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- Old Guns in a New World
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John Brown Sharps Carbine
This "slant breech" specimen is attributed to use by John Brown
in his 1859 raid on the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It
is one of 75 whose serial numbers are listed in the CONGRESSIONAL
RECORD for 1859 as a result of its association with that event.
Over 900 of these "Beecher's Bibles", named for abolitionist
preacher Henry Ward Beecher, were purchased by New England
abolitionists and shipped in crates marked BIBLES for the purpose
of arming Free Soil settlers in Kansas during the 1850s. John Brown
was one of many anti-slavery settlers who fought against
pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" in Kansas prior to the Civil War, and
some of these guns found their way with Brown to Harpers
Sharps carbines were manufactured with identical serial numbers on both the tang and on the underside of the barrel beneath the fore end. The tang serial number of this specimen has been removed, quite likely in an attempt to cover its role in Brown's abortive raid. However, the barrel serial number remains and is visible with the fore end removed, substantiating the role of this gun in a watershed event in U.S. history.
Christian Sharps (1811-1874) was the originator of a line of sturdy, practical, and popular military and sporting rifles and handguns that were associated with several events that shaped American history in 19th century, including armed conflict in Kansas during the 1850s, the Civil War, the era of the Plains buffalo hunter, and the rise of modern long-range competition shooting during the 1870s. Sharps worked at John Hall's Rifle Works in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he learned the principles of arms manufacturing. His first breechloading rifle design was patented in 1848, and the toggle-linking trigger guard and vertically operating sliding wedge breechblock of later Sharps rifles and carbines date from that patent. These features are still with us today, and have seen use in both rifle and artillery breech mechanisms. The spring lever-toggle-breech mechanism of the Borchardt-Luger semi-automatic pistol also had its roots in Christian Sharps' lever-linked breech.
In 1850, Sharps moved to Mill Creek, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and contracted with the firm of A. S. Nippes to manufacture two of his sporting rifle designs, which became known as the Model 1849 and Model 1850. Faced with difficulty in obtaining financing for further ventures, Sharps left the Philadelphia area in 1851 and relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, where he formed the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. Lacking production facilities, he contracted with the Windsor, Vermont firm of Robbins & Lawrence to manufacture his new breechloader. This venture continued until 1855.
Among the Sharps-designed firearms manufactured under this association were the Model 1851 "Box Lock" Carbine, which featured the Maynard tape primer system, and the Model 1852 and Model 1853 "Slanting Breech" Carbines, which were equipped with the Sharps-patented pellet primer system as an integral part of its breech mechanism. Model 1853 Carbines were nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles," after noted New York clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Approximately 900 of these arms were shipped in heavy crates marked BIBLES for use by anti-slavery "Free Soil" settlers who were fighting against pro-slavery forces in "Bleeding Kansas" during the 1850s. One of the most famous Free Soilers was John Brown, who later used 300 Model 1853 Carbines in his ill-fated attempt to capture the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
Christian Sharps served as technical advisor to the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, receiving royalties on the manufacture of their firearms. His relationship with the company was a rocky one, and in 1853, Sharps severed all connections with the firm. There is no evidence that he ever had any further association with the company that continued to bear his name.
In 1855, the Sharps company introduced the Model 1855 Carbine. These arms retained the slanting breech and buttstock patch boxes of earlier models, but featured the Maynard tape primer system. Approximately 800 .54 caliber carbines were manufactured for the U.S. government, and an additional 6,000 Model 1855s in .577 caliber were purchased by Great Britain. While these carbines were in production, both Robbins & Lawrence and Sharps suffered serious financial losses. The latter corporation went bankrupt, and their operations were taken over by Sharps and moved to Hartford. The Sharps New Model 1859, introduced in that year, was available as a carbine, and in round-barrel military rifle or octagonal-barrel sporting rifle versions. Its straight-breech design is credited to Richard S. Lawrence, formerly of Robbins & Lawrence, who had become the superintendent of the Sharps Rifle Company.
This design, in conjunction with a breechblock-mounted plate capable of slight rearward movement when under pressure, created a moderately effective gas seal. New Model 1859 arms also employed an improved version of the Sharps pellet primer system which allowed the pellet feed mechanism to be disengaged. Ordinary percussion caps could then be used, with the supply of pellet primers held in reserve. Like earlier Sharps designs, the Model 1859 fired a glazed linen combustible .52 caliber cartridge. When closed, the breechblock sheared off the rear of the cartridge, exposing the propellant.
During the Civil War, the Federal government bought over 80,000 Sharps carbines and nearly 10,000 Sharps Rifles. These arms were highly regarded by the troops who used them. Sharps Carbines found favor with Federal cavalry troopers, and New Model 1859 Rifles were used with great success by famous infantry units such as Colonel Hiram Berdan's U.S. Sharp Shooters, perhaps the first specialty troops in the history of modern warfare, as well as the 5th New York (Duryea's Zouaves) and the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (Bucktails). Even the Confederate government recognized the superiority of the New Model 1859 Carbine, contracting with the Richmond firm of S.C. Robinson for the production of 5,000 copies. The New Model 1859 was followed by the New Model 1863 and New Model 1865 Carbines and Rifles. These were nearly identical to the New Model 1859, differing primarily in barrel stampings, the omission of buttstock patchboxes, and in the design or absence of bayonet lugs. Many versions of all three arms were later converted for use with .50-70 and .52-70 caliber metallic cartridge ammunition in the years following the Civil War. The New Model 1869 Carbine and Rifle, available in .44-77, .50-70, and .60 calibers, were the first Sharps arms designed for use with metallic cartridges.
In 1874, the firm was reorganized as the Sharps Rifle Co., with operations remaining in Hartford. In 1876, manufacturing was moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it remained until 1881. This period saw the manufacture of some of the more notable of Sharps longarms, beginning with introduction of the Model 1874 Rifle. Nicknamed "Old Reliable," this arm, available in a variety of calibers, barrel lengths, sights, and other features, became a favorite with both Plains buffalo hunters and competition shooters. Many Fancy-Grade models featured engraving which ranged from simple scrollwork to elaborate hunting or western scenes on their surfaces. The Sharps Model 1877 shared in the popularity of its predecessor. These deluxe-grade heavy-barreled .45 caliber rifles were designed specifically for Creedmoor and other long-range target shooters. Only 100 of these were produced, and they are as sought-after today by collectors as they were by competitors at the time of their introduction.
The last rifle to be produced by the Sharps Rifle Company was the Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardt Rifle. This arm was developed by Hugo Borchardt, who later became famous for his automatic pistol designs. These rifles, with their flat-sided frame and hammerless appearance, differ notably from earlier Sharps designs. Like the Model 1874, the Sharps-Borchardt was available in a variety of stocks, barrel lengths and weights, sights, calibers, and other features, including deluxe grade models. These popular rifles were produced until 1881, when the Sharps Rifle Company went bankrupt and ceased operations.
Although his association with the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company ended in 1853, Christian Sharps continued to work as a designer and manufacturer of firearms. He returned to Philadelphia and formed C. Sharps & Co., a manufacturer of percussion revolvers, breechloading single-shot pistols and pistol-rifles, and four-shot pepperbox pistols. In 1862, Sharps entered into a partnership with William Hankins. Their new company, known as Sharps & Hankins, continued to produce pepperbox pistols, as well as the single-shot .52 caliber Model 1861 Navy Rifle and the Model 1862 Carbine, both of which featured sliding breech actions. The partnership was dissolved in 1866, and Sharps reverted to the C. Sharps & Co. name. This firm ceased operations in 1874 with the death of Christian Sharps on March 12 of that year.