Sharps’ .50-70 carbine

Thunder heard across the Great PlainS
22

Converted Sharps carbines in .50-70 caliber were the primary arms
of the U.S. Cavalry Regiments following the Civil War.

If there ever were a name to conjure up strong images of Western battles and big game hunts, it would be the name Sharps. In the hands of the U.S. Cavalry and buffalo hunters, Sharps Model 1874 .50-70 carbines are simply romantic firearms. The four-volume study of Sharps Firearms by Roy Marcot and Ron Paxton, recently released by Northwood Heritage Press, brings forth more data and images of Sharps firearms and their use than any references we’ve ever had access to before. The work simply breathes new life into the legends of the Sharps big-bore single-shots.

Although partially stripped during the centerfire conversion, the Lawrence pellet priming
system, seen under the hammer, moved a pellet primer onto the nipple.

Carbine Cachet

I’ve always been attracted to the original Sharps carbines. They’re handy, powerful, attractive and a lot more affordable than Sharps rifle models. You can stuff your pocket with a few .50-70 rounds, stroll out the back door and go hunting plus it also has a fascinating history.

During the Civil War, there were 19 major breechloading Federal cavalry carbines fielded. In terms of total wartime production, the big five were the Spencer (94,196 produced), Sharps (80,512), Burnside (55,567), Smith (30,062) and Starr (25,603). As a group, the Union carbines of the Civil War were the most attractive shoulder arms of the conflict. Light, short, fast firing and accurate, the breechloading cavalry carbines signaled the coming end of the single-shot muzzleloader era.

At the conclusion of the war, the Ordnance Department was sitting on countless stacks of carbines, including approximately 50,000 percussion Sharps carbines and rifles. The challenge facing the Ordnance Department was to select the next generation of firearms for the infantry and cavalry and, being financially strapped after the cessation of hostilities, to do it at the least cost. The answer was to convene a “Board” to test and evaluate possible firearm options.

With the end of the war came an end of military contracts and most Civil War-era firearms manufacturers simply went out of business and disappeared forever. Sharps was barely hanging on, which begs the obvious question — why didn’t Sharps put a metallic cartridge model of their own into production? It seems they didn’t have the capital to do it, but the problem was about to change.

The .50-70 carbine delivered “musket power” in a compact, cavalry arm.

A New Powerful Package

The Ordnance Department was looking for a carbine design to deliver “musket power” in a compact package. Fortunately, one of the outstanding qualities of the Sharps action design was its ability to handle powerful cartridges.

In January 1867, 10 months after the “Board” concluded its evaluations, the Chief of Ordnance, General A.B. Dyer, contacted the Sharps company and requested they submit a percussion-to-centerfire carbine conversion for testing to the Springfield Armory chambered for the new .50-70-450 Gov’t cartridge.

Springfield Armory was impressed with the Sharps, and in October 1867, a government contract was signed with the Sharps Company to begin converting the New Model 1859, New Model 1863 and New Model 1865 carbines held in government stores to .50-70 centerfire models.

The conversion process turned out to be a cooperative effort between the Springfield Armory and Sharps, with the Armory providing overall supervision and producing an assortment of replacement parts like stocks, springs and tumblers as well as relining oversize barrels.

The conversion consisted largely of removing the parts from the Lawrence patented percussion primer system, replacing the breech block, adding a firing pin and extractor and sleeving the chamber to .50-70. However, it took the Springfield Commandant to identify a serious underlying problem — oversized .52 caliber percussion bores which ran as large as .53 caliber.

He then decided any bore over 0.5225" in diameter was to be relined. Richard Lawrence at Sharps reported almost two-thirds of the percussion models delivered to the factory exceeded tolerance so the oversize barrels were removed at Sharps and sent to the Springfield Armory for relining.

As a point of identification, Sharps relined at Springfield sport the standard 3-groove, .50-70 barrel adopted by the Armory for the Trapdoor conversions while unlined Sharps barrels still carry the original Sharps 6-groove barrel.

The simplicity of the Sharps falling block action and its ease of
cleaning made it popular with the troops.

These patents covered the Sharps design and Lawrence’s unique pellet priming system.

Goin’ Out West

The conversion contract called upon Sharps to convert 1,000 percussion models a month. From February 1868 to October 1869, approximately 32,190 carbines were switched over to the .50-70 cartridge. The carbines were immediately sent to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments in the West, replacing their Spencer repeating rimfire carbines. Until replaced by the Model 1873 carbine in .45-70, the big Sharps was the primary arm of the U.S. Cavalry during the early Indian Wars and its hearty Boom! commanded the Plains.

In either original or replica form, the Sharps .50-70 carbine is a hoot-to-shoot. With a load built around Lee or Lyman’s 425- to 450-gr. bullets, cast with a 20/1 temper or Hornady’s pre-formed 385-gr. Great Plains bullet, Starline brass, Federal 215 magnum primers and either 55 grains of Blackhorn powder or 9.5 grains of Trail Boss, my typical 3-shot groups at 50 yards range from 1.25"–2.75". I do find the short, coarse sight picture of the carbine a serious challenge for group shooting, yet the original carbine sights are graduated out to 800 yards. Those old boys could shoot!

Original Sharps carbines in good shooting condition are not uncommon, and if you need a good excuse to buy one, they’re only going to appreciate in value. On the other hand, strictly as a shooter, get the new replicas to enjoy the romance of the Sharps and the .50-70 cartridge without stretching the checking account. Either way, you’re going to love the little Sharps.

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