the land in 1865 and turned “Lister’s Intervale” into the rifle range. At first, it was mainly used by the Nova Scotia Rifle Association, plus the volunteer and regular militia.
In the fall of 1865, the first Provincial Rifle Association Contest was held at the range. The Nova Scotia Rifle Association says about 400 competitors took part. Marksmen unloaded the powerful new 1853 Enfield onto its targets. It shot a “big, soft, squishy bullet” that spattered across the cast-iron target, leaving a mark so they could easily gauge their accuracy.
Then as now, someone positioned themselves close to the targets to record the scores. “This guy would hide in the shed, it was bullet-proof, and he would look through this very thick window and wait for the splat,” Currie says. “He’d take this big stick and hold it over the shot.”
A man with a spyglass recorded the score.
The civilian rifle association had a distinct military edge. “If you look at the register of the men and where they were from, a huge percentage of them were from the [Princess Louise Fusiliers],” Currie says. “On their spare time, aside from the official training they did in their regiments, they joined the [rifle association] to compete as individuals.”
But look closely at the old photos and you see a wider range of people.
“Here’s another fascinating social aspect of the range,” he says. “In a lot of cases, especially early on in the 1860s, it was a levelling of classes. It was one of the few times farmers and fishermen, involved in these volunteer rifle associations, would be on the shooting mound with the upper class. A lot of the time, the women would go with their men to the range, or they saw it as an opportunity to meet a dashing young marksman.”
Currie spreads a black-and-white photo on his coffee table and we mentally superimpose today’s Bedford over the late 1800s version. “The Bedford Legion would be roughly around here,” he says, pointing to a field at the edge of the range. “The [former] A&W would be right there.”
He’s blown up the images so you can see the cookhouse and stable, alongside tents and soldiers preparing to head to the firing line. You can also see a couple of dogs enjoying a day in the countryside as their owners picnic at the edge of the range.
Currie tracked down a 101-year-old man who shot at the range in 1922. The range staff was equally excited and organized a visit for the lively senior, though he didn’t shoot this time.
In 1900, a 1,000-yard range replaced the original 900-yard range, and the first 12 targets yielded to 22 targets. The range was reborn again as the Great War came to an end in 1914–15, adding a new 600-yard range with 18 targets.
In the 1930s, photos reveal casually attired families picnicking feet away from the firing line. NSRA shoots were social events that could take up the best part of a day.
The big numbers you see today correspond to the marksmen’s number at the firing line. If you’re shooting from 10, you’re aiming at 10.
As a teenager, Currie took turns sitting below the targets to mark where the shots landed. Despite having bullets whizzing overheard, Currie says the site is actually completely safe. “Us kids, we spent enough time marking targets during the summer that you could actually close your eyes,” he says. “And the shot directly over your head had a different sound,” he says.
Currie used to be a reserve member of the Princess Louise Fusiliers and used the range as a marksman. “I think I did okay,” he says.
Today, the range is mostly used by the armed forces. The NSRA now holds most of its competitions at the new Bull Meadow Range in Rawdon.
Currie hopes to turn his research into a book. He’s still gathering information; reach him at email@example.com to share stories and photos