The trail wound through the mountain pass in a series of blind switchbacks that made the use of flankers and advance scouts impossible as the cavalry patrol edged cautiously forward. Suddenly a score of Jezail muskets crackled from the cover of earthworks sited well upslope. Men and horses fell, while other troopers dismounted and formed a loose skirmish line to return fire. A hussar, mouthing prayers in a Donegal brogue as he worked the lever of his Sharps carbine rifle to slide another linen-cased cartridge home in its smoking breech, dropped an elder warrior. At that point the Afghan hillmen, puzzled at the speed with which the Europeans reloaded their weapons, retreated over the next ridgeline. Peace was being upheld again on the Raj’s Northwest Frontier by a handful of troopers armed with blades forged in Sheffield and carbines crafted in Connecticut.
After decades of complacency, the Crimean War of 1854 spurred the British army to reform its command structure and modernize its weapons. An early example came in 1853, when the new pattern of Enfield rifled musket was adopted for general field service.
British cavalry regiments had used a variety of carbines since the Napoleonic wars, such as smoothbore Pagets and Nocks and, for a fortunate few, rifled Baker carbines. By 1854, the standard cavalry long arm was the Pattern 1842 Victoria carbine, a percussion muzzleloader bored to take a .733-caliber ball that was potent but woefully inaccurate past 50 yards.
In July 1855, the British placed an order with the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. for 1,000 carbines of the improved 1852 pattern, followed in August by an order for another 5,000. Except for a minor .06-inch increase in bore diameter, no significant modifications were required—until late September, when the British purchasing agent specified that all of Christian Sharps’ carbines had to be fitted with the Maynard patent tape-priming device. Lacking the production capacity to manufacture 6,000 such weapons on short notice, Sharps signed a contract with Robbins & Lawrence of Hartford, Conn., on November 9, 1855, to fabricate “500 carbines of 32 bore, with 6 grooves; and 6,000 to be ‘bored to the model sent from England’ with 3 grooves.” Of the latter, 3,000 were to have 21-inch barrels and 3,000 were to have 18-inch barrels.
Although the contractor eventually incurred some penalties for late deliveries, 6,000 carbines were in British hands before autumn 1856—too late to see service in the Crimea. The 7th Queen’s Own Hussars received 500 of the new weapons on July 10, 1857. Deliveries followed to the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, the 2nd Queen’s Bays Dragoon Guards and the 3rd Prince of Wales’ Dragoon Guards at their home depots.
Meanwhile, in India, anti-British sentiments came to a head when Hindu and Muslim soldiers serving in the army of the East India Company, incited by rumors—eventually proved false—that the paper-cased small-arms cartridges issued to them were greased with tallow from both pigs and cattle, mutinied. The native troops, called sepoys, left Bengal and the Punjab in flames. The 36,000 British troops on the scene were hard-pressed to survive, much less keep the uprising from spreading.
By the late summer of 1857, however, the tide was slowly turning against the mutineers. Reinforcements were mustered in England, including all of the Sharps-armed mounted regiments. Two of them were fated to miss most of the action—the 1st Dragoon Guards were crippled by a dearth of suitable mounts, while the 3rd Dragoon Guard was employed mainly in courier and escort duties. The 2nd Dragoon Guards and the 7th Hussars landed in India on November 27. The 8th Hussars took ship in Cork with the 17th Lancers early in October and reached Bombay in mid-December.
A squadron of the 7th Hussars was detached at newly recaptured Cawnpore and sent to reinforce the 4,000-man garrison holding Alambagh, an outpost near Lucknow, which had been under repeated attacks since mid-November. The squadron’s Sharps carbines doubtless boosted the defenders’ firepower until the last assault was repulsed in late February 1858.
Meanwhile, Field Marshal Sir Colin Campbell had massed 31,000 troops to retake Lucknow in March, after a 19-day siege of the rebel citadel. His 3,500 cavalrymen were grouped in a division of two brigades commanded by Maj. Gen. Sir James Hope Grant. Brigadier William Campbell of the 2nd Dragoon Guards led one brigade that included his own regiment and the 7th Hussars, as well as the 1st Punjab Cavalry, Hodson’s Horse and Barrow’s Volunteer Cavalry.
On March 6, 1858, a large party of mutineers sortied from the fieldworks surrounding Lucknow and clashed with Campbell’s cavalry. Two squadrons of the Bays led by Major Percy Smith pursued the rebels three miles to within musket range of their lines, killing more than 100 before they were slowed by broken ground and their own casualties. Smith and two troopers died, while six other Dragoon Guardsmen were wounded. The final assault on Lucknow succeeded, but mishandling of the cavalry division by senior commanders permitted thousands of the rebels to escape through a gap in the British lines.
The onset of hot weather plagued Campbell’s methodical advance, intended to clear north-central India of the mutineers and their allies, while a resurgence in enemy activity sparked a sharp engagement at Nawabganj, northeast of Lucknow. In the searing heat of mid-June, Grant made a swift night march with 3,500 troops to surprise 15,000 rebels. After nearly three hours of fighting, a large body of Ghazi tribesmen and a section of rebel artillery moved to attack the British right, but Grant saw the danger in time and sent the 7th Hussars in with a battery in support, driving off the enemy with the loss of nine guns and 600 dead. At the end of the battle, the British tallied 67 combat casualties and nearly 300 men killed or prostrated by sunstroke.
As Sir Colin Campbell’s forces continued their reconquest of northern India, Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh Rose led the 4,500- man Central India Field Force in a five-month, 1,000-mile campaign against the rebels to the south, fighting 16 actions and capturing 100 guns, two fortresses, two cities and 20 forts. By the late spring of 1858, Rose had scored repeated victories, but strong rebel forces remained at large under the leadership of such figures as Tantia Topi and Lakshmibai, the charismatic Rani of Jhansi, whose beauty, courage and fighting skill won her admirers even in the British ranks. In mid-June, Rose confronted both Tantia Topi and the rani near the fortress of Gwalior.
The 8th Hussars were brigaded with the lancers of the 1st Bombay Cavalry and the 2nd Troop, Bombay Horse Artillery, commanded by Brigadier Michael W. Smith, who led one of several converging columns to rendezvous with Rose’s main force. Rose resumed the advance on the morning of June 17. The infantry and artillery forced a large rebel contingent to retreat through Morar, over a range of hills and then through a narrow pass that could have served as a strong defensive position had the enemy chosen to make a stand. The 8th Hussars led the advance through the defile and found the rest of the rebel force drawn up in battle formation on the plains fronting Gwalior’s walls. Smith knew his cavalrymen were vastly outnumbered, but he was loath to let the rebels regain the initiative. The brigadier deployed a light squadron of 98 troopers from the 8th and ordered a charge as his infantry and artillery provided covering fire.
For the second time in less than four years, the 8th Hussars charged an entire army. Showing the same resolve as at Balaclava, Captain Clement Heneage and the many other veterans of that ghastly action cut their way into an already buckling rebel line and thundered on. With the rebel infantry in full flight, the troopers sheathed their sabers and brought their carbines to the ready as a tangle of Pathan horsemen sought to blunt their charge where a battery of guns still commanded the roadway. Heneage’s troopers swept on, and in seconds they were leaping the barricade and weaving among the limbers as rebel artillerymen died or fled before them.
The Pathan horsemen rallied as a slim figure dressed as a man held her mount’s reins in her teeth and crossed steel with Heneage’s lead troopers. A Sharps cracked, and the impact of a .577 round lifted the Rani of Jhansi from the saddle and left her dying in the roiling dust amid the riot of hooves.
One officer of the 8th died of sunstroke, seven men were killed and another seven wounded in the melee, but the rebels had lost all heart for battle, and the hussars hauled the captured guns to British lines. Another battle followed on June 18, but the Bombay lancers charged over the same ground crossed by Heneage’s men the day before and led Rose’s infantry into the streets of Gwalior, as Tantia Topi and his army fled. Heneage and three troopers of the 8th were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Gwalior victory marked the end of any major offensive threat from the mutineers, but many smaller actions remained to be fought, as fugitive bands were hunted down. The 8th Hussars remained in the thick of things between December 1857 and May 1859, during which the Sharps repeatedly proved its worth. A typical engagement took place on the banks of the Bunas River on August 15, 1858, when Captain George Clowe’s troop of the 8th and a detachment of the 1st Bombay’s lancers drove a band of rebels into a thicket of brush so tangled and dense that neither saber nor lance could come into play. “We spread out in skirmishing order, got out the carbines (the new Sharpe’s [sic] breechloading ones) and shot every man of them we could see,” boasted the regimental history of that action. Six months later the hussars fought a large rebel band mounted on camels, whose height kept their riders beyond a saber’s reach until the Englishmen’s pistols and carbines carried the day, killing about 200 mutineers.
Soon after the suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny, the Sharps carbines were cracking on the skirmish lines again. In January 1860, a squadron of the 1st Dragoon Guards joined the 11,000-man “China Expeditionary Force” as it departed India and sailed eastward to a confrontation with Imperial China. When not clashing with Tartar cavalry, the guardsmen performed patrol, escort and scouting duties, as well as the dangerous task of carrying daily dispatches for 75 miles between Tientsin and Beijing.
Back in India, a series of uprisings broke out along the Northwest Frontier in the fall of 1863. On January 2, 1864, a force of 5,000 Mohmand tribesmen massed to attack Fort Shabqadr. The isolated post was held by 1,700 troops, including 145 troopers of the 7th Hussars and 332 mounted sepoys of the 2nd and 6th Bengal cavalry.
The British elected to meet the Mohmands on an expanse of level, cleared ground near the fort. The tribesmen threw their right wing forward and down from the high ground, giving the Europeans a chance to mount a charge. The 7th charged the Mohmands three times before the garrison commander sent forward his infantry in skirmishing order. The tribes men, lashed by Sharps fire on their flank and Enfield rounds from their front, retreated across the border.
The Sharps remained in the hussars’ and guardsmen’s hands for another four years as they kept the peace and punished transgressors along the border. On November 10, 1868, the 7th Hussars received 337 new Snider Enfield breechloading, metallic-cartridge carbines from the Ferozepore Arsenal and gave up its Sharps.
Little in the way of official comment survives of the British evaluation of the Sharps as a service weapon, although one veteran ordnance officer criticized it for leaking gas at the breech and a tendency for caked powder fouling to make it difficult to open the breechblock after prolonged firing. These faults, however, were common to virtually all breechloading weapons of the time. The ordnance mavens decided against adopting the Sharps as an army-wide standard cavalry arm, and by February 1864 only 2,400 of the original 6,000 weapons purchased remained in British hands. The bulk of the carbines had been declared surplus and sold to the U.S. government, which was then combing Europe for arms with which to equip the Union cavalry during the Civil War.
If the British had experienced mixed feelings about their American breechloaders, their enemies found much to admire, for several native-made copies of the Sharps, originating in India, are known to exist today. Afghan tribal artisans on the Northwest Frontier were adept at fashioning copies of virtually every British service arm they captured in more than a century of conflict, and it is entirely possible that ersatz Model 1855 Sharps carbines appeared on the frontier before the end of the 1850s. In America the Sharps carbine was dubbed “Beecher’s Bible” after the Northern abolitionist clergyman who shipped crates of the weapons to Kansas for use by the Free State militia in that divided territory on the eve of the Civil War. On the disputed Northwest Frontier of India, the Sharps carbines bearing the Victorian cipher on their lockplates might well have been dubbed “Khyber Korans” or “Heneage’s Hymnals” in recognition of the role they played in the thrust and parry of life as experienced by both those who guarded and those who challenged the outposts of an empire.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.