The Swan Song Of The Sharps Rifle Co. Was Perhaps The Best
Single-Shot Rifle Of The Era.
When the Sharps Rifle Company ceased production in 1881, it went out with a bang, having produced in the waning years of the company what many still consider the most elegant single-shot action ever designed—the 1878 Sharps-Borchardt. A few years later, Borchardt’s name would once again be associated with a firearms marvel, the world’s first successful semi-automatic pistol, the C-93 Borchardt, which became the inspiration for the Georg Luger’s enduring Pistole ’08.
Hugo Borchardt was a mechanical genius with a definite flair for design and a born businessman. Born in Germany in 1844, he immigrated to the United States when he was 16 years old and became a naturalized citizen. At the age of 28 he became Superintendent of Works for the Pioneer Breech-Loading Arms Co. Two years later, he became a foreman with the Singer Sewing Machine Co. and 2 years later at the age of 32, became the Superintendent of the Sharps Rifle Company.
With the dissolution of the Sharps Rifle Company in 1881, Borchardt returned to Europe permanently. Over his working life, he designed not only the Sharps-Borchardt action and the C-93 pistol, but a variety of inventions ranging from shirt neck shapers to electrical household appliances for gas lighting and heating and in 1915, patented a toggle-action, semi-automatic rifle. Borchardt passed away in Berlin in 1924 at the age of 79.
The early ’60’s found me at Fort Sill, Okla., going through the joint services, artillery officer’s school. Thankfully, the weekends were all ours, and I would roar down to Dallas where I had family and a girlfriend or two.
The finest antique arms store in Dallas at the time was Jackson Arms. It was not a large shop, but it reeked “quality” as in a matched pair of Winchester 1886 .45-90 saddle ring carbines and cased sets of dueling pistols. It was stuff a penny-poor, second lieutenant could only dream about, but on my second weekend visit to the shop, something caught my eye.
It wasn’t displayed prominently. Off in the corner of a gun rack was a racy-looking, Sharps-Borchardt sporting rifle composed of an original commercial-type, Sharps-Borchardt action, a .45-70 barrel stamped P.O. Ackley, a classic English walnut stock complete with a Schnabel fore-end and a Lyman tang sight. I never determined whether or not it was made entirely within the P.O. Ackley shop, but being a modern composite gun, it didn’t fit the Jackson Arms mold, and its price tag of $125 clearly reflected Mr. Jackson’s sentiment. Dates could wait, but Sharps-Borchardts couldn’t and wouldn’t. It was the fastest, wallet-emptying, $125 I ever shucked out.
Until you’ve owned one, handled one, shot one, you can’t really begin to appreciate how utterly modern the hammerless 1878 Sharps-Borchardt action really is. Originally introduced as a military musket model, here’s what the 1878 Sharp’s catalog had to say about it:
“For safety, accuracy, penetration, range, ease of manipulation, rapidity and certainty of fire, strength, durability and lightness of recoil, they are unequaled by any rifle made.
The innovative Borchardt action is a classic, dropping-block, single shot.
The military model is the most common and most affordable of the Sharps-Borchardts.
“These are built in .45 caliber, with a length of shell 2-1/10 inches, 75 grains of powder, 420 grains lead, U.S. cartridges can be used, length of barrel 32 inches, length of rifle 48-1/2 inches, weight without bayonet 9 pounds.
“Price without bayonet: $20.00
“Price with bayonet: $22.50
“Objections may possibly be made to the absence of the outside hammer on account of the difficulty in executing the movement of ‘Support Arms.’ It should be remembered that the manual is made for arms, and not arms for the manual.
“It is vastly more important, when an enemy is approaching, to be able to shoot him effectually, rather than salute him gracefully.”
Examining the action in detail, it is hammerless with a light, in-line firing pin powered by a strong, coiled mainspring. Lock time is very fast since the striker fall is only 0.312-inch.
The vertical operating breechblock is fully supported by the rear shoulders of the receiver. In the custom gun trade, the action was noted for its strength and desirability for rebarreling with modern high-pressure cartridges, particularly varmint cartridges, but only after the firing pin was reduced in diameter and bushed and a gas port drilled in from the top of the block.
The trigger and sear are simple and were set at the factory to a weight-of-pull of 3 to 3-1/2 pounds in the sporting models. When the finger lever is opened and the breechblock lowered, the striker is cocked and a safety lever just to the rear of the trigger automatically engages and blocks the trigger until it is disengaged by pulling rearward. (Sharps noted in their catalog the safety lever could be easily removed for military rapid fire).
The Sharps factory did fit some of its target and sporting models on request with set triggers, but apparently the factory set triggers were not well thought of. The finest set trigger ever developed for the Sharps-Borchardt was the work of gunsmith, A.O. Zischang of Syracuse, New York. Zischang favored the Sharps-Borchardt action above all others for building what many consider the finest, most accurate Schuetzen rifles of the era. Zischang also worked at the Sharps Rifle Company for several years as a barrel maker, and the company’s finest mid- and long-range target models often bear Zischang barrels.
The Borchardt military model sports a very unique-looking, tulip-headed, cleaning rod.
Adjustable to 1,000 yards, the military Borchardt sights
offer a crisp, precise, sight picture.
The design of the Borchardt’s striker-fired action
was light years ahead of its time.
The buttstock of the Sharps-Borchardt is attached to the receiver with a large through-bolt extending from the end of the butt through the small of the stock and is threaded into the rear of the receiver. Such a rigid design enhances the accuracy of a single shot. Also, the action exhibits little drop so it can be stocked along classic lines without resorting to a high- or Monte Carlo-style comb.
Overall, the action is streamlined, compact and beautifully machined, hardened and finished. Both sides of the receiver are flat and offer an engraver an inviting canvas. Many of the finer factory, sporting and target grades of the Sharps-Borchardt sport inletted side panels of hard rubber or richly grained walnut to match the stock. A little known fact is that when the two, large bolt heads, or threaded plugs, seen on both sides of the action are removed, the exposed holes are actually the entry points for the factory milling cutter used to rout out the receiver for the inletted side panels.
The Sharps-Borchardt action was produced in two styles: the military action seen here, which is very square in profile, and the sporting or target action, which is gracefully rounded at the top and bottom of the receiver.
The two most often seen criticisms of the Sharps-Borchardt action seen in the popular press are that there is no firing pin retractor, causing the pin to hang up in a fired primer and jamming the action, and there is no camming action by the breech block as the cartridge is seated in the chamber. As I learned from tuning my first Sharps-Borchardt, both critiques are unwarranted.
The firing pin is controlled by a round, transverse cocking pin that rides in two, matching, cocking cam plates screwed to the inside of both receiver walls. The cocking cam plates, which would be tricky to repair or duplicate, are hard. The round cocking pin (think of it as a short steel dowel), which follows the grooves in the cocking cam plates, is softer so that it wears and not the cocking cams. If the cocking pin is not worn and is in full contact with the cocking cam grooves, the firing pin is retracted instantly as the finger lever is opened. If the cocking pin is worn beyond a certain point, there will be some lost motion, and the firing pin will hang up in the fired primer. The solution is simple. Replace the worn cocking pin. I turned unhardened drill rod to make replacement cocking pins, and they worked perfectly.
Yes, the breechblock of the Sharps-Borchardt does not have a camming action. It works perfectly vertically, and if your cases are sized properly and have a standard rim thickness, there isn’t any problem in seating a cartridge in the chamber with finger pressure alone.
The receiver carries an indelible credit to the mechanical genius of
Hugo Borchardt. The Sharps company markings are repeated on the barrel.
As the breech block is lowered the safety automatically snaps into the
rear of the trigger. The big threaded plug screw just above the trigger
covers the hole for the entry of the milling cutter to rout out the side panels.
“Old Reliable” can still pound out some tight groups.
Produced from 1878-1881, approximately 8,700 Sharps-Borchardts were made in 10 distinct models ranging from the basic military rifle pictured here to the most refined, long-range rifles of the day. Of the 8,700 produced, 6,900 of those were the basic military rifle model, which is still commonly seen today and affordably priced for the collector. As a military arm, it failed to impress the world’s military who, by 1878, were seeking repeaters, not single shots, although in 1877, 300 were purchased by the Imperial Chinese Army for trials and the states of South Carolina, Louisiana and Michigan purchased the model for their militia units.
Ironically, it wasn’t until the Schuetzen era when leading gunsmiths like Zischang, Axel Petersen and George Schoyen plied their gun-building magic with the Sharps-Borchardt action that the advanced design of the action was fully appreciated.
How does the military model shoot? My Sharps-Borchardt shows signs of a long and healthy life. The original finish is no longer exemplary, but the bore is pristine. On hand were some 510-grain, semi-spitzer, smokeless loads once offered by Ten-X Ammunition.
Fortunately, the sight picture offered by the Borchardt is crisp and precise. The 50-yard target pictured shows a 3-shot group of 1-1/4 inches. At 100 yards, the Borchardt will cut 2-1/2 inches with the same ammunition. One of my favorite jacketed handloads which will equal the Ten-X loading is the Remington factory 405-grain bullet, 39.0 grs. of IMR-3031 and a Remington 9-1/2 primer. I don’t shoot black powder loads in the Borchardt because the striker fired breechblock is not the easiest to clean thoroughly.
In the 8th edition (2001) of Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values the average price of the military model is quoted from $1,100 in very good condition to $2,500 in excellent condition while the price of the long-range model is listed from $5,000 to $12,500-plus.
And what ever happened to my P.O. Ackley, Sharps-Borchardt sporter? I traded it for a Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine. If, by chance, you own my old P.O. Ackley sporter, I have a beautiful, sensational, absolutely mint, Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine readily available for trade.
Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values-9th Edition by Norm Flayderman, softcover, 752 pages, $39.99, F+W Publications, 700 E. State Street, Iola, WI 54990, (855) 864-2579, www.krausebooks.com
Sharps Firearms by Frank Sellers, hardcover, 358 pages, $75, A&J Arms Booksellers, LLC. 4731 E. Cooper St., Tucson, AZ 85711, (520) 512-1065, www.ajarmsbooksellers.com
Single Shot Rifles and Actions by Frank DeHaas, softcover, 341 pages, Out-of-print
By Holt Bodinson