UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: Donaldson is founding father of modern bench rest shooting

Harvey A. Donaldson shoots from a bench rest. Donaldson is considered the founding father of modern bench rest shooting. (Photo contributed by Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame)

Throughout our nation’s history, firearms have been a crucial tool for its inhabitants to feed their families, protection against predators and for citizen militias. And throughout this time, gunsmiths in America have been designing firearms to be more accurate and effective for its users. It is this spirit of improvement that has led to the advancement in firearms and ammunition since the creation of the gun.

One of the most well-known rifle cartridge designers and experimenters of the 20th century was Harvey A. Donaldson of Fultonville. Donaldson was born on April 6, 1884 in Fultonville, where he attended public school. His mother, an area school teacher, was considered one of the “best gun shooters” in the Northeast in the 1870’s. She learned the art of rifle and shotgun shooting from her older brother (A.B. Jones), who had been a member of the Berdan Regiment of Sharpshooters in the Civil War. Together, they attended many area turkey shoots to test their skills and compete. When Harvey turned seven years old, his mother and uncle (who he referred to as his “Shooting Uncle”) began passing down the art of shooting and the skills of reloading to him, which led to a life-long passion for firearms and ammunitions.

Donaldson was a typical active male growing up, participating in football, basketball and tennis. Most of his remaining free time was spent hunting woodchucks and crows. At the age of 14 (1898) he attended the Peekskill Military Academy in Peekskill, N.Y. After three years of military school, he attended the Albany Business College in Albany in 1900, where he took up the subject of banking and bookkeeping because he liked anything that demanded accuracy. After his schooling was complete, he worked for a time as a bookkeeper and then learned the woodworking trade while employed by the Rome Brass and Copper Company making wood patterns. During World War I, he worked for the Remington Arms Company in Ilion New York as a small arms inspector and taught manual training (wood and metal working) in a local high school at night. After the war, he learned the tool-making trade, which eventually brought him back to Fultonville. In 1935, the Fultonville Machine and Tool Company was founded and Harvey was hired on as its first machinist and toolmaker. He would continue to work for this company until he was well into his 80’s.

When Harvey was 15 years old (around the time of the Spanish American War), he started accompanying his uncle to turkey shoots much like his mother had in her younger days. In the late 1800’s & early 1900’s, competitive shooting was an important sporting activity, and was covered in the media as much as baseball, football and other popular sports are today. He also began reading his uncle’s copies of ‘Shooting and Fishing’ (a popular publication of that time), which led to his interest in Schuetzen shooting at the turn of the century. This form of shooting was performed with a single shot rifle, and the practitioner strived for precise shot placement into the bullseye of a 25-ring target, from a distance of 200 yards.

His first Schuetzen rifle was a Pope rifle that was made by famed gun maker Harry Pope in 1903. The more he shot the gun, the more he questioned many things about its performance and how to improve it. He searched for information that he could not find in his uncle’s magazines. It was at that time that his ‘Shooting uncle’ gave him some very profound advice that would set him on a lifelong quest for more knowledge to improve his shooting through the better understanding of the equipment used.

He told him “Boy, if you want to learn anything about shooting, go to the man who knows how to shoot.” Based on that advice, the young Donaldson began a letter writing campaign in which he corresponded with the experts he read about in the publications of the day, such as rifle designer Harry Pope, ballistics expert Franklin Weston Mann, custom rifle manufacturer Adolph O. Niedner and cartridge designer Charles Newton (to name a few). And much to Donaldson’s surprise, they all responded to his questions, setting him off on life-long learning tour. He would eventually become personal friends with these experts, attending Schuetzen shoots with and working side by side doing shooting and ammunition experiments with the biggest names in the industry.

The lessons learned participating in Schuetzen Shooting were the foundation for the various case experiments he would conduct. At that time, handloading was a no more than a small hobby that was openly opposed by the major gun manufacturers. But Donaldson felt it was a necessity to experiment with bullet design (wildcatting) to find a proper load for a particular rifle.

Around 1910, he started designing cases and made jacketed bullets with Niedner swages, utilizing things he learned in his correspondence with Dr. Mann and Niedner himself. He was never content and kept trying for something better. This led to him creating several unique new rifle cartridges and authoring articles in several magazines in the ammunition and firearms fields in ‘The American Rifleman,’ ‘Handloader; The Journal of Ammunition Reloading,’ and ‘The Ultimate in Rifle Precision.’ Through these writings he shared his vast knowledge on the subject of rifles, making him famous in the gun world and one of the world’s authorities on rifle accuracy.

After World War I, anything associated with Germany or “German” was shunned, and use of the Schuetzen Rifle declined and the Schuetzen Matches eventually came to an end in the late 1920’s. This left Donaldson with very few formal outlets to compete and test the things he was learning and creating through his experimentation. To continue to hone his skills at long-distance shooting, he hunted woodchucks in the local area.

Woodchucks are a nuisance to area farmers as they damage their fields, crops, equipment and livestock. Farm equipment damages their axles when riding into their holes, and broken legs of livestock ensue if they step into the holes burrowed by the rodents for their dens.

Eradicating a woodchuck is difficult, as they have excellent eyesight, and on the open farmlands of the Upstate New York area they have open views of hundreds of yards. And once they sense danger, they immediately drop back into their dens. In order to shoot such cunning creatures, woodchuck hunting demands accurate long-range shots at a very small target.

To continue to make improvements to this type of shooting, Donaldson drew from the knowledge and spirit of experimentation he had gained from his relationships with the likes of industry legends Pope, Mann, Niedner and Newton. In 1937, Donaldson created a new wildcat target/varmint cartridge design by reshaping the body of the case of a bullet to allow more grains of powder. This increased the velocity of the bullet, while maintaining its accuracy. This allowed for a very powerful and accurate shot at long ranges, which was perfect for woodchuck hunting. This new cartridge design would become known as the .219 Donaldson Wasp Cartridge. The praise that this new cartridge began receiving in gun magazines led to gunsmiths throughout the United States building rifles specifically chambered for it. This raised the bar in the world of long-distance shooting.

That same year he designed the now infamous .219 Donaldson Wasp Cartridge (1937), a group of Fulton County shooting enthusiasts organized a shooting club called the Pine Tree Rifle Club. In early 1938 the club leased 30 acres of land North of Johnstown located on what is now Johnson Avenue. On this land, they built a 100-yard range and an area for trap shooting.

For the first few years, they would hold meetings at each of the member’s homes. In 1940 they built a clubhouse on the same piece of leased land, and in 1941 the club was granted a State Charter. Around this time, club membership had risen to approximately 150 members, all of whom used the ranges and property for family picnics. Turkey shoots, clambakes and dinners were held to raise funds for improvements at the club and in 1942 they purchased the land. Nothing out of the ordinary compared to the thousands of Rod & Gun Clubs that blanketed North America at that time.

However, in the mid-1940’s Donaldson and a few avid wood chuck hunters created a new shooting sport and brought international acclaim to the organization. By definition, the club was made up of firearms enthusiasts. Many hunted or shot targets. Some of these enthusiasts also hunted woodchucks.

Four of the most notable woodchuck hunters involved with the club were Donaldson, Frank Hubbard, William “Bucky” Buchner and Bill Van Nostrand. After proving the accuracy of their equipment on Upstate New York woodchucks, the members of this group took their long-range shooting skills on the road attending various regional shoots across the Northeast where they had great success. In 1945 Donaldson came up with the idea to hold a “benchrest shoot” (shooting from the position they often sat in at a table to test their equipment) at the Pine Tree Rifle Club, which would allow them to test their long-range accuracy in a competition. But at that time, the club did not have a rifle range long enough to facilitate such long-range shots. He suggested that the club create a 200-yard range, which would have meant cutting down and removing hundreds of trees and stumps on the property. Other than Donaldson and his small core of woodchuck enthusiasts, the idea did not gain much interest with the general club membership.

After two years of asking, they gained permission to build such a range and hold a competition, but only if Donaldson and Hubbard agreed to personally make good on any financial loss the club incurred if the range/match was not a success. Based on their financial commitment to the club, in the summer of 1947 this small group of men began clearing the land to create a 200-yard rifle range, and created 5 benchrests (something never seen before). They then hosted the very first benchrest competition during Labor Day weekend in 1947.

Approximately 30 participants (many who utilized the .219 Donaldson Wasp cartridge) from across the Northeast attended the shoot and 21 matches took place being scored in the following ways; (1) smallest group in fractions of an inch, (2) highest score, and (3) closest to the center. This event marked the world’s first modern rifle bench rest match!

Another historical occurrence in the history of benchrest shooting also took place that weekend when the Eastern Bench Rest Shooter’s Association was formed by those in attendance.

The aim and object of the Association was voted to be; “the advancement of experimenting through benchrest shooting, in order to improve the performance of various rifles, both in match and varmint shooting, along with the components and other accessories; to obtain the utmost in rifle accuracy; and to force the improvements in rifles and ammunition through individual experimenting.”

Donaldson was appointed president of the organization and it was agreed upon that the group would meet and hold a benchrest match every Labor Day at the club. With this event and meeting, the sport of benchrest shooting was officially born! The organization changed its name to Benchrest Shooters Association in 1948 so as not to limit them to a regional membership and allow shooting enthusiasts from across the United States and Canada to join.

Today the original benchrest organization formed at the club’s first shoot in 1947 still operates, but under the name of International Benchrest Shooters (IBS). The organization is now nearly 1,000 strong and boasts members from all over the world. These members approach long-range shooting with the same philosophies & reverence that Donaldson and his group of woodchuck hunting cronies from the Pine Tree Rifle Club did at that historic Memorial Day 1947 competition. Who knew that Upstate New York had the “Abner Doubleday of benchrest shooting” grow up here and create an international sport right here in our own backyard!

True to the original initiative set forth in 1947, The Pine Tree Rifle Club would be the site of NYS & National Shoots until the mid-1980’s. At the 1983 IBS National Shoot, club member Dr. Richard Maretzo established a new world record when he placed 10 shots from 100 yards into a group that measured .119 of an inch in extreme spread (size of a dime). After a nearly 30-year hiatus, IBS competition was brought back to the club in 2014 using a SCORE format, spearheaded by club member and accomplished area shooter John DelSavio.

After two successful IBS shoots, the club was awarded the 100/200-yard IBS SCORE Nationals Championships in August 2016. This brought 54 of the top shooters from across the country to compete, and Dean Breeden from Maryland set two new world records. Because of the success of these recent events, future National Championships are expected to be brought back to the club as early as 2019.

As the club enters its 81st year in existence, it now supports a membership of 1,350 and maintains one of the best & most historic shooting facilities in the nation. In addition to the historic 200-yard range built in 1947, they now have a total of 39 benchrests (30 for IBS competition).

The facility now consists of 94 acres containing; two skeet fields, one trap field (complete with skeet building made out of the original club house from 1940), 1 ½ mile 3D archery course, outside pistol range, pavilion and a 30′ BBQ pit. The original clubhouse (now the skeet building) was replaced in 1951 by a state-of-the-art building complete with a full bar, banquet hall, meeting rooms and 50′ indoor pistol range. The club has also been the host site of the New York State benchrest shooting championships each year since 2014. And as the club closes out its season each September with its final 200-yard match, the event ends with “Donaldson Memorial Match.” This is a separate match in which any shooter in attendance can participate in a 200-yard shoot, but shooting at a smaller 100-yard target. The smaller target makes for a more challenging competition, in honor of Harvey Donaldson and the spirit of his early days of pioneering precision rifle accuracy, by inspiring individual marksmanship and ingenuity.

In addition to being known as the ‘Father of modern organized rifle bench rest shooting’, Donaldson was also a sports car enthusiast. He bought his first car (a Stanley Steamer) in 1900, when there were only 1,000 cars in all of New York State at the time. He also loved Chevy muscle cars, especially Corvettes and Chevelles. General Motors featured a write up about him in their Corvette Magazine in 1961 in which they recognized him as the oldest known member of the Corvette Club and the oldest sports car driver in the United States. He was also a member of the NRA and the Fultonville Reformed Church. Donaldson passed away on November 6, 1972 just shy of his 90th birthday and is buried in the Maple Avenue Cemetery in Fultonville.

Harvey A. Donaldson has been nominated for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame for his role in establishing the first modern benchrest rifle competition in 1947, leading to the sport becoming established internationally. His induction will take place on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 3 p.m. at the Johnstown Moose Club, which is located at 109 S. Comrie Ave. in Johnstown during the Adirondack Outdoorsman Show’s two-day event. Pine Tree Rifle Club board members will be on hand with an exhibit documenting and celebrating Donaldson and the history of benchrest shooting.

Benchrest shooting historian John DelSavio will also be on hand at the event signing copies of his book “Pine Tree Rifle Club — A Pictorial History (1937-2014)”.

For more information on the event, visit www.adkshow.com.

A special thanks to John DelSavio, Paul Catucci and Ken Benton for their research assistance in writing this article.

Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organization’s website at www.fchof.com, email; mhauser@frontiernet.net or call (518) 725-5565.

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