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The Sharps Carbine

Government contracts were one way that arms manufacturers could stay open and help their business grow. Companies followed the government’s specifications to obtain and maintain contracts. In that way, government need drove some arms innovation, such as Lawrence's "shut-off" mechanism (patent number 6 on the Sharps patent page). The United States Military saw the Sharps as favorable four years before the Civil War broke out and seven years after Robbins & Lawrence set up the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. According to 1890s Ordnance Officer Major C. E. Dutton, the army cavalry had accepted the Sharps as of 1857.1 Thus, the Sharps had already been tested and issued before the Civil War broke out. Between 1855 and 1860, 5,540 Sharps were tested and issued to soldiers, a number that greatly overshadowed all other carbines.2b The next closest carbine, the Burnside, only numbered 909 during that time.2  Throughout the beginning of the war, Sharps received the best reviews and was issued to soldiers in large numbers.3 Its popularity, contracts, and use remained high throughout the war until the increased use of the Spencer carbine in 1864.

And its Government Contracts

Regardless of the Sharps’ benefits, critical government officials gave the Sharps a thorough testing that resulted in a bad review with no constructive comments for improvement. One negative test was a result of the cartridges being too large, which caused the tester to put the bare bullet in and then pour in the powder separately. Moreover, the tester could not easily clean the gun. That may have been a result of the small screw by the vent in the earlier models.  Some pieces of the paper cartridges also remained in the chamber and had to be removed before every shot.8

Following the mostly positive reviews, the Sharps carbine continued to gain popularity among those who used them and to be sought after for government contracts.9 On June 30, 1862, the United States government bought 3,213 Sharps Rifles and 13,005 Sharps Carbines.


Unlike other gun manufacturers, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company maintained its order completion dates, in particular in the first half of the war.4 That may have been due to the many mechanics and other skilled labor who helped create the carbine and who were available through Robbins & Lawrence. The Sharps Rifle Company did not need to look far for genius to get the job done. Likewise, the factory was steam-powered and had multiple high-quality machines, whereas other companies were not that fortunate. The ability to make deliveries on time helped win over the Chief of Ordnance Ripley.4 By 1864, the company delivered the Sharps carbines to the soldiers by the thousands.5

During government testing, which had to be done in order for a gun to gain contracts, the Sharps rifle was compared to a musket, and the Sharps was clearly more successful. One report on the testing from the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. was dated February 6, 1860. During that trial, the carbine was fired at 100 yards, 200 yards, 300 yards, and 450 yards.  Out of 67 rounds fired, 53 hit the target and 14 missed. The Sharps was fired 100 times, although not all seem to be recorded in the report. According to U.S. Marines First Lieutenant J. Green, author of the letter, “Sharps’ arm is simple in its construction, and can be handled by the most inexperienced soldier.”
6 That was a clear benefit, especially if the troops never operated a breech-loading carbine before training or if the troops did not have a long training period.  Furthermore, a simple arm meant that it was easier to fix and probably easier to clean. Those were some of the traits in guns that the testing officers looked for, and hence the Sharps passed the exam.


​Although passing testing, some conservative government and military officials thought the Sharps would waste ammunition. However, not all of the officials shared that sentiment, and some officers saw the carbine’s potential. Lt. Green remarks, “I can see no reason to justify the idea that a soldier, qualified with an arm possessing great celerity of fire, is likely to waste his ammunition at the first sight of a distant enemy, but on the contrary, in my opinion, the soldier would carefully reserve his strength until he came to the thickest of the fight.”6 As clearly seen by that officer’s opinion, progressive military men believed in the capability of the Sharps to enhance the soldiers’ performances both strategically and in firepower. The Sharps was capable of demonstrating the effectiveness of the breechloader.7

1 Major C. E. Dutton, “The Ordnance Department,” in Theo F. Rodenbough and William L. Haskin, eds., The Army of the United States Historical Sketches of Staff and Line with Portraits of Generals-in-Chief (New York: Maynard, Merrill Co., 1896), 132.
2 Col. Berkeley R. Lewis, Notes on Cavalry Weapons of The American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Washington D.C.:  Darby Printing Company, 1961), 7.
3 Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union:  Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 77.
4 William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns: The complete story of Federal and Confederate small arms:  design, manufacture, identification, procurement, issue, employment, effectiveness, and postwar disposal (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982), 295.
5 Edwards, Civil War Guns, 298.
6 J. Green, First Lieutenant U.S. Maries, to Colonel John Harris, Commandant Marine Corps, February 6, 1860, quoted in Martin Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny  (Harriman, Tennessee:  Pioneer Press, 1957), 34 -35. 
7 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 6-7.
8 Martin Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny  (Harriman, Tennessee:  Pioneer Press, 1957), 15.
9 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 8-10.

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