Arming the Union through Innovation, Genius, and Agency
Men, Machine, & the Carbine
The Sharps Carbine
The Sharps Carbine had many men that contributed to its design, unlike the Spencer. The process of helping the Sharps evolve into a more effective machine exemplifies the American System of Manufacturing, in which collaboration brought about such advancements. All of the contributors worked to improve the carbine. Although Richard Lawrence would have a large influence over the gun, neither he nor Christian Sharps could have created this carbine solely by themselves.
The Inventor and the Innovator
Christian Sharps, inventor of the Sharps Carbine, worked under Captain John Harris Hall at Harper’s Ferry Armory and learned the technique used to make interchangeable parts.1 Hall’s carbine inspired Sharps to make his own gun, and in 1848 Sharps patented his invention.2 Christian Sharps served as technical advisor to the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company until 1853 when his ambitions ran counter to the company and its other shareholders. Sharps had wanted to supply the factory with the latest updated equipment, but the investors did not want to fund that process. He cut all ties with the company and moved to Philadelphia, where he began his own company called C. Sharps and Company.3 In 1862 Sharps partnered with another inventor to create the Sharps and Hankins carbine during the Civil War. While his namesake invention gained an outstanding reputation, he never became very wealthy.4
Other inventors worked on the Sharps Carbine. Hezekiah Conant of Hartford, Connecticut invented the first successful gas leakage prevention for the breech block (for details refer to Carbine Advancements page). Approximately a year before Conant’s invention, Rollin White of Vermont created a self-cocking device for the carbine’s hammer and a sharp “knife-edge” on the breech block. Both Conant and White worked for Colt in their careers, which demonstrates how skilled workers’ expertise was shared in the arms industry and, more broadly, in the American System of Manufacturing.5 Perhaps the most important collaborator, however, was Richard Lawrence.6
Inventor Richard Lawrence of Robbins & Lawrence Company perfected the Sharps’s design. He patented three of the seven patents (written before the end of the Civil War) used in the evolution of the Sharps. Lawrence expanded upon Conant’s sliding ring that prevented against gas leaking from the breech. He lengthened the ring, “tapered its rear edge,” and attached a faceplate to it.7 The tapered edge then expanded outwards due to the small explosion when shooting. The edge reached to the counterbore’s sides, securely stopping the gas leak.7 The lengthened ring was applied to the 1853 improved model breech block, and the faceplate was included in the 1859 and 1863 breech block models.8
1 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 5; Martin Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny (Harriman, Tennessee: Pioneer Press, 1957), 13.
2 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 5.
3 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 29.
4 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 40, 44; Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny, 19.
5 Robert Grieve, "Biographies of Prominent Citizens," Illustrated History of Pawtucket, Central Falls and Vicinity (Providence: Henry R. Caufield, 1897), accessed from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=73617644.
6 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 37-38.
7 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 47.
8 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 50 - 51.