The Sharps was one of the two most common and best known breechloading guns made during the Civil War. Approximately 100,000 Sharps carbines and 15,000 Sharps rifles were made and issued during the War by the Union. By comparison, the Union made approximately 1,500,000 of the standard infantry 58 Rifle Musket.
The Richmond factories of the Confederacy made about 5,000 Sharps duplicate carbines from a total arms production there of about 15,000. These were more crudely finished and typically had a brass front band.
The invention by Christian Sharps was of a vertical sliding block at the rear end of the barrel. The sliding breechblock allowed the Sharps to be loaded from the back end instead of from the muzzle before the invention of metallic cartridges. The Sharps could be loaded with either a loose bullet and blackpowder, or with paper cartridges. The photo in making paper cartridges uses a typical Sharps 52 caliber hollow base bullet.
Nearly all of the pre-War Sharps were made with the breechblock at a slight angle from perpendicular to the barrel. These are known as "slant breech." All of the Civil War production had the breechblock perpendicular to the barrel and are known as "straight breech."
A slant breech carbine typical of the about 19,000 Sharps rifles and carbines made during the ten years before the Civil War.
The straight breech Sharps could be converted to shoot metallic cartridges. About 30,000 of the Civil War production were converted to use metallic cartridges within several years of the War. The Sharps and the Remington Rolling Block rifles were extensively used to hunt buffalo. Anyone robust enough to knock about on the Kansas prairie frontier could get into the buffalo hide business with a low cost war surplus Sharps and upgrade his equipment after the first hunt.
This one has a set trigger used by buffalo hunters for more accurate shooting. About half of Berdan's Regiment was so equipped during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, a surplus Sharps was an excellent buffalo rifle. Springfield Armory and others converted Sharps to military power metallic cartridges which were reliable for buffalo hunting. Both Sharps and Remington (the rolling block rifles) were used by buffalo hunters, but Sharps could not compete with Remington for further military sales.
Newly made Sharps rifles and carbines are available in several brand names. These may be purchased by legal buyers from Dixie Gun Works, other dealers, and used ones are on the Internet gun auction sites. A kit is available at a reduced price for anyone willing to tackle finishing the metal and wood. Replacing the barrel on a kit is the only way to get a newly made Sharps in one of the other calibers produced before the Civil War. Especially wear eyeglasses or shooting glasses when firing a Sharps as there can be leakage around the breech of hot gas from the gunpowder.
Cartridge model Sharps are also available newly made, but must be purchased through a dealer in your state with a Federal Firearms License (FFL).
For more information, see the attached page, or consult "Flayderman's Guide To Antique American Firearms" by Norm Flayderman, "Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry" by John D. McAulay, and "Sharps Firearms" by Frank Sellers.
The following technical information is for the Civil War 54 caliber Sharps rifles and carbines although the cartridge Sharps after the war could be made for more powerful cartridges.
Length 39 ½ inches (carbine)
Weight 8 pounds (carbine)
Caliber 52 (.535")
Bullet Weight 410 grains
Power Charge 60 grains
Muzzle Velocity 1100 feet per seconds
Muzzle Energy 1100 foot pounds