In 1949 the Berwyn Rod and Gun Club, Berwyn, Maryland, was dedicated. An article depicting the event was carried in the a Washington, D.C. paper and two pictures accompanying the article showed a young man dressed as a Union soldier firing a rifled musket and wearing a kepi and cartridge box. The pictures caught the eye of John (Jack) L. Rawls, a "Reb" who had been shooting musket around Norfolk, Virginia, for a few years. Jack struck up a conversation with the depicted "Yank", Ernest (Ernie) W. Peterkin. An invitation was issued to compete in a musket team "shoot" at Berwyn Rod and Gun Club on May 28, 1950. The competition was to be between Peterkin's "Berwyn Bluebellies" and Rawl's "Norfolk Gray Backs."
The team commanders set about equipping their respective regiments for the shoot. Bannerman's in New York charged $25 for an original Springfield rifled musket, $1.25 for cartridge boxes, $0.25 for cap boxes and $0.50 for original bayonets. Research concerning Civil War uniforms and armament lead to the Library of Congress and other sources. For uniforms the "Yanks" had to rely on a local costume shop and the "Johnnies" made do with some converted Navy surplus uniforms.
May 28th, a Sunday, dawned dark and rainy. The red Maryland clay stuck in globs on the boots and shoes of the twelve soldiers and about a hundred spectators. These twelve, five in dirty-shirt Union blue and seven in gray, met at the Berwyn range, armed with Civil War rifled muskets, shot what is now referred to as the first North-South Skirmish. An impressive report from Jack Rawl's six pounder cannon started the skirmish. The "Johnnies" shooting patched round balls and the "Yanks" using hard-lead Minie balls which were lubricated with a highly recommended product --- melted Dictaphone records! (Please don't try that at home shooters).
The "Bluebellies" Corporal Peterkin, Privates Joseph E. Aiken, William Aiken, William H. Carter, and A. Kirwan, fired off-hand at 15 balloons at 25 yards and kneeling and prone at standard targets at 50 yards. Without much success. Shot after shot tumbled and keyholed at random. The "Gray Backs" and their patched round balls carried the day. All was not lost for the Union however. Jes Schlaikjer, Jerry Reen, John Driscoll, and Bill Poland were recruited right on the field.
Those five "Berwyn Bluebellies", their four recruits, and the seven "Norfolk Gray Backs" could not guess that on that day, their "shoot" would grow over the years into the present day North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA). The N-SSA today has over four thousand members, a national range at Winchester, Virginia, a publication - The Skirmish Line, and a sister organization, the Civil War Skirmish Association (CWSA) in the West. The N-SSA is well respected as carrying on the tradition and knowledge of shooting the Civil War era firearms and has been featured on American Shooter and ESPN.
The name "Washington Blue Rifles", suggested by Jes Schlaikjer in 1950, does not represent any Union military unit which fought in the Civil War. At that time, it was the opinion of the members that it would be presumptuous for present-day skirmishers to use the names of units which actually participated in the war. Over the years this opinion has changed and today all N-SSA regiments use the names of actual units, striving to enhance their memory through participation in skirmishing and research into their history. The Washington Blue Rifles have not adopted a parent Civil War unit, deciding to keep the original name and have been granted an exception to the unit rule.
On October 1, 1950, the "Washington Blue Rifles" met the 1st Virginia Greys (formerly the "Norfolk Gray Backs") at the Cavalier Range, Richmond, Virginia for the second North-South Skirmish and was again defeated by the patched round ball. Their pride may have suffered, but not their spirit.
The year 1951 marked an increase in activities for the Blues. A demonstration shoot was held at Fort Washington on May 6th and we stood sentry duty at the Jefferson Davis Memorial Ceremonies at Fort Monroe, Virginia on June 1st. At the final reunion of the United Confederate Veterans at Camp Pendleton, Virginia on June 2nd, the "Blues": were honored to march in the parade for those veterans. The third North-South Skirmish was held in conjunction with the reunion and the "Blue" competing against the 1st Virginia Greys, Richmond Rifles, and Huron Rangers, proudly, but modestly, won a sweeping victory. The Minie ball had come into it's own because the Blues learned about using "soft" lead. Today, no skirmisher shoots a patched ball in a rifled musket.
In 1952 the Blues participated in the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), and on October 19th won the 6th North-South Skirmish at Richmond, Virginia. During 1953 the "Blues" placed second in the 7th North-South Skirmish at Richmond and won the 8th.
On March 19, 1954, the Blues affiliated with the National Rifle Association as a senior club, and on December 11, 1955, together with the 13th Confederate Infantry, participated in the ground-breaking ceremonies for the new NRA headquarters building in Washington, D.C. The 10th North-South Skirmish, October, 1954, was held at the new Marine Corps School range, Quantico, Virginia. Here the "Blues", with Sergeant Peterkin as director, sponsored the first two day skirmish and introduced Carbine and 100 yard rifled Musket competition to skirmishing. This skirmish set the pattern for over 30 years of skirmishing to follow in the association that would be named the North--South Skirmish Association (N-SSA).
In 1955 the "Blues" for the first time in N-SSA history fielded both an "A" and "B" team in the 11th and 12th skirmish. Later they participated in a a special four-man shoot at Camp Perry, Ohio. The Washington Blue Rifles became a charter member of the N-SSA when it was founded in 1956. The "Blues", by the toss of a coin, lost seniority number 1 to their old competitors of 1950, the 1st Virginia Greys. So the 1st Virginia Greys became Unit 001 and the Washington Blue Rifles became Unit 002.
In 1957 the "Blues" , together with the 13th Confederate Infantry, the 1st Stuart Horse Artillery, and the 1st Maryland Artillery, organized the Potomac Region of the N-SSA and elected Sergeant Peterkin as the first Regional Commander. The first Potomac Regional Skirmish was held as a special event at the 2nd Army Commander's Rifle and Pistol Matches at Fort Meade, Maryland on May 4, 1957. In the late 1960's the "Blues" were instrumental in establishing official "B" team competition in National and Regional Skirmishes.
On April 5, 1969, the "Blues" at the request of the Department of Defense through the N-SSA, were selected along with members of the Old Dominion Dragoons and the Laurel Brigade, to participate in the ceremonies held at Fort Eustis commemorating the joining of the rails of the first transcontinental railway at Promontory, Utah, May 10, 1869. The Blues represented the 21st Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army, which was present at the time of the historic event.
Members of the Washington Blue Rifles have had many awards presented to them and have served in both team and N-SSA offices. Three Washington Blue Rifles members have been awarded the N-SSA Award of Merit, Ernest W. Peterkin (October 8, 1961), Roger S. Cohen, Jr. (October 2, 1966), and Charles M. Hunter (October 4, 1970). Since 1950 the "Blues" have participated in over 175 skirmishes, as well as parades and ceremonies. For years the "Blues" have placed between 2 and four teams in all National and Regional skirmishes. The motto of the Washington Blue Rifles, "First in Service" has always exemplified the performance of the Regiment over the years.
For information on the Washington Blue Rifles contact the WBR