Antique Sharps rifles
Antique Sharps rifles are large bore, single shot rifles designed by American Christian Sharps in 1848. By 1874 the rifles were available in several calibers, and had been adopted by the armies of several nations. They were one of the few designs successful in the transition to metallic cartridge use. Sharps rifles have become an iconic image of the Old American West.
Background & history of production
Sharps’ design was patented in 1848 and manufactured by A. S. Nippes at Mill Creek, Pennsylvania.
The second model of 1850 moved to the Robbins & Lawrence company of Windsor Vermont, and the Model 1851 was developed here for mass production.
This sparked an empire, a First Contract of 5,000 model 1851s, and a Second Contract for 15,000. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was established to deal with this influx of popularity.
The Model 1853 saw Christian Sharps leave the company. The continuation of the chief armourer Richard S. Lawrence’s development of the Sharp models made them famous after this point, though Lawrence also left the company in 1872.
The military Sharps falling block rifle was used during and following the American Civil War, popularly by the U.S. Army sharpshooters, known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters in honour of leader Hiram Berdan. The breech loading Sharps rifles made an uncommonly accurate sniper weapon, better than muzzle-loading rifled muskets such as the Springfield musket. They were, however, more expensive to manufacture. Only 11,000 of the Model 1859s were produced.
The Sharps military carbine was popular during the Civil War with both sides, and many more of these were produced than the full length rifles – almost 90,000. By 1863, it was the most common Union cavalry weapon. It lent itself to the conversion to metallic cartridges, developed in the 1860s. Many of these converted models were used during the Indian Wars in the following decades. The confederates produced poor imitations, usually brass rather than iron.
Sharps also manufactured sporting rifles between the late 1840s and late 1880s. Models 1869 and 1874 were produced for buffalo hunters and frontiersmen. These used some of the most powerful black powder cartridges ever made. These models are more rare than others, for example only around 1,000 of the 1869 models were produced.
The 1874 pattern was immensely popular, and instigated the development of several derivatives in terms of caliber, loadings, and barrel lengths.
The last rifle made by the Sharps Rifle Company was the Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878, designed by Hugo Borchardt. The company closed in 1881.
Did you know?
The term ‘sharpshooter’ does not originate from the affinity with Sharps rifles, as in, ‘sharps shooter’. In fact it stems back to the early 18th century, from the German word ‘scharfshutzen’.
Being a mass produced rifle, Sharps firearms in general are not as rare as some makes from this era. However, some models are more rare than others, such as the model 1877, of which only 98 were built. Sharps rifles can vary in price dependent on the model, i.e. how many were produced in that particular year of manufacture, and historical significance, for instance if they were owned by a particular figure in history. Their use during the Civil War also makes them eminently collectible by people interested in this era of history.
Several companies have dedicated themselves to creating faithful reproductions of Sharps rifles. Hundreds of thousands of these have been created, and are still being produced. As these work hard to be authentic copies, it must be carefully checked whether a rifle is a true original.
Price guide and notable auction sales
Sharps rifles can sell for between several hundred to tens of thousands, depending on the scarcity of the model and its history or provenance.
- Model 1863 .54 Caliber Sharps rifle, sold for $7,887 by Heritage Auctions in June 2007.
- Model 1874 Sharps Buffalo rifle, sold for $11,000 by Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction in June 2012.
- Model 1877 Sharps rifle, sold for $19,000 by Rock Island Auction Company in April 2012.
- Model 1859 Sharps rifle, used by Sharpshooter regiments in the Civil War, sold for $19,000 by Rock Island Auction Company in April 2012.
- Model 1874 Sharps rifle, sent to Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, for use against the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, sold for $22,000 at Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction, June 2009.