The first of a breed; Christian Sharp's rifles helped tame America's wild frontier and put the breechloader in business for keeps.
During the Civil War, it was one of the most widely used shoulder arms, with an estimated 100,000-plus Sharps in service between 1861 and 1865. Sharps rifles and carbines were highly prized by both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the North, nearly 300 companies of 80 volunteer and regular cavalry regiments were armed with Sharps carbines. On the Southern side, demand for the Sharps was such that the Confederates set up a factory where they manufactured crude copies with which to arm their own cavalry!
This arm's reliability and effectiveness in battle quickly earned it the nickname of "Old Reliable," a sobriquet that would later be stamped into the barrels of Sharps rifles. It had the distinction of being the first-choice rifle of the famed United States Sharp Shooters. Although other weapons were also used by Col. Hiram Berdan's sharp-shooters, to this day, it is the Sharps that is most equated with this famous "sniper" unit of the Civil War.
After the war, the Sharps moved west with those first hardy adventures who began the settlement of our western territories and helped America fulfill her "Manifest Destiny." Sharps carbines were standard issue with many a frontier cavalryman all over the west, while in Arizona, the army offered them, along with a healthy supply of ammunition, to those settlers in the remote areas of that untamed region under the military's jurisdiction. During the years of the great buffalo hunts where, sadly, the American bison was all but exterminated, it was the powerful Sharps sporting rifles that became known as the first choice among knowledgeable hide hunters, earning it the title of "The Buffalo Gun." In the east, and in England, the world's top target shooters sand the praises of the Sharps rifle's long-range capabilities on such famous ranges as Creedmoor and Wimbledon.
With the coming of the repeating rifle in powerful, big-game stopping chamberings, the single-shot Sharps rifles faded from the scene, although they remained popular with some hunters into the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt reportedly used a long-range Sharps rifle during his African safaris, and Guns & Ammo's own Elmer Keith, in his early years, took many trophies with the Sharps--while shooting against the then-modern smokeless powder .30-06 Springfield rifles!
Ironically, despite its great popularity throughout the decades of the mid to late 19th century, a time which encompassed the heyday of the percussion ignition system and the birth and acceptance of the self-contained metallic cartridge, the basic Sharps design was little changed from its first model.
This legendary rifle was the product of the inventive genius of Christian Sharps, a firearms designer who learned the firearms field from the ground up, having started as a lowly filer in the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Interestingly, John H. Hall, inventor of the Hall rifle, the U.S. military's first official breechloading issue arm, was then the superintendent at Harpers Ferry. Young Christian Sharps undoubtedly learned much during this period and quite probably observed much of the experimentation then being conducted with improvements in breechloaders. Finally, on September 12, 1848, the U.S. Patent Office granted Sharps Patent Number 5,763 for this falling-block action breechloading rifle. It is of interest to recall that Sharp's patent model was made from a Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifle--a muzzle-loader-which had its breech section cut out and the Sharps patented action inserted into it.
Sharps immediately tried to interest the government in his new rifle, but had no luck. On March 14, 1849, after months of unsuccessfully trying to raise enough capital to manufacture the rifles himself, he entered into an agreement and partnership with albert S. Nippes, a Philadelphia man who managed a small gun manufacturing shop of his father's at nearby Mill Creek, Pennsylvania. This contract called for the manufacture of 100 to 200 of Sharps' newly patented breechloaders. Work was begun immediately on the new machinery and tools that were required to produce these arms. According to the contract between Nippes and Sharps, Nippes would supply these as well as manufacture the rifles; Sharps was to sell them. The profits would be divided equally between the two partners. As early as April 20, 1849, the first production Sharps rifle was finished. However, production of these Model 1849 rifles was halted around mid-November of that year with, it is believed, only about two or three dozen rifles being completed. On the 24th of November, 1849, a second contract between Nippes and Sharps was entered into, which called for 500 rifles to be built with the new Maynard priming device incorporated into the actions (this would become known as the Model 1850 Sharps.)
On December 29, 1849, a supplement to this contract, which laid the groundwork for forming a new company along with producing pistols, was added. The unused parts of 1849 model Sharps were eventually sold to the newly formed Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in 1851, who, a year later, sold them to a Hartford gunmaker, William H. Robertson, who eventually assembled and sold around a dozen of them. In total, it is believed that only about 50 to 75 Model 1849 rifles were ever made. Of this number, only 35 to 60 were known to have been produced by the firm of A.S. Nippes & Co.
The rifle featured on our color pages in perhaps the earliest known production Sharps rifle to exist. It is serial number 2! This uniqe gun, now in the collection of long-time antique arms enthusiast Richard C. Ware, possesses the features of other known A.S. Nippes-produced guns. Its octagonal barrel measures 30 inches long. Underneath it is a wood wiping rod, held in place by iron thimbles. As can be seen, the rifle is of the half-stock configuration with a walnut stock and forearm. The furniture of this particular specimen is brass. There is a "blind" screw located at the base of the forearm which was originally intended to keep the forearm from being damaged by the forward swing of the Sharps' lever; however, this reportedly did not prevent damage; rather, it caused the forearm to chip! Mr. Ware's rifle shows no damage in this area evidencing light usage as does the rest of his Model 1849. Sharps number 2's bore mikes out to about a .50 caliber, yet the original arms left the factory in approximately .36 and .44 caliber bore sizes. Some Model 1849s were believed to have been freshed out in later years, and possibly this is the case with this arm.
One of the most interesting features found on the Model 1849 Sharps is its "wheel primer." Located on the right sight of the rifle's lock, this circular device held 18 No. 10-sized percussion caps, which were manually placed over spring fingers on the wheel. To prime this wheel it must be removed from the lock. To remove it from the lock, the wheel is wound clockwise against its spring until it catches in a notch cut in the wheel housing of the stock. Once loaded, the wheel may then be replaced into position in the lock area where spring pressure causes the wheel to revolve counterclockwise when the rifle is cocked. As the wheel travels through the priming box, a cap is pulled off of the fingers by the priming box lip. The removed cap then falls downward, in an upright position, to the end of the cap channel where it is held in proper position by a small spring. When the breechblock is raised after a cartridge (these early Sharps' used paper cartridges, unlike the later percussion model's linen-wrapped cartridges) is inserted, the nipple was elevated under the cap and pushed into firing position with the closing of the block. This system was not used for long, however, as the size of the caps used was of vital importance of flawless operation.
Another interesting characteristic of the Model 1849 Nippes-Sharps, as this rifle is often called, is the patchbox, which is not really a patchbox at all, but a housing for an extra priming wheel.
Our serial number 2 Sharps conforms generally to the lines of the other knwon 1849 models. However, like so many low-numbered production arms of any make, it does show minor variations in manufacturing details--after all, it must be remembered that this rifle is only two guns away from the prototype!
This Sharps was found in what appears to be the original pine compartmented shipping box, complete with its extra priming wheel in the rifle's "patchbox." The wooden box contained two bullet molds--one for round ball and the other for casting pointed projectiles with a rimmed base (these are designed for tying string around the base when attaching the bullet to the paper-wrapped powder charge, thus forming a paper cartridge). A half dozen of these pointed bullets were found as well. Also included with the rifle was a lacquered tin of unfamiliar-sized percussion caps and a leather packet containing a spare hammer, a screwdriver, a rear sight, an extra nipple and a broken lock spring. This, quite possibly except for the broken spring, is the way the gun may have been sold way back in 1849!
As mentioned earlier, this rifle is the earliest known production Sharps known, and as such, with its shipping case and accessories, gives the modern collector a better understanding of how such early Sharps' were made and shipped in their first years during the last days of the age of innocence in America. 1849 was the year of the California Gold Rush were thousands of eager fortune seekers from all over the globe flocked to the American West for riches. A scant dozen years later, the Civil War would divide our nation and bring us into a new era.
The Sharps rifle was instrumental in this war which decided our nation's fate and was the gun that later paved the way for future breechloading rifles. It is indeed a rare opportunity to look at the first of its breed and G&A is proud to share this rare firearm with you.
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|Publication:||Guns & Ammo|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1985|
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|Firearms of the American West, 1803-1865.|
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