Of the half-million or so “breech-loading” rifles and carbines purchased from twenty different arms makers by the U.S. Ordnance Board during the Civil War, nearly 20 percent were produced by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, of Hartford, Conn. The only other breech-loaded firearms to see greater use were produced by the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, of Boston, Mass.
Official records of ordnance purchased by the United States government from January 1, 1861 to June 30, 1866 show that a total of 80,512 carbines and 9,141 rifles of Sharps manufacture were delivered. During that same period, Spencer produced a total of 94,196 carbines and 12,471 rifles for the war.
Mounted cavalry troops tended to prefer the 7-shot repeating Spencer lever-action carbines and easier loading self-contained cartridges over the slower loading single-shot percussion breech-loaded Sharps with combustible paper or linen cartridges. On the other hand, the rugged construction and longer-range accuracy of the Sharps made it revered among foot soldiers. And it was the outstanding reliability of Sharps-built rifles or carbines during this period that earned them their well-deserved “Old Reliable” reputation.
Oddly enough, the man whose name became known around the world, thanks to the quality and accuracy associated with Sharps rifles, had very little to do with the company during this period. And he had no involvement with the production of the later big-bore cartridge rifles that were even better known for their long-range large game taking performance.
Christian Sharps learned the gun-making trade during the 1830s while working with the production of the Hall breech-loading Model 1819 flintlock rifle produced at Harpers Ferry Arsenal.
While Hall later developed a percussion version, Sharps had conceived a still better “drop block” design and received his first patent in September of 1848. Only about 200 each of his percussion Model 1849 and Model 1850 drop-block action rifles were produced by Pennsylvania based manufacturer A.S. Nippes. Both were 44-caliber rifles, built with automatic priming systems.
Production of the 52-caliber Model 1851 and Model 1852 rifles was moved to the Robbins & Lawrence plant in Windsor, Vt. The rifles were built for the newly formed Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, headquartered in Hartford, Conn. During the production of the Model 1853 and Model 1855 rifles, both the Robbins & Lawrence and Sharps firms suffered significant losses. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company then moved all manufacturing to Hartford.
The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company had been established in 1851 by a group of investors. And Christian Sharps’ role in the operation had been relegated to “Technical Advisor.” His only real tie to the company was that the rifles were being produced under his patents, and Sharps received a $1 royalty for every rifle built. In 1853, Sharps left the company that bore his name, moved to Philadelphia, and opened a new arms-making firm known as C. Sharps & Company, specializing in small pocket pistols and derringers.
Other than a small-bore 31- and 38-caliber percussion drop-block rifle built in the late 1850s, the only other “long guns” actually produced by Christian Sharps were the Sharps & Hankins 52 rimfire single-shot carbines and rifles produced from 1861 to 1867. Sharps died March 12, 1874 at age 64.
All of the Sharps rifles produced up through the Model 1855 were of the original “slant breech” design. Shooters of the time who had the opportunity to use the Sharps breechloaders acknowledged that they were the best firearms available. Christian Sharps’ original design was a definite improvement over other early breech-loading single-shot rifle designs, but did experience considerable gas leakage between the rear of the barrel and face of the breechblock.
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