Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Sharps Model of 1874

 The Sharps is probably the most famous of the old west rifles that was the least made. It's roots were in a percussion breechloading rifle used in the War of Northern Aggression by the Blue, before the development of the brass reloadable cartridge. The Sharps model of 1848 was not liked by the big brass of the Army, it was too easy to fire quickly and the high brass feared that the troops would waste ammunition. It was also much more costly to make that the muzzle loaders of the day. Only the Berdan Sharpshooter 1st and 2nd Regiments were issued these rifles although a few other volunteer outfits bought them. I sometime wonder how much the war would have been shortened had the government gone ahead and spent the money for the more expensive rifles for all the troops.

 Oh, the word Sharpshooter had nothing to do with the fact that they shot the Sharps, it's derived from the German, "scharfschutze" long before Christian Sharps was ever born.

 Post Civil War and the Great Westward Expansion there were two major stumbling blocks in  the way, the American Bison and the "Indian" tribes. There were simply no fences that could stop a buffalo herd from going where it wished, eating and trampling crops and causing domestic cows to join the herds. not to mention the odd notions of the tribes thinking they had the rights to the land.

 The Army having pee-poor luck at corralling the tribes the idea came along to exterminate the buffalo and the Great Slaughter began. It started slow with just a few hunters supplying meat for the railroad crews building the rails 'cross the plains,  then someone figured out how to tan the hides of the great shaggy beasts and make the leather for the drive belts of the great factories of America.

The Sharps factory started converting it's percussion rifles to cartridge soon after the war but between 1869 and 1871 they start making what became known as the 1874. It doesn't have to make sense, it started when there was no model number. It was only later when they started calling it the 1874, when they developed another, less popular, model, the model of 1877.
The Sharps was initially chambered in .40 and .44 calibers in two lengths and then, soon in .45 and .50 calibers. The initial cartridges were bottle necked, only later did they discover that bottle necked cartridges stocked with black powder give accuracy destroying hard fouling just in front of the case neck. We still aren't sure exactly why. At any rate the forty caliber cartridges were mostly for target and hunting smaller game, few thought they were big enough for buffalo, elk and the great bears of the West. We call the cartridges today by their caliber and powder charge, ie. .44-77, .45-70, etc. Back then they called them by the caliber and case length, .44, 2 1/4, and 45-2.1 No matter what you called them the old buffalo rounds flung a chunk of lead weighing an ounce or more at something over the speed of sound.

 When the Army developed the .45-70 round it soon became popular in the Sharps, also, as well as the previous government cartridge, the .50-70.  Hunters discovered there was little difference between the .44 and .45 calibers but the fifties showed a marked increase in killing power. There were two cartridges in .50 caliber, the .50-70 and .50-90. Both were referred to as the Big Fifty. The .50-90  was the rifle a feller named Billy Dixon picked up at the battle of Adobe Walls in  June of 1874.  Twenty-eight buffalo hunters and traders held of some 700 odd Comanches and Kiowas. A hunter, late famous scout. Billy shot a Medicine Man off is horse at a later surveyed distance of 1538 yards. Dixon later won the Medal of Honor at the Buffalo Wallow fight as an Army scout.

 The Sharps Company was essentially a custom shop in it's heyday, making it's rifles essentially to order  A buffalo gun was usually heavy,  at least twelve pounds, going up to as much as twenty to reduce recoil over long strings of shots.Barrels were usually octagonal, thirty inches or so long.If memory serves 34 or 36 was the maximum offered.  Double set triggers were an extra cost option but were usually ordered. The standard sights were a buckhorn rear and a post front ut almost all the ones shipped to the buffalo hunters went with tang rear and globe front sights, or the telescopic sights of the day. 
  A Sharps fitted for the buffalo range would cost two months wages of a factory worker, three times that with a telescope. Yet a hunter with a crew of skinners could make that in two days. A bufflo running crew would consist of one or more hunters, at least two skinners per hunter and a cook. 

 Sharps were not the only buffalo gun of the west, there were a lot of Trapdoor Springfields, Remington Rolling Blocks and Ballards out there, too but the Sharps is the most famous. 
The great buffalo herds were wiped out by the time anyone built a lever action repeater strong enough for the buffalo cartridges By then Sharps had closed it's doors, literally having killed the reason for it's being. They like to say that Winchester was the gun that won the west. Sharps made the west safe for Winchester. Without the big buffalo cartridges the anemic Winchester shooters would have been trampled into mush. 


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