The rifle range at Dunstable Downs would have been used by hundreds of volunteer "Saturday Soldiers". The metal foundations for the target area can still be seen at the bottom of Pascombe Pit.
The volunteer army is born
Following the Crimean War, with half of Britain’s forces posted in garrisons across the Empire during the 1850’s, it became apparent to the Army that any further conflicts may leave the defences at home severely depleted.
With the possibility of being dragged into a European war at the end of the decade, it was decided to form The Volunteer Force of part-time rifle, artillery and engineer corps. As part of this, in 1860 seven corps' of rifle volunteers were formed in various towns in Bedfordshire and grouped as the 1st Administrative Battalion, with their HQ at Bedford.
These volunteers would pay for their own arms and equipment, provided under supervision of the War Office to ensure uniformity. To be considered “effective” for service, each volunteer had to undertake 8 days of drills every 4 months.
To this end, the battalion established a rifle range at the base of the Downs for the regular training of these hundreds of “Saturday Soldiers”, forerunners of today’s Territorial Army.
A new role for Pascombe Pit
Permanent targets were placed near the bottom of Pascombe Pit, where the Downs sweeps around to the headland upon which the Five Knolls sits. Camps would be set up a couple of hundred yards along the base of the Downs, where the volunteers would fire from. There is a raised flat area at this point which was possibly used for this purpose, however the angle of the target seems to suggest a site could’ve instead been used in the fields now used by the Gliding club.
The upright metal foundations of the target area can still be seen at the base of Pascombe Pit today, riddled with indents from bullets. When used, targets were set upon this, with a man crouched behind, moving across to check on hits and signal scores with flags!
The Rifle Volunteer
One consequence of this activity was a pub being named The Rifle Volunteer, at the junction of West Street leading to the centre of Dunstable and Whipsnade Road leading up to the Downs. During the next century this would be a stopping point for daytrippers to the Downs and Whipsnade Zoo, plus patrons and performers of The California Ballroom.
However, the pub was demolished in 1969 to make way for a very 70’s construction, the Windsock.A Schooner Inn, designed for Watneys by Britain's leading exponent of kitsch architecture at that time, Roy Wilson-Smith, it was pushed through planning because of its oblique reference to gliders, with curved floors and ceilings soaring up to 5 storeys high. This restaurant and pub was barely open a decade though and finally pulled down in 1984, in favour of a complex of flats, Westdown Gardens.