This became the ultimate big game rifle for hunters and frontiersmen in the West.
The Sharps rifle was one of the most famous breechloaders of its day, in part because it had its beginnings in the era of the muzzleloader. Christian Sharps was a cantankerous but brilliant inventor who, in September 1848, patented a single-shot, lever-activated, breech-loading rifle with a vertically sliding breechblock. It was quick to reload and, with its strong, drop-block action, did not require the shooter to stand and ram a charge down the bore.
A replica 1862 percussion Sharps.
Sharps had his Improved Model of 1851 manufactured by the firm of Robbins & Lawrence as the newly formed Sharps Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. Shortly afterward, Sharps disassociated himself with the company (although he continued to receive $1 per rifle produced). Company armorer Richard Lawrence continued improving the rifle, which found success during the Civil War.
Ironically, both Lawrence and Sharps died in 1874. That year, investors launched the reorganized Sharps Rifle Company, and with it the Model 1874, a cartridge-firing improvement over the original design.
This became the ultimate big game rifle for hunters and frontiersmen in the West, where hard-to-kill game required bone-crushing cartridges. The 1874 Sharps was one of the few rifles that could handle such charges, and consequently it became the gun of choice for buffalo hunters.
Often weighing 12 pounds or more, it was chambered for cartridges that included the .40-90, .44-77 bottleneck and the .50-100, which gave the rifle its nickname, "The Big Fifty," along with another moniker, "Old Reliable," which was stamped on its barrel. The 1874's accuracy proved itself on target ranges as well. Unfortunately, financial problems caused the company's failure in 1881.
Today, original Sharps rifles and carbines are highly collectible. Fortunately, this gun is being reproduced by firms such as Shiloh, Pedersoli and Uberti, thus keeping the legend of Sharps alive.