The breechloading New Model 1859 Sharps Rifle proved
as one of the greatest combat rifles of its day in the hands of
Union soldiers and sailors in the Civil War.
|M1859 Sharps 3 Band Rifle||Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co|
|M1859 Sharps Carbine||A Legend Grows....|
|M1863 Sharps Rifle||Berdan's Sharpshooters|
|M1963 Sharps Carbine|
THE War Between the States saw a large variety of small arms in use by Union forces. While not purchased in large numbers, the New Model 1859 Sharps rifles would emerge from the war as one of the truly great combat breech-loading rifles of that era. In the hands of such famed Northern units as Berdan's Ist and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, 42nd Pennsylvania Bucktails, and sailors at Fort Fisher its place in history was assured.
By 1861, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. of Hartford, Connecticut, had manufactured Christian Sharps breechloading design for a decade. The Sharps design works by lowering the breechblock to allow for inserting a linen cartridge. The linen cartridge contained a 450-gr. bullet with 60-grs. of blackpowder in an overall length of 2.06". The breechblock is then closed. A percussion cap is placed on the nipple and the rifle is ready to be fired. The rifle can also be fired by using the pellet priming system. The 25 pellet primers are contained in a brass tube, which is inserted into the lockplate forward of the hammer. The hammer action places the pellet disc primer on the nipple and ignites the cartridge.
In 1859, the company obtained a number of patent improvements that developed into the NM 1859 Sharps design. The improvements included the patented R.S. Lawrence rear sight. the pellet-cutoff svstem and the vertical breech. The vertical breech gave a better gas seal to limit the escape of gas at the breech. The pellet cutoff device allowed the priming system to be disengaged and allowed use of the percussion cap instead of the pellet primer. At Chancelorsville. on May 2, 1863, one of Berdan's sharpshoot ers had his cap box shot away. Since the Sharps were equipped with the pellet primers, he was able to continue his deadly work without stopping to obtain a supply of percussion caps for his rifle.
U.S. Navy Sharps
The U.S. Navy was first to place an order for the NM 1859 Sharps rifles. On September 9, 1859, the Navy placed an order for 900 Sharps .56-cal. NM 1859 rifles. They were to have 30" barrels and be equipped to take the saber bayonet. The bayonets were manufactured at the Ames Mfg. Co. The first 630 rifles on the contract were delivered in November 1860, with the balance delivered by the outbreak of the war. They were quickly placed on board vessels being outfitted for sea. By June 1861, all the Sharps rifles at the New York Navy Yard had been issued. The last 80 rifles were issued to the frigate Colorado. The Philadelphia Navy Yard had issued all its Sharps by the end of April.
To supply the urgent request for rifles, an additional order was placed for 1,500 .52-cal. NM 1859 Sharps rifles in June with John Mitchell-Sharps' agent in Washington, D.C. Deliveries were made by July. These rifles, like the previous guns, were equipped to take the saber bayonet. In total. the Navy placed contracts with the Sharps factory for 2,400 NM 1859 Sharps rifles. An additional 100 rifles were obtained from the Union Defense Committee of New York in 1861. These Sharps were originally issued to the sidewheeler Quaker City'.
One of the first combat uses for Sharps rifles occurred at Mathias Point, Virginia, on June 27, 1861. The sloop Pawnee and gunboat ThomasFreebornlanded a party of sailors to throw up breastworks of sandbags. When the landing party was returning to its ships, the Confederates opened fire, killing an officer and wounding four sailors. Eleven of the .56cal. Sharps rifles were lost in the action. The Confederates suffered no casualties. One of the ships to receive the .52-cal. Sharps rifles, along with Colt revolvers, muskets and Ames cutlasses, was the sloop Kearsarge. In 1864, she would end the days of the Confederate raider C.S.S. Alabama off the coast of France. Of note, the Marine detachment on the Kearsarge was armed with the 1860-dated Model 1855 Harpers Ferry rifle musket.
The Sharps rifles remained in naval service throughout the war. In the second attack on Fort Fisher on Sunday, January 15, 1865, a naval force of 2,000 sailors and Marines attacked the fort from the seaward side while the Army attacked on land. Rear Admiral David Porter's orders called for each sailor to be armed with only a revolver and a well-sharpened cutlass. Notwithstanding the admiral's orders, many a sailor would also be issued a rifle or carbine. The naval attack took place at 3 p.m. The naval forces advanced as far as the palisades near the fort where the attack fell apart. The sailors from the frigate Minnesota during the attack lost one Spencer and 18 Sharps rifles plus 21 Colt revolvers. Three additional vessels-Shenandoah, Powhatan, and Ft. Jackson- also lost a number of Sharps. In the attack, the naval forces lost 393 of the 2,000 men who took part in the assault. While this attack failed, after several hours of fighting, the Army captured the fort. During the war, more than 70 ships were issued the NM 1859 Sharps rifles. The Sharps rifles were found on board such vessels as the U.S.S. Canbridge, Dictator, Iroqois, Jamestown, Lexington, Mount Vernon, New Ironsides, Quaker City, Richmond, Somerset, St. Lawrence and Wabash. As of December 1, 1866, the Navy had in storage at the various Navy yards 1,530 cal. .52 Sharps and 821 cal. .56 rifles.
State of Connecticut
In April 1861, John Palmer, president of the Sharps Rifle Mfg. Co., contacted the Ordnance Department with a proposal to sell 800 to 1,000 of the best New Model carbines" ... and also that ... the Egyptian Government have not yet provided the funds for paying for the long rifles (600) with sabres we would sell them at $42.50 each. These last have all been inspected by government inspectors are in first rate order, 36-inch barrels and with sabre attach." Since the federal government was not interested in the Egyptian Sharps rifles, Palmer sold them to the state of Connecticut. By June 6th, Connecticut had taken delivery of the 600 36"-barrelled rifles plus more than 300 Sharps rifles with 30" barrels. All of these rifles were in .52 cal.
The Egyptian Sharps were issued to the 2nd Connecticut Infantry, while the others were issued to the two flanking companies of the I st and 4th Connecticut. These regiments were mustered into federal service for 90 days. At the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, the Ist and 2nd Connecticut saw action against Confederate infantry and cavalry. In the battle, the two Connecticut infantry regiments sustained 33 casualties. After the Ist and 4th Connecticut were mustered out of service, the Egyptian Sharps rifles were then issued to the 8th and llth Connecticut, and the Ist Connecticut Heavy Artillery received many of the 30"-barrelled rifles.
At Gettysburg, during Pickett's charge on the third day of the battle, the 14th Connecticut Infantry ran out of .52-cal. Sharps ammunition. Since most of the 14th was armed with the .58 caliber Springfield rifle muskets, the two companies with Sharps rifles used the .58-cal. rifle musket ammunition with no apparent damage to the Sharps. In all, the state of Connecticut purchased from the Sharps factory 1,442 NM 1859 Sharps rifles.
Army Sharps Rifles
In the first year of the war, the Ordnance Department was more interested in obtaining Sharps carbines, rather than rifles, from the Sharps factory. By the end of 1861, it had purchased 5,800 carbines and only 100 rifles from the factory. The 100 rifles delivered were the .56-cal. rifles left over from the Navy contract. They were issued to the Sturgis Rifles-bodyguard to Maj. Gen. George McClellan. In August, on the open market, the Ordnance Department purchased 688 Sharps rifles from the New York Union Defense Committee. Previously, in June, the Army had taken delivery of 109 Sharps rifles and issued them to the two flanking companies of Duryea's 5th New York, which was attacked by the Ist South Carolina. In the melee that followed, the Zouaves suffered casualties of 162 out of 450 engaged while the South Carolinians losses stood at 315 out of 537. The action ended in a Confederate victory.
The most famous unit to receive the NM 1859 Sharps rifles was Col. Hiram Berdan's Ist and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. To be selected as a member, an individual had to place 10 consecutive shots in the target, no farther than an average of 5" from the center of the bull's eye at a distance of 200 yds. To equip the Sharpshooters, the Ordnance Department, in January 1862, placed an order with the Sharps factory for 1,000 Sharps rifles for the 1 st U.S.S.S.. On February 6, an order was placed for a similar quantity of rifles for the 2nd U.S.S.S.. These .52-cal. NM 1859 Sharps were equipped with 30" barrels and took the angular bayonet. The serial number range on the Berdan Sharps was from 54,374 to 57,574. The most telling features of the Berdan Sharps were their double-set triggers and the "JT" inspector cartouche for John Taylor on the left side of the stock. Deliveries were made to the units after they had started on the 1862 Virginia Campaign. The 1st received its rifles at Yorktown in May, and the 2nd obtained its Sharps at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on June 1.
Berdan Sharpshooters used their rifles with deadly effectiveness. At Antietam, in September 1862, the 2nd Sharpshooters inflicted on the 7th South Carolina Infantry across from them casualties of 140 men ot the 2 who were taken into the fight. The Sharpshooters in the action suffered 66 casualties out of 264. In the Second Bull Run Campaign of August 1862, the 2nd Sharpshooters fired 200,000 rounds of ammunition. On July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg, Berdan lead a reconnaissance in force to determine the strength of the Confederates on the extreme left of the Union position. In a 20-minute skirmish against Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox's Brigade of Alabama Infantry, the 100 Sharpshooters of the 1st Regiment averaged 95 rounds of ammunition per man. Berdan reported back to headquarters that indeed the Southerners were in force. Later in the day, Contederate Maj. Gen. James Longstreet made his attack from this area of the battlefield.
It is generally acknowledged that Berdan's Sharpshooters caused more Confederate casualties than any other Union regiment. The Sharpshooter marksmanship can be seen at Orange Court House, Virginia, in July 1862. Berdan's men inflected 30 casualties on the Confederate infantry with their Sharps rifles at a distance of 700 yds. During the war, the Sharpshooters' main duty was as advance skirmishers to train their rifle sights on Confederate officers and artillerymen.
Some Berdan Sharps found their way into other regiments. One such regiment was the 42nd Pennsylvania Bucktails. This regiment received its nickname from the bucktails the men wore in their kepis. In August 1862, a large number of the 42nd having recently being exchanged as prisoners of war were in need of muskets. Since Berdan had a quantity of rifles in storage, they were issued to the Pennsylvania men. The 42nd was quick to see combat first at the Second Battle of Bull Run and later, in September, at Antietam. In total, more than 50 Union infantry regiments during the conflict were issued the NM 1859 Sharps rifles. They included such units not previous stated as the: 66th and 113th Illinois; 3rd, 5th and 16th Michigan; 41st, 76th, 146th and 151th New York; 38th, 105th, 149th, 150th and 190th Pennsylvania; and 37th U.S. Colored Troops.
After completing the 1862 order for the 2,000 Berdan Sharps, the factory went back to manufacturing Sharps carbines.
No further rifles would be manufactured for the following two-and-one-half years. When production was to resume in 1865, it would be for the NM 1863 Sharps rifle. In the three years that the NM 1859 rifle was in production, from late 1859 to the spring of 1862, about 7,000 rifles were produced at the factory. Nearly the entire production went to the three entities described in this article. The 100 rifles not sold to the above-mentioned entities found their way to the states of Georgia and Virginia prior to the outbreak of the war.
In early 1865, the Ordnance Department contracted for 6,000 NM 1863 Sharps rifles. The NM 1863 rifle differed from the previous model only in the barrel markings and an improved cleanout screw in the breechblock. The first of the NM 1863 Sharps rifles were delivered in March and saw action on the 21 st with the 1 st U.S. Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment against Col. Mosby's Partisan Rangers at Hamilton, Virginia. In the skirmish with Mosby both sides suffered about 13 casualties.
Five thousand of the NM 1863 Sharps rifles were received after General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865. With the war at an end, 3,454 Sharps rifles were taken home by the troops after having their pay deducted for the rifle. The post-war era saw 1,086 percussion Sharps rifles converted to .50-70 center-fire cal. and used in the Indian Wars.
After the Civil War, the Sharps factory turned its attention to both civilian and military markets and remained one of the country's main suppliers of rifles into the early 1880s.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Apr 1999
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