They may be big and cumbersome by today's standards, but if you owned a Sharps rifle in the era of the Old West, you possessed one of the finest firearms of the day. The single-shot Sharps had the range and power coveted by buffalo hunters and other long-range shooters.
Sharps rifles are named after Christian Sharps, the man who came up with the design in 1848. The idea was to produce a precision rifle for long-range shooting. The Sharps proved to be an exceptional long-range firearm that quickly gained favor with the most legendary buffalo hunters of the day.
"They were the best rifles for long-range shooting and buffalo hunting," said Orville Loomer, Buffalo, Wyo., one of the men staffing a Sharps rifle display at last weekend's Minot Rifle and Pistol Club Gun and Knife Show at the State Fairgrounds. "One model, known as the Tollefson, would shoot a 15-inch group at 1,000 yards."
Loren Knutson, Leeds, left, and Orville Loomer, Buffalo, Wyo., each hold a Sharps rifle. The two men were displaying a collection of Sharps rifles at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club show held at the State Fairgrounds last weekend.
Although a few Sharps rifles were used during the Civil War, the icon of the Old West later gained fame with buffalo hunters.
According to Loomer, the Tollefson got its name from a youthful shooter that owned one manufactured in 1877.
"He shot it in 1878," said Loomer. "It shot so good that the clubs he was shooting at in Iowa blackballed him. They wouldn't let him use that gun anymore."
Loomer used a reproduction of the famed Tollefson to win a title of his own at a 1,000 yard match in Montana in 2009.
Original Sharps rifles were percussion. The design became one of the very few to transition to metallic cartridge use, and the legendary rifle continued to gain popularity among marskmen.
"They are history," said Loren Knutson, Leeds. "They were primarily for buffalo hunting. That's what the sporting rifles were used for."
Other trap door models and the famed Remington rolling blocks were among the rifles gaining popularity on the frontier during the era of the Sharps, but few could match the Sharps' long-range performance.
"In the south of Texas, the 50 caliber was popular, the .50-70 and the .50-90, which is what they called the Big 50," said Knutson. "As they moved north in Montana the 45 long ten, 2 7/8 is what they went by."
The 2 7/8 refers to the length of the cartridge. A .50-70 today means a .50 caliber bullet with 70 grains of powder. During the era of the Sharps the same rifle would be a 50-1 3/4, the latter number being the cartridge length rather than grains of powder.
"Here we've got a lot of different calibers and pretty much set up like the originals were," said Loomer.
Sharps gained fame for their remarkable accuracy during a period of history when open sights were the rule, a further testament to the excellent design developed by Christian Sharps. Usage of the Sharps eventually declined in favor of more modern repeating rifles, but the dependable firearm will forever be known for its impact on the Old West.