Shooting the Sharps Rifle

by Fred Ray on January 17, 2018 · 0 comments

The breech-loading Sharps rifle was one of the most advanced firearms used in the war. Although used by infantry and sharpshooters, it was used most extensively by Federal cavalry as a carbine, and was an important factor in their superiority in the second half of the war.

Three models figured in the fracas, the 1852 “slant-breech” model and the later 1859 and 1863 models, which featured some improvements. Here Ian at Forgotten Weapons test fires an 1852 model, and shows graphically a problem that sometimes developed, namely gas leakage around the breech. As he mentions, the sealing was done both with a sliding seal on the breech block and a sliding sleeve in the barrel. In theory, the hot gasses pushed them together and sealed the action. In practice, there were often problems, which were not entirely solved until the falling block action was adapted to use a metallic cartridge after the end of hostilities. As such, it became the basis of the famous 1874 “Buffalo Gun.”

I have a replica 1859 Sharps, and yes, the sleeve is stuck in the barrel and I’m trying various methods to get it out.

Confederate sharpshooter commander Eugene Blackford also bore an 1852 Sharps that he obtained early in the war, and never mentions any problems with his, nor do most of the other users, so it must have worked acceptably well. Whether this system would have worked as a standard issue infantry arm is open to question as it was much more likely to get out of order than the rather simple muzzle loading rifle-musket.

UPDATE: Period firearms expert Bill Adams has this to say about the video:

That is not an 1852 Sharps rifle; it appears to be a reworked Nepalese Sharps or some other fantasy creation built with Nepalese parts.  The Nepalese Sharps had a pellet priming system that was copied from the real Sharps, but the Nepalese system didn’t work (at least, I’ve never seen one that actually functioned).  There was no M1852 Sharps three band military rifle except for the ones made in Nepal and those were probably made long after 1852/53.  Only 60 M1852 Sharps rifles were made by Sharps and they had 27″ barrels with a carbine style forearm.  All of the M52 and M53 Sharps arms had patchboxes.  The real slant breech Sharps did have a gas seal; the Nepalese Sharps did not have gas seals and they blow fire everywhere.
I have seen two real slant breeches fired with their gas seals intact and they did not leak despite the wild stories about leaky breeches.  My friend John Morrison did a video of him shooting his slant breech carbine just to see if it would capture a gas leak and no leakage is apparent.  I attempted to take photos of a slant breech in action at our annual fun shoot, but none of the pictures came out.  The gas seal in the slant breeches looks like a platinum ring, but the seals were really more like platinum foil.  The foil was circular and folded over; picture folding a sheet of paper over, then having that as a circle with a > configuration.  The open portion of the > faces inward and blows outward when the gun is fired, effectively sealing the breech.  The seals were rather fragile and seem to have torn apart if handled roughly, leaving only the back portion that remained affixed to the breech block.
Ian’s “M1852″ rifle appears to have an Enfield rear sight, instead of the rear sight normally found on a Nepalese Sharps.  Sharps did use an Enfield rear sight (Windsor) on their slant breech M1855 Navy rifle, which had a 27” barrel and a single band retained carbine style forearm (and had a patchbox).
Ian used a very long cartridge that was obviously overloaded and in the close-up view, there is a lot of pressure blowing out of the nipple.  Somewhere on YouTube, there is a video of someone (it might be Ian) shooting a Nepalese Sharps with the same results as Ian experienced – flames blowing around and wild inaccuracy.


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