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Although only single shot, they proved rugged and accurate.

In 1870 an officer inspecting the 2nd U.S. Cavalry at Fort Ellis, Montana Territory, wrote, “The fire-arm of the Cavalry—the improved Sharps Carbine…I regard as an exceedingly satisfactory weapon.” He was referring to the .50-caliber Model 1868 carbine, which had only recently arrived at that remote post. Over the next four years, that gun saw field service and at least one significant Indian fight.

Union cavalry forces had been armed with a variety of breechloading carbines during the Civil War. Four years of combat had proved the Spencer and the Sharps to be the most dependable and popular designs, and as regiments refitted for service on the Western frontier in 1866, the Army issued troops these carbines. The Spencer incorporated a magazine in the butt stock that held seven .56-50 copper-cased rimfire cartridges. The single-shot Sharps was chambered for a .52-caliber cartridge, its powder charge cased in linen. The latter was rugged and accurate, but it relied on a percussion cap for ignition, making it comparatively slow to reload.

Meanwhile, the infantry had adopted the single-shot Model 1866 Springfield breechloading .50-70 rifle. While the Spencer carbine did boast greater firepower, its effective range was limited to approximately 200 yards; the Springfield cartridge could kill at several times that distance. Design limitations also meant the Spencer could not be modified to accept the longer .50-70 cartridge, whereas the breech design of the Sharps was readily adaptable. Recognizing the Sharps’ advantages, the U.S. Ordnance Department contracted in November 1867 with the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Conn., to alter its carbines at various arsenals to .50-70. By early the following year, the Sharps factory was converting 1,000 carbines per month.

In 1869 both the Lakota Sioux and Blackfeet Indians were preying on white settlements in southern Montana Territory’s Gallatin Valley. They also struck at peacefully inclined Crow Indians, whose agency lay on the Yellowstone River about 35 miles east of Fort Ellis. Fort Ellis had no cavalry garrison to thwart those attacks, so Companies F, G, H and L of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry were dispatched from stations in Nebraska and Wyoming Territory.

Within a year of its arrival in Montana Territory, the battalion exchanged its Spencers for the improved .50-70-caliber Model 1868 Sharps. Two of those carbines, each marked G 2 CAV on its butt stock, are shown here. While both carbines are branded with the same unit iron, one bears a “4” and the other “50,” indicating the number of the soldier in that company to whom it was issued.

It is intriguing to speculate that these carbines accompanied Major Eugene M. Baker’s command when it escorted a party of surveyors laying track across southern Montana Territory for the Northern Pacific Railroad in the summer of 1872. In addition to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, the expedition included four companies of the 7th U.S. Infantry, plus about 20 civilians, making a total force of nearly 400.

On August 14, Baker’s command bivouacked within an encircling slough along the Yellowstone near the mouth of Pryor’s Creek. At approximately 3 a.m., a large war party of Lakotas and Cheyennes, whose leaders included Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, opened fire on the camp. The Indians’ primary objective was to run off the stock, but an alert civilian lying awake in his blankets spotted an approaching warrior and shot him with his revolver. That sparked a fusillade from Indians concealed among the willows fringing the camp. A group of officers enjoying an all-night poker game in one of the tents burst forth, thinking the guards had responded to a false alarm. The bullets whizzing past their ears disabused them of that notion, and they began shouting orders to organize the command.

The infantry commander dispatched two companies to reinforce the herd guard and repel warriors out to steal animals. Although the Indians made off with the beef cattle, the infantrymen counterattacked just in time to prevent them from taking the all-important mules. Within a few minutes, armed cavalrymen were defending the left flank of the camp, while the rest of the infantry protected the opposite flank. The Indians and troops exchanged fire until 4 a.m., when the infantry advanced into the timber bordering the slough and drove the warriors onto the surrounding bluff. Both sides paused to regroup.

Additional warriors soon crossed to the north bank of the river as reinforcements. The Pryor’s Creek fight became a long-range standoff—the soldiers protected by trees and wagons within the slough, while superior numbers of tribesmen occupied high ground some 400 yards away. Neither side could dislodge the other, though a detachment of dismounted cavalrymen charged up the southwest end of the bluff to drive back warriors threatening the camp. The combatants exchanged fire through midmorning, when the Indians decided nothing could be gained by continuing the fight. The Battle of Poker Flat, as officers jokingly referred to it, was over. The Indians had killed a trooper and a civilian and wounded three soldiers. The Indians lost two men killed and perhaps 10 wounded.

After the Pryor’s Creek fight, Company G, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, continued to use its Sharps carbines until fall 1874, when it exchanged them for the new Model 1873 Springfield. We do not know how the two Model 1868 Sharps carbines shown here weathered time, but they remain a tangible link to frontier soldiering.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here