More On The Sharps Rifle
Dear Mr. Hackman,
This is great informationóthank you so much for taking the time to share with me!
You are certainly right about the arrival of the Sharps rifles being a big event! According to the research Iíve found through Territorial Kansas Online, it appears that the first shipment of approx. 200 ďBeecher BiblesĒ probably arrived in June of 1855. There are a couple of newspaper stories in the _Herald of Freedom_ that make veiled references to it.
Your website with photos of the making of paper cartridges was very helpful. Some historical accounts include mention of the newly-formed militia units having target practice and drills, and even getting the women involved in making the cartridges, especially in times where the Free State settlers feared invasions by the Missouri Border Ruffians. Itís really helpful to know that the guns also could be loaded straight from a power horn, and I hadnít considered the problems with paper cartridges getting wet or even torn as they were carried around. My protagonistís mother has forbidden Papa from making cartridges indoors because she fears he will set the house on fire. He is relegated to an outdoor table where he makes them during the evening (in summerómore daylight hours!).
Your description of the loading process is really helpful. I wish I could find someone locally who could show me a Sharps. Iíve seen one in a glass case, but thatís as close as Iíve come. I will take you up on your kind offer to review a passage for hints. The short document that is attached is the scene where the guns first appear. Any suggestions are welcome!
Thanks again for the great information and for the very generous gift of your time to respond to my questions.
Good morning, Debra
Glad to have been helpful.
Black powder is measured by volume. The modern stuff of the 1880s and later was measured by weight in very small increments. Returning to black powder, in a pinch the colonists would cup their hand, put a round ball bullet in it, and pour enough powder in the cupped hand to cover the bullet. Not precise, but serviceable. The typical powder measuring device would remind you of a thimble almost large enough for a thumb.
The Sharps design had an unintended benefit for measuring powder. This paragraph works best if you are holding a Sharps in your hand. With the muzzle front end of the barrel pointed down, push a new bullet in the back and drop it in or push it in as far as it will go. Pour powder in after it to fill the chamber. The breechblock rising to cover the back end of the barrel pushes aside any excess powder to fall to the ground. What's left in the back end of the barrel after the breech is closed is a full powder charge. Loading can be quick this way. Adding the percussion cap is the same whether loose powder or paper cartridges are being used.
The paper cartridge works well (except in the rain) for soldiers because of the supply wagons. But for the frontiersmen, the paper wears and frays in the pocket or leather pouch and leaks powder. Not good and not reliable. For people out doors for weeks or months at a time, it is more serviceable to use loose bullets and a powder horn or flask which is more durable. With me so far?
Rolling paper cartridges is an evening activity. It's something to do after the day is done. But that means firelight to see by, and this brings us to sparks from the fire in either a fireplace or a camp fire. Frontier fireplaces were big affairs so the pot or pan can be moved to the side just to keep the stew or bread warm without too much cooking. Earthen floors don't catch fire; there were no fire screens. So when making paper cartridges, if a spark flies out unexpectedly, and if it lands on any black powder, then the black powder goes poof instantly. Just a little is a nice surprise. Too much singes eye brows. Igniting black powder doesn't take much. The economic loss of the lost powder could be tough when living in a cash tight existence.
The parents of the day must have taught their kids to shoot with either a muzzle loader or a Sharps loaded with the powder horn/flask method, not the paper cartridge method. Paper is for those folks back east.
Back to the question have you held a Sharps in your hand? If not, what you need to know is the part that seals the back end of the barrel is called a breech block and is operated by the lever under the gun. The breech block rises up behind the barrel to close the "breech." But the breech block also has the cone for the percussion cap. If the breechblock isn't high enough, the hammer can't get to the percussion to fire the gun. Nifty, huh? An unintended safety device.
The biggest danger for a beginner with a Sharps back then is the same as today. The danger with all guns then or now is the danger of it going off at the wrong time when pointed at something or someone it shouldn't be pointed at. I've seen very rural folks teaching their kids to shoot down of an age that would shock my city friends. What are those rural parents emphasizing? Watch where you point that thing!
Most common mistake? Probably forgetting to put the percussion cap on. I can see my hunting uncle smile, just I smiled when my grandson made the same mistake, of the younger person lifting the gun to shoot without a percussion cap. Clack. Nothing happened. Except we saw the muzzle drop when they flinched and yanked the trigger. Now we can really talk to them about squeezing the trigger just so!
Your scene set in 1855 is worthy of a comment by a character in your story. There were very few Sharps made by that time. Even by 1859 receiving crates of Sharps in Kansas was a major event. In 1855 the Sharps was almost unheard of by the average person. I'll see if I can find actual production numbers. But absent production numbers, the characters in your story are going to have a reaction to the breechloader. This is something they had never even dreamed of, much less of having one in their hands. They would comment out loud to the next person, their friends, maybe even to a squirrel in a nearby tree. They would have a "wow" effect.
Wish you all the best.
My name is: Debra ...
> My email is: debra....
> My state is: Missouri
> My country is:
> I like to read: history, biography, children's historical
> Hi, Mr. Hackman,
> I contacted you a couple of years ago, and you were very kind to answer
> some questions I had about pre-Civil War Sharps rifles. I am back to
> working on my historical novel for kids, and I have a few questions about
> the use of the early Sharps rifles.
> For a person who was just learning to make cartridges and fire a
> breech-loader, what dangers and/or injuries might occur?
> How would the black powder be measured? by weight? with a scoop or other
> What mistakes would the most common for a person who was learning to use a
> Thanks for taking the time to read my message! I want to make my book as
> accurate and realistic as I can.
> p.s. My story is set in 1855, so my Kansas settlers would have had the
> earlier slant-breech model, I think.
p.s. Your website has been very helpful!
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