Collecting the Old Reliable Sharps Rifle

The Modern Sharps Reproduction

It may or may not be entirely correct to claim that more rifles of Sharps’ design have been built in the past 32 years than during the entire 32-year run of original Sharps rifle production – but the modern total wouldn’t miss it by much!

In the summer of 1974, two entirely different companies, separated by an ocean, independently set out to make a somewhat faithful modern-manufactured copy of the original Civil War-era percussion Sharps breechloaders. One was a relatively new U.S. firm known as Shiloh Products, Inc., the other a well-established Italian manufacturer of high quality double shotguns known as IAB Arms. And both were successful.

A draftsman and technical illustrator by trade and blackpowder shooter by heart, Len Mule’ was the real mastermind behind what would become known as the Shiloh Sharps. Before making the decision to completely manufacture a “reproduction” of the famous breech-loaded rifles and carbines, he was manufacturing extremely high quality bullet moulds for blackpowder shooters. The four-cavity design of Mule’s moulds earned them a solid reputation for producing a lot of round balls or Minie’ bullets quickly – up to 400 per hour. They were sold as the “Shiloh IV” moulds. The company also offered quality lead furnaces as well, along with a few other bullet casting products.

Through 1973 the 1974, Len Mule’ devoted much of his life to researching Sharps breech-loading rifles and carbines. Not only did he read everything he could find in print, he also visited major museums, including the West Point Museum and the Smithsonian, consulted with leading Sharps experts and collectors in this country, and spent hundreds of hours looking over hundreds of original rifles. One of those experts was Frank M. Sellers, the author of the acclaimed book, Sharps Firearms.

In late summer 1974, Mule’ and his partner, Wolfgang Droege, visited Dixie Gun Works, in Union City, Tennessee. (At that time, the author was working there as an antique arms buyer and Dixie’s catalog editor.) When they left, with them they took a huge selection of original Sharps parts to use for making new tooling. And when these two entrepreneurs showed up at the National Sporting Goods Association Show (predecessor to the SHOT Show) in January 1975, they displayed for the very first time a pair of newly assembled percussion ignition Sharps breechloaders – a “New Model 1863 Rifle” and a “New Model 1863 Carbine.” In that short period of time, this pair had worked with Pinetree Casting (a division of Ruger) to develop the tooling needed to turn out completely modern manufactured duplicates of the original percussion Sharps breechloaders.

The availability of original parts from Dixie Gun Works’ stockpile of Civil War salvage contributed greatly to the authenticity of the early Shiloh reproductions, allowing Shiloh Products Inc. to actually develop tooling based on the dimensions of original parts. Arms authorities immediately praised the percussion rifles and carbines that, at first, slowly trickled out of the Farmingdale, New York plant in early 1976, for their true to the original detail and quality. The only real variation from the originals they copied was that Shiloh elected to make the Lawrence priming system non-functional.

Len Mule’ realized that while the percussion models were being well-received by Civil War re-enactors and Sharps buffs in general, it would be the later cartridge models that would be most appealing to shooters in general. And in mid-1976, he purchased an original Model 1874 Hartford-made Sharps sporting rifle, then began researching and working on the blueprints of the cartridge models Shiloh would put into production. Again, he called upon the expertise of author Frank Sellers, plus turned to well-known gun writer Elmer Keith for input on the Model 1874 metallic cartridge rifle models that went into production in late 1977. The company, then widely known as “The Shiloh Rifle Co.”, became fully engaged in making both the most widely-used and the best known of the original Sharps rifles, and manufactured the early C. Sharps Arms rifles as well.

Ironically, the start of Sharps reproduction manufacturing in Italy actually began with the destruction of two fine original Model 1874 Sharps rifles. In the spring of 1974, SILE Industries had shipped a variety of original sample rifles to IAB Arms, located in Brescia. These were being sent to the respected manufacturer of high-quality double shotguns for the purpose of making the tooling to build both percussion and cartridge model Sharps breechloaders. Two of the rifles happened to be chambered for the 45-70 Government, and at that time Italy imposed a ban on the importation of any arms chambered for military cartridges. Before those two rifles could be delivered to IAB Arms, custom officials had cut the barrels – right through the chambers!

IAB’s first reproduction Sharps rifles and carbines arrived in the U.S. in late 1975, sold by SILE Distributors. Since then, the company has produced nearly 80,000 Sharps reproductions, which have been sold under a variety of “brand” names, including Dixie Gun Works, Taylor’s & Company, Tristar Sporting Arms, Armisport, and E.M.F. & Co. Easily the most authentic copy of the “New Model 1863” percussion Sharps carbine ever shot by the author was imported by a company known as Garrett Arms during the mid-1980s. Built in Italy by IAB Arms, even the Lawrence pellet priming system was functional on this Sharps copy.

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