Sharps Model 1874: Part 2 - Shooting
Category: Black Powder Cartridge
Published: 09.04. 2008
Edited: Friday 14 Nov. 2008, at 19:55 (GMT +1)
The Sharps rifle was popular among big game hunters, the military and target shooters towards the end of the 1800s. It had a reputation for being reliable, simple, powerful, robust and accurate. There are numerous stories about the accuracy of the Sharps rifle. The best known individual shot is probably Billy Dixon's famous shot pointed against a group of Indians during the battle of Adobe Walls, Texas in 1874. The actual distance between Dixon and the Indian has been debated. The numbers vary from 1538 yards (1406 metres) to 1028 yards (940 metres). The shot was probably fired from a .50 calibre rifle, most likely a .50-90 'Big Fifty'. Dixon later claimed that it was a lucky shot. The Indian was shot from his horse, but wasn't killed. The combined force of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne Indians lifted the siege shortly after and retreated, but whether this was a direct consequence of Dixons shot is not known. However, it is known that the plains Indians had a deep respect for the buffalo hunters and their rifles.
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 brand new book From Musket to Metallic Cartridge: A Practical History of Black Powder Firearms.
Even though it was a lucky shot, the story about Billy Dixon indicates what a Sharps rifle was capable of in the hands of a skilled marksman.
My plan was to use the Sharps both for big game hunting and target shooting. .45-90 in my case falls between the cracks: It is not powerful enough to be loaded up to the Norwegian big game energy requirements and it is unnecessary powerful for the 100 metre (109 yards) competitions here in Norway, and I rarely shoot at ranges over 300 metres .45-110 had some of the same challenges: Too powerful for competitive shooting and it would be hard to make the big game energy requirements with black powder. Based on this I selected the .45-70 Gvt. This round is just fine for target shooting at moderate ranges and it meets the energy requirements for at least roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) with black powder. Another advantage is that is can be loaded with smokeless powder, which means that it will also meet the big game energy requirements, but unfortunately with the wrong type of powder.
The rifle from Shiloh arrived in the mail in the spring of 2008, and this article describes the first loads I tested. I'll begin with the components I used for loading the cartridges.
Another advantage with the .45-70 is that it is a popular calibre both among black powder and modern shooters. This means that the selection of available reloading components is good and the prices are low. Brass from Winchester, Remington and Starline are the most common brands here in Norway. The brass varies from brand to brand. The Remington brass has thickest case walls and has therefore less volume compared to the other two brands. Winchester brass is thinnest and has most powder capacity. The Remington cases may be more durable compared to the Winchester brass, but I prefer Winchester because I can get more powder into their cases.
Before loading the brass it was full length resized, trimmed to 2.1" length, the neck was deburred inside and out, the case neck was annealed and the mouth was flared to .457". Many .45-70 die sets have .454" expander plugs and these are meant for smokeless loadings where copper jacketed .457" bullets are used. The expander plug should be about .002" below the bullet diameter, and most .45-70 shooters use bullets with a diameter of .458" or .459".
Bullet and bullet mould
I have tested three different alloys (pure lead/tin): 30:1, 25:1 and 20:1. I have used bullets cast with the 30:1 alloy with success, but I have to experiment more to see what works best for me.
The bullets are sized and lubricated in a Lyman Lubrisizer. The sizing die is .459" and the bullets are lubricated with SPG bullet lube.
It should be mentioned that in the heyday of the Sharps rifles paper patched bullets were the most common projectile used. Paper patching is a science in itself that may prove very accurate, and it is in my opinion more challenging compared to using grease groove bullets. Paper patched bullets will be tried and tested when I get time and inspiration. In some of my other rifles paper patched bullets are superior to grease groove bullets.
We only have two available black powder brands in Norway: Wano and Swiss. Wano P, PP or PPP can all be used, and the same applies to Swiss #3, #4, and #5. Thus far I have only experimented with Swiss #4 (1.5 Fg). This is a powder which is developed for black powder cartridges, and I felt it was natural to start with this brand and granulation.
I measure the loads with a Lyman No. 55 powder measure designed for black powder, control weigh the charges on a scale, and compress the powder with the vibrations from an electric shaver .
Primers and wads
By experimenting with different primers you can actually improve your groups considerably. You can vary between magnum primers and regular primers or pistol primers and rifle primers, as well as different primer brands such as Federal, Winchester, Remington and CCI. In almost all my black powder cartridge rifles I use Federal #215 Large Rifle Magnum Primers, but Federal #155 Large Pistol Magnum Primers have also performed quite well. I always use a newspaper wad between the primer and the powder. A sheet of newspaper is placed between the primer and the base of the case when you prime the case. I don't know whether the newspaper wad improves accuracy, but it has become a habit to use it.
I also use wads between the powder and the bullet. I have used milk carton wads which are 0.5 mm (.019") thick, but I have also experimented with slightly thicker cardboard wads. Between the bullet and the last wad I always place a newspaper wad to prevent the other wads from sticking to the bullet in flight.
This section is written based on about 150 fired shots. The first test shots were fired at 120 metres (131 yards) against the regular 50 metre UIT pistol target which is used for 100 metre competitions in Norway. I set a baseline with 62 grains of Swiss #4, Winchester brass and the 540 grains Creedmoor bullet cast with a 30:1 alloy. The bullets are sized and lubricated as described above. I experimented with different primers (Federal #215 and #155), wads and varied the charges to +/- one grain.
I shot 10 shot groups from a rest. The accuracy was acceptable from the first load I tried. It seems like the Shiloh Sharps is fully capable of consistently putting 10 shots in less than 2" at 120 yards quite easily. I used a blow tube between each shot; three long breaths before chambering a new cartridge. The picture to the right shows the best group.
I also tried a batch of cartridges that was loaded without any wad between the powder and the bullet. This has worked well for me in the 12 mm Remington rolling block ,but in my Sharps rifle these rounds had the poorest accuracy. The reason may be that I wipe between each shot in the Remington, while in the Sharps I use a blow tube.
So far I have used the Sharps in one competition arranged by my local black powder club. Here we used the rather large 200 metre French military target and the distance was short: about 80 metres (87 yards). I was lucky enough to score 100 points out of 100 possible. The black was large, so I decided to use the crosshair insert in the front globe, which obviously worked well. Below you can see a movie clip from the competition. As you can see we shoot from the prone position without cross-sticks.
The movie clips shows the seventh shot. The Norwegian dialogue is as follows (I hope you like movies with action, not dialogue!):
Me: 'You don't have to hold it in. Is it running?'
Camera man: 'Yes, I think so'.
The Shiloh Model 1874 No. 3 Sporter with MVA sights is an excellent rifle, both when it comes to quality and accuracy. In time, the accuracy will improve as I get to experiment more with loads and get used to the rifle. It is costly because of the import and export costs and time-consuming because of the paperwork to import a Shiloh to Norway, but I have not once regretted doing it. Some day I may even get to hunt buffalo with it. Time will show.
Sources and literature
Sellers, Frank M.: Sharps Firearms, ISBN: 0960812202
Venturino, Mike: Shooting Buffalo Rifles of the Old West, MLV Enterprises (2002), ISBN: B000H7NBAM