How the Sharps Rifle Became A Legendary Sharpshooter of the West
“…being armed with breech-loaders they [the Sharpshooters] could lie low, and without changing position reload and fire ten shots a minute.”Captain C.A. Stevens, 1st US Sharpshooting Regiment
In 1861, Private Truman Head of Company C, 1st US Sharpshooters, purchased for his own use a New Model 1859 Sharps rifle at the onset of the American Civil War.
The rest of the company, being armed by the Ordnance Department with either a standard infantry .58 caliber M1861 Springfield rifled musket or the .56 caliber five-shot Colt revolving rifle, soon became envious of Private Head (known to his fellow soldiers as California Joe).
During training and marksmanship exercises, the other soldiers in Head’s company found that the Sharps rifle was more accurate, faster to reload and fire, and that it packed more of a punch than either of their issued weapons. Word quickly made it back to the commander of the 1st US Sharpshooters, Colonel Hiram C. Berdan, who quickly went to work applying to the Ordnance Department to outfit his entire regiment with these Sharps rifles.
Thus began a protracted engagement between Berdan and the US Ordnance Department. General Winfield Scott, veteran officer of the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War, now serving as Commanding General of the US Army, wrote off Berdan outright, claiming that “breech-loaders would spoil his command.” Scott believed, as did most members of the Ordnance Department, that the M1861 Springfield rifled musket was the weapon of choice for the Union Army.
They firmly held that there was no equal to the rifled musket and that to make an exception for Berdan’s men would set a bad precedent. It would not be long, however, before the Ordnance Board realized they had backed the wrong horse.
Like so many firearms of the Old West, the Sharps rifle had its day in some of the most infamous battles and shootouts of the late nineteenth century. From Bleeding Kansas to Little Bighorn, the Sharps rifle and its many variants changed combat as the need for speed and accuracy eclipsed the old Napoleonic linear style.
This Civil War era rifle capitalized on a desire for a weapon capable of firing at two or three times the speed of the standard rifled-musket, with two to three times the range — and did so to great effect.
The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company
Christian Sharps (1810-1874), inventor of the rifle which would one day bear his name, started his career in the firearms industry in the 1830s as an apprentice at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
While there, he worked for Captain John H. Hall, inventor of the Hall rifle — one of the early American single shot breech-loaders. Under Hall, Sharps developed an appreciation for weapons designed with interchangeable parts, and became particularly enamored with Hall’s breech-loader design.
By 1844, Sharps had left Harpers Ferry and was beginning to experiment with his own designs for a breech-loader to improve the deficiencies of the Hall rifle. His new design utilized a slanting breech with a vertical dropping block action operated via lever action by the trigger guard, and fired paper cartridges.
The design limited the release of gasses in the chamber, allowing for a dramatic increase of pressure in the barrel when fired. The first of these designs was patented in 1848 by Sharps and manufactured independently in 1850 by A.S. Nippes at Mill Creek Armory in Merion Township, Pennsylvania.
Things took off quickly for Sharps after that. Utilizing the same slant breech mechanism, a second model was produced using a Maynard tape primer magazine. The magazine would propel tape primer onto the cone as the hammer came down to strike the nipple.
If the timing worked, the user would never have to place a cap on the nipple to discharge the weapon. This model was sold to the Robbins and Lawrence Company (R&L) in 1850 where Rollin White, one of the prominent firearms inventors of the nineteenth century, developed a “knife-edge” breech block and a self-cocking device for the Sharps M1850.
R&L referred to this adapted model as the “first contract” or the “Box Lock” Sharps rifle and produced roughly 1,650 of them. Another 8,000 were ordered for production by other companies across the United States.
In 1851, Sharps and other interested parties organized a holding company, aptly named the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, with $100,000 in capital meant to help smaller manufacturing companies such as R&L (Richard Lawrence being one of the principal investors of Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co.) with the sale and manufacture of Sharps patent firearms.
Immediately, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company fronted R&L $40,000 to purchase an additional 25 acres of property on which to construct a new factory for the production of Sharps rifles. R&L and the Sharps Company then contracted for the production of a further 15,000 M1851 rifles. As part of the agreement, Christian Sharps would be paid a royalty fee of $1 per firearm.
Sharps and the 1850s
Over the next five years the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company produced the M1851 carbine, the M1852 rifle and accompanying carbine, and the widely popular M1853 model of the slanting breech carbine.
These new models featured a new innovation — the Lawrence Pellet Priming system — which replaced the Maynard tape primer on the original rifles. Lawrence’s new system added a sliding arm, which when the hammer was cocked would feed new primers as needed, closing the chamber from where they were stored, and keeping the other primers safe from exposure.
The shorter carbine rifles were popular, particularly the M1853, which attracted the attention of many of the more radical anti-slavery groups beginning to form around the country in the mid nineteenth century. In one such case, New York clergyman Henry Ward Beecher ordered nearly 900 M1853s and had them shipped in crates labeled “BIBLES” to the anti-slavery “Free Soil” settlers of Kansas during the incredibly violent “Bleeding Kansas” conflict.
In 1853, Sharps left the company, creating his own manufacturing company which he simply named “C. Sharps & Company.” Christian Sharps would go on to work with another notable gunsmith, William Hankins, and produced several pepperbox pistols and a handful of rifles and carbines, but none ever matched the success of the rifles produced by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company.
Meanwhile, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, which still bore his name, continued to operate. In 1856 and 1857, they manufactured numerous variants of the new M1855 Sharps Rifle. The M1855 included the same slanting breech as previous models, but reverted to the Maynard tape primer system, instead of the new system developed by Lawrence.
The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company produced roughly 800 .54 caliber M1855s for the US Ordnance Department, which were distributed chiefly to cavalry units serving on the frontier, and nearly 6,000 were contracted to the government of Great Britain. The M1855, however, was not a commercial success, despite the violence brewing throughout the country.
While military contracts kept the company afloat through the end of the decade, a raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 led by the radical abolitionist John Brown put Sharps back on the map. The raid — Brown’s attempt to galvanize the anti-slavery population and institute a slave uprising in the South — featured a large quantity of Sharps M1853 carbines and M1855s rifles.
While the raid was a failure, it was the final straw for a country ready to explode into Civil War — and the Sharps Manufacturing Company would be there when it did.
Sharps Rifles and the American Civil War
By the end of 1859, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. had developed its latest model, the one which would inevitably feature heavily during the American Civil War. The first model of the M1859 was simply known as the “Sharps Rifle-Musket.” It featured a 36” barrel and fired a .52 caliber paper cartridge. These models did not last very long, as the length of the barrel did not make it an ideal weapon for infantry duty.
Its successor, however, would become the weapon of choice for both Union and Confederate sharpshooters throughout the war. Known as the “New Model 1859,” it came with a shortened 30” barrel and was fitted with a bayonet lug for an impressive saber bayonet (later models were retrofitted with a lug capable of fitting the generic socket bayonet).
In Captain C. A. Stevens’ (1835-1900) Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac 1861-1865, he claims, “The open-sighted Sharps rifle, using linen or skin cartridges, .52 caliber, conical ball, was the best breech-loading gun at that time made, a perfectly safe and reliable arm, combining accuracy with rapidity, just what a skirmish line needed for effective work.”
At the onset of the war, the US Ordnance Department had not contracted for these newer models. It was by personal purchases, like that of Private Truman Head of the 1st US Sharpshooters, that the first M1859s found their way onto the battlefield. While the commander of the US Sharpshooters, Hiram Berdan, saw immediately the usefulness of these firearms, he struggled to gain any traction with the Ordnance Department in outfitting his men with them.
According to Captain C. A. Stevens of the 1st US Sharpshooters, it was by sheer happenstance that while in camp in the fall of 1861, Colonel Berdan invited General George B. McClellan to a rifle shooting contest. Unexpectedly, McClellan arrived with none other than President Lincoln, who took great mirth in the event, and a keen interest in the accuracy of the various rifles used.
According to Captain Stevens, who claims during the event to have shot an incredibly lucky 600 yard bullseye, Lincoln was so pleased as he left the camp he said to Berdan, “Colonel, come down to-morrow and I shall give you the order for breech-loaders.”
At long last, Berdan’s efforts paid off: in January 1862, now ten months into the war, the Ordnance Board relented and ordered 2,000 Sharps Rifles for the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooter Regiments.
The first batch arrived in May 1862, in time to outfit the 1st U.S.S.S. with Sharps rifles during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March – June 1862), with the second batch arriving the following month. Units on both sides of the conflict would acquire various models of the Sharps rifle and carbine over the course of the war, including the 5th New York Regiment (known as Duryee’s Zouaves), the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, and the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (known as the Bucktails).
By some estimations, the Federal government purchased more than 100,000 Sharps rifles and carbines over the course of the war.
A third model of the Sharps Rifle was produced in 1864, known as the M1863 or the New Model ‘63, though the few which were made weren’t delivered until the spring of 1865, and consequently did not see much, if any, use during the final days of the Civil War.
In fact, as the war came to an end, Sharps rifles and carbines faced the first sign of their own obsoletion in the form of the Spencer repeating rifle. Developed in 1860, the Spencer repeating rifle used a falling breech block and magazine tube, allowing the user to fire seven rounds before having to reload (roughly 14-20 rounds per minute).
While expensive, the Spencer repeating rifle sounded the death knell for single shot breech-loaders like the Sharps.
The Sharps Rifle Heads West
After the war, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company produced another series of rifles called the M1869. The M1869 still used paper cartridges and included different variants like its predecessors, including a carbine model, a military grade model, and for the first time, a sporting rifle model.
Sales were low for the company until the sporting model saw success and began to break into what was a new market for Sharps: the American West. As settlers went overland, the Sharps Rifle Company began producing these firearms for commercial hunters and frontiersmen.
In 1871, Sharps at last introduced a model which housed metallic cartridges. It proved to be a huge commercial success. The design, intimately familiar to its contemporaries, included an 800-yard sight (wishful thinking for a weapon which rarely could hit a target at 600 yards), and offered a series of metal-cased cartridge sizes.
The weapon was powerful, reliable, and by now — nearly twenty years after the first model was produced — a household name. The various sizes allowed the company to sell multiple variants, and quickly the Sharps Rifle Company pounced on the advertising possibilities. They christened the M1874 “Old Reliable.”
Old Reliable rapidly became the favored long-range rifle of choice in the Old West. It was the favorite of buffalo hunters and US cavalrymen alike. Every new variant seemed to be able to chamber larger and larger rounds.
Quickly Old Reliable picked up another nickname: the Buffalo Gun.
The larger caliber M1874s have been tied to the near extinction of that creature and to the way of life of the Plains Indians who called the West their home. Quite infamously, the M1874 appeared in numerous battles between the Plains Indians and settlers heading West. At the Battle of Adobe Walls, the renowned buffalo hunter Billy Dixon allegedly fired his Sharps M1874 (.50-90) and struck a warrior at more than 1,500 yards.
During the Indian Wars, Sharps Rifles were prominent both as standard-issue long-range breech-loaders for the US cavalry, and as Civil War era rifles which had made their way west in the hands of the Plains Indians. Rounds from Sharps rifles have been found at Little Bighorn and Rosebud battlefields.
While it was clear that repeating rifles were rapidly becoming the weapon of choice for warfare in the West, the long-range accuracy of the Sharps was still unmatched. More than 12,000 M1874s were produced by the Sharps Rifle Co. and gunslingers, hunters, soldiers, and lawmen alike found the powerful single shot rifle to be an accurate and essential tool of surviving in the Old West.
The Legacy of the Sharps Rifle
The company designed one last rifle in 1878 (the Sharps-Bochardt model), but plagued by lawsuits and unable to keep up with the public’s demand for repeating firearms, the Sharps Rifle Company dissolved in 1881. After thirty years of production, the era of Sharps Rifles had come to a close.
But the legends of these rifles lived on.
The great stories told of the Wild West included impossible long-range shots, feats of incredible accuracy, and dramatic sharpshooting. The more pop-culture savvy among us will likely recognize the Sharps Rifle from the critically acclaimed film Quigley Down Under (1990), starring Tom Selleck. Selleck’s character famously uses a Sharps Rifle, and the accuracy of the M1874 is central to the film.
The Sharps also appears in Western favorites such as Billy Two Hats (1974) and Valdez is Coming (1971). The stories of the West and the great Western films of the 20th century have inspired gunsmiths to resurrect the Sharps. Since 1983, the Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company and C. Sharps Arms of Big Timber, Montana have manufactured reproductions of the Sharps Rifles for public use.
Sharpshooters in the Civil War clamored for it; Buffalo hunters of the West depended on it. The Sharps Rifle changed the firearms industry and redefined the art of crafting a single-shot breech-loader in the mid-nineteenth century.
Unmatched for range and accuracy, it was, by the admission of its contemporaries, the perfect weapon in its time: an undisputed and reliable champion of the West.
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Sources & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.
- Aimone, A. C., & Scheck, G. (1987). Recent Journal Articles. Military Affairs, 51(4), 224–226. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1988003.
- Carlile, R. F. (1987). The Sharps Rifle: The sharpshooter’s favorite in the Civil War. Military Images, 8(5), 6–9. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44031927.
- Coates, E. J., & McAulay, J. D. (1996). Civil War Sharps Carbines and Rifles. Thomas Publications.
- Foster-Harris, William, and Evelyn Curro (2007). The Look of the Old West. Skyhorse Pub.
- Isely, W. H. (1907). The Sharps Rifle Episode in Kansas History. The American Historical Review, 12(3), 546–566. https://doi.org/10.2307/1832405.
- Monk, J. A. (2013). Sharps Rifles of Montana The Austin Monk Collection. Scott Company Publishing.
- Pegler, M. (2017). Sharpshooting Rifles of the American Civil War: Colt, Sharps, Spencer, and Whitworth. Osprey Publishing.
- Rywell, M. (1979). Sharps Rifle: The Gun That Shaped American Destiny. Pioneer Press.
- Skillman, Bill. “Everything You Wanted to Know about the Lawrence Pellet Primer System (but Were Afraid to Ask).” silo.tips, June 28, 2016. https://silo.tips/download/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-the-lawrence-pellet-primer-system-but-were-a#.
- Stevens, Charles A (1892). Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac. Minn.
- Sword, W. (1988). Sharpshooter: Hiram Berdan, His Famous Sharpshooters and their Sharps Rifles. A. Mowbray.
- Venturino, M. (2002). Shooting Buffalo Rifles of the Old West. MLV Enterprises.
- Whelen, Townsend (1923). The American Rifle – A Treatise, a Text Book, and a Book of Practical Instruction in the use of the Rifle. New York, NY: The Century Co.
Will Krakower is a freelance writer from the New York area. He has a master's degree in Public History from Rutgers University and specializes in Early American History. He works as a historian for the New Jersey State Park Service and likes to research and write with his cat, Pumpkin, who sits on his lap and is a constant companion/nuisance.