The rifle that shooters today most recognize as the “Sharps” thanks to recent movies like Quigley Down Under, is the Model 1874, which actually saw its earliest production in 1871. The feature that probably best helps identify an early Model 1874 from the New Model 1869 is the thickness of the lockplate.
The plates of earlier percussion models, built with the pellet priming system, were 3/8-inch thick, as was the plate of the New Model 1869. The thickness of the lockplate found on the newest cartridge model had been thinned to half that thickness. The “Model 1874” markings were not used on the rifle until after several years production. Sharps’ famous “Old Reliable” trademark began to show up on the barrels in 1876, after the company, then known as just Sharps Rifle Company, had moved to Bridgeport, Conn.
The Model 1874 was chambered for a variety of cartridges during the ten years that it was in production, from “small-bore” 40-caliber centerfires to “big-bore” 50-caliber centerfires. Two favorites of the buffalo hunter were the 50-90 Sharps and 45-100 Sharps. The special order 45-120 Sharps and 50-140 Sharps cartridges were basically introduced too late to have been used extensively during the decimation of the American bison, which by 1880 were so scarce that it was no longer feasible to market-hunt the big animals.
Most Sharps collectors and historians tend to recognize the Model 1877 as the most refined and graceful of the side-hammer single-shot rifles. Only about 100 of the rifles were produced, in 45 caliber, in 1877 and 1878. These were built to comply with the “Creedmoor” match competition rules that required a single trigger and a rifle weighing 10 pounds or less. To get the weight down, Sharps Rifle Company built the Model 1877 with a slim and trim back-action lock and much lighter receiver.
The rifle was built with a nicely checkered pistol grip buttstock and Schnable forend. (The company also produced a few Model 1874 Creedmoor rifles chambered for the 44-90 Sharps Bottleneck cartridge.)
The last model ever produced by the Sharps Rifle Company was the Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardt. This was a very modernistic “hammerless” rifle that has only been somewhat duplicated by more recent single-shot designs like the Ruger No. 1. Lighter than the Model 1874, which was still in production, the Borchardt model was most commonly chambered for the easily available 45-70 Government cartridge, as well as other smaller calibers like the 40-50 Sharps.
The vast majority of the different variations available weighed in at less than 10 pounds. Other than the hammerless drop-block action, the one other feature that set this model apart from other Sharps rifles was a sliding safety. The company produced about 8,700 of the rifles before ceasing the manufacture of all Sharps rifles.
Along with the demise of the great buffalo herds of the West also came the demise of Sharps rifle production. Shooters and hunters no longer had a need for a rifle that consumed powder and lead in such great quantities. And Sharps Rifle Company found it increasingly difficult to compete with the new repeating lever-action rifle models produced by Winchester. Thus, manufacturing at the Sharps plant in Bridgeport, Conn. ceased in 1880, with the last assembled rifles shipped in 1881. During the 32 years of Sharps rifle production, only about 160,000 rifles were ever built. However, those rifles solidly established a legacy that few other rifles have ever come close to matching.