The Winchester rifle has often been cited as “The Gun that Won the West,” and while that claim has some merit in that it was an effective weapon in the hands of cowboys and U.S. marshals, in reality it was the Sharps Wild West Blockbuster, a .50 caliber buffalo rifle that won the West—for one big reason.
Sheer stopping power.
The large caliber slug of lead the Sharps fired was used to decimate the buffalo herds that numbered the Great Plains of the 1870’s, and thus cut the food supply for the nomadic Native American Indian tribes. This allowed the U.S. government to subdue and confine them onto reservations.
“The Sharps Co. made rifles in the calibers of .40, .45 and .50,” said Kirk Bryan, Sharps aficionado and owner of Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Co., a firm that makes recreation historic guns located in Big Timber, Montana. “The biggest of them was the .50/90 caliber. It fired a 650 gram bullet.”
The gun was named after its designer Christian Sharps and was patented in 1848. It was produced by the A.S. Nippes Co. in Philadelphia beginning in 1850. Later the company moved to Connecticut where the Sharps carbine version became an in-demand item for soldiers in the Civil War.
Use of the classic 1874 Sharps by hunters to decimate the buffalo was as much a strategic political decision as it was a weapon of choice.
“It was all political,” Bryan said. “The government wanted to kill off the food that was feeding the Indians. The army used to even donate ammunition to the buffalo hunters. The weapon could knock down a Native American’s horse at a hundred yards or over.”
The gun featured a revolutionary “slanting breech” system with a “falling block” action and a priming device that rotated a new primer cap each time the trigger was pulled and the weapon’s hammer fell. A lever on the underside was lowered to open the breech. A single bullet was then placed in the breech and black powder inserted (or a paper powder cartridge).
Though a single-shot weapon, in experienced hands the Sharps could fire at a rate of about 10 shots per minute, a vast improvement over muzzle-loader weapons of the day.
The weapon also carried an innovative-for-the-time double trigger that allowed the shooter to pull the rear trigger, setting up the front trigger to fire at the slightest tug. This made possible the steadying of the gun for long-distance shots. Shooters often used props to steady their aim.
Practically astronomical distances were achieved by the powerful discharge with effective shots of 1,000 yards or more. Killing from great distances led to the near extinction of the buffalo as far removed from sight or smell, hunters could down the uncomprehending helpless animals one after another in a herd—in the hundreds and then thousands.
During its heyday over 120,000 Sharps rifles were produced.
Perhaps the most famous long-distance shot made by a Sharps came during the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in June of 1874. A group of 28 buffalo hunters took refuge in the ruins of an old trading post in the Texas Panhandle after they were besieged by approximately 700 Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Billy Dixon, firing a Sharps, dropped a brave off his horse at an estimated 1,500 yards distance. Discouraged, the tribesmen broke off their attack.
After the end of the Wild West the Sharps continued to be used by soldiers, sportsmen and hunters, converting to use of metal cartridges instead of black powder, one of the few designs of the period to make the transition.
The Sharps has been featured in many Western Movies and is highly valued today as a collectible and sporting arm. For an antique be prepared to pay from $3,000 on up to $17,000 or more depending on model rariety and condition.