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July 20, 2023

The Slant Breech Sharps Carbine

By Seth Isaacson

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Sharps carbines and rifles are among the most iconic firearms of the mid to late 19th century in America. They were one of the first successful breech-loading firearms and certainly one of the most popular single shot breech-loading rifles of the 19th century. Rock Island Auction Company's August 25-27 Premier Auction offers a number of rare and desirable Sharps carbines and rifles, including a historic Sharps Model 1853 slant breech percussion carbine documented as shipped to a Kansas abolitionist during the Bleeding Kansas conflict. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each model.

A historic Sharps Model 1853 "John Brown Sharps/Beecher's Bible" slant breech percussion carbine documented as shipped to abolitionist General Samuel C. Pomeroy in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period. Available this August.

The Sharps carbine and rifle played a major part in the settlement of the American West in the antebellum era, were widely used by the Union Army during the Civil War, and were easy to modify for metallic cartridges after the Civil War. The Sharps also saw widespread use in the West, including by the famous buffalo hunters that nearly wiped out the American bison by the time the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company closed its doors for good in 1881.

This Sharps Model 1853 Slant Breech carbine is factory documented as sold to the Emigrant Aid Society during the antebellum conflict known as Bleeding Kansas.

Inventors of the Sharps Rifle

The Sharps rifle draws its name from American inventor Christian Sharps (1810-1874) who patented the basic breech-loading design on September 12, 1848. The Sharps went through numerous revisions within just a few years in preparation for mass production at Robbins & Lawrence and then the newly formed Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut.

Christian Sharps (left) and Richard S. Lawrence (right) were the two main inventors involved in the development of the Sharps Rifle.

Sharps left the company in 1853 and founded C. Sharps & Co. in 1855 and also partnered with William Hankins from 1862 to 1867. C. Sharps & Co. produced pistols and rifles based on his original patent as well as additional carbines during the Civil War, but his later companies’ most famous product was the four-barrel Sharps pepperbox pistols produced in multiple variations from 1859 to 1874.

A fantastic Tipping and Lawden Sharps patent four shot pepperbox pistol from the Greg Lampe Collection. This presentation cased, factor engraved pistol was manufactured under license in the United Kingdom. Available this August.

Master armorer Richard S. Lawrence (1817-1892) played a major role in designing what most collectors think of as the classic Sharps rifles and his contributions are often overlooked. Lawrence first worked in the gun shop of Nicanor Kendall in 1838 and became Kendall's partner in 1843.

The C. Sharps & Co. “Pistol Rifle” is closer to Christian Sharps’s original design and was manufactured in Philadelphia c. 1857-1860. Available this August.

The following year, Lawrence and Kendall partnered with Boston lumber dealer Samuel E. Robbins to manufacture 10,000 U.S. Model 1841 “Mississippi Rifles” for the government. Kendall soon moved to Davenport, Iowa, just across the river from the current-day location of Rock Island Auction, and the company became Robbins & Lawrence Co. One of their employees was Benjamin Tyler Henry, the inventor of the Henry rifle, and another was Daniel Baird Wesson of Smith & Wesson revolver fame. It was a veritable "who's who" of early American firearms manufacturing.

The Smith-Jennings was one of several innovative firearms designs manufactured by Robbins & Lawrence in addition to the Sharps. Available this August.

Robbins & Lawrence manufactured a variety of innovative firearms, including the Smith-Jennings Repeating Rifle, a predecessor of the Volcanic pistol and Henry rifle. They were approached to build Sharps rifles in 1850 and Lawrence worked to make the design practical for both use and mass production. Robbins & Lawrence manufactured Sharps rifles until the company failed on October 28, 1856. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company had been formed back in 1851 as a holding company by Robbins & Lawrence Co. and continued to produce and market the rifles.

A cased Robbins & Lawrence Co. Leonard’s Patent percussion pepperbox. Available this August.

Lawrence patented improved automatic priming systems and sights, so you’ll find his name on the lock plates and rear sights of many Sharps rifles. He was arguably a more significant gunsmith in the Sharps design long term as he remained with the company until 1872 and both helped develop the classic percussion Sharps rifles that saw widespread use during the antebellum era and Civil War and the new metallic cartridge Sharps rifles of the post-Civil War era, including the Model 1874 which actually came out in 1871.[1]

The First Slant Breech Sharps: The Model 1852

While there were earlier Sharps models, the first Sharps rifle that really looks like a “classic” Sharps was the Model 1852 manufactured in 1853-1854 by Robbins & Lawrence Co. These and the following Model 1853 and Model 1855 are nicknamed the "Slant Breech Sharps'' because the breechblocks are in the frame at a slant and the breech end of the barrels are correspondingly angled so that the top of the barrel reaches slightly farther back than the bottom of the barrel at the breech. This makes these famous rifles and carbines readily identifiable to Sharps collectors.

This is a classic Sharps Model 1852 Slant Breech military style carbine. These carbines were manufactured for the commercial market. Available this August.

Per 'Sharps Firearms: The Percussion Era', there were 4,488 Sharps Model 1852 military style carbines were manufactured of which only 50 were actually U.S. military contract guns. Robbins & Lawrence Co. also manufactured 209 Sharps Model 1852 sporting carbines, 606 sporting rifles, and just 73 shotguns before production quickly shifted to the very similar Sharps Model 1853.

A photograph from the Library of Congress of an unknown but well-armed Confederate cavalryman armed with a Sharps Model 1852 Slant Breech Carbine, two large knives, a shot pouch and powder flask, and what appears to be a Colt Model 1849 Pocket and a Colt Model 1851 Navy. This carbine can be identified by the spring at the rear of the forearm against which the lever pin rests.

The Model 1853 Slant Breech Sharps

Over 20,000 Model 1853 Sharps were manufactured from 1855 to 1857, first by Robbins & Lawrence Co. and towards the end by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. The 1853 Model Sharps can be quickly differentiated from the Model 1852 by the presence of the retaining button for the lever pin on the right side of the frame while the Sharps Model 1852 had the pin rest against a spring on the forearm. The Sharps Model 1853 was produced in several variations.

While the Sharps was a well-made and serviceable firearm, the small size of the U.S. Military in the antebellum era kept government orders of the “Slant Breech Sharps” fairly limited. This Sharps Model 1853 saddle ring carbine is a rare surviving example of one of the estimated 250 carbines purchased by the government. Available this August.

The U.S. Ordnance Department purchased around 250 Model 1853 Sharps and issued them to the U.S. Dragoons patrolling the American West in the 1850s. The total size of the military prior to the Civil War was only around 16,000 soldiers, so government purchases were limited for this model. Later models during the Civil War, however, were purchased in much greater numbers as volunteers swelled the size of the military to hundreds of thousands of men and up to 1 million by the end of the war.

This rifle is a classic Sharps Model 1853 sporting rifle that became popular in the 1859s and helped establish the Sharps rifle’s reputation as dependable for hunting and personal defense. Available this August.

Approximately 2,970 Model 1853 Sharps sporting rifles were manufactured between 1854-1859 in a variety of configurations, including the option for various grades of engraving. Engraved Sharps Model 1853 rifles are also discussed in Sharps Firearms: The Percussion Era on pages 235-251, including a reference to the below rifle.

Dr. Richard J. Labowskie's original Sharps factory records note that he had located 149 engraved octagon barrel sporting rifles with 26 part-engraved, 10 engraved, 58 fine engraved, and 55 extra fine engraved like the above rifle. Like the Colt revolvers of the period that were also manufactured in Hartford, the engraving is generally German-American style scrollwork.

This exceptional and rare Sharps Model 1853 Sporting Rifle is one of the finest examples of this variation you are ever going to find. It has factory “extra fine” grade engraving including a panel scene and shipped on June 30, 1855. Available this August.

Beecher’s Bibles: The Slant Breech Sharps and Bleeding Kansas

The Model 1853 carbine was very popular in the antebellum West and became particularly associated with the Free Soil movement. There were over 10,000 manufactured, and the Emigrant Aid Company purchased several hundred carbines for the Free State settlers in the Kansas Territory. Known as "Bleeding Kansas" this period was named for the sometimes violent struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in the lead-up to Kansas statehood following the passage of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Sharps offered a real advantage for the Free State citizens compared to their rivals who were mainly armed with muzzleloading rifles, muskets, and shotguns.

The “Slant Breech” Sharps Rifle models are nicknamed for the slanted angle of the breechblocks and breech end of their barrels. They were some of the earliest widely used breech-loading rifles and are historic firearms used in the conflicts of the antebellum era and by both Union and Confederate troops in the American Civil War. Available this August.

The above example is a rare documented Sharps Model 1853 Carbine purchased by the New England Emigrant Aid Company and is listed on a copy of the Sharps invoice as one of the carbines in an order of 100 carbines, ammunition, and accouterments totaling $2,773.12 sent to General Samuel C. Pomeroy (1816-1891) on March 19, 1856. The Sharps invoice lists this carbine by serial number in case 693. Pomeroy was the Emigrant Aid Company's most important agent in the Kansas Territory from the mid-1850s to 1860.

The Emigrant Aid Society raised funds, arms, and materiel for free-state voters who were moving to the state. The arms were often sent in crates marked "Bibles" to avoid confiscation as they traveled up the Missouri River. Available this August.

This was the fourth order of Sharps carbines by the New England Emigrant Aid Company to supply the free state settlers of Kansas with arms for defense against pro-slavery “border ruffians” mainly from Missouri. These arms along with additional Hall rifles and artillery were seized by the pro-slavery forces while being transported up the Missouri River on the famed steamboat 'Arabia'. After various legal maneuvers, the Sharps carbines were finally recovered. They arrived in Kansas in 1860 and were delivered to Colonel James Montgomery who led the 3rd Kansas Infantry during the Civil War in James H. Lane's brigade.

Hundreds of other Sharps carbines were successfully shipped to Kansas, generally disguised as less controversial cargo such as books. The Sharps carbines were nicknamed Beecher's Bibles both because some shipments were disguised as books and because Reverend Henry Ward Beecher said, "the Sharps rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas are concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. You might just as the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows...but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifles." Beecher also helped fund the purchase of some of the Free State Sharps carbines.

A look into the breech of this historic Sharps Model 1853 slant breech percussion carbine. Available this August.

Firearms were required by the Free State settlers due to very real threats against both the settlers and their communities. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery forces totaling around 300 men under the leadership of Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones faced off against Pomeroy and the Free Staters of Lawrence. Jones had been previously shot and wounded while trying to arrest some of the town's residents and demanded they turn over their arms. Samuel Pomeroy indicated he did not have the authority to compel Jones' request but he did turn over the town's cannon.

Sheriff Jones and his men then attacked the Free State Hotel and also destroyed the Kansas Free State and Herald of Freedom newspaper offices and looted the town. One of Jones' men was killed by debris during the attack. None of the Free State residents were killed in contrast to the August 21, 1863, Lawrence Massacre conducted by the Confederate Quantrill's Raiders that killed more than 150 unarmed men, boys, and civilians.

The fierce intrastate fighting between free-state, pro-slavery, and abolitionist forces drew hundreds to the state in an attempt to swing the popular vote that would legally settle the matter. Available this August.

While the first raid on Lawrence may have resulted in little bloodshed, it was part of an escalation that led to further raids by both the Free State and Pro-Slavery forces, including two attacks on Franklin's Fort where Sheriff Jones' men had taken the cannon and other loot secured during the Lawrence raid. The second attack was successful.

David S. Hoyt, who handled the Sharps carbine shipment, was murdered near Fort Saunders on August 12, 1856, after trying to negotiate an end to the fighting. After his mutilated body was discovered, Fort Saunders was destroyed by the Free State forces, and they also attacked Fort Titus and compelled its surrender. Violence on both sides continued, including famously bloody attacks by John Brown and his men.

As the Civil War loomed, Kansas was finally admitted to the Union as a Free State in January 1861 thanks to the senators of the seceding states leaving the Senate.

The John Brown Sharps: The Model 1853 “Slant Breech” Sharps and the Harper’s Ferry Raid

The Model 1853 “Slant Breech” carbines are also known as the John Brown Sharps because the famed militant abolitionist John Brown used the model during his ill-fated attempt to instigate a slave rebellion in October 1859.

Abolitionist John Brown was the most famous user of the Slant Breech Sharps. He and his “army” used Sharps rifles in their famous raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia as part of Brown’s attempt to overthrow the system of slavery in the southern states via armed insurrection.

At least 900 Sharps carbines had been funded for the anti-slavery forces by the Secret Six: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns. Some of the John Brown Sharps serial numbers are recorded in Frank Sellers’ book ‘Sharps Firearms’.

This is classic Sharps Model 1853 “Slant Breech” Saddle Ring carbine like the Sharps carbines used by Brown and his men. Available this August.

Brown’s men assembled at the Kennedy Farm he rented in Maryland 4 miles from Harpers Ferry where Brown had a cache of around 200 Sharps carbines and other weapons including hundreds of pikes. The latter would be easier for runaway slaves to wield with little to no training compared to firearms. Of the 200 Sharps carbines belonging to Brown, the U.S. government only retrieved 102 of the Sharps carbines after Brown was captured. U.S. Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee surrounded Brown and his men at the engine house at Harpers Ferry and launched their assault after Brown refused to surrender.

An extremely rare and documented Sharps Model 1853 captured from John Brown during his ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry Arsenal sold in December of 2015 at Rock Island Auction Company.

Ten of the raiders were killed. Brown and seven of the captured raiders were hung for their crimes, and just five escaped. Before he was hung, Brown passed a note to the jailer which read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” Soon Brown was proven right with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Corporal Elias Warner or Warnear of Company K, 3rd New York Cavalry Regiment armed with a cavalry saber, Colt revolver, and a Sharps Model 1853.

The Last of the “Slant Breech Sharps”: The Maynard Primed Model 1855

The Sharps Model 1855 varied from the prior models mainly by the use of the Maynard tape primer system and was manufactured by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. 263 of these rifles were manufactured for the U.S. Navy in 1856 and issued to the USS Wabash, USS Merrimack, USS Mississippi, and the USS Minnesota. 50 Model 1855 Sharps were fitted with a self-cocking mechanism designed by Rollin White, but the mechanism proved too fragile in U.S. Navy trials.

The Sharps Model 1855 featured the Maynard priming system like the other U.S. Model 1855 series firearms, and a small number of examples also featured a self-cocking mechanism designed by Rollin White like the very rare example shown in the video above which sold at Rock Island Auction Company’s December 2021 Premier Auction for $46,000.

The larger purchaser of this model was actually the British government which purchased 3,000 Maynard Primed Model 1855 Sharps carbines. Surviving examples of the British carbines are rare since they were spread out across the British Empire, but they do occasionally pop up at Rock Island Auction Company.

The “Straight Breech Sharps,” the Civil War, and Beyond

The Sharps Model 1859 introduced a more vertical angle on the breechblock and ended the era of the “Slant Breech Sharps,” but the older models continued to be used by both sides during the Civil War. While Rock Island Auction Company's August 25-27 Premier Auction includes a nice selection of the early model Sharps, they are far harder to come by than the approximately 115,000 “Straight Breech Sharps” manufactured in 1859-1866.

This historic rifle is a New Model 1859 Military Rifle with double set triggers manufactured for the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, aka the Berdan Sharpshooters. It is among the most desirable of the “straight breech” percussion Models and sold for an impressive $28,750 with RIAC in December of 2021.

After the Civil War, the Sharps design was readily modified for metallic cartridges, and the government had thousands of the percussion Sharps from the Civil War modified for centerfire cartridges. New models were also introduced. The Model 1874, released in 1871, was the most popular. The Sharps remained a popular rifle in the post-war West, but demand was not enough to keep the company going as repeating rifles began to increase in power. Sharps would close up shop in 1881.

A documented Civil War U.S. martially inspected Berdan Sharpshooter double set trigger Sharps New Model 1859 percussion military rifle with sling. Available this August.

Sharps Carbine for Sale

The Sharps carbine has remained popular with collectors and shooters for generations. Shooters still regularly hunt and compete with both original Sharps carbines and rifles and reproductions by companies like Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company and C. Sharps Arms Co. in Montana as well as foreign-made copies.

August's Premier Auction offers some of the finest 19th century firearms for sale.

It’s little wonder that gun collectors and history enthusiasts are drawn to rare firearms from the 19th century. Rock Island Auction Company's August 25-27 Premier Auction features a wide selection of guns and militaria from the period, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that dive deeper into innovative carbine designs of the era, including the Spencer, the Burnside, the Maynard carbine, the Starr carbine, and more.

Select Sources and Suggested Reading

● Boyer, Richard O. The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.

● Isely, W. H. “The Sharps Rifle Episode in Kansas History.” The American Historical Review 12, no. 3 (1907): 546–66.

● Marcot, Roy Jr., Ron Paxton, and Edward W. Marron. Sharps Firearms: The Percussion Era 1848-1865. Northwood Heritage Press, 2019.

Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society for the Years 1921, 1922, and 1923. Montpelier: Capital City Press, 1924.

● Sellers, Frank. Sharps Firearms. Beinfield Publishing Inc., 1988.

● Sutton, Robert K. Stark Mad Abolitionists: Lawrence, Kansas, and the Battle over Slavery in the Civil War Era. New York: Skyhorse, 2017.

[1] See Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society for the Years 1921, 1922, and 1923, (Montpelier: Capital City Press, 1924), p. 170-176.

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