History: Ben Comfort 1935 Wimbledon Cup

Ben Comfort and the Wimbledon Cup in 1935
by Germán A. Salazar

Ben Comfort in Western Ammunition advertisement, October 1935 American Rifleman
(click to enlarge)
Although Ben Comfort of St. Louis, Missouri won the Wimbledon Cup in 1935, he is not one of the most remembered shooters in our history, yet he deserves to be more widely recognized.  Comfort was the first person to win the Wimbledon Cup, or any other significant 1000 yard match, with a magnum caliber, the .300 H&H Magnum to be exact, and in so doing, brought real change to the world of NRA long-range shooting.  Just as interesting is just how he went about winning the Cup.  A look back at the times and the circumstances of Comfort's win is worthwhile.

The Great Depression affected competitive shooting as much as any other activity in the early 1930's.  The Federal budget had no room for frills and the budget for the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (NBPRP) and the National Matches were an early casualty in 1932.  The NRA soldiered on with its National Championship matches, although not all elements of those matches were still held at Camp Perry.  The matches were conducted on a regional basis, scattered to various locations throughout the country, covering eight of the nine Army Corps areas: Wakefield, Massachusetts; Quantico, Virginia; Camp McClellan, Alabama; Camp Perry, Ohio; Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Fort Des Moines, Iowa; Fort Bliss, Texas; and Fort Lewis, Washington.  (Americans and Their Guns, James B. Trefethen, NRA, 1967 at p. 228).

Thirty caliber shooting was nearly dead in those times, the cost of shooting in matches at ten cents per shot for .30-06 was more than most people could afford.  Smallbore managed to remain popular, with ammunition at about a penny a shot.  In 1935, the country's economic situation began to improve, albeit slightly.  The previously decimated NBPRP budget was restored to $350,000 allowing for the National Matches to be conducted with full military support at Camp Perry.  This created the conditions for the NRA to bring its National Championship matches back to Camp Perry, reunited with the NBPRP National Matches, as had been the practice prior to the 1932 cutbacks.

The 1935 NRA matches saw a few important changes in the rules.  Pursuant to a rule change in 1934, the rifle permitted for the across-the-course matches was no longer limited to the Springfield 1903, but instead "any .30-06 rifle weighing less than nine pounds and equipped with metallic sights" was permitted.  In July of 1935, the NRA Executive Committee voted to open a number of the matches previously restricted to the military rifle or cartridge to "any rifle" and "any ammunition" including the Wimbledon Cup.  This set the stage for Comfort's win with the magnum.  (See, Americans and Their Guns, Id. at 228-232).  It should be noted that, while today we tend to think of "any rifle" as removing all restrictions, at that time, there were rifle, trigger, sights and ammunition restrictions which could be waived to "any" individually.  Accordingly, a match could be "any rifle" and still restricted to the .30-06 cartridge.  While my information on the exact rules of the Wimbledon in the years just prior to 1935 is sketchy, I believe the ammunition was still restricted to the .30-06; then in 1935, all restrictions were lifted, thus allowing the magnum cartridges alongside the .30-06.

Comfort went to one of the most respected gunmakers of the time, Griffin & Howe and had two rifles made.  These were U.S. 1917 actions with Winchester barrels in Griffin & Howe's stocks and, of course, chambered in .300 H&H Magnum and topped with a Winchester 5 power scope.  Griffin & Howe were, according to Townsend Whelen, the first American gunmakers to chamber rifles for the .300 H&H, having done so at least as early as 1927,  (The Hunting Rifle, Townsend Whelen, Stackpole & Sons, 1940, reprint by Wolfe Publishing Co., 1984 at p. 215). 

For his ammunition, as we saw in the advertisement that opens this article, Comfort sought out Western ammunition.  There's an interesting snippet regarding that in Phil Sharpe's contemporary work The Rifle in America: "The popularity of the .300 H&H Magnum can probably be traced to those noted gunsmiths Griffin & Howe who for many years have been making custom-built rifles to handle the foreign calibers.  The demand became so sufficient that Western added it to their regular production and in 1935 the .30-06 cartridge went down to defeat in the famous Wimbledon Match at Camp Perry.  Ben Comfort, the winner of the Wimbledon, used standard Western factory loads with the 180-grain full metal jacket boat-tail bullet to win this big 1000-yard match."  (The Rifle in America, Philip B. Sharpe, 1938, Second Edition 1947, Funk & Wagnalls Company at p. 725).  The following year, in the Wimbledon Cup match, the winner and nine out of the first ten shooters used the .300 H&H Magnum, and the world of long range shooting entered a new age (.300 Magnum Loads, Volume 2 of Reloading Information from The American Rifleman, NRA, 1953, p. 55).

With the background information established, let's switch from a historical recount to the chronicle of events as presented in the October 1935 issue of the The American Rifleman (Pepys' Diary of Camp Perry, Kendrick Scofield, The American Rifleman, October 1935, p. 5 at 12):

September 11 - Arose as the chimes called six, resolved to observe the firing of that classic, the Wimbledon Match.  This, together with the Leech contest which will be fired later, have always seemed to me to be the most fascinating of all the individual rifle-gun competitions, since they were well rooted even before the beginnings of the National Rifle Association program, and have been the reason for the keenest rivalry for upwards of those three-score years.

Out upon the firing line, I found to my great disappointment that this historic contest was being fired co-incidentally and upon the same range with the 1000 yard stage of the President's which perchance made for efficiency, but did cause it to be difficult to follow.  So I remained but long enough to take note of the weather and a few of the tallys.

The earlier relays were blessed in that the wind was less to be reckoned with than later, although it was veering from 6 to 8 o'clock and coming puffily.  Saw upon the scoreboards many Fives but also many zeroes; those latter where the suddenly dying wind had tricked the marksman.  At that time noted only one possible tally of 100 with 13 V's and this credited to Lloyd Wilson of the Washington Civilians. [Note: Lloyd Wilson was L.E. Wilson of reloading equipment fame.  Wilson was a Double Distinguished shooter and a topic for another day. -GAS-]

[Several paragraphs of unrelated material follow, then back to the Wimbledon]

Again to the range where the Wimbledon match was yet in progress, and found conditions much more difficult.  The wind had shifted slowly but steadily clockwise until it was blowing straight across the range from due west.  Observing, I did see riflement using from two to three points windage [two to three points windage equals eight to twelve minutes of angle -GAS-] and such an oldtimer as John Hession who has fired in practically every Wimbledon in twenty-five years, and now holds the record, did blow out of the V-ring for a low count.

At this time I did see that Wilson was still high scorer, but there were many yet to shoot and no small number of these were equipped with "bull guns" as are termed the heavy free rifles permitted equally in this event with Service rifles.

On my way into camp, stopped to sit awhile with Clem Parker and Jim Howe and Jim did acquaint me of a tabloid upon the gunsmith's art which he is preparing to publish.  It is in his mind to have this book of value to the lover of firearms who is not wealthy, yet who has some knack with his hands.

To the taverne at noon and then to my tent, there to set down some pages in this diary, for the bright chill morn had bloomed into a summer day and the sun outside too hot for comfort.

By and by when cooler to the Wimbledon range again to hear that the wind was still difficult, and the score made earlier by Wilson had been equalled by some others.  Yet there often comes a golden hour on this range, near sunset, when the wind steadies or its velocity dies, and it is at this time that a shooter may expect better breaks in both wind and light so that at this time the match had neither been won nor lost.

Now as the afternoon did grow apace, there entered into the contest a factor which was neither wind nor light, but was one Ben C. Comfort, a civilian from St. Louis, who had long aspired to the massive British trophy.

Though equipped with a bull gun he had yet found no occasion to target it at 1000 yards and the conditions as laid down for the Wimbledon do exclude sighting shots.  To remedy this, he did bethink himself some days before of the President's Match, the final stage of which is at the long distance.  So he did enter this competition, which is for Service rifles only, but did not fire in its earlier stages at his own request.  Instead in mid-afternoon of this day he did report at the President's Match and did beg leave to fire his bull gun for record only, and to this the range officer did accede.  So that two hours later (then acquainted with his elevations) he did shoot his tally in the Wimbledon which credited to him a perfect score with 14 V's.

When the firing was finished, it was found that in spite of the most adverse conditions, seven others had made possible scores with varying numbers of additional V's.  They were Ernest Sellers, Alabama civilian; Sgt. C.J. Anderson, Marines; Ben Harrison, Massachusetts civilian, who incidentally was the only man in the match to make a possible score firing the Service rifle and iron sights; Lloyd Wilson of the Washington civilians; Vere F. Hamer, South Dakota civilian; C.E. Nordhus, Illinois civilian, and Sgt. Maj. Morris Fisher, Marine Corps Reserve.  Yet none of the tallys made by these men did equal that of Comfort and to him was awarded the trophy.

Now this award did cause much talk to spread about the camp, because of the sighting-in of the bull gun in the President's Match.  But after long discourse the weight of opinion was that, in so doing, Comfort had done no violence to any rule and was therefore entitled to the fruits of his victory.

End of quote from The American Rifleman, October, 1935.

So we see that Comfort was not only an innovator in selecting the .300 H&H Magnum for the Wimbledon as soon as the rules allowed for it, but also that he was a canny competitor, and used the means available to him to ensure that his performance would be representative of his ability, unhindered by his lack of 1000 yard practice.  Comfort changed long-range shooting with his Magnum; perhaps someone else would have done it eventually or even in that same year, but he is who did it and thus whom we remember:  Ben C. Comfort, of St. Louis, Missouri.

The Wimbledon Cup Match
(1481 Entries)

Open to - Any citizen of the United States.
When fired - Wednesday, September 11, beginning at 7:30 am.
Course - 20 shots at 1000 yards prone.
Prizes - To the winner, the Wimbledon Cup and a gold medal.  To the high competitor with the service rifle a gold medal.  To the second high with each type of equipment, a silver medal.  To the eight next highest competitors with each type of equipment, bronze medals.  Cash prizes (Schedule A).

                                               Medal Winners
No.                  Name and Organization                  Score       Rifle
1.   Comfort, Ben, St. Louis, Mo.                            100          **
2.   Sellers, Ernest, Ala. Civ. Team.                        100          **
3.   Anderson, Clarence J., Sgt. USMC Team            100          **
4.   Harrison, Benj. S., Mass. Civ. Team No.1          100          ***
5.   Wilson, Lloyd E., Wash. State Civ. Team,          100          **
6.   Hamer, Vere F., S. Dak. Civ. Team                   100          **
7.   Nordhaus, Conrad E., Ill. Civ. Team No. 1          100          **
8.   Fisher, Morris, Sgt. Maj. USMCR                       100          **
9.   Swanson, Emmet O., Minn. Civ. Team                99           **
10. Link, Max W., Sgt. Inf. Team                             99           **
11. McDonald, Hugh F., Ore. Civ. Team                    99           **
12. Yeszerski, Edward, Sgt. Cav. Team                     99          ***
13. Wills, Charles W., Sgt. Inf. Team                        99           ***
14. Donalson, Edward A., Sgt. NJNG Team                 99          **
15. Petersimes, Glen F., Mich. Civ. (Indiv.)               98           ***
16. Hamel, William G., Sgt. Cav. Team                     97           ***
17. Crabb, Charles C., Okla. Civ. Team                     97            ***
18. Gallman, Oscar L., Sgt. Inf. Team                       96            ***
19. Shoemaker, Carl V., Capt. Ore. NG Team            96            ***
20. Hedglin, Leslie H., Sgt. Cav. Team                     96             ***

Note: Names marked with two stars signifies any-rifle with any-sights.  Names marked with three stars signifies Service Rifle with sights as issued.
(The American Rifleman, October 1935, p. 46)

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