Sharps Breechloaders Were Simple and Sturdy Guns, Trusted in the North and the South
Christian Sharps was awarded 15 firearms patents in his lifetime. He also liked trout. In 1871, he established a trout hatchery in Connecticut to try to help replace New England’s declining population of the freshwater fish. Sharps’ 1874 death put an end to the fishy venture.
By 1830, Christian Sharps, born in New Jersey in 1811, had gone to work at the Harpers Ferry, Va., Arsenal, helping to produce firearms for the U.S. Army. In 1848, Sharps received his first breechloadingfirearms patent. By 1851, the gunmaker had struck out on his own and formed the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn., to produce his simple and sturdy weapon design that remained relatively unchanged throughout the Civil War. It featured a breechblock that dropped down when the trigger guard was unlatched and moved forward.
Then, a linen or paper .52-caliber cartridge would be inserted into the breech. As the trigger guard was raised, a sharpened edge on the breechblock would shear off the end of the cartridge, exposing the powder. A common percussion cap was then placed on the cone, and the gun was ready to fire.
The first Sharps carbines were issued to U.S. troopers in 1854, and they remained the most widely issued cavalry shoulder arm throughout the conflict. One admiring Union officer remarked: “A cavalry carbine should be very simple in its mechanisim, with all its…parts well covered from the splashing of mud, or the accumulation of rest and dust. Sharps carbine combines all these qualities.”
Breechloaders allowed soldiers to load easily while lying prone, and the rifle version of Sharps was favored by the marksmen in the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, who used a custom model that included a hair trigger.
An early war photo of a member of Georgia’s Richmond Hussars with his Sharps carbine. Because Sharps carbines were made before the war, some Southern militia units were equipped with the breechloaders. Ammunition for the Sharps was easy for the Confederacy to produce once the war began. Cartridges for the .52-caliber Sharps carbine could be made out of linen, as is the top example, or paper, bottom. The bullet used with the paper cartridge was nicknamed a “ringtail” because of the small ring at the base to which the paper tube containing the powder was glued. The simple, sturdy Sharps breechloading mechanism was relatively easy to copy, and the Confederacy made its own carbine version between 1862 and 1864. Initially the S.C. Robinson Company in Richmond made about 1,900 carbines. The Confederate government purchased that company in March 1863, and the Confederate Carbine Company then made about 3,000 more. The Southern copy omitted the patch box in the buttstock, used simple fixed sights, and substituted brass for some parts. This Confederate trooper sports what is likely a captured Sharps original, due to the presence of a patch box. He has a lot of reserve firepower at hand, and who knows what might be under his hat. Sharps also made 156,000 of these 1859 patent four-barrel pepperbox pistols in calibers ranging from .22 to .32. To load, a user depressed the button under the muzzle and slid the barrel assembly forward. Brass rimfire cartridges were inserted and the barrel assembly slid back. As the hammer was cocked, it rotated a firing pin that traveled to each barrel. Some soldiers carried them as sidearms.