MFR History of Sharps' Rifle Manufacturing Company


Lieutenant General
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Managing Member & Webmaster
Apr 1, 1999
Martinsburg, WV
On September 12th 1848 Mr Christian Sharps a native of New Jersey then residing in Cincinnati received a patent for an improved Breech Loading Gun claiming as his invention the combination of the sliding breech with the barrel the breech supporter and the stock in such a manner as that when the sliding breech is forced down the breech bore will be so exposed as to enable it to receive a cartridge on a line with the bore and when the sliding breech is forced up it will shear off the rear end of the cartridge so as to expose the powder to the fire communication and will finally and securely close the breech bore He also claimed as his invention the combination of the cap nipple with the sliding breech This is the first account of what we believe was the first perfectly successful Breech Loading Rifle The importance of the invention is attested by the fact that for more than a hundred years the ablest writers on gunnery have asserted that the breech and not the muzzle is the proper place in which to deposit the charge and ever since the origin of Firearms the attention of ingenious men has been directed to accomplishing the object Robins whose work was published in the first half of the last century and which is acknowledged as a standard refers to the Breech Loading Rifles of his day and says Somewhat of this kind though not in the manner now practiced would be of all others the most perfect method for the construction of these sort of barrels Experience has confirmed the correctness of the opinion of this ancient experimentalist and established the fact that success in warfare depends more on the character and efficiency of the weapons used than upon the number or courage of the combatants

In one of the Mexican revolutions in 1858 Colonel Suasue at the head of 1,000 men armed with Sharps Carbines attacked Governor Manero who was in command of the Government forces and achieved a most signal victory at San Louis Mexico killing upwards of 600 men taking the city and making prisoners of Governor Manero and three of his colonels with a slight loss In the same year on our western frontier Colonel Wright's command armed principally with Breech Loading Carbines utterly routed without the loss of a man a large band of Indians who had previously defeated Colonel Steptoe's forces who were In one of the Mexican revolutions in 1858 Colonel Suasue at the head of 1,000 men armed with Sharps Carbines attacked Governor Manero who was in command of the Government forces and achieved a most signal victory at San Louis Mexico killing upwards of 600 men taking the city and making prisoners of Governor Manero and three of his colonels with a slight loss In the same year on our western frontier Colonel Wright's command armed principally with Breech Loading Carbines utterly routed without the loss of a man a large band of Indians who had previously defeated Colonel Steptoe's forces who were armed with the old muskets and carbines In the present Rebellion the efficiency of weapons loading at the breech has been so signally demonstrated as to leave no room for doubt At Springfield Mo the Fremont Body Guard of 250 men armed with Colt's Revolvers and Repeating Rifles firing eighteen shots to the man routed 1500 rebels though the latter were acting on the defensive and chose their ground while the former were crowded into a narrow lane between timber and subjected to the cross fire of the enemy At Yorktown a single man with a Breech Loading Rifle kept a 100 pounder gun silent for days At Fredericksburg a single company only partially full silenced an entire rebel battery across the river six hundred yards distant At Pine Bluff in Arkansas 550 men armed with Sharps Rifles defeated and actually drove away four thousand under Marmaduke though the latter had the advantage of being provided with artillery The preservation of Gen McClellan's army in his seven days retreat is said to have been due mainly to a Connecticut regiment armed with these Rifles coming forward on a critical occasion and the wonderful victory at Mission Ridge near Chattanooga to the fact that a portion of the Federal forces engaged were armed with Spencer's Breech Loading and Repeating Rifles Who said a prisoner could withstand men that kept shooting and never loaded Such is the brief outline of the record that has been made in actual service by Guns loading at the breech

In view of these facts it would be singular indeed if eminent military men sincerely desirous of promoting the nation's welfare had not expressed opinions in their favor and recommended their adoption Major General Rosecrans has stated November 13 1863 that he had no doubt that could such arms of proper construction be substituted at once for those now in use it would add not less than fifty per cent to the force or power of the troops now in the field or in other words we should augment our army one half by changing the weapons The Government he informs us has already become convinced that breechloading revolving chambered or single charged arms should be used for Cavalry and other mounted troops and adds it should and in my opinion will ultimately adopt them for infantry It is certainly most unfortunate for the present executive officers of the government that the resources of the establishments engaged in making these arms are not more than sufficient to supply the Cavalry troops for it cannot be supposed that the Administration could be guilty of forcibly conscripting men if it were in their power to augment the army one half by changing the weapons

The history of the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company is briefly as follows It was incorporated in 1851 with a capital of $100,000 Mr John C Palmer of Connecticut was elected the first President of the Company and has occupied the same position in relation to it ever since discharging the duties with marked ability Mr R. S. Lawrence of the firm of Robbins & Lawrence manufacturers of firearms at Windsor Vt was invited soon after its incorporation to take charge of the mechanical department as Master Armorer and most of the improvements that have been made in the establishment are the result of his experience and practical skill The buildings originally erected were small in comparison with their present extent The main Armory was about 160 feet in length by 60 feet wide two stories high with an L containing the Forge Shop etc Recently new buildings have been erected and will soon be filled with machinery and workmen which will more than double the present resources of the works The main building is 215 feet long by 45 wide and four stories high including the basement The Assembling Room occupies the entire first story without a partition and is a most imposing and spacious hall as may be imagined from the length and width of the building which has been already stated In the basement is an engine of 250 horse power made by the Corliss Steam Engine Company of Providence It is a horizontal single cylinder of 26 inches in diameter having a driving wheel of 20 feet in diameter and is intended to propel the machinery of the whole establishment It will be run as a low pressure engine in summer and high pressure in winter the exhaust steam in cold weather being used to heat the buildings

The processes and tools employed in the manufacture of a Sharps Rifle are not essentially different from those in use in other Armories The Barrels are cut from round steel bars large enough to finish to the required diameter at the breech and then tilted or drawn under heavy trip hammers until the required taper is attained These bars of steel soon to become barrels are then bored by upright machines then turned and finally rifled The groove in a Sharps is similar to that in the Springfield rifle musket broad and shallow Nearly all the work is done by machinery No part of the rifle or its appendages is made out of the establishment and many of the tools and machinery in use were also made by the Company under the supervision of Mr Lawrence The drop for finishing the formation of the forgings are hand drops operated by means of hand belt and pulley Every thing is formed by dies of steel so that every piece of forging is a counterpart of another for the same purpose The rifling machines are remarkable specimens of mechanical finish and accuracy in working Milling forming and compound machines perform operations which seem to require the exercise of the most exact and almost human intelligence

Since it was first invented improvements have been made upon the original Rifle which obviate all the objections that have ever been alleged against it One of these objections was the escape of gas at the time of firing This has been remedied by inserting in the slide which closes the rear end of the barrel a steel ring attached to a faceplate around the circumference of a concavity in the centre of which the vent enters This ring is called a gas check as the action of the charge when fired forces it out an imperceptible distance against the rear end of the bouching so as to close the joint and prevent the escape of any portion of the force of the fired charge In 1859 an improvement was made which obviates the necessity of having a portion of the cartridge exposed as originally required and now in loading a Sharps Rifle the cartridge can be forced into the barrel as far as the chamber will allow it without hazard that the fire of the primer will not reach it

The Sharps Rifle as now constructed is unquestionably one of the most effective of modern weapons The barrel is of cast steel bored from a solid bar round not octagon in shape at the breech and having a thread cut on the exterior instead of the interior as all muzzleloading pieces have for the reception of the breech pin This Rifle has no breech pin The base of the barrel screws into a frame of iron through which between the lock and barrel is a slot or mortise running transversely to the line of the barrel from the upper to the underside of the gun Fitting accurately in and sliding through this slot is a block of steel one side of which comes squarely against the end of the barrel thus forming a gas tight breech pin On this sliding block is the nipple on which the hammer strikes The bottom end of the block is attached by a pivot to the guard strap of the trigger which being hinged at its forward end can be depressed by the thumb thus bringing down the sliding breech and exposing the rear end of the barrel bore for the reception of the cartridge This is the grand peculiarity of a Sharps Rifle But it has another It requires no capping though it has a tube or nipple for the use of caps if preferred It can be fired fifty times without renewing the primers These primers are little flat discs of copper containing between two thicknesses of the metal the fulminating paste They resemble the top of a common percussion cap or minute copper wafers Back of the nipple and directly under the hammer is an aperture closed by a slide that can be moved by the thumb Into this aperture leading to a magazine is dropped a tube of fifty primers each entirely detached from the other so that the danger of spontaneous explosion urged against the Maynard or tape plimer is entirely obviated under this plan Caps may be used even when the magazine is charged simply by shutting the slide In firing a single primer is thrown under the hammer directly on to the tube by the action of a lever inside the lock which moves simultaneously with the hammer and never misses capping the nipple just in time no matter in what position the piece may be held at the time of firing

For rapidity of firing the Sharps Rifle is remarkable if not unrivalled In the testing range at the Works the piece is frequently loaded and sired twenty six times per minute An inexperienced practitioner finds no difficulty in firing and loading from ten to fourteen shots per minute Its simplicity of construction freedom from accident and facility of cleaning as well as its accuracy and rapidity of firing have given it a popularity both as a weapon of warfare and for purposes of sport that places it among the most successful and remarkable of modern inventions

About 450 men are now employed in these works and about 30,000 Rifles are produced annually When the new machinery is in full operation it is probable the production will be doubled


From: A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, by John Leander Bishop, Philadelphia, 1868, Page 413-417
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