SHARPS NEW MODEL 1859 RIFLE
Weight ~8 3/4lbs
Weight of projectile ~475 grains
Weight of charge ~50 grains
Colonel Berdan kept trying to obtain authorisation for the Sharps new model 1859 rifle, though the Chief of the Army Ordnance, James Wolfe Ripley, was very anxious to have the regiment armed with Muzzle-Loading Springfield's. Simon Cameron's last act as Secretary of War was to sign an order for a contract for 2,000 Sharps rifles for the Berdan Regiment on January 13, 1862.
Sharps rifles were promised by the President, ordered by General McClellan and signed for by the Secretary of War, yet Ordnance Chief Ripley stalled, did not send the Sharps instead sent 1,000 Colt's revolving rifles, which turned out to be a very unpopular decision. Sharpshooter's refused to use it and almost provoked a mutiny in the 2nd regiment, not only because they had been promised the Sharps but there was a risk with the Colt because of micrometrical differences between the bores of the cylinder and the barrel sometimes causing bullets that passed from one to the other to spew lead filings that stuck in the soldiers neck and face, also all the chambers going off at once, other reasons it was not liked was it's accuracy at long ranges was not to the sharpshooters standard and it was particularly difficult to clean in the field. Still the Colt saw service until the Sharps was issued.
The camp of instruction (the camp of the two regiments of Sharpshooters), became a very fashionable stop on the capitals social rounds, the tours turned into target shooting exhibitions, and it was to one of these Berdan invited Lincoln and other dignitaries, after 100 sharpshooters displayed there marksmanship each hitting a target 500 Yards away. President Lincoln picked up a rifle and using a sapling as a rest his keen shooting brought a roar from the troops, then it was Berdan's turn, an effigy of confederate president Jeff Davis was set up 600 Yrds off to serve as a target and as Berdan was getting ready to fire a War Dept. official taunted him, "what are you going to fire at" the official asked?, the head came the reply. Fire at the eye the official said smugly, the crowd fell silent as Berdan began to aim, and in his quick seemingly careless way fired, when the target was brought back daylight shone through the effigy's right eye, later on the way to the Presidential carriage the president joked about a lucky shot, and in parting said "come down tomorrow and I'll give you the order for the breech-loaders". Because Lincoln witnessed for himself the superiority of the Sharps rifle in the hands of a marksman , the new Secretary of War Stanton ordered the Sharps. The Sharpshooter's finally acquired the Sharps on May 8th 1862.
In total 9,141 Sharps rifle's were purchased by the U.S government during the war. This is in contrast to 80,000 Sharps carbines. Each rifle cost $36.15 as standard, but with Berdan's modifications the price was $43 which included a fly lock, double set triggers and the long angular bayonet with the socket fitting, instead of the sword bayonet which was found to be to heavy and cumbersome which was disliked and discarded. The Sharps was the best single shot breech-loader of the period. While the Spencer and Henry were the best repeater's, historian's of the U.S Sharpshooter's say flatly that "The open sighted Sharps rifle was the best breech loading gun made during the war" it was a perfectly safe and reliable weapon, combining accuracy with rapidity just what a skirmish line needed for effective work.
The average target rifle of the day, which could weigh anything up to 30 lbs, was obviously unsuitable for use in the field, apart from their weight they were not as easy or as fast as the Sharps to load, seeing you would have to be partially upright to use the ramrod (being muzzle-loaders), hence exposing yourself to enemy fire. Though the heavier rifles were still used, mainly in permanent or semi-perminent fortifications or where a shot could be made in relative safety and generally from a rest, these heavy target rifles more often than not were fitted with either telescopic or globe sights.
Many of the Sharpshooter's exploits became legendary, even an individual's marksmanship could win him notoriety, as in private Truman Head "California Joe " of Berdan's 1st U.S Sharpshooter's who became much idolised for his skill with a Sharps rifle.
As a note of interest John Brown used Sharps Carbines in his raid on Harper's Ferry Arsenal on one Sunday night, October 16,1859.
© 2002 Andy Sherlock & Daz Selby
Many thanks to Darren Selby for contributing the main body of text. © 1999 Darren Selby No reproduction of text without the express permission of the author Darren Selby.