The Sharps M1874 Rifle has been known by many names. Buffalo hunters called it “poison slinger.” Historians called it “The gun that shaped American destiny.” The company itself called the rifle “Old Reliable.” Whatever one chose to call it, the M1874 Sharps played a significant role in American history and the opening of the American West. In the wake of the popular film Quigley Down Under there has been a resurgence of interest regarding Sharps rifles in general and the M1874 in particular. Several manufacturers now produce Sharps replicas, most of them custom built rifles that entail not only a waiting period but also significant expense.
The original Sharps 1874 was actually introduced in 1871, but the model number changed when new owners purchased the company in 1874. Presumably this was intended to show prospective purchasers of Sharps rifles that the company had something new to offer. Whatever the reason, the Sharps dominated the single-shot rifle market in the latter part of the 19th Century. There were other rifles such as the Ballard, the Springfield 1873 and Remington Rolling Blocks, but the vast majority of frontiersmen who chose a large caliber rifle opted for the Sharps. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which the rifle’s accuracy. Readers may be familiar with Matthew Quigley’s seemingly astonishing long-distance shot early in “Quigley Down Under,” but shots such as this were fairly routine for buffalo hunters of the American West. Probably the most famous use of a Sharps was by Billy Dixon when approximately 100 Cheyenne and Comanche Indians attacked a buffalo hunters’ camp at Adobe Wells in the Texas Panhandle. Dixon, using a borrowed .50-90 Sharps, brought down an Indian at the incredible range of 1,538 yards. In addition to accuracy, most of its competitors were not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the Sharps. Even today, the rifle’s proportions and lines are appealing to anyone who appreciates firearms.
Aesthetics and accuracy aside, what set the Sharps apart from most others was the ammunition for which it was chambered. The Sharps action is inherently strong and can stand the pressures that would cause the ruination of other rifles like the “Trapdoor” Springfield. Indeed, the “hot” PMC ammunition, one of the rounds tested herein, specifically cautions against its use in Trapdoor Springfields. Probably the most popular caliber for the buffalo hide hunters was the .50-90, basically a lengthened .50-70. Another extremely popular chambering was the .44-90, in essence a necked down .50-90 firing a 520 grain bullet. Because most plains hunters reloaded their ammunition with varying amounts of black powder to save money, cartridges like the .50-90 were not always referred to as such. The .50-90 was also called the .50-100 and .50-110. For this reason, the standard cartridges were referred to by caliber and case length with most Sharps rifles marked as such. The .50-90, for example, was designated .50-2½. Most cartridges for Sharps rifles were bottlenecked; the only ones which were not were the .45-70, .50-70 and .50-90. In calibers that included .40, .44, .45 and .50, Sharps rifles were used to virtually exterminate the American Bison between 1870 and 1900. Railroad guards, scouts and law enforcement agencies, most notably the Texas Rangers, also used Sharps rifles.
Sharps 1874s ranged from 10 to 16 pounds and were referred to by their weight. Writing in 1874 at Fort Worth, Texas, Frank Collinson alluded to the “12-pound Sharps rifle” he had recently purchased.
This was about average for the rifle in its early days, although 16-pound models were noted from time to time. Later models increased in average weight to some 14 pounds, although Sharps would build a rifle to whatever specifications the purchaser desired. (Our test rifle was a relative lightweight, tipping the scales at a mere 10.5 pounds.) All the purchaser had to do was lay down his money. Some “high end” Creedmoor Model Sharps retailed at $125, an incredible expense in the 1870s. Sharps “Hunting Models” were significantly less, with the least expensive selling for $30, still a fairly expensive rifle for the time. This model had a 26-inch, round barrel. The Sharps “Sporting Rifle” with full octagon barrel began at $35, while the half octagon-barreled model listed for $33. Double set triggers were a $4 option, while globe and peep sights added $5 to the rifle’s price. A telescopic sight would cost the Sharps buyer $40 – more than the cost of the rifle in many cases. Sharps also made and sold a full line of rifle cases with leather cases ranging from $2 to $5 and wood from $7 to $40, depending on type of wood and interior trim. A canvas case was available for only $2.50. Oddly, a sheepskin case cost 50 cents less.