In the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest I found an interesting little tit-bit about Conan Doyle. It was a photocopy of a letter written by ACD to The Times in 1900 and in it he explains that he has invented an ‘apparatus’ that will fit onto a rifle that will enable soldiers to drop bullets accurately onto the enemy. Unfortunately, the War Office didn’t like this idea, for reasons not given, and Conan Doyle was more than a little miffed that he was (politely) ignored. He writes in his usual style when writing on any topic for the newspapers – that of humourous disbelief that anyone cannot see the logic of his argument (although he also humbly admits his invention may not work). It is in letters like these we really see the light of Sherlock Holmes shining through – logic is imperative and those who do not follow logic should be corrected (in an entertaining way).

What continues to be interesting about this letter is the timing of it. Conan Doyle cared deeply about the Boer War (1899-1902) and it was the month following this letter he volunteered as a doctor in the Langham Field Hospital at Bloemfontein, South Africa. After his 3 months of service, he wrote, and was knighted for, his pamphlet: The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which defended Britain against the atrocities they had been accused of in the Boer War. You get a sense in this letter to The Times that Conan Doyle is part of the Imperial culture of Britain at the time – that Britain (to the British) is the hero of the story and that the enemy is the bad guy. Preventing British deaths through increasing the death toll on the other side was a practical result of war, and although not ideal, is necessary.

Conan Doyle proved time and again his knowledge of bullet trajectory (now known as ballistics) in his Sherlock Holmes stories. He mentions it in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ almost 10 years before the police were even aware that this could be a useful line of inquiry and 40 years before it became standard practice. Other stories include ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, where Holmes solves a case based upon the angle of the shooter, and ‘The Reigate Puzzle’ where gunpowder blackening proves the distance of the shooter from the victim.

I have transcribed the article below, although some bits were unclear from the copy. Have a read of it for yourself and enjoy! I appreciate especially the stunningly sarcastic first sentence.


February 22, 1900



Sir, – In the coming reform of the War Office there is one department which will, I trust, undergo a complete reorganization – or rather I should say organization since it does not appear to exist at present. I mean the board which inquires into military inventions. I have heard before now of the curt treatment which inventors receive at the hands of the authorities. As I have myself had a similar experience I feel that it is a public duty to record it.

The problem which I was endeavouring to solve was how to attain accuracy – or approximate accuracy – for a dropping, or high angle, rifle fire. It appears to me to be certain that the actions of the future will be fought by men who are concealed either in trenches or behind cover. In the present war it has been quite unusual for our soldiers ever to see a Boer at all. Direct fire is under those circumstances almost useless. The most of your opponent which shows is only the edge of his face, and his two hands. When he is not firing he is entirely concealed. Under these conditions except at close quarters it appears to be a mere waste of ammunition to fire at all.

There is only one side upon which the man in the trench or behind a rock is vulnerable. That side is from above. Could a rain of bullets be dropped vertically all over the enemy’s position your chance shot has the whole surface of his body to strike, while the direct chance shot has only a few square inches. There is no escape from this high angle fire. No trench or shield is of any avail. Human life can be made impossible within a given area.

In this system it is not the individual at whom you shoot, but at the position, the ridge, the kopje, whatever it is that the enemy holds. If you search this thoroughly enough you will find the individuals. For example, suppose that a kopje occupied is 1,000 yards long and 100 yards deep, 100,000 bullets falling within that area gives one bullet for every square yard. But 100,000 bullets are nothing – only the contents of the magazines of 10,000 men. It can be judged then how untenable a position would be, if only fire of this sort could be made at all accurate.

But at present there is no means by which it can be regulated. If you were to say to the best marksmen in the British Army “Drop me a bullet on that kopje 500 yards off” he would be compelled to look helplessly at his rifle and confess that there was nothing to enable him to do this. He might hold his gun up at an angle and discharge it, but it would pure guess work, and the probability is that he would be very far out, nor could he correct his error, since he would have no means of knowing where his bullet fell.

My experiments have been in the direction of affixing a small, simple, and economical apparatus to the rifle by which marksmen would know at what angle to hold his rifle in order to drop a bullet at any given range. It would weigh nothing, cost about a shilling, take up no space, and interfere in no way with the present sights, so that the rifle could be used either for direct or high-angle fire at the discretion of the officer. Having convinced myself that my idea was sound, I naturally wished to have it examined at [word unclear] in order that, if it should be approved, the troops might have the use of it. I therefore communicated with the War Office, briefly stating what my idea was, and my letter was in due course forwarded to the Director-General of Ordinance. I have just received his reply:-

“War Office, Feb 16, 1900

“Sir, – With reference to your letter … concerning an appliance for adapting rifles to high-angle fire, I am directed by the Secretary for War to inform you that he will not trouble you in the matter.

“I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

(Signature illegible)

“Director-General of Ordinance.”

Now, Sir, my invention might be the greatest nonsense or it might be epoch-making, but I was given no opportunity to explain or illustrate it. It may be that the idea has been tried and failed, but, if that were so, why not inform me of it? I have shown it to practiced soldiers – one of them with a Mauser bullet wound still open in his leg- and they have agreed that it is perfectly sound and practicable. And yet I can get no hearing. No wonder that we find the latest inventions in the hands of our enemies rather than of ourselves if those who try to improve our weapons meet with such encouragement as I have done.

Yours faithfully,

A. Conan Doyle

The Perform Club, Feb 19.


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