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PostPosted: Mon Jan 08, 2024 6:39 pm 

Joined: Sun Jan 04, 2009 9:33 pm
Posts: 320
Location: Old Northwest (Michigan)
Fellow Sharpshooters

The battlefield laurels won by Berdan Sharpshooters during the Civil War can be attributed to the technologically superior firepower they wielded. The customized New Model 1859 Sharps rifle that Colonel Hiram Berdan snuck past the Ordnance department, represented the pinnacle of American precision engineering and manufacturing.

I’d like to provide a brief overview of the development of Sharps rifle/carbines from Christian Sharps prototype to its acceptance as a commercially successful military and civilian arm.

The first commercially produced Sharps rifles, were manufactured at the Nippes factory, located along Mill Creek outside Philadelphia, PA. Christian Sharps brought his prototype breechloader to Albert Nippes, whose family had been manufacturing military arms for the government since the War of 1812.

The link below shows a Model 1849 Sharps/Nippes rifle offered for sale on the Rock Island Auctions website:

Curiously, once the machinery started turning out parts for his rifle, Christian Sharps devoted his time making improvements. To Nippes chagrin (and later Richard S. Lawrence), Sharps demanded production stop so new modifications could be added. Lawrence noted that despite Christian Sharps inventive genius, he showed no appreciation for the engineering, manufacturing and financial challenges to mass produce firearms.

The Model 1849’s brass rotating ‘self priming’ design is unique to Sharps, (surprisingly, he never bothered to patent it). In 1848 the US Ordnance department adopted Dr. Edward Maynard’s ‘paper tape’ system for all military arms. I think Sharps arrival at Mill Creek was no accident, as it coincided when the Nippes factory was making, (and retrofitting), Model 1842/1812 muskets to the new Maynard system.

Sharps had patented his own self priming system in his first (Model 1848) rifle, that he demonstrated to enthusiastic politicians and military men during his journey to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. While securing the endorsement of Texas senator Thomas Rusk, this didn’t open any doors in the Capital or the War Department.

I suspect some of Sharps’ time “tinkering” at Nippes was devoted to studying Maynard’s tape system and improve on it. Ultimately, Sharps pellet primer system (incorporated into the Model 1853-63 Sharps weapons), proved superior to Maynard’s paper tape system.

During his time at Nippes, Christian Sharps became acquainted with neighboring families that operated small factories along Mill Creek. Adjacent to the Nippes property was the Chadwick’s, who ran a cotton chording factory. The association between Sharps and the Chadwick’s proved to be a warm one; Robert Chadwick eventually moved to Hartford to manage, (then purchase) the Sharps ammunition factory, while his sister, Elizabeth, would marry Christian Sharps.

Unable secure political, financial and military backing, Sharps sold the rights to his patent to George Penfield, who formed the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. Penfield turned to the successful firearms manufacturers, Samuel Robbins and Richard S. Lawrence, who operated an armory in Windsor, Vermont. It was here the Sharps evolved into the weapon we recognize today.

Robbins and Lawrence were leaders of the “American Plan” of mass production of interchangeable parts. They had astounded skeptics by securing a contract to build 10,000 Model 1841 ‘Mississippi’ rifle muskets (without a factory, machinery or employees). R&L not only accomplished those hurdles, but delivered the last of the rifles two years before the contract required. They were awarded a second contract for another 15,000. At London’s Crystal Palace exhibition they demonstrated the simplicity, speed and efficiency of their system of manufacturing. This so impressed British military and political officials that they contracted with Robbins and Lawrence to manufacture the precision machinery for their new armory at Enfield.

An excellent history of the development of precision engineering and manufacturing in Windsor Vermont is presented in the link below. The paper was presented by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, that features the rise and fall of Samuel Robbins and Richard Lawrence armory. ... wrence.pdf

The original Robbins and Lawrence factory still exists today as a museum. Here are the links:

In addition to filling the US military contracts for Sharps carbines, Robbins and Lawrence also manufactured Enfield Pattern rifle muskets for the British, embroiled in the war in Crimea. Unfortunately, anticipating a second contract for 25,000 Enfield rifle muskets, R&L overextended themselves in debt to expand their factory and machinery. With the sudden end of the Crimean War the company plummeted into bankruptcy. Richard Lawrence accepted the position of supervisor at the new Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford until his retirement in 1874.

It was Richard S. Lawrence who transformed Christian Sharps design into the outstanding percussion and cartridge rifles and carbines we recognize today as “Sharps”.

The Sharps Collectors Association has provided an excellent compilation of Sharps weapons that appear in The Sharps Rifle-The Percussion Era 1848-1865. . Here is the link:

Morphy Auctions presents an extremely rare (1 of 25) Model 1850 Sharps rifle made by the Roberts and Simpson of Philadelphia. This series of rifles were made after Sharps contract with Nippes was completed. Morphy provides an excellent overview of the development of the Sharps breechloaders and the collaboration between Sharps, Nippes and Roberts and Simpson.

Bill Skillman
Michigan Companies
Berdan Sharpshooters Survivors Association

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