Share This Article

Legend has it no two were ever manufactured exactly alike.

Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson and Remington are the “Big Four” iconic gun makers of the Wild West, but Sharps isn’t far behind. Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values expertly summarizes this fifth giant:

Among the illustrious names in American firearms history is that of Christian Sharps, originator of a line of extremely practical, sturdy, long-lived and often quite handsome military and sporting rifles and handguns. Sharps arms are associated with several major historical events which shaped American destiny in the 19th century. The substantial quantities in which many of his models were made is testimony to their widespread popularity with both the military and the public during their period of manufacture and use. Undoubtedly the most widely used and popular cavalry weapon of the Civil War was the Sharps carbine. Certainly, one of the guns that most quickly comes to mind in considering the opening and expansion of the West following the Civil War is the Sharps “Buffalo” rifle. The gun was so closely associated with Western lore (and especially that concerning the meat hunters of the Old West) that its name was often used synonymously by writers of the period to indicate any big game rifle. Although no such terminology was ever applied by the Sharps company, in actuality a great many models of Sharps are called by present-day collectors and authors “Buffalo Rifles.”

Actually, two years after Christian Sharps’ death in 1874 one Sharps rifle trademark did become a legend of the Old West— the single-shot Model 1874 “Old Reliable.”

Born in Washington, N.J., in 1810, Christian Sharps apprenticed at the U.S. armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what was then Virginia and never left the firearms business. His original design for a breech-loading, single-shot percussion rifle and carbine became one of the best weapons of the Civil War. And when the self-contained metallic cartridge evolved in the 1860s and 1870s, Sharps was one of the first innovators to make single-shot cartridge rifles and carbines. The vertically sliding breechblock of his cartridge rifles was so powerful and dependable that, as the legend goes, many veterans of the frontier praised their various Sharps rifles as being their “old reliable” guns.

The Model 1874 had actually been in production since 1871, but it was in 1874 that the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. was reorganized as the Sharps Rifle Co. Two years later the new company moved its Hartford, Conn., factory to Bridgeport, Conn., and in April 1876 decided to stamp all future production of the Model 1874 Sharps with an Old Reliable trademark.

One legend about the Old Reliable Model 1874 Sharps that is partially true is that no two of them were ever manufactured exactly alike. That legend evolved mostly because the gun’s action was so strong that it could be ordered in just about any size of powerful cartridge a shooter might want. The basic Sharps cartridges comprised three parts— the powder , the bullet and the cartridge case that the powder and bullet went into—but unlike a standard Colt or Winchester cartridge, all three of those components for a Sharps cartridge could be varied in size and combined to create a unique caliber cartridge.

As Louis A. Garavaglia and Charles G. Worman explain it in Firearms of the American West, 1866–1894, “What really enhanced the Sharps’ popularity among professional buffalo hunters and other frontiersmen was the line of cartridges designed for it, cartridges so ideally suited for the plains that other single-shot manufacturers either copied them directly or devised cartridges which clearly reflected the Sharps influence.”

One particular caliber was so popular with buffalo hunters that it became known as the “Poison Slinger” or “Big Fifty.” And to this day there is controversy about exactly what caliber the Big Fifty was, even though in his bible on the Sharps, Sharps Firearms, author Frank M. Sellers wrote, “The ‘Big Fifty’ Sharps cartridge was the .50 2½ inch, NOT the .50 3¼ inch. No Model 1874 rifle was chambered for a 3¼ inch cartridge of any calibre [sic] at the factory.”

Garavaglia and Worman add: “Because a hide hunter might fire more than a hundred shots per day, he could seldom justify the expense of factory-loaded ammunition: and on the buffalo range during the early 1870s the reloading of cartridge cases by individual shooters really came into its own. In the process a goodly number of hunters devised loads they preferred to the factory standard.”

Besides coming in many calibers, the Old Reliable had barrels that could be ordered in any length or weight, in round or octagon shape, or half-round and half-octagon. Double-set triggers were optional, the type of sights varied, and even the butt-plates came in optional shapes.

The major variations were named “Sporting Rifle,” “Military Rifle,” “Hunter’s Rifle,” “Creedmoor Rifle,” “Mid-Range Rifle,” “Long-Range Rifle” and “Business Rifle.” Standard finish was blue with a casehardened frame, and many were deluxe engraved. The company produced about 12,445 rifles before manufacturing of the Model 1874 Sharps Old Reliable and all other models stopped in October 1880.

Frontiersman James Henry Cook, author of the 1923 memoir Fifty Years on the Old Frontier, favored a .40-90 Old Reliable with a 34-inch octagonal barrel, which cost $125. And , even though the Model 1874 was not yet marked Old Reliable, Billy Dixon used a .50- caliber one to make his now-legendary “mile-long” shot that wounded an Indian leader during the June 29, 1874, Second Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. As gun historian Jim Earle wrote in America: The Men And Their Guns That Made Her Great, “History was made with this long shot, and the reputation of the Sharps rifle would thereafter be measured by this feat.”

In the late 1870s the favorite hunting rifle of frontiersman George Bird Grinnell, was “a .45-90-450 Sharpe [sic] long-range” model. And in 1878 Andrew Garcia, another veteran of the Plains, explained tongue-in-cheek his own decision to purchase a Sharps: “[I] had to buy a buffalo gun. Like the Chinaman who took the largest size boot if it was the same price as the smaller to get more leather for the money, I bought a .45-120 caliber Sharps rifle, a buffalo gun which weighed over 15 pounds and cost $75, although I could have had a lighter .45-90 No. 13 for the same price.”

Buffalo hunter turned lawman Bill Tilghman is alleged to have killed more than 7,500 buffalo with his Model 1874 Sharps rifles, one of which—Serial No. 53858, in .40 caliber with a 32-inch barrel—is in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

The Old Reliable became so popular that, no pun intended, it probably was the most reliable gun on the frontier.


Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.