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The Sharps Rifle

The Sharps Rifle

By Numrich Gun Parts Corporation, Posted in Rifle
January 05, 2018

For more than a century, gun enthusiasts have sought out the sturdy and reliable Sharps long guns. Known for their durability and long range accuracy, these falling breechblock rifles have established a rich legacy of Civil War attestations and complimentary western frontier folklore.

There isn’t much that can be written about the mechanics of the Sharps Rifles that has not already been well detailed over the years. For this reason we will attempt to avoid any technical discussion regarding loading or design, as there are surely those out there that are far more qualified to do so. We will however, attempt to provide some helpful resources and information that will hopefully be deemed useful for the newer Sharps enthusiasts. We will begin by taking a look at the erratic manufacturing period and discuss some of the more interesting narrative that surrounds these historic rifles.

PRODUCTION

Many articles regarding the production of the Sharps Rifles have bits of information that tend to contradict or even dismiss accounts of others. It can become confusing to try and make sense of it at times, so we read and re-read through some of what are hopefully the more reliable sources, and have compiled a rustic production period that should be fairly credible. We will also include a short list of additional Sharps references at the end of this article for those who wish to further their own research.

Christian Sharps first learned the basics of gun manufacturing while working as a machinist apprentice at the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal in Virginia. He spent fifteen years learning the trade under the guidance of the very accomplished arms inventor John Hall. After Hall’s death in 1841, Sharps left Virginia and not much was documented about him again until 1845 when he found his way to Mill Creek, PA just outside Philadelphia.

While in Mill Creek, Sharps had encountered Albert S. Nippes. Albert was the son of Daniel Nippes, a well-known gun maker who had taken over the Mill Creek, PA manufacturing location upon his brother Abraham’s death in 1812. The Nippes family is well documented as having a devotion to building and adapting military arms for the duration of the their involvement with the mill. Given Sharps previous experience, we could assume this initial trip to Mill Creek was to possibly search for employment. However, he would return to his home state of New Jersey for a short time before re-emerging.

In 1848 Christian Sharps received his first patent for his falling breechblock design. He then relocated to Mill Creek where he contracted with A.S. Nippes of Mill Creek to produce his first two sporting rifles - the 1849 and 1850 models respectively. An unrelated but interesting fact is that during his time in Mill Creek, Christian Sharps met his wife Sarah Chadwick who just so happened to live right next door to the Nippes factory.

A short time before Sharps arrival in Mill Creek, Daniel Nippes had taken on government contracts to manufacture and modify the 1840 Flintlock Muskets. This commitment to government contracts likely prevented the Mill Creek location from contributing too much effort into the production of the Sharps sporting rifles. Only a very limited number (approximately 250) of the 1849 and 1850 rifles were ever produced there.

Unable to further his endeavor in Mill Creek, Christian Sharps relocated again in 1851. This time he went to New England and joined forces with the well-known Vermont based company Robbins & Lawrence.

Sharps managed to reach an agreement with Robbins & Lawrence to build his new breechloader at their manufacturing facility in Vermont. They established a holding company in Hartford, CT to handle the sales of these rifles under the name The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. Christian Sharps took on an advisory role with the firm and was paid a one-dollar royalty on each gun that they manufactured.

All of the specific details of the arrangement remain unclear and much of the information found appears to be speculation, but several sources show that Sharps grew dissatisfied with the agreement and severed his ties with the company by 1853.

In 1854 he moved back to Pennsylvania with the money he earned from Robbins & Lawrence and opened his own firm in Philadelphia using the name C. Sharps & Company. There he built his breech-loading single shot pistol and the Sharps Pistol Rifle. Later in 1859 he began producing his well-known four-shot Pepperbox Pistols.

After his departure, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford would continue to produce the Sharps Rifles without any further involvement from Christian Sharps. It has been stated that Robbins & Lawrence provided input for improvements to the Sharps design, but again nothing we found noted exactly what they contributed, or anything on the legality of their arrangement.

In 1855 the Robbins & Lawrence parent company in Vermont went bankrupt. Richard S. Lawrence would re-establish himself as the superintendent of the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. At that time all of the manufacturing was moved from Vermont to Hartford, CT, where they would continue to produce the Sharps rifles under that same name until 1874.

During the Civil War (1861 – 1865) the Sharps Manufacturing Company would produce nearly 100,000 carbines and rifles for the Federal Government (Union Army). The reputation of the Sharps Rifle’s long range accuracy and breechloading engineering was already known, and soon the Confederate Troops were armed with copies. There were an estimated 5,000 Sharps New Model 1859 Carbine clones produced by S.C. Robinson of Richmond, VA for use by the Confederacy.

After the war, Robbins & Lawrence faced legal troubles. The gun manufacturer had used the land that was owned by the Sharps Manufacturing Company in Hartford as collateral in order to secure a contract with the British Government to manufacture Enfield Rifles. When the deal fell through, it sparked a long drawn out lawsuit that riled their shareholders and ultimately lead to the company being dissolved in 1874. All of their assets were then sold off to an entirely new group of shareholders operating under the name Sharps Rifle Company.

This new firm relocated the production to Bridgeport, CT in 1876, where they remained until 1881. There they produced the Model 1874 built from leftover parts after the dissolution of the previous company. They would also build one of the best known Sharps style competition rifles, the Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878. This rifle was developed by Hugo Borchardt who later created the C93, the first semi-auto pistol. The rifles manufactured in Bridgeport were marked with the trademark “Old Reliable”.  A term adopted from the Sharps reputation among the veterans of the frontier.

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Meanwhile, Christian Sharps continued to produce his own guns. In 1862 he would partner with William Hankins and form the new firm under the name Sharps & Hankins. The majority of the production that the company would undertake would be for military use. During this time they built the Model 1862 Carbine, which Christian Sharps received a patent for in 1861. Many of these rifles included the unique feature of a leather barrel cover to accommodate their use by naval troops.

In 1866 the pair would dissolve the partnership and Sharps returned to working under the name C. Sharps & Company until his death in 1874.

Now it is easy to see why there has been so much confusion surrounding the manufacturing of the Sharps Rifles. Company names were often very similar and an uneducated eye would find it difficult to distinguish the separate entities. Those most adept at identifying the early rifles would need to look closely at individual characteristics and markings to distinguish their origin. It could still prove to be a difficult task even for the most observant, because with the exception of the military carbines produced in Hartford, not many of the rifles were ever built exactly the same. Variations in size, caliber, sights, barrel, etc. were commonplace and made many of the arms unique.

CIVIL WAR

The Sharps Rifles were associated with several events that influenced the future of the nation. However, the lore passed down from the Civil War era may be some of their greatest endorsements. In the book 14 Old Gun Catalogs compiled by L.D. Satterlee, there are reprints of hundreds of letters from officers requesting and praising the Sharps Rifles during the war. These letters are a very revealing testament to the confidence that soldiers had placed in these rifles. We have provided a complete citing of this book below, as these letters are an impressive example of the Sharps' reputation.

One of the most compelling stories regarding the Sharps Rifle during the Civil War is that it was responsible for the very first shot fired to launch the Battle of Gettysburg. That errant shot kicked off a bloody three-day battle that left over 50,000 soldiers dead. Many historians refer to this showdown as one of the most significant battles of the war, as the Union Army was able to defeat General Robert E. Lee and halt his northern advance.

The Sharps was also the rifle of choice for the finest riflemen on the battlefield. Colonel Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters were the closest thing to an elite force that the army had at the time of the Civil War. Men wishing to join these ranks had to qualify by proving their marksmanship ability. To qualify one was required to place ten consecutive shots on a 10-inch target at 200 yards from a rested position, and at 100 yards firing from the shoulder. Shot groupings could not exceed 5 inches in either of the trials. Of course many soldiers were quickly eliminated, but when the trials were completed, it truly established Berdan’s men as the best riflemen available.

Once his troops of elite Sharpshooters was assembled, Berdan still faced the challenge of getting them armed with quality rifles. He lobbied for the Sharps Rifles, but was met with repeated denial by General Winfield Scott who oversaw the Ordnance Department. The General feared that the men would waste valuable ammunition if given a breech-loaded weapon. It ultimately took a shooting exhibition by Berdan using a Sharps Rifle and direct intervention by President Abraham Lincoln to get the rifles into the hands of the Sharpshooters. However, Berdan’s units were eventually armed with the nearly four-foot long breech loading Model 1859 Sharps Rifles. These men participated in a number of decisive conflicts, and were credited with a higher percentage of kills than any other unit for the duration of the war; which also included their involvement at the Battle of Gettysburg.

BUFFALO HUNTERS

The Sharps Rifle also played a key role in shaping the nation during the era of the plains hunters. The model 1874 .50 caliber rifle, or the “Big Fifty” as it was often called, has been said to be responsible for more buffalo kills than all other rifles combined.  In the nineteenth century, long before the conservation of our wildlife was advocated, hunters descended on the Great Western Plains in search of the two million strong American Bison herds (what they thought to be buffalo). These hunters sought the meat and hides for personal gain, but they were also part of a larger strategy by the Federal Government to drive the Native Americans from the land.

The buffalo were a valuable resource to the Indian Tribes, and the thought was that their decimation would weaken any Natives' resistance. Unfortunately for the buffalo, this tactic worked. After just about a decade of uncontrolled hunting, the herds were depleted.

It seemed incredible that one single shot rifle could cause so much devastation, but the more we read about these early hunters, the more sense it made. Prior to the Sharps Rifle, buffalo had to be hunted on horseback with smaller caliber guns, or other weapons. The hunt was up close and often resulted in a single kill before causing the herd to stampede away. The long range of the Sharps allowed the shooter to remain hidden far off from the animals and take repeated shots before spooking the herd. Many stories regarding these hunters state that a single man could manage more than one hundred kills in a single day. It is not the proudest time in our history, but it has certainly served as a milestone for modern conservation laws.

The Natives were not ignorant to the tactics being used as they watched the herds shrink along the plains. The urgency to fight back against the new settlements even inspired enemy tribes to join forces in their attacks of the invading hunters and settlers. One such attack by these adjoined warriors made a legend out of a 24-year-old hunter named William “Billy” Dixon.  He was somewhat famous before his Indian encounter because of his incredible marksmanship, often making shots on buffalo over 500 yards away with his Sharps Rifle.

The story of Billy Dixon and his incredible shot with a borrowed Sharps .50-90 Rifle starts with hundreds of Indian warriors surrounding the small settlement called the Adobe Walls Trading Post near the Canadian River in the high plains of the Texas panhandle. After two days of constant fighting from their location behind the walls, the vastly outnumbered settlers had managed to kill a great number of the warriors.  

The remaining Indians retreated to reorganize, later reemerging on a cliff high above the Adobe Walls. Dixon had lost his own “Big Fifty” Sharps during the fighting, so when he saw the silhouetted warriors on horseback appear, he had to use another mans .50-90 Sharps to take aim. The legend states that Dixon fired a single shot that seconds later dropped a Comanche Warrior from his horse. The distance of the shot was estimated at 1,538 yards (7/8 of a mile). Stunned by the reach of the weapon, the Indians gathered their fallen warrior and retreated. This story has been duplicated many times, beginning with a directed account by Billy Dixon’s wife, so if you wish to read it in greater detail it can be easily found.

REPRODUCTIONS

It is usually a testament to any rifle’s quality when a company seeks to build replicas. However, in the case of the Sharps Rifles, there are several such devotees. Anyone seeking a viable reproduction of one of these early rifles can certainly obtain one, but it will carry a premium price tag. Here is a list of several companies that currently produce the replica Sharps falling breechblock rifles.

Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing, Big Timber, Montana - Manufacturing company that was previously located in Farmingdale Long Island, NY produces rifles to original specifications.

IAB, Brescia, Italy - Sold under a number of brand names including Dixie Gun Works, Garrett Arms, Tristar Sporting Arms, E.M.F & Co., Taylor’s & Company, and Armi Sport.

Davide Pedersoli & Co., Cordone, Italy - Imported by Cimarron F.A. Co. & Taylor’s & Company.

C. Sharps Arms, Big Timber, Montana – Custom shop that for a brief period was affiliated directly with Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing. Now they produce their own line of quality replicas. Both companies have been located a block from each other since parting ways in the late eighties.

If pressed to choose just one of these rifles that would be a true standout in producing the most authentic reproduction, it would have to be the Sharps-Shiloh. Their dedication to duplicating the original parts for use in their rifles is unprecedented. They state the following claim on their website "We are the only Company in the World whose parts interchange with the original Sharps rifles.” It is this writer's opinion that there cannot be a closer reproduction than one that can actually interchange parts with the original.

RESOURCES

Satterlee, L.D. (Compiler) 14 Old Gun Catalogs for the Collector. Follett Publishing Company, 1940. The Gun Digest Association, 1962 (Fourth Edition) – Exact reprints of Sharps Catalogs 1859 to 1880, Legal documents from Hopkins & Allen, and many original period testimonials and letters of requests for Sharps Rifles.

Sellers, Frank. Sharps Firearms. Los Angeles, California: Benfield Publishing Company, 1978 – Reference of all models and variations, as well as Sharps performance data, cartridge information, and loading tools.

Flayderman, Norm. Flaydermans Guide to Antique American Firearms and their values. DBI Books, Inc Northfield, IL, Several Editions. Detailed information about all Sharps models and their value and a brief summary of Christian Sharps and associated production companies.

Many other books and online resources are also available. It would be advisable to compare the details from several sources because many may contain incomplete or incorrect information.