A Legend Grows While Revolutionizing Small Arms

Sharps Carbines and Rifles Helped Prove The Advantage of Breech Loading Arms with their Sturdy Design & Use By Some O f History's well known Names

written & illustrated by Eric Ortner

  Of all the arms used in the War Between the States, only a few earned legendary status. With nomenclature like Beecher's Bibles, the arms designed and manufactured by Christian Sharps, and his associates, were destined for legendary status.

However, a legend is a long time in the making, and the story of the Sharps arms goes back a long way. In fact, to truly understand the history of this successful breech loader, you need to remember as far back as 1788. It was then that Captain John Hancock Hall was born in Portland, Maine. It was on May 21, 1811 that a patent was issued to Captain J. H. Hall and the young Washington architect, William Thornton. This patent reflected that they were the first U.S. citizens to create a breech-loading long arm. 

By 1812 the breech loading mechanism had been improved so as to withstand the force of a heavier powder charge as required for military service. A series of tests were conducted in 1813 and 1816. Then a year later, a order for 100 "patent rifles," was placed at a cost of $25 a piece. These rifles were intended for field tests and they faired well in March of 1819. Hall spent the next two years in the Harpers Ferry Armory perfecting the mechanism. As a result Captain Hall was awarded a contract for 1,000 rifles. In order to ensure that these arms were properly manufactured, Hall was given a position at Harpers Ferry as Assistant Armorer. There he earned $60 a month and $1 on every weapon manufactured. 

In addition to recognizing the importance and advantage of breech-loading arms, Hall is also credited as the originator of interchangeable parts for firearms. While at Harpers Ferry, he designed and built several machines which enabled parts to be produced at an accelerated rate, and at the same time create a uniformity between them. These machines ensured his place in history. Unfortunately though, the construction of the machinery delayed production until 1824. 20,872 Hall breech-loading rifles were made at the Harpers Ferry Armory; an additional 1,700 were made by private contractors over Captain Hall's objections. 

Breech-loading long arms had several advantages. The Halls were easier to load, especially when finding one's self in a difficult position. Loading a gun from the breech was much easier than doing so from the muzzle, especially while lying on the ground. Moreover this relaxed method of loading was also beneficial when on horse back. Fumbling with powder charges was next to impossible while in the saddle. Breech-loading also reduced the risk of overloading an arm which was a common mistake in the panic of a combat situation. 
Although these arms were a great step forward, they were not very well liked by the troops. First off soldiers were generally conservative and attached to their muzzle-loading arms. Even in 1862, Chief of Ordnance General Ripley still preferred the rifle musket over breech-loaders for infantry. However, the largest grudge against Hall's creation was its loss of gas. This resulted from the fact that the block was not tightly locked upon the barrel in firing position, and therefore allowed an abundant amount of gas to escape between the chamber and barrel. Although largely a Mexican War Era arm, the Model 1833 and 43 Hall, saw considerable use by the cavalry in the Civil War particularly, in 1861 and 1862. Most Yankees considered them to be worthless because in addition to the tendency to burst, spew flaming powder as well as hot gas, they did not carry well and were quick to fall into disrepair. The Confederates found a suitable use for Halls by salvaging many of their parts from the Harpers Ferry Arsenal fire. The enterprising Southerners also modified some of Halls arms into muzzle loaders. 

In a remarkable coincidence, Christian Sharps was born in New Jersey in 1811, the same year that Hall patented his breech loader. Sharps eventually ended up working with Hall in Harper's Ferry in 1830. There Christian learned the intricacies of every one of Hall's rifles and carbines. Just as importantly, young Sharps learned the basics of assembly line production techniques. However, he clearly saw the need for improvement in Hall's mechanism. Therefore in about 1840, while working for himself in Cincinnati, Ohio, he improved Hall's breech-loading system. 

The following years saw Christian diligently experimenting with variations in breech mechanisms. On September 12, 1848 as a result of these arduous studies, a U.S. Patent was obtained. The patent describes a, "gun with sliding breech-pin and self-capping." Sharps solved the problem of leaking gunpowder in the breech with the use of the drop block. The Sharps rifle had a small block in the breech of the gun that slid up or down in a slot. This was controlled by a lever which served a second purpose as a trigger guard. When the trigger guard was lowered and pulled forward, the block slid into position, opening the breech for loading. When the trigger guard was closed, the mechanism raised the small block up into the breech. The drop block sealed the breech and greatly reduced the escape of gas and the threat of backflash. This eliminated most of the complaints which seemed to accompany the use of Hall's arms. However, although fast sturdy and reliable, Sharps' arms still leaked some fire at the breech.

An added advantage of Sharps' rifles was that in addition to the tight seal, an edged blade was screwed to the face of the breechblock. This cut the linen or paper cartridge exposing the powder and thus setting up the rifle for the next stage of firing. The cone or nipple was then ready for primers fed by Dr. Maynard's tape primer system and later the R. S. Lawrence disk primer magazine. An additional feature was that the primer magazine could be shut off if needed, and ordinary caps could be substituted. 

The earlier models had a sloping breech action with the hammer swung inside the frame. As the design of these arms progressed, the hammer was moved to the outside. 
These arms were manufactured for a brief stint in 1850 and 1851 in Mill Creek, PA. However, the arm is associated more widely with the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company which was established in about 1851 at Hartford Connecticut. Weapons were made there in accordance with Sharps' patents. The plant was managed by R. S. Lawrence. 

In 1853 Christian Sharps left the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company and moved to Philadelphia. Christian Sharps was only loosely connected with the plant. In actuality his only affiliation was the $1 per rifle royalty which he earned for each Sharps arm made there. 

Christian once again started his own small shop at 336 Franklin Street in 1856 while living at 486 Green Street. Apparently the royalty fees did not add up to a substantial profit because he needed capital to expand his operations. Therefore, Christian formed a partnership with Ira B. Eddy. The firm was known as Eddy, Sharps & Company. In 1856 the operation was moved to a four story brick building on the west side of 30th street measuring 140 feet by 40 feet. A more general description of the operations new location would be on the west side of Philadelphia, near the Wire Bridge. 

Each floor of the structure served a distinct purpose. The first floor safely housed the heavy forging operations, while the second floor was dedicated to barrel production. The third floor was utilized for tool making, and the fourth floor was where the small parts were manufactured and the final assembly took place. In 1858, Nathan H. Bolles became a partner, and the name was once again changed to C. Sharps and Company which it remained until 1863. 

The arms produced in these early years were clearly appreciated by military personnel. Some of the Model 1848 .52 caliber carbines were issued to the 1st Regiment of Dragoons in 1853. They were immediately popular. Capt. J. W. Davison in command of Company B wrote the Ordinance Department saying, "I am satisfied from trial and experience that the Sharps' carbine is the best weapon yet known in our country for a cavalry soldier. Its range and accuracy are greater than those of the musketoon. It is a stronger arm; the soldier can make it last longer …The Sharps' can be loaded at full speed…I am satisfied that the horseman needs no pistol, if armed with Sharps' carbine and a light and sharp sabre." These are great praises for a somewhat experimental weapon, and they were backed by other officers...

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