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Rebuilding Old Reliable

Rebuilding Old Reliable

Remodeling an 1878 Sharps Military Rifle into a Midrange Target

Built from an accumulation of parts, the author's .45-70 Midrange rifle turns in splendid groups as the targets show. At 100 yards, one 5-shot group (right) measures 1 1/4 inches and the other 5-shot group measures 1 3/8 inches.

It has been long renowned as one of the strongest single-shot rifle actions and, stylewise, the Sharps Model 1878 Borchardt still looks very modern today. The last of the Sharps single shots, the Borchardt never sold well commercially. Only 22,000-odd rifles were made in all models during the '78's production from 1877 to 1881. Of those, the majority were military rifles. The lack of an external hammer and double set triggers slowed sales in the West, and the world's militaries began looking to the turn bolt repeating rifle. The Sharps Rifle Co. closed its doors in 1881. Still, the '78's incredibly fast lock time made it a favorite with both long-range shooters of yesteryear and varmint shooters of the 1950s.

Some custom gun projects grow from strange seeds and this was such a one. My friend Tom Strojin bought a pair of military Borchardt actions from the gun store where I once worked. One slow, late evening, we came across a beautiful .45-70 Borchardt barrel in the store's attic under a forgotten pile of junk barrels. Though unmarked, based on the serial number and the front sight dovetail, we initially thought it might have come from an original rifle, but more advanced collectors eventually dispelled that notion.

The target and sporting action (bottom) started

life as a military one as pictured above. A template made from a sporting action was used to hand-file in the sporting contours. The military action has been fitted for a removeable tang, too.

Nonetheless, the bore was in like-new condition and, when slugged, measured .458 inch. It appeared perfect and was installed by gunsmith Kevin McCullough who also milled away the upper tang of the military action and fitted a Riflesmith-made reproduction Sharps Borchardt removable tang, tang sight and windgauge front sight with spirit level. Strojin then ordered a Sharps Midrange pistol-grip stock blank from CPA Corp. and fitted it to the tangs. Unfortunately, we didn't think about length of pull and the CPA pattern is like an original and has a short 131⁄2-inch length of pull. Soon after fitting the tangs but prior to shaping, Tom acquired a '56 Chevy hot rod (in parts) and I acquired both Sharps projects.

Knowing now how much work this thing took--and although it worked out this time--I'd think real hard about using a stray barrel of unknown provenance again. In the past, Tom and I had tinkered and just put together shooters for fun and not gone the highly finished route. We'd put together plinkers for shooting in the desert with many becoming trade bait for gun shows. Now I had a gun in my mitts with beautifully made and finished target sights, a fine target barrel and nice wood on a ratty military action. That would never do. No sense in "unfinishing" the sights and barrel to match the action. Besides, the squarish military action looked completely out of place with the target-grade features.

My first task was to file the military action into the sporting and target model profile. I was able to make a template from an original Borchardt sporting model and scribed the lines on the sides and face of the lower receiver. Photographs of the action profile in The Sharps Rifle by Frank Sellers were made life-size on a Xerox machine for reference, too. Once through the remnant of case hardening, the steel filed like butter. The barrel was already installed, which helped me contour the top receiver bridge correctly. The rounding of the receiver bottom was a more complicated filing job. I would have hesitated to tackle it without the original for comparison as well as the template.

After the action was profiled, I fitted the buttplate and commenced shaping the stock. The CPA stock is designed for use with a grip cap, but enough wood is present to shape the more pleasing early S-curve grip. I had made drawings of the pistol grip at a gun show a year before, but I didn't make them detailed enough and my S-style pistol grip is off. I got the horn wedge right, but the original Sharps S-grip is thicker and more rounded and would be less prone to chipping than my version. I'll have to be careful that I don't bash it off on the ledge of a shooting bench somewhere.


It's hard to find actions suitable for this kind of work and even crummy original rifles are getting more costly everyday. The good news is that if you desire a Borchardt rifle, Al Story of the Borchardt Rifle Co., (Dept. RS, 9732 Hwy 180 West, Silver City, NM 88061; (505) 535-2923) is offering complete rifles starting at $2,600.

Before the fore-end could be started, I had to plead with my machinist friend Scott Candish to make me several sets of screws for the fore-end. All three are of different shapes and they just aren't available otherwise. Fortunately, Strojin had scrounged a couple of sets of original Sharps fore and aft fore-end escutcheons. It's the acquisition of these little parts that can stall or move an otherwise straightforward project to completion.

The Sharps Model 1878 tang sight is a work of art in itself. The vernier scale is broken down to 1/10-inch increments and those are broken down into 1/20-inch increments

as marked on the adjusting wheel of the sight.

The fore-end was hand-made from an American walnut blank. After fitting it to the barrel channel and squaring the lines, the rifle was delivered to Burt Goletski in North Hills, California. I don't have power tools and the fitting of the mainspring base with its two-screw escutcheon along with the forward fore-end screw is best done on machinery. Goletski feels his checkering tools last longer if they don't have to cut through stock finish as well as wood. It seemed expedient to let him do the final shaping of the fore-end prior to the checkering because I only have weekends to work on guns and Goletski has other guns to work on.

I've long been sold on Pilkington's Oil Finish for stocks. I think nothing looks better than a good oil finish, and Pilkingt

on's is easy to use, although not for the impatient. It takes less than a month to apply the finish on black walnut before the gun can be bolted back together and taken to the range, and the oiling takes less than an hour every other day. That time varies depending upon the porosity of the wood.

My love for the product is born of my natural laziness. You only have to sand and whisker to 220 grit. After whiskering again, the finish, diluted with two parts mineral spirits to one part oil finish, is then liberally applied and allowed to dry for two days. This freezes the whiskers. The next time the finish is applied and sanded down with 320 grit, the pores fill quickly with the whiskered wood. This is done three times over the course of a week and the next pass is done with 400-grit paper. The pores are nearly filled now and, with black walnut or the more open-pored Claro, the diluted finish is rubbed in, allowed to gum up for about 10 minutes, then wiped off with a lint-free cloth. (I use a good quality cleaning patch). When the pores are filled, the finish is allowed to stand and dry for a couple of weeks before being rubbed down with rottenstone.

While I was finishing the stock, the barreled action was sent to John King, who milled and fitted the buffalo horn panels in the receiver. King also marked the barrel with the Sharps address and caliber marking. I polished the barrel to 600 grit in preparation for rust bluing. I used to make my own formula, but I have switched to Pilkington's Rust Blue, partly because I had so much success with his oil finish and mostly because I hate mixing chemicals. I did five passes with the blue and couldn't get the barrel darker than a medium gray, which is unusual.

The buttplate--which is a casting--was finished in four passes. This is the problem you face when you use parts of unknown origin. I really have no idea what this barrel is made from, nor who made it. I probably could have gone one or two more passes, but one pass too many and the metal begins to etch and the finish is spoiled, so I chose to leave well enough alone.

The screws, pins, false tang and other small parts were stoned and polished to 600 grit prior to heat bluing. Some of the pin prick pitting, especially in the lever, trigger and safety was extremely deep, and I despaired of getting all of it out. I got enough of the pitting out that you'd have to look really close to see what's left. Although polishing to 1500 grit makes the little parts glow like jewels, I didn't want that look for this rifle. The 600-grit polish looks business-like.

Montana gunsmith John King marked the barrel with the correct Sharps Rifle Co. address. The "Old Reliable" trademark is present, but original Borchardt rifles often have the trademark with a broken border and some later rifles don't have a trademark at all.

(inset) King added the correct CAL .45 2 1/10 caliber marking to the left side of the barrel. Unusual as it may sound, in some instances, the Sharps caliber markings were placed upside down on the right side of the barrel.

The heat bluing was easily accomplished on a gas stove with the cast iron lid from a potbelly stove as the heating platform. A thick cast iron skillet would do as well (and keep the screws from rolling off). A magnetized pair of smooth jawed needle-nose pliers and a non-magnetic screwdriver were used to move the parts around on the plate. When the correct color was reached, the parts were dumped in a tub of dry lime, then washed in water and oiled after cooling.

The sides of the action are milled away in order to lighten the receiver so that more weight could be put into the barrel. In this case, buffalo horn is used to fill the panels, although wood, hard rubber and other materials were used. Most midrange competitions called for a rifle to weigh no more than 10 pounds and have a trigger pull of not less than three pounds. King's one-pound trigger job would have gotten the author disqualified 100 years ago, but adds immeasurably to the gun's shootability today. The nine-pound, 12 ounce gun is right on the money weightwise.

The action parts were sent to the Color Case Co. for bone-pack case hardening. Don Menk has been doing this form of case hardening for years and he gets heart-stopping colors. His turnaround is quick and the beauty attained is worth far more than he charges.

The finished barrel and receiver were delivered to Jim Hoag for final assembly. Over the years, Hoag has acquired enough jigs and fixtures to cleanly mount almost any type of barrel to any type of receiver.


Maker: Sharps Rifle Co., Bridgeport, Conn. (Doors closed in 1881)
Model: 1878 Midrange
Action Type: Falling block
Caliber: .45-70 Government
Capacity: 1
Barrel Length: 30 inches
Overall Length: 45 7/8 inches
Weight: 9 pounds, 12 ounces
Stock: American walnut, oil finished
Finish: Rust blue, heat blue and color case hardened
Sights: Riflesmith spirit level windgauge front, vernier rear


I had shot the rifle before and found it adequate, but I was sure better accuracy was lurking inside somewhere. On John King's recommendation, I acquired an RCBS 500-grain BPS mold.

Twenty rounds were assembled using Lee .45-70 dies. Nickel Remington brass was primed with Winchester Large Rifle Magnum primers and a compressed charge of 58 grains of Goex Cartridge black powder was put under a Walter's vegetable fiber wad. The as-cast RCBS 500-grain (520 grains cast 1:30) BPS semi-spitzer bullet was hand lubed with Lee Shaver black-powder moly lube and taper crimped.

The weather was perfect at the Angeles Shooting Ranges on range day. It was a balmy 75 degrees F with no wind, a bright sun and relatively low humidity. The first three-shot group was promising, but well off the paper. It took a few more shots to get the bullets on the target. Between these sighter groups, a dry patch was run through the barrel.

I settled in to shoot a 5-shot gr

oup. Two breaths were blown down the barrel with a blow tube between shots. The first 5-shot group was 1 1/4 inches at 100 yards. A dry patch was pushed through the bore and the gun set aside during the ensuing cease-fire. The next 5-shot group was just 1 3/8 inches. I was a pretty happy guy, I don't mind telling you. I'll try to beat that, of course, but I'll be quite happy if I just equal those groups on a regular basis. Hey! Maybe that really is a Sharps barrel.

Single Shot Rifle Source Box
Axtell Rifle Co. and The Riflesmith, Inc.
353 Mill Creek Rd.
Sheridan, MT 59749
(406) 842-5814
200 South Front St.,
Montezuma, IA 50171
(641) 623-4000
Color Case Co.
14435 Unity Rd.
New Springfield, OH 44443
(330) 542-2062.
CPA Corp.
RR 2 Box 1012
Dingmans Ferry, PA 18328
(570) 828-1669
P.O. Box 659
Doyline, LA 71023
(318) 382-9300

Hoag Gun Works
8523 Canoga Ave.
Canoga Park, CA 91304
(818) 998-1510
John King
P.O. Box 368
Kila, MT 59920
(406) 755-5352

Lee Precision
4275 Highway U
Hartford, WI 53027
605 Oro Dam Blvd.
Oroville, CA 95965
(800) 553-5000
Lee Shaver
559 NW 7th Rd.
Iantha, MO 64759
(417) 682-3330


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