The Sharps Carbine
Between Jan. 1, 1861 and June 30, 1866, the federal government bought 80,512 Sharps Carbines ($2,213,192 worth), 9,141 Sharps Rifles ($330,629.97 worth), and 16,306,508 rounds of ammunition ($347,410.56 worth). Yet, the federal government was not the only customer of the well-known and already-established (due to its pre-war use) carbine. Around 100,000 Sharps were used in the Civil War, either supplied with a government contract, mainly issued to Eastern troops, or state and private funds.1
The Sharps carbine became much more popular than the Sharps rifle due to bias against infantry carrying breechloaders. The total number of sales to the government (seen above) followed the trend that cavalrymen, who carried carbines, were much more likely to have breechloaders than infantry, who used rifles, during the Civil War. Only the Spencer would outnumber the Sharps in orders from the military; however, many Spencers were ordered too late to be used in the war.2
Berdan's Struggle to Obtain Sharps
In 1861, Colonel Hiram Berdan organized two sharpshooter regiments.3 The Colonel was insistent on obtaining Sharps New Model 1859 Rifles for his men, despite Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott, Commander-in-Chief General Winfield Scott, and the Chief of Ordnance General James Ripley’s opposition to the breechloader.4 Although Lincoln supported Berdan, and Berdan’s Company A contacted their Congressmen, Ripley would not budge.
On January 13, 1862, the new Secretary of War Simeon Cameron ordered Ripley to make a contract for 2,000 Sharps Rifles for Berdan’s Regiments. Ripley instead ordered 1,000 Colt “Five-Shot” Rifles, but Berdan’s men in his Second Regiment refused the Colts and threatened to mutiny. Only after Secretary of War Stanton demanded that the Sharps order be contracted did Ripley comply. Berdan and his troops were equipped with Sharps on May 8, 1862. Berdan’s Sharpshooter Regiments demonstrated the power and speed of the Sharps Rifle in battle. Both privates and their officers took note of the breechloader's ability, and leaders sought to equip their men with the Sharps.5 Although Berdan used Sharps Rifles, his troops' performance as well as praise of the guns inspired the Ordnance Department to buy many more Sharps Carbines than Rifles in the Civil War (this is once again most likely due to the conservative officers, or those who do not want to use new innovations, and politicians).
1 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 7, 19; Martin Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny (Harriman, Tennessee: Pioneer Press, 1957), 10.
2 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 19, 10
3 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 17
4 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 18; Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny, 8-9
5 Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny, 8-9
"Corporal Elias Warner or Warnear of Company K, 3rd New York Cavalry Regiment with 1852 Slant Breech Sharps carbine and cavalry saber"
PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Civil War Military Use