Sangamon County Rifle Association
Right Reason on Second Amendment Rights
Springfield, Illinois




Phil Davis



Sharps Rifle

Phil Davis Technical Presentation
SCRA Meeting 12/6/10
January 2011 GunNews







The story of the Sharps goes back farther than the Civil War.  In the 1850's, Christian Sharps opened up a rifle company and he developed a sliding breech or a dropping breech mechanism for a percussion rifle.  The first ones worked  by dropping down at an angle, the model 1852 slant breech Sharps rifle. They were the fastest thing around at that time.  Ironically it was the same year that Mr. Smith & Mr. Wesson started their handgun business.

There was a problem with the slant breeches because if  it didn't seal tightly the escaping gases are going to come right back towards your face.  It had advantages though.  You could reload while lying down.  You could reload rapidly and you could load  rapidly, even while on horseback.

The claim to fame of the 1852 model Sharps rifle was it was used by a certain very famous abolitionist.  When Kansas was in the process of voting on whether it should be a free state or a slave state, an abolitionist named Lyman Beecher bought cases of these Sharps rifles, marked them as bibles and shipped to the free starters in Kansas.  They were known from that point on as Beecher's Bibles.  They preached the Gospel with those rifles.

Just before  the Civil War began, Sharps improved his breech mechanism.  He put a better gas seal on it and made it a vertical breech.  He also added a pellet priming system that worked better in theory than in practice.  It was supposed to obviate  messing with a percussion cap all the time.

Davis showed a Model 1859 with a patch box on the butt stock, a 22 inch barrel and the originals were .52 caliber.  They loaded from the breech, using a nitrated linen or nitrated paper cartridge.

The linen cartridges were a cylinder with a bullet in the end of it.  The powder was inside with a piece of nitrated flash paper across the back. To load, you half cocked, dropped your breech, inserted the cartridge and pushed it until the bullet went into the forcing cone and then you brought the lever up. If it was the nitrated linen cartridge you didn't have to cut the back off because it had flash paper on the back.

If it was the the far more commoner paper cartridge, there was a sharpened blade on the front of the breech block. It would come up and it would shear off the paper cartridge.  That's why this got it's nickname, the "paper cutter's Sharps".

If you're reloading and something bumps it, it will also trim your thumbnail really well.

Davis said he used one of these for several years for Civil War reenacting.  This was one of the most popular calvary carbines during the Civil War. Interesting  enough, they made a coffee mill into the butt of one "special" Sharps carbine for every squadron of calvary.  If you have an original "coffee mill Sharps", you're looking at twenty-five to fifty thousand dollars.  That is a high quality, pricey cup of coffee.

Sharps RifleNot only did they make the carbine length, they also made the rifle length that was the same length as standard rifle musket, complete with an angular bayonet  just like the muskets.

It was designed as an infantry rifle.  It was also incredibly accurate. Two regiments of sharpshooters during the Civil War were outfitted with these rifles.  They wore special green uniforms.  Their nicknames were the "Tree Frogs",  but they were better known as "Berdan's Sharpshooters". 

Their leader was Hiram Berdan, the man who invented the Berdan Priming System with the two flash holes in the cartridge brass that reloaders cuss with regularity.  It is a very efficient for a military cartridge, but one colossal pain in the ass when you're reloading.

Berdan raised two regiments of light infantry sharpshooters that were designated as skirmishers.  They would sneak up. They would sneak up and work as snipers and as skirmishers, using the breech loading mechanism to lie down and rain sustained, rapid-fire onto the enemy from concealment as opposed to the slow and laborious muzzle-loading drill.

You can shoot these fairly quickly.  A good infantryman, three shots a minute out of a regular musket.  Five and six shots out of a Sharps is not unreasonable.  You can shoots these things fast enough that it will burn your hands.

In 1863 they simplified these.  They removed the pellet primer and the patch box. The era of the cartridge firearm was dawning.  Along with all the other conversions that were out there, Springfield Armory converted several thousand of these to cartridge.  They removed the percussion breech block and made a curved firing pin. The the razor mechanism was also removed and they put a flat breech with an ejector and rechambered it for 50/70. They sleeved the barrel down to .50 caliber  from the original .52 caliber.

The Sharps rifle is credited with being the great exterminator of the buffalo herds but most of the buffalo were already mostly gone by the late 1880's anyway.  Davis said he would wager that many, if not most of the buffaloes were killed with surplus .58 caliber muskets, not Sharps rifles. There were .58's out there being sold dirt cheap and every settler had two or three of them in their wagon.

Actual Sharps rifles came in a host of barrel lengths, calibers and configuration.

For anybody who is not familiar with how the designation of how those old cartridges went, the first number is the bullet diameter.  50/140 for instance was a .50 caliber bullet weighing 570 grains.  The 140 was the weight  in grains of FF black powder inside the case.  That is a thumper!  It doesn't kick as much or kick as sharply as a 458 Wind Meg but you're still dealing with black powder and that's a good healthy shove.

The Sharps were noted for their accuracy, utility and durability.  For people who go out to hunt buffalo, or other big game nowadays, this is often the rifle in the picture that goes in the scrapbook afterwards.

Some of these buffalo hunters in the late 1880s fired five hundred rounds or more in a single day.  Davis recalled the great ivory train of Africa, there was a man named Michael Finaudi.   In the 1860's he used a four bore single shot rifle and he was noted for having killed 500 bull elephants in one day.  He had four gun bearers reloading for him.  After the age of 50 he could not raise his arm above his chest because of the amount of arthritis built up in his shoulder from recoil.

The Sharps rifle was known as "Old Reliable" and that remains the trademark of the Sharps Rifle Company today.

America was not the only country that used the Sharps in their military.  During the Austria-Prussian War thousands of American Sharps were sold as surplus to the Prussians.  The Germans used Spencer carbines and other Civil War carbines to kick the snot out of the French in 1867.   When the Sharps was demonstrated for Queen Victoria of England, she was so impressed with it that she ordered 1200 of them made but not in that puny American cartridge .52 caliber.  She had to have hers made in .577 caliber.  They were issued to the heavy dragoons in 1852 or 53.  It was rumored that some of those Sharps may have taken part in the immortal Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

Asked whether that was the rifle Abraham Lincoln used when he shot at that board thats down at the Illinois military museum, Davis said no that was the Spencer carbine.  Davis said Mr. Spencer could not get his new rifle past the ordnance boards.  They believed anything more modern than flintlock smooth-bore muskets would simply be a waste of ammunition.

How the Spencer rifle came to be adopted

Mr. Spencer rode his horse down Pennsylvania Avenue and walked right up to the White House with a Spencer carbine and a Blakesly cartridge box full of ammunition.  Lincoln answered the knock on the front door.

Spencer introduced himself and said, "Sir, I'd like to show you the rifle that could save the Union if you can spare ten minutes of your time."  So they went out onto the back lawn of the White House, plopped a board up against a tree and they backed off fifty yards.  Lincoln had one of his guards come over with the musket and said, "For one minute shoot that target."  The guard got three well aimed shots off in a minute.  That was fairly impressive for 1860.

Mr. Spencer said, "If you'll allow me please."  The Spencer is a lever action repeating that loads to the breech.  Spencer pulled his rifle out, loaded it out of his Blakesly cartridge box, slaps it closed and goes boom, boom, boom, etc., seven times, pops it open, slides another seven rounds in and does it again. 

Lincoln said, "Do you mind if I try that?" So they put a new board up there and good old Abe dumps seven rounds in and closes it up, boom, boom, boom, etc.  He fired seven rounds and all seven of them were decent hits.

At that point he sent a telegraph to his Secretary of War saying, "I like these, buy them."  And thats how the Spencer repeating weapon became officially the first cartridge breech loader in the Union army.


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