Sharps Model 1874: Part 1 - Background History
Category: Black Powder Cartridge
Published: 09.04. 2008
Edited: Thursday 11 september. 2008, at 20:00 (GMT +1)
During the 1870s and 80s a widespread slaughter of the American bison decimated the herds to near extinction. The professional hunters used powerful single shot breech-loading rifles, most often in calibre .50, .45 or .44. The most legendary rifle used on the buffalo ranges was, perhaps next to the Springfield Model 1873 'Trapdoor' and the Remington rolling block, the legendary Sharps Model 1874.
Find out more!
You can read more about the Sharps percussion and cartridge rifles, as well as other early breech-loading single-shot rifles in the upcoming book From Musket to Metallic Cartridge: A Practical History of Black Powder Firearms.
The man behind the Sharps action was Christian Sharps (1810-1874). Sharps started his career as a filer in the National Armoury at Harpers Ferry, but he soon started to experiment with his own weapons. The original Sharps patent was granted to Sharps in 1848. Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was established in 1851 and the factory was located in Hartford, Connecticut. Christian Sharps however, withdrew from the company as early as 1853, and nothing indicates that he had anything further to do with the development of the Sharps rifle. He continued his business under the name C. Sharps & Company, until he entered into a partnership with William Hankins in 1862 under the name Sharps and Hankins.
The Sharps Model 1874
The Model 1874 Sporting Rifle was made in greatest numbers, even though the number of rifles made probably doesn't exceed 6500. The amount tells something about the decline in the number of Sharps rifles made after the war. As a comparison, over 100 000 percussion Sharps were made, many of which were converted to metallic cartridge after the war.
The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company can almost be called a custom shop, because the customers could to a large extent customise their own weapons. The customer could select from the following options:Barrel length: from 21.5 to 36"
Barrel weight: from 7 to 25 lbs.
Barrel shape: octagonal, round or half octagonal/half round
Stock: from plain to fancy
Butt stock: military style or shotgun style
Calibres: a wide variety of .40, 44, 45 or 50 calibres
Triggers: a wide variety of options from a single trigger to double set triggers
Sights: a wide variety of open, tang or telescopic sights
Economically, the Sharps factory did not do well after the war. It wasn't until the bison hunts started in the 1870s and 1880s that the company experienced a recovery of sales. However, with the decline of the buffalo followed a decline in the demand of buffalo rifles. In 1881 the gates at the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Factory was closed for the last time, and the production of Sharps rifles ceased.
- .40-50 Bottleneck
- .40-50 Straight
- .40-70 Bottleneck
- .40-70 Straight
- .40-90 Bottleneck
Note that the .45-120, .50-140 and .40-65 is missing from the list. .45-120 was never chambered in an original Sharps rifle, despite that several replicas are chambered for this cartridge. .50-140 wasn't introduced until three years after the last Sharps rifle was made, and .40-65 is originally a Winchester cartridge and was never used in a Sharps rifle.
Competition from Remington Rolling block
The main competitor for the Sharps rifle in the heyday of the buffalo hunt and in the long and mid-range target shooting was the Remington rolling block. It is hard to tell which of the rifles that was the best. In competitions they performed equally well. The marketing from both Sharps and Remington claimed that their rifles were superior, often with results from competitions that backed their arguments. One example is an ad Sharps had in the Army & Navy Journal in 1875: 'The Superiority of the Sharps Established. Sharps versus Remingtons.' One argument that is used to back up the statement is the results from an international competition in Dollymount, Ireland. In this competition the average score of the Sharps rifle was 162, while that of a Remington rifle was 160. This is hardly superior if you ask me.
Manufacturers of Replica Sharps Rifles
There are several manufacturers of Sharps replicas today, both the percussion models and the metallic cartridge models. The best replicas are made in the USA by Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company, which is located in Big Timber, Montana. Shiloh work in the style of the original Sharps factory and the customers are allowed to customise their own rifles. The Sharps Model 1874 that is pictured in this article is a Model 1874 No. 3 Sporter from Shiloh. The quality of the workmanship and finish of the rifle is great, and the wood to metal finish is absolutely superb.
In 1990 Shiloh made the Sharps rifle Tom Selleck carried in the movie Quigley Down Under. This movie greatly contributed to the popularity of the Sharps rifle among modern shooters. My experience is that the people of Shiloh are very friendly and kind, and answers even the strangest question politely. (Yes, I had a lot of strange questions!) The only disadvantage with Shiloh is their huge order backlog. The waiting time may be a couple of years from when you order a rifle and to you receive it. However, it is well worth the wait! Shiloh makes both Model 1863 percussions Sharps and Model 1874 Sharps rifles in military and civilian versions.
Below you can see a movie clip from Quigley Down Under:
C. Sharps Arms, Inc. is also located in Big Timber and also produces quality Sharps replicas. While Shiloh uses their own barrels C. Sharps use Badger barrels. I have never handled a C. Sharps Arms Inc. rifle, but rumour says that their rifles that can be compared to Shiloh's when it comes to quality. Their wait is not as long as that of Shiloh's.
There are several Italian manufacturers of replica Sharps rifles. The best are made by Pedersoli. Other companies that make Sharps replicas are Armi Sport, IAB and Pedretti. A Pedersoli Sharps may be just as accurate when competing against a Shiloh on the target range, but the finish and quality of workmanship is better on the Shiloh. Armi Sport rifles are inferior to Pedersoli when it comes to quality.
If you want to know more about the Sharps history I will recommend Sharps Firearms by Frank Sellers. This is the most complete book on the subject.