Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Sharps Rifle and Christian Sharps

When vacationing in the western United States there are many interesting old west museums that display artifacts from the era. Each item usually has quite a good story to go along with it and the Sharps Rifle is no exception. Basically, the Sharps Rifle helped control the western plains better than any other firearm of it's time. It also helped the Butterfield Overland Stages keep on schedule.

Museums With Sharps Rifle Collections

Overland Mail stamp, 1958 issue
I know of three good sites to see one of these rifles for yourself. If your travels include a Wyoming vacation I would suggest a stop at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum at 100 Fort St. in Buffalo Wyoming.

In Texas there is a Sharps Rifle on display at the Fort Stockton Museum in Fort Stockton Texas. The fort is a few blocks east of the downtown area and makes a great stop if your Texas trip takes you on Interstate-10 in west Texas. Fort Stockton is between San Antonio and El Paso.

Also, if your travels take you to Virginia, you may want to stop by the National Firearms Museum at 11250 Waples Mill Rd. in Fairfax Virginia.

Christian Sharps

Most gun enthusiasts would agree that one of the most popular and outstanding rifles on the old American frontier was the Sharps Rifle. This firearm was the idea of Christian Sharps who went on to secure several patents for his designs and mechanisms.

As a youth, Sharps worked for a gunsmith in New Jersey and then had an army apprentice position in the 1830's at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal working as a filer. Sharps learned quite a lot while at Harpers Ferry and studied the early breech-loader Hall Rifle. In fact, Sharps did work for captain John Hall. The Hall Rifle was produced at Harpers Ferry and Sharps naturally learned of the rifle's attributes and deficiencies. The story is that Sharps work with the Hall Rifle is what gave him his design ideas for his own rifle. His new design was very impressive indeed.

The Sharps Rifle on the Frontier
sharps rifle
Sharps Rifle second from top

Just to give you an idea of how the Sharps Rifle was initially accepted on the early frontier, following is an excerpt from a letter sent to the Sharps company by a man named Henry Skillman who was operating a U.S. Mail line between San Antonio Texas and Santa Fe New Mexico via El Paso in the early 1850's.

Skillman was a noted and respected frontiersman and this excerpt was found in the book "Sharps Rifle: The Gun that Shaped American Destiny" authored by Martin Rywell in 1957. "having been a frontierman for fourteen years, I had  occasion to look after a bosom companion to stand by me in case of life or death; and hence I have given some little attention to the subject of firearms, and I think I can tolerably well appreciate their excellence; and in my search for such a comforter, I have found no arm that in all it's attributes begins to compare with the Sharps' arm and for army, navy, caravan or sporting service, it is sure to take and hold the front rank".

Interestingly enough, the Sharps company liked this comment so much they printed Skillman's entire letter in their sales catalog. The Sharps Rifles played a big part in assuring that the mail got through on the San Antonio to El Paso Trail.

Sharps Commercial Endeavors

The commercial endeavors of Christian Sharps is a bit surprising in as much as he began the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company around 1848 and departed due to disagreements with the two principal stock holders in 1853.

Christian Sharps reportedly worked as an engineer in the company that held his name. The company however continued to use the Sharps name and Christian Sharps had royalties from his patents but other than that wasn't involved with the company. He did however return to the rifle manufacturing business with the C Sharps Co. in 1853, had a partnership in the early 1860's and then reverted back in 1866 to the C. Sharps Company. He continued designing firearms into the 1870's and died in Connecticut in 1874.

Sharp rifle kits and reproduction firearms including black powder gun kits are still very popular with some gun collectors today. There are a host of companies offering these gun kits. They include both reproduction rifles and revolvers.

The Sharps Rifle Models

sharps riflesThere were many different models of the Sharps rifle from the 1850's onward and they seemed to be just what was needed on the frontier. Some of the riflles were designed as "slant breechloaders" and others as "straight breechloaders". The differences were the angle of the breech to the barrel.

To begin with, as stated above, the Sharps rifle was a breechloader (like Hall's) as opposed to a muzzleloader. This was a good thing to have in frontier skirmishes with Indians.

The best attributes of the Sharps rifle was both it's high accuracy and long distances as well as it's powerful punch. Henry Skillman had the opportunity to use the earliest Sharps Rifle, in his case the .52 caliber 1851 Carbine, and reported that he was hitting targets during battle with an accuracy of some 300 yards.This was quite effective against attacking Indians who seemed to know the range of pistols and other rifles and set up their attack methods accordingly. When a few braves were being picked off at distances of hundreds of yards, they had to reconsider their attack methods.

The Sharps Rifle of course was used during the Civil War, most notably by the Sharpshooters regiment under the command of  Colonel Hiram Berdan. As it turned out, this was a fairly celebrated regiment within the military and they competed in target shooting events. The Sharps' accuracy was superior to the Colts also being used and they were able to be reloaded much easier. The Union purchased over 9,000 Sharps Rifles during the war. My research indicates that each Sharps Rifle during the war cost about $36 and ones modified by Colonel Berdan cost about $43.

The Sharps Rifle and the Buffalo Hunters

The main firearm contributing to the decimation of the buffalo herds in the western U.S. was the Sharps Sporting Rifle. This arm represented an improvement on the Christian Sharps first patent of 1848 for a single-shot rifle. These Sharps Sport Rifles had a breech block at a right angle to the bore which allowed for the large cartridges required to bring down the buffalo.

 In 1872 the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company introduced the .50-90 caliber Sharps cartridges which were primarily for buffalo hunting. The Sharps 1874 was a very effective buffalo gun firing the .50-90 cartridges. The buffalo is quite a large animal and not easy to bring down so this ammunition was specially designed for this purpose. The designers simply increased the dimensions of the cartridge. This ammunition was so effective in hunting buffalo that the four herds in the west estimated to be about 20 million were moved to almost extinction in only about twenty years.

A buffalo hunter could kill in excess of one hundred buffalo per day. An incredible amount. The effect the Sharps firearm had on the buffalo herd of North America is an entire story in itself. To further point out this rifles effectiveness, there is a story that a buffalo hunter named Billy Dixon during the 1874 second battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle brought down a Comanche warrior at a distance of some 1,538 yards. If the story is true it's an incredible distance. That Comanche war party that included the legendary leader Quanah Parker retreated after that shot.

Another two instances of the Sharps Rifle in the history of the old west is that supposedly Sheriff Pat Garrett after the Lincoln County War killed Billy the Kid in 1881 with a single blast from his Sharps Rifle. Also, by 1859 the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line had about 200 stations over it's route from St. Louis to San Francisco and each one had a supply of Sharps Rifles and men who knew how to use them.

1898 bison stamp
First Bison stamp issued in 1898
Various models of Sharps fire arms have been used in several motion pictures and television productions. The list of motion pictures include...the original True Grit, True Grit (2010), Quincy Down Under, Jonah Hex, The Wild Bunch (1969), Wyatt Earp, Young Guns. These are only a sample. There were more.

Reproductions of several Sharps models can even be bought today. These include the Sharps 1863 Rifle, the metallic cartridge Sharps 1874 Rifle, and the Sharps-Borchardt Model 187. Today these models are generally used for competition shooting and hunting. Companies making the reproductions include the C Sharps Arms Company and the Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company. Both are located in Big Timber Montana.

(Stamp images in public domain. Article and Sharps Rifle photos from Western trips Collection. Article copyright Western Trips)

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and worth while article. I have a Christian Sharps Rifle (original) and it is in very good condition and patina. (1848) Bob


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