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January 18, 2024

Sharps Rifle: The Gun That Made America

By Kurt Allemeier

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As America embraced Manifest Destiny and confronted the horrors of slavery, Christian Sharps’ rifles were there.

They traveled with settlers across seas of prairie grass going west and bathed in the bloodshed of the American Civil War.  Soldiers carried them in the Indian Wars and buffalo hunters utilized them to the near-extinction of the American bison.

Look for a pivot point in 19th century American history and Christian Sharps’ rifle was there, whether carried by an abolitionist, a Union sharpshooter, a family emigrating west or a Texas Ranger.

From the Model 1853 slant breech, the Model 1863 and its conversions, to Shiloh Sharps Model 1874, and the Sharps Borchardt Model 1878, there are plenty of opportunities for collectors to come away with a Sharps rifle in Rock Island Auction Company's Feb. 16-18 Sporting and Collector Firearms Auction.

Reportedly, Sharps only manufactured 46 Model 1877 Long Range No. 1 rifles and 52 No. 2 rifles between January 1877 to March 1879. This rifle has "Old Reliable" and "SHARPS RIFLE CO. BRIDGEPORT, CONN." on top of the barrel, a modern globe front sight with spirit level and a modern long range Vernier peep sight.

Sharps Rifle Early History

Christian Sharps was born in New Jersey in 1810. He started working at the Harpers Ferry Armory as an apprentice when he was 19. He learned about gunmaking and the machines used in manufacture under the superintendent, John Harris Hall who patented a flintlock breech-loading rifle in 1811 and after several years was authorized to make his rifles at the armory for the government in 1819. He immediately installed machinery for making his guns so that parts could be interchangeable.

Sharps moved to Cincinnati in 1844. Four years later he earned a patent for a single shot breech-loading gun solving some of the problems of other early breechloaders of the time.

Having moved to Pennsylvania in 1850, Sharps submitted his rifle to the U.S Ordnance Board for consideration. The report on the Sharps rifle concluded that it was “superior to any of the other arms loading at the breech, and think it would be well to have further trials made.’’

Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was organized in Hartford, Conn., in 1851.

The Sharps Rifle

The Sharps action, under the 1848 patent used a vertically sliding breech block which cut through the gun’s receiver and closed the rear bore in the “up” position of the lever that opened and closed the breech with a toggle locking system.

Sharps’ patent improved on previous breech-loading rifles like the Hall Rifle that cut down on gas escaping. A later advertisement for the Sharps rifle put its advantages as durability and simplicity, ease of cleaning and upkeep, accuracy, safety, and rapidity and uniformity of fire.

The problem for Sharps was that he didn’t have a place to make his game-changing gun. He contacted the War Department but went over too many heads and ruffled too many feathers to get any cooperation. No large manufacturing companies were willing to take on making Sharps’ rifle. He found a shop in Mill Creek, Penn., to manufacture 100 to 200 of Sharps’ breechloader. One hundred fifty rifles were produced before another contract resulted in an additional nearly 100 rifles.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army had nearly 50,000 Sharps carbines and planned to convert them to metallic cartridge guns. This Sharps Model 1863 carbine is similar to about 1,900 that were converted to metallic cartridges.

In 1850, Sharps found a new partner and got his guns in front of military officers. They were met with approval but not an order. In the summer of 1851, the Ordnance Department came calling, wanting to purchase 200 carbines with their accessories.

Sharps sold his patent to a business partner in 1851. From the beginning, part of the Sharps rifle story is one of Christian Sharps’ poor business sense, entering into numerous partnerships and contracts that failed to materialize or make much money. One business associate described him as “an impractical dreamer” and complained of Sharps’ “surliness.”

Sharps Rifles and Bleeding Kansas

Abolitionist groups were patrons of the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company as Kansas became a flashpoint in the lead-up to the Civil War. East Coast abolitionists sent about 900 Sharps rifles surreptitiously. Some shipments were disguised as books, earning the rifles the nickname “Beecher’s Bibles” after Henry Ward Beecher, a leading abolitionist of the time.

A.A. Lawrence, treasurer of the New England Emigrant Aid Society wrote, “those thinning pacificators Sharpes (sic) rifles – 12 shots in a minute – in the hands of good and true `free state’ men have wonderfully cooked the ardor of the border Missourians.”

More than 10,000 of the Model 1853 carbine were manufactured between November 1854 and December 1857. This rifle is an early production rifle, made in 1853-1854. About 900 of the rifles found their way to abolitionists in Kansas in the run-up to the Civil War.

Pro-slavery factions knew of the difference the Sharps Model 1853 would have in a fight. One 1856 letter to a Charleston, S.C., newspaper read, “Have they the people of North Carolina never heard how Massachusetts and Connecticut have forwarded many boxes of Sharp’s rifles to their Abolition friends in Kansas? These rifles are the best of the modern inventions and they are not sent to Kansas to kill deer or buffalo, but the men of the South who dare to go there.”

John Brown carried the Sharps Model 1853 on the ill-advised Harpers Ferry raid in October 1859. Though Brown and his supporters captured important community members and seized the federal armory, they were quickly put down by U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee. Two months later Brown was hanged for treason, murder and slave insurrection.

Sharps Rifles and the Civil War

The U.S. Ordnance Department kept testing breech loading rifles and carbines and Sharps continued to perform the best. Despite this, orders were intermittent nor of any significant quantity at the time. Commanders in the field wrote asking for Sharps carbines. The carbine went into the field in 1862 at the direct order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Eighty cavalry regiments were armed with Sharps carbines. One of the most famous units to carry them were the Berdan Sharpshooters led by Hiram Berdan, whose prerequisite for serving in the unit was to put 10 consecutive shots in a target from 200 yards at no more than five inches from the center of the target. He wanted the Sharps Model 1859. He was first offered Springfield Armory muzzleloaders and then the Colt Revolving Rifle.

“They had tried all of the available rifles and had decided that the Sharps was the best obtainable. They would have the Sharps or none,” wrote Frank Sellers in “Sharps Firearms.” Berdan went past the head of the Ordnance Department to the Secretary of War who approved the Sharps.

The unit served proudly in a number of battles but truly distinguished itself on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. At Little Round Top, about 100 Sharpshooters and 200 men from the 3rd Maine infantry held off 30,000 Confederates of Gen. James Longstreet during a 20-minute skirmish at the peach orchard in which the Union faction fired 10,000 rounds, allowing reinforcements to arrive and avoid a strategic defeat.

This documented Sharps Model 1859 military rifle was issued to the 42nd Pennsylvania Infantry Co. G “Bucktails,” and falls within the serial numbers documented as issued to the 1st and 2nd Regiments of U.S. Sharpshooters.

Confederates made a knockoff of the Sharps Model 1859 Carbine, known as the Robinson Carbine for the Richmond, Va., company that made them.

At one point during the war, the Ordnance Department surveyed officers using breech-loading carbines and among 422 officers, 50.9 percent thought the Sharps was “best” and 47.2 percent called it “good.” Second was Colt’s revolving rifle, rated “best” by 27 percent of officers. Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company made 80,512 carbines, 9,141 rifles and 16.3 million rounds of ammunition for the Union Army.

Inventor Christian Sharps and Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company parted ways in 1852. He formed a new company and took on different partners when he moved to Philadelphia. Sharps & Hankins was one of those short-lived partnerships that produced this Civil War U.S. Sharps & Hankins Model 1862 Navy rimfire carbine.

Sharps Rifles after the Civil War

Sharps rifles made their way west and were popular with buffalo hunters of the day who referred to the Sharps as the “Big Fifty.” The Sharps also served as the first official gun of the Texas Rangers where it earned the nickname “Lead Belly.”

After the war, about 50,000 Sharps carbines were held by the federal government and considered obsolete unless converted to take metallic cartridges. The Company had experimented with converting the Model 1863 during the war but the timing was bad. The Ordnance Department took up converting the Sharps carbines after the war ended. The conversion to the Model 1867 required nine new parts while the conversion to the Model 1868 needed eight parts.

The company announced the New Model 1869 with a lighter hammer and a smaller design, offering it as a sporting rifle. Sharps rifles and carbines had previously been chambered for .52 caliber. The New Model 1869 was made for .45 caliber.

Buffalo hunters liked the Sharps rifle for its .52 caliber firepower as they sought to eradicate the American bison and keep Native Americans on their reservations. This rifle was converted to metallic cartridge use and is marked “LD” and “Remodle A. Parker/Cawker. Kan.”

Sharps Pistols

After Christian Sharps parted ways with Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, he set up shop in Philadelphia. His new company, C. Sharps & Company made pistols, pocket pistols and rifles. He received a patent for a four-barrel gun in January 1859. The company produced 11,076 rifles and carbines for the U.S. government during the Civil War. The company manufactured more than 165,000 of the four-barrel pepperbox guns. Sharps died of tuberculosis in 1874 when he was living in New Jersey, shuttering the Philadelphia factory.

Christian Sharps established C. Sharps & Co. in 1858 in Philadelphia, at times taking on partners. He died in 1874 and the business closed. These four-barrel derringer pistols are from Sharps’ Philadelphia years, chambered in .22 rimfire.

Sharps Rifle Model 1874

Called the Model 1874 despite its action being built as early as 1871, this was among the guns used by buffalo hunters to nearly wipe out the American bison. The Model 1874 came in a number of chamberings and variations, like a long range model, short ranger model, carbine, schuetzen and military. The sporting model was the most popular with 6,441 produced among more than 12,500 made.

The Model 1874 entered popular culture as Matthew Quigley’s gun of choice in the 1990 Tom Selleck film, “Quigley Down Under.” The guns used in the film were made by Shiloh Sharps, a family- and veteran-owned company located in Montana. Rock Island Auction Company had the honor of recently selling one of the rifles used in the film in our December Premier Auction, hammering for $105,750. Two Shiloh Sharps Model 1874 rifles are available separately in the February Sporting & Collector Auction.

The Sharps Model 1874 entered pop culture as the rifle of Matthew Quigley in the 1990 Tom Selleck film “Quigley Down Under. This rifle was manufactured in about 1877, chambered in .45-70 and shipped to Schuyler, Hartley & Graham in December 1877.

Sharps Borchardt Model 1878

Hugo Borchardt joined Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in 1875 as the lead in the drafting department when the company was struggling. Despite selling its rifles and receiving orders, operating capital was hard to come by.

In 1878, Sharps released its Sharps-Borchardt Model rifle, a hammerless rifle with a flat-sided frame. The gun landed with a thud of decided disinterest. Borchardt would move to Europe and design the Borchardt C-93 semi-automatic pistol, considered the grandfather of the semi-automatic pistol.

The hammerless design of Borchardt’s rifle, a concept ahead of its time, left hunters of the west befuddled. Other similar rifles still showed an exposed hammer. The Peabody-Martini rifle, another hammerless guns also failed to find an American audience.

Famed Denver gunsmith John P. Lower wrote to Sharps saying only guns with external hammers will sell, imploring the company, “…send no more of the hammerless guns. Only the old models will sell.”

Sharps’ sales dropped in the face of the popularity of repeating rifles like the Winchester models and the U.S. government contract to the Springfield Model 1873. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company closed its doors in 1880.

This Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 rifle is hammerless and engraved. It shares the gun designing genius of Christian Sharps and Hugo Borchardt.

Sharps Rifles for Sale

While other guns claim they won the west, the Sharps rifle won America. Period. It was there as the Union rolled back the Confederacy at its high water mark at Gettysburg. Sharps rounds put down countless American bison as a way to control Native Americans. It was there as desperados roamed the Texas border and emigrants rode in wagon trains across the Old West.

Sharps rifles are thick with the histories of gun technology and America, and are fantastic reminders of all that Manifest Destiny meant to 19th century Americans. Several examples of these legendary long guns are available in the Feb. 16-18 Sporting & Collector Auction.

Wild West guns and more this February at Rock Island Auction Company.


“Sharps Firearms,” by Frank Sellers

“Military Sharps: Rifles and Carbines Vol. 1,” by Richard E. Hopkins

“The Sharps Rifle Its History, Development and Operation,” by Winston O. Smith

“Sharps Rifle The Gun That Shaped American Destiny,” by Martin Rywell

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