Hunters, frontiersmen and a Mormon scion favored it.
Buffalo runners in the waning days of the great hunts, Rocky Mountain outdoorsmen and a son of Brigham Young were among the Westerners who took to the last and most advanced of the famous Sharps rifles, the Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878. As the Model 1874 had proved a tried-and-true frontier workhorse, and this updated model lacked the distinctive outside hammer, the Sharps-Borchardt didn’t set any sales records. But frontiersmen gradually conceded that the new Sharps action was an improvement, and more and more orders came in to the company. One typical customer admitted he didn’t like the rifle at first because it was “hammerless” but ultimately decided it was “much quicker and safer.”
Sharps rifles originated just after the Mexican War and were popular through the buffalo-hunting heyday of the 1870s and 1880s. Muzzle-loading rifles were still the rage in 1848 when Christian Sharps introduced his rugged, reliable, single-shot breechloader, a design that saw continued improvements from 1849 onward. In the 1850s, Sharps rifles were the most successful breechloading long-arms, outlasting the percussion cap and paper cartridge era and thriving in the metallic cartridge period—a span of 32 years.
The industrious gunsmith arranged to have Albert Nippes of Mill Creek, Pa., produce his first rifles, and then moved the operations to Windsor, Vt., where Robbins & Lawrence manufactured his Models 1851, 1852 and 1853. The inventor organized the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. as a holding company in 1851 and served as its lead engineer for a couple of years.
The company was headquartered in Hartford, Conn., and in 1856 shifted all of its operations there. The Model 1855 was the first Sharps produced entirely in the Nutmeg State. Its “slanted breechblock,” which rested in the frame at a modest backward angle, was the standard design. Once Sharps secured further patents in 1856 and 1859, armorers redesigned the action into what became the “straight breech,” the final major refinement.
The first Sharps to incorporate the new straight breech action were the Models 1859 and 1863, which were popular Civil War arms. The solid, boxy frame featured a drop-block action; to load the weapon, a user would pump the lever to expose the chamber. Sharps modified the prominent side-mounted hammer on postwar carbines to use rimfire and centerfire metallic cartridges. The factory and armories converted the Model 1859s and ’63s to accept .50-70 government centerfire or .52-70 rimfire cartridges, selling them on the surplus and used arms markets. The factory also produced updated cartridge carbines or rifles, designated as the Model 1867, Model 1868 and so forth.
The Model 1874 Sharps, which entered production in 1871, was a big hit with frontiersmen. After April 1876, the barrels of these Model 1874s (then being manufactured in Bridgeport, Conn.) were stamped OLD RELIABLE—words now synonymous with any Sharps rifle from any period, though the Model 1874 was the rifle that made Sharps the talk of the West. Billy Dixon used a borrowed .50-90 Sharps to bring down a southern Plains Indian at 1,538 yards in the 1874 fight at Adobe Walls. The Model 1874 logged more than a dozen grades and variations, and modern collectors consider it the second-most desirable Sharps rifle after the extremely rare Model 1869.
In 1878 the Bridgeport factory introduced a model that broke the mold, featuring an internal firing pin that dispensed with Sharps’ signature external hammer. The new hammerless, flat-sided frame was thoroughly modern-looking. Its designer was Hugo Borchardt, an inventor who would gain lasting fame in the late 19th century for his C-93 semi-automatic pistol, which inspired the German Luger.
Sharps produced some 8,700 Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardts between 1878 and 1881, when the company closed its doors. It offered nine styles of the rifle, some bearing names identical to those in the Model 1874 line, including the Hunters Rifle, the Business Rifle, the Military Rifle, the Mid-Range Rifle, the Long-Range Rifle and a host of other sporting varieties. One could also custom order variations from Sharps’ inhouse shop for an additional charge. To accent the flat frame sides of the Sharps-Borchardt, the factory offered hard rubber or fancy walnut panels.
The Sharps-Borchardt was available in any caliber from .40-50 to the buffalo-dropping .45-100. Its sleek lines and radical characteristics appealed to such famous Western gunsmiths as Denver’s Carlos Gove, who did repair work for buffalo hunters and demonstrated the accuracy and efficiency of this rifle.
Another fan was Alfales Young, one of Mormon leader Brigham’s 50-plus children. On July 20, 1878, Alfales placed a $150 order with the Sharps Rifle Company for a deluxe engraved Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 Long-Range Rifle with a leather trunk case, reloading tools and cartridge cases. The rifle was set in beautifully figured Italian walnut, and the left side of the stock bore an oval silver plate inscribed, ALFALESYOUNG / SALT LAKE CITY / UTAH. Alfales, who worked as a newspaperman, used the rifle for long-range hunting and shooting and kept it until his death on March 30, 1920.
In early 1997, J.C. Devine Inc. auction house contacted Mormon Church officials to see if they were interested in bidding on Alfales’ rifle, given its ties to the man who had brought the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints safely west and founded Salt Lake City. Officials declined, citing the rifle’s association with the sometimes-violent early days of Mormon history. And so, at auction that April 6, the Alfales Young rifle sold for $47,000.
Modern-day gun collectors revere the time-honored Sharps brand, as did 19thcentury buffalo hunters, settlers, lawmen and sportsmen. When people think Sharps, they usually picture a rifle or carbine with that distinctive S lever and a beefy hammer on the right side of the frame. But no collector or Wild West aficionado should forget the singular but important Sharps-Borchardt. This sleek, classy and, yes, hammerless firearm was not only an “Old Reliable” in its own right but also the last of a line that made the West safe for the Winchester.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.