Shots Fired … But in What Direction and How do we Know?

By Tony Pagels 

The role of the Native Mounted Police (NMP) was to control and disperse Aboriginal opposition to ensure European settlement was a success in Queensland (Qld).  This was achieved by the Force having the best available weapons and employing military-type tactics. But when a firearm was discharged 140 years ago how can we tell what direction the user was shooting?

An earlier blog provided an insight into the important role that Geographical Information Systems (GIS) play in understanding relationships between the landscape and human behaviour in archaeological sites and, more specifically, in helping to interpret the activities of the NMP.

To try and understand how the NMP used firearms on the frontier, GIS was used to interpret the distribution and discharge patterns of ammunition-related artefacts at the Cluny NMP camp. This camp is on Eyre Creek (which is why it is sometimes also called the Eyre’s Creek camp), near Bedourie in southwest Qld, and operated between 1882 and 1889. Archaeological research in the area to date has been scant, but through our current project the site has been examined before it is lost to the desert sands.

Using spatial data collected by the project team during two field trips in 2017, distribution maps were produced to show the location of ammunition-related artefacts on a ‘georectified’ drone image (an aerial photograph which has been rotated and magnified to correctly place it in space, like a satellite image).

A total of 110 ammunition-related artefacts were recovered at the site, including used or fired cartridge cases from Snider rifles, various gauge shotguns, and handguns (Figure 1). Figure 2 shows where the different ammunition types are found across the site. As you can see, the distribution is diverse: in some areas it is grouped, while in others it is spread out and isolated, suggesting different areas of the camp were used more intensely or for different purposes.

Figure 1 Boxer Mk IX patent cartridges manufactured by Eley Brothers Ltd from 1871.
Figure 2 Map of Eyre Creek NMP camp showing the distribution of all ammunition-related artefacts plotted by type.

The most common ammunition-related artefacts are those associated with the Snider rifle and the various gauge shotguns. The Snider was a lethal weapon, produced for killing people, and troopers were expected to hit their target at 500 yards (about 450 m) (Miller 1881:20). These weapons were Government-issue, distributed to troopers from 1872 pending the introduction of Martini-Henry rifles in 1880 (Skinnerton 1976:20–22). While other guns could have been used by any colonists, this is less likely to be the case for Sniders.

The various shotgun cartridges had a number of different size shot or pellets and could be used for hunting both large and small animals and birds, with an effective range of about 50 m. Handguns were designed for close quarter combat, with a large bullet intended to kill at about 20 m. However, the effective range of weapons is really only a guide—bullets will travel considerably greater distances, but due to multiple factors their accuracy diminishes the further they travel.

So if we know what weapons were being fired at the site, can we work out in what direction people were shooting? Military interpretations of landscapes use the principles of KOCOA. This stands for:

  • Key terrain – vegetation, high ground, waterways and clear ground;
  • Obstacles – landforms that hinder or disrupt movement;
  • Cover and concealment – fortifications and ridgelines;
  • Observation and fields of fire – viewscape, field of fire, range and capability of weapons; and,
  • Avenues of approach – defensive positioning and movement of troops (Babits 2014:268).

This model provides an understanding of how the landscape and features are used during periods of conflict and is commonly applied to battlefields; it can also be applied to NMP sites.

Imagine you are a trooper standing at the place where a cartridge was found. Whether you have a Snider rifle, a shotgun or a handgun will determine your effective range, providing a 600 m, 50 m or 20 m radius of fire, respectively.  Now, what do you see? How far can you see? What obstacles are in your way? Are you hunting or defending yourself? These questions, in conjunction with KOCOA principles, determine the ‘arc of fire’ by dividing the radius of fire along contours across the slope. The ‘arc of fire’ is the area across and down slope in which a target would be visible and provides a maximum area of observation.The radius of fire (the coloured circles) and arc of fire (the coloured lines) are shown in Figure 3. This shows the most probable direction a trooper discharged his firearm.

Figure 3 Plan of the Eyre Creek NMP site showing ammunition-related artefacts by type and assigned radius of fire zones. The radius of fire is dissected across slope producing predicted arcs of fire by firearm type, which are the most probable direction a firearm was discharged in.

Having established the direction, what were the troopers shooting?  Leoni (2014:109) suggested that spent cartridges can be deposited at a site as a result of firearm activity (including conflict, hunting, target practice, celebration or boredom), loss, or deliberate dumping. In areas where no artefacts are found it may indicate either a lack of activity, or simply that the artefacts aren’t visible—in other words, they may be buried or might have been removed.

There is no historical or ethnographic evidence to suggest that the camp was attacked. These events would probably have been reported in police files and newspapers and there are no indications of this occurring at Eyre’s Creek.  The troopers were skilled marksmen and capable of firing a shot while riding a horse. The importance placed on a trooper’s skill is shown in a studio photograph depicting an unnamed Indigenous trooper posing with a rifle, with the caption ‘The Best shot in the Native Mounted Police’ (Figure 4). This image would potentially encourage fellow troopers to compete for the title and ensure they were more than capable of carrying out ‘dispersal’ duties.

Figure 4 ‘The best shot in the Native Mounted Police’, from 1920 (Qld Police Museum PM1484). Note that technically the NMP were disbanded after 1904, so if the date for this photo is correct the man in this photo would have been a Tracker in the regular Qld Police Force; his name is unknown.

There are abundant historical documents that indicate the supply of ammunition from the Government stores to the various NMP camps was always limited, suggesting that extensive target practice or discharging of firearms out of boredom or celebration would be minimised. At least some target practice, however, was part of the drilling of troopers in camp. For example, on several occasions the Oak Park NMP camp Daily Journal noted target practice in spare moments, such as:

Const Stewart two Troopers Carey Pickwick repairing target & some ball practice. Trooper Carey best of the two.

Shooting at a target would preferably be conducted across a flat unobstructed space, with a known distance to a target. A tight clustering of cartridge cases may be the result of a trooper in a static position taking aimed shots at a target and the fired cartridges falling to his feet. As shown in Figure 5, there are only two such small, tight clusters to the west of the site, suggesting such an activity.

Figure 5 Potential activity areas at the Eyre Creek NMP camp. Yellow boxes may indicate habitation areas, the green circles target practice areas, and the blue ovals hunting areas.

The lack of tightly clustered cartridges in other areas of the site might indicate that firearms were used for something else, such as hunting. The Snider rifle was a weapon of war but was equally easily used to hunt animals, such as kangaroos. Shotgun cartridges were available in a variety of gauges/bores and used for hunting birds or small animals. Hunting activities can be opportunistic or static and involve the use of landscape features such as high ground and cover.

A trooper walking across the landscape while taking aimed shots at animals or birds may be suggested by random or isolated cartridge case distributions. Positions of preferred hunting or repeated use might be suggested by grouped distribution patterns in relevant areas (unlike the target shooting tight clusters in open flat areas). Figure 4 shows spent cartridge cases in two large areas to the east of the site, overlooking the creek. Their individual placement and geographical location are consistent with hunting activities.

The distribution of artefacts and the direction from which arms were fired can also indicate areas of habitation and the placement of structures. The organisation of the site is unknown and the only apparent structural remains are a series of exposed timber posts at the north end. The purpose of these posts is unclear, but a letter by Inspector Britton to Commissioner of Police in 1889 describes the buildings in the camp:

Officers’ quarters with detached kitchen, camp keepers quarters, store, meat house, saddle shed, stock yard, huts of grass, garden and buildings made of mud with thatched roofs. (QSA 290304 1889 Letter from William Britton to Commissioner of Police 2 April, Eyre Creek Native Camp file)

The timber posts (the black circles on the maps) are most probably remnants from one of these structures. In the absence of further evidence, areas of minimal firearm activity may indicate the location of the buildings described by Inspector Britton. The most likely position for structures is on flat ground and removed from firearm activities. The arcs of fire indicate an area north of the timber posts was not subject to shooting activities. Another area to the south of the timber posts has minimal potential for cross slope shooting, suggesting these two areas as the most suited to the placement of buildings (Figure 4).

By determining the direction a firearm has been discharged we can identify firearm activities and suggest areas indicating target practice, hunting and structures. The methods used in this study focused on the ability of GIS to accurately plot artefacts and landscape features. Different layers of information can be added or removed at any stage to help reconstruct and visualize different aspects of an archaeological site.


Babit, L.E. 2014 METT-T, KOCOA and the principles of war: a template guiding a better understanding of battlefield behaviour and detritus. In C.R. Geier, D. Scott and L.E. Babits (eds), From These Honoured Dead: Historical Archaeology of the American Civil War, pp.263–270. Florida:University Press of Florida.

Britton, W. 1889 Letter from William Britton to Commissioner of Police 2nd April. QSA 290304, Eyre Cree Native Camp file.

Conolly, J. and M. Lake 2006 Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grguric, N. 2008 Fortified homesteads: the architecture of fear in frontier South Australia and the Northern Territory, ca 1847–1885. Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4(1–2):59–85.

Miller, H.P. 1881 A Guide to the Queen’s Sixty or Martini-Henry and Snider Rifles and How to Use Them. 7thedition. London.

Leoni, J. 2014 Obsolete muskets, lethal Remingtons: heterogenisty and firepower in weapons of the frontier war, Argentina, 1868–1877. Journal of Conflict Archaeology 9(2):93–115.

Richards, J. 2008 The Secret War. A True History of Queensland’s Native Police. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Robinson, J.S 1997 Arms in the Service of Queensland 18591901. Kedron: J.S. Robinson.

Skinnerton, I.D. 1976 Australian Service Longarms. Margate: I.D. Skinnerton.

Skinnerton, I.D. 1977 A Treatise on the Snider. The British Soldiers Firearm 18661880. Margate: I.D. Skinnerton.

13 thoughts on “Shots Fired … But in What Direction and How do we Know?

  1. Can you tell us about the top image? There is no caption and it looks fascinating.

      1. Hi Lynette

        We thought the same thing (i.e. about it being a ‘staged’ image) when we first saw it. The details we have for it are “Unnamed trooper on horse Coen c1897 PM13261”, meaning it is in the Police Museum collection. Might be one we have to look into a little more – maybe it references a specific event (capturing two white fella bushrangers?) which is why they staged it??

        Cheers Lynley and Heather

  2. There is also this notation attached to it Lynette (so you’re right that it is a re-enactment): ‘Acting out at Coen [George Inkerman] Smith on ground [Charles] Bateman on horse’

  3. Has anyone in your team had a look at the ballistics done for Custer Battlefield. It appears to have been an intensive exercise and gave a more realistic picture of how the battle played out with weapons changing hands as the Lakota and their allies got the upper hand. It and other studies gave a clearer picture of what happened that day and exploded a few myths.

    1. Hi Viv. Thanks for reading our blog. We are familiar with some of the ballistics studies done on American battle sites – in fact, that was one of the reasons we have been deploying geophysics on our sites (though so far we most have spent ammunition rather than bullets, and of course we looking primarily at NMP camp sites rather than battle sites, since, despite claims to the contrary, very few actual, specific sites of battle and/or massacre have been definitively located – most ‘locations’ are very vague and suggest only a general location name that could be anywhere without tens of kilometres, making finding the akin to searching for a needle in a haystack). We had been particularly hopeful of deploying such techniques on the Battle Mountain site near Cloncurry, but as yet (as after several years of chasing down leads) we’ve not actually found any one who can definitely point us to the site – many people have rough ideas about where it was, and tell us to talk to “so-and-so” , and when we do “so-and-so” doesn’t actually know and points us to another person to speak to who might know) …so when it comes down to physically going out and pinpointing the site of the battle on the ground in a spatially secure sense everyone has come up blank. But we’ll continue talking to people – you never know, we might get lucky!

      1. I have been researching battle mountain for some time now and think that you will find that it never happened. I grew up in Mt isa , my parents studied the local aborigonial culture when I was a child and I grew up hearing stories of battle mountain so it was difficult for me to come to the conclusion that it is a myth. When you go back to the source records you can watch the story grow and developed from sub inspector Urquharts origonial report through to fysh with taming the north , . to where the story explodes with Armstrong’s ” the kalkadoons ” and it just seems to grow from there with each subsequent author adding there own details . there are a couple of sites that may be identifiable though , the junction of cabbage tree creel and the Leichhardt, paroo waterhole, the waterhole on slaughter creek ,and the w waterhole on battle creek . my some knows the station Oners where battle creek is , they have had the station for several generations and know where the first of the five massacres took place after Powell’s killing in 1884 . any how , love your work !

  4. Also , have been to what is said to be battle mountain itself . was shown by Phill Rose,( stockman now deceased ) Ken Isacon also deceased. Denis Bower And wally Brummel all on separate occasions and all the same place . urcharts report was written 8 /3/1885 and details a very interesting incident on the mountain where he attacked a large mob of kalkadoons , he and one trouper was injured but all the kalkadoons escaped . the day before however he attacked a camp and shot an unknown number of people , he reported capturing 30 women but that was five miles from the mountain

  5. I too have wondered about the provenance of the ‘Battle Mountain ‘legend’, given that the incident as described in Hudson Fysh’s ‘Taming the North’, which is in part at least based on Urquhart’s report, amounts to no more than a minor skirmish. If someone manages to track down primary documentary evidence for a fight on the scale contained within the legend* I’ll be persuaded that it was something more, but I suspect that such evidence will prove elusive. This isn’t to deny that frontier engagements involving hundreds of warriors occurred elsewhere in colonial Australia; they are well attested to in the historical record.

    *Although widely touted in popular writings as a battle, in technical military terms even an engagement on the scale the legend would have us believe occurred would still rate as only a skirmish.

  6. Reading the account of the 1816 fight between a mixed force of settlers, soldiers and constables and the Gandangarra tribe at Razorback in the Blue Mountains in Stephen Gapps’ ‘The Sydney Wars’ had me wondering if the Battle Mountain legend isn’t perhaps a case of narrative transferal. It has all the elements: a hill tribe regarded as being more martial than the surrounding plains-dwelling clans, that’s been engaged in a long-running campaign of hit and run attacks on settlers, makes a massed stand in a natural hilltop fortress pre-stocked specially for the purpose with missiles, announces the fact for the benefit of the settlers, and waits for them to gather and come to it. The differences are that we have a detailed, first-hand, documented account of Razorback, and that the Gandangarra won.

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