Rifle Range, Divis

In the hills above Belfast on Divis is a disused 600 yard military firing range, constructed in 1943 most likely to accommodate training for the high numbers of American troops in the country. A copy of the standing orders still exist, giving an overview of the classification and type of activities the range was licensed for. Two main activities could be undertaken:

  • Classification shoots – Those undertaken on standard infantry weapons such as rifle, revolver, machine carbines, light and heavy machine guns, from one of the fixed firing positions see as earth banks in the maps and images below.
  • Field firing – More complex shoots, where there no clear direction of fire. This is as close to real combat soldiers can get without being shot at. In addition to the standard infantry weapons, heavier anti-tank rifles, mortars and grenades could also be fired.

It is understood that the range was used until the 1970s, and the newly formed Ulster Defence Regiment is known to have used the area. As the security situation deteriorated, it was likely that remote ranges such as this were abandoned in favour of more secure training centres such as those at Ballykinlar (County Down) and Magilligan (County Londonderry).

Location

Despite having closed in the 1970s, the firing points at 100 yard intervals can be seen on a map of the area. Map © Ordnance Survey NI from the NI Historic Environment Map Viewer. Click image to enlarge.
An aerial photograph of the range area as of 2018. The line of the range can still be discerned from the image, as can the range hut and some scarring around the impact area. Image © Ordnance Survey NI from the NI Historic Environment Map Viewer. Click image to enlarge.

Range Standing Orders

Divis_Ranges_1943

The danger area as estimated from the description in the 1943 standing orders. The area covers most of Divis, and during firings any person infringing into this area would be subject to a fine or imprisonment.

There is still some evidence of this range or danger area boundary around Divis. At appropriate distances there would have been red flags flying when the range was active, these were often in randomly selected positions, but with the safety map overlaid it is a bit clearer to see why they may have been positions where they were. A copy of the range bylaws and safety notices would have also been displayed by the entrances to the range.

A flag pole mount to the south of the range along the public road. The target shed can be seen in the centre of the image, and Divis Mountain in the distance.

The only structure that exists is what might have been a target shed or troop shelter. Located at the 100 yard firing point, this is a likely position for such a building, a corrugated hut. However, upon closer inspection there are some peculiarities with the building that lead me to think it is not a simple as it first appears.

The corrugated building that could be a target shed or troop shelter.

Plan and Description

  • The building, while a corrugated, curved roof building, is more akin to an agricultural building. I am confident this is not contemporary with the 1943 construction of the range, and may not have had any association with firing activities.
  • If this was indeed a troop shelter or target shed, as there are 5 further firing points beyond the building out to 600 yards, there would need to have been considerable protection from behind to mitigate against misplaced rounds!
  • The inclusion to the west of the building (what I am referring to as the annex) does not appear to be connected to the functioning of the range, but may have a more curious function.
  • On the outer wall of this annex is a gallery style window (Image 1 below). At the time of my visit there was no window or covering, but on the ground outside the hut was a steel shutter that looked like it would have once adorned this opening (Image 2 below).
  • There are two interior walls, splitting the gallery into three thin rooms, the innermost has a standard non-secure door, the middle door has a much larger secure steel door.
  • There is a mounting pole in the observation room of the gallery, this may have been for a camera or lights. There is an electrical junction box on the wall by the pole.
  • Between the exterior and interior walls of this gallery is a space only accessible by a small hatch in the wall (Image 3 below). This section was clearly not intended to be occupied.
On the interior rear wall of the secure room there are nails and heavy staples, indicating that at one time there were items on it. Perhaps this was a noticeboard or map of the area under observation. Each of the brown rusty marks is a nail / staple.

This curious building may have had an operational or training purpose. The gallery looks out over a flat area of Divis, and on the horizon are visible a number of farmhouses. It also has a clear line of sight to and along Divis road running west towards Crumlin and Aldergrove. And 13km away, almost on a line of sight, is RAF Aldergrove. It is possible that this building contained optical equipment to observe the road or Crumlin area. It may even have been an observation training facility. Whatever the purpose, it is certainly a bespoke structure and one I have not come across before.

The wider view from the gallery window.
Some features of the landscape from the gallery.

Whatever the purpose of the building, it is certainly curious but almost certainly associated with military activity in the area. I will continue to search for answers as to the operational or training activities that once took place in this strange annex.

The area was MOD land from 1943 until it was decommissioned and ownership passed to the National Trust in 2004. It is now open to the public and has some stunning and exposed trails for walking and mountain biking with commanding views over Belfast on a clear day if you dare to brave the changeable conditions.

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