Shooting Sharps

The gun that made it safe for the Winchester to win the West.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY MIKE NESBITT

Christian Sharps already had some limited experience with breechloaders when he patented his fallingblock action in 1848. He’d worked at Harpers Ferry where the Hall breechloaders were made, and many people have assumed that that was where the seed was planted in his head to design a better breechloader.

But designing that “better mousetrap” was only the beginning for the young gunmaker. Unfortunately, Sharps had difficulty in selling or marketing his idea. Over the next three years, he had a number of different business partners, and the total output of rifles and carbines he produced was very low. At one point, Sharps sold his patents as well as his interests in the company, receiving a cash agreement plus $1 per rifle made. Then, very late in 1851, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was formed and that’s when things finally got rolling.

A number of the features of the Sharps rifles were redesigned, primarily to make various parts more adaptable to increased production. While the models of 1849, 1850, and 1851 were all basically hand-fitted and hand-finished, beginning in 1852, models were built with a much greater dependability by using machines for fitting and finishing. This is all related here in a highly summarized form, but it is generally accepted that the Model 1852 Sharps is the first rifle to be in the form or profile that we recognize as the famous Sharps rifle.

A Hartford ’74 with a No. 1 heavy barrel, chambered for the .50-70. The author (inset) proudly poses in colorful period regalia with his favorite .44-77 over his shoulder. (BJ LANES)

THE 1852 MODEL WAS THE FIRST of the highly recognizable “slant breech” Sharps, with the breech block at a back slant instead of being vertical. It was also the first Sharps to be produced in the thousands of rifles rather than just in the hundreds. The very distinctive slant-breech Sharps were made as military-style rifles and carbines, plus sporting rifles and even a few shotguns. The slant breeches included the models of 1852, 1853, and the very rare tall-hammered Model 1855.

Incidentally, it was carbines of the slant-breech Sharps that were smuggled to John Brown and his followers, hidden in cases that were marked as “Bibles.” A preacher, Henry W. Beecher, was an abolitionist who supported Brown. That’s where the slang expression referring to a Sharps rifle as a “Beecher’s Bible” came from.

Some Sharps cartridges: .44-40 Winchester (for comparison), .44-77 paper patched, .44-90 paper patched, .45-70 carbine load, .45-110, .50-70, and the Big .50 – .50-90.

With the model of 1859 another notable change was seen – the beginning of the vertical-block actions.  The reason for going to the vertical breech block was for operation of a more effective gas seal.  This is the model of the Sharps that really went to war, our Civil War, and some of these rifles that went to Berdan’s Sharpshooters were equipped with double set triggers.

Further updates and slight improvements were made in the New Models of 1863 and 1865, and the reputation of Sharps rifles for accuracy, particularly for long-range shooting, got began to build during that War Between the States. Afterwards, when self-contained cartridges were being considered much more seriously, the late models of the Sharps rifles with the vertical breech block were updated and converted to chamber those cartridges, primarily the new government cartridge of 1866, the famous .50-70.
THIS IS THE ERA OF THE SHARPS rifle history that I find the most interesting. It was the cartridge-firing Sharps rifles that “went West” in search of the buffalo herds, and in the hands of hunters and frontiersmen who needed a rifle that would perform at long range. These were the Sharps rifles that proved to be legendary.

The author’s .44-77 again, a semicustom Classic Hartford model with 28-inch barrel.

The Model 1969 was the first sporting model of the Sharps rifles that was made for use with centerfire metallic cartridges. It was chambered for the .50-70 Government and it also introduced a new Sharps cartridge that was designated as the .44-2¼-inch, with .44 for the caliber and 2¼ inches for the length of the case, as guns for it were marked on their barrels. That .44 fairly quickly became known as the .44-77, which was the UMC (Union Metallic Cartridge Company) loading for it, and it became the most common and popular cartridge in the Sharps rifles until the .45-70 edged it out in popularity beginning in 1876.

Despite their heavy usage and good reputation, the Model 1869 rifles were made for only two years. In 1871, the Model 1874, the Sharps rifle that many people remember the very most, was introduced. And yes, you read that correctly. Although the Model 1874 was first manufactured in 1871, it went unnamed for three years. It was finally given recognition when the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was reformed as the Sharps Rifle Company in 1874. It is also a fact that Christian Sharps died in 1874 and the designation for the rifle might stand as a monument to him although I doubt if that was really intended.

A five-shot group fired with the .44-77 using grease-groove bullets.

But no matter why the naming delay occurred, there is no doubt that the 1871 debut of the Model 1874 was timed perfectly. The great buffalo hunts were just beginning, and the Sharps – with its powerful long-range cartridges – were just what the buffalo hunters wanted. Both the .44-77 and the .50-70 made names for themselves, and the .44-77 was the most produced Sharps chambering during the Hartford era. But the buffalo hunters kept asking for longer-range cartridges, so in 1872 both the .44-90 and the “Big .50,” (what we today refer to as the .50-90) were introduced. Those cartridges, particularly the .44-90, made more long-range shots possible, and good shots out to 1,000 yards were not unknown.

It was during that time when the “buffalo wars” were fought, including the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls. That’s the legendary battle where 28 buffalo hunters withstood the attack of several hundred Indians from a collection of tribes. The hunters’ success is generally attributed to the long-range Sharps rifles which most of them were using. One hunter, Billy Dixon, is credited with the long shot that truly became a legend, shooting an Indian off of his horse at a very long range. The actual distance for that shot is lost to time, but various claims put it at more than 1,000 yards to over 1,500 yards.
IN EARLY 1876, the Sharps Rifle Company moved their factory from Hartford to Bridgeport, Conn. Some changes were made in the rifles, so a Bridgeport Sharps is generally recognizable to the trained eye when compared to a Hartford model. For instance, the silver-colored pewter nose cap on the forearm was generally no longer used. More important than that, the famous Sharps .44- and .50-caliber cartridges were no longer chambered except for special orders. That’s when the .45-70 became the most popular cartridge in the Sharps sporting rifles lineup, and what we call the .45-110 (Quigley’s cartridge) became the leader in long-range shooting.

Shooting over crossed sticks, the author aims at a target over 800 yards in the distance. (ALLEN CUNNIFF)

In 1878, Sharps introduced their hammerless model, the SharpsBorchardt. While the Model 1878 had certain advantages, it was not particularly popular in the West. The big buffalo hunts were rapidly coming to an end, and with them the demand for a rifle with the “personality” of the big Sharps was also diminishing. The Sharps Rifle Company closed their doors for good in 1881.

Still, the Sharps rifles deserve a fair amount of credit for opening the West up for other brands of rifles. What had been the “wild” West was pretty well tamed by the time the Winchester ’73 appeared on the scene. There were a few .44 rimfires shooting the Henry cartridge at the Battle of Adobe Walls, but odds are those were mainly fired from revolvers. The .44-40 simply hadn’t made it out West at that time, and it is a simple fact that the Winchester repeaters had neither the range nor the punch of the big Sharps.

Today, however, we can still enjoy some “Sharps shooting” because excellent modern copies of the old rifles continue to be made, and remain in high demand. These include those manufactured by the C. Sharps Arms Company (csharpsarms.com) of Big Timber, Mont., which made each of the guns you see pictured in this article.

The author’s best Sharps for longrange shooting is this Hartford Model in .44-90 caliber.

And so, whether your target is a live buffalo bull on ranches where they can still be hunted, or a paper target posted at 1,000 yards, firing a big Sharps with lead bullets and black powder loads remains a long-range thrill. And while shooting one of the newly made Sharps rifles, you can’t help but have the feeling that you’re holding history in your hands. ASJ

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March 8th, 2017 by