If you had lived in the 1870s, you might have considered the NRA to be America’s leading sports organization. If you served in World War II, you might have felt gratitude for the NRA training that helped you return home alive. If you were a civil-rights activist in the 1960s, you might have appreciated the NRA’s role in providing arms to the defenders of civil rights. The diverse ways that the NRA has served the American people have a common theme: helping Americans exercise their civil rights to keep and bear arms and protect the rights of all.
The NRA was founded on November 17, 1871 by Union veterans who had seen the need to improve the marksmanship of American citizens. But the first time many Americans heard of the Association was in 1873, when the NRA hosted a world rifle championship at its brand-new Creedmoor range in New York City. The telegraph wires carried shot-by-shot reports of the event. The American team won the competition by one point over the world-champion Irish team.
Target shooting quickly became a very popular citizen recreation. It was also notably one arena where women could compete on an equal basis with men, increasing its popularity.
Pursuant to the 1871 charter, the NRA has always worked to prepare Americans to be ready to be citizen-soldiers. Starting in the early 20th century, the U.S. Congress joined in by choosing the NRA as the federal government’s partner in the Civilian Marksmanship Program. That program was especially needed after December 7, 1941, when the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought World War II to America.
Soon every able-bodied NRA staffer who was able to volunteer for the U.S. Armed Forces did so. The remaining NRA staff organized firearms training for civilians and soldiers. A pre-induction program taught the basics of rifle operation and shooting to men who were on the verge of being drafted. When the U.S. Army began a similar program in high schools, it used the NRA’s Basic Small Arms Instruction manual and wall charts.
The Army film laboratories were granted unlimited free rights to reproduce NRA’s training films, which were used by American soldiers throughout the world. Indeed, the NRA’s handgun film was the only one available on the subject. So was the NRA’s tactical shotgun manual.
On Nov. 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman wrote a letter of thanks: “The National Rifle Association, in the period between our last four wars has done much to encourage the improvement of small arms marksmanship. …” Regarding “the war just ended,” the NRA’s training aids, pre-induction training, “experienced small-arms instructors for all branches of the armed services, and technical advice and assistance—all contributed freely and without expense to the government—have materially aided our war effort.” President Truman hoped that “the splendid program which the National Rifle Association has followed during the past three-quarters of a century will be continued. It is a program which is good for a free America.”
When Black soldiers returned home, they helped begin a new civil-rights movement. Civil-rights workers also relied on armed protection; for example, starting in Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense and Justice provided armed defense for civil-right activists, including for Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1966 “Meredith March Against Fear” from Jackson, Miss., to Memphis, Tenn.
Many of the firearms the civil-rights activists used had been purchased at steeply discounted prices from the Civilian Marksmanship Program, via NRA-affiliated gun clubs. Meanwhile, many major U.S. sporting organizations adopted whites-only policies for membership, but not the NRA, which has always stood for individual freedom.