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Cavalrymen considered the Sharps to be their favorite single-shot, breech-loading carbine. Even James Ripley, the conservative Chief of Ordnance, supported the gun for cavalry. The Sharps Carbine was not only a reliable gun with a simple design, it was, along with other rifled guns, capable of firing three times as fast as a muzzleloader.1

The Sharps’ breech had several particularly user-friendly traits. That included a safety feature that consisted of a “self-locking toggle arrangement,” in which the hammer did not release to strike the percussion cap until the breech block was fully closed and the breech could not open once it was closed.2 Also, the Sharps’ lock mechanism stopped the “formation of the residue” that would come from firing; however, the block needed to be cleaned regularly.2  One way to clean the gun was to take the  breech block out. Before 1851, marksmen needed to use a screwdriver to remove the breech block, but after that time the block could be removed without it.2

The Sharps Carbine

The Carbine and its Improvements

vent communicating tube

A metal tube that carries the spark from the ignition system to the chamber where the cartridge is in order to set off an explosion to fire the bullet

“it is superior to any of the other arms loading at the breech”

–Board of Ordnance Officers on Patent Small Arms Other Than Repeating Pistols,

Sharps’ Rifle and Musket Report, November 27, 1850; taken from The Sharps Rifle by Winston O. Smith, p.9

Many improvements were made to the Sharps carbine as seen through its many models:  1851, 1852, 1853, 1855, 1859, New Model 1859, and New Model 1863. There were at least seven patents that directly affected the carbine.a The inventors, including Sharps, Lawrence, Conent, and Rollins, strove to make the gun more versatile, while still maintaining their established supply output. Innovations for the carbine made changes in its priming and ignition systems as well as its ammunition.

All of the cartridges for the Sharps carbine and rifle were .52 caliber (the bore was .54). The first Sharps cartridge type was covered in paper or linen. Those cartridges were easily made as long as the soldier had access to paper. Yet, when paper was not available and the marksman was out of cartridges, he could just drop the ball and powder in loosely.3 That feature made the gun more versatile. Sharps cartridges could also be used in other carbines, such as the Gibbs and Starr. (The later models of Sharps used metallic cartridges.)

The linen and paper covering contributed to the problem of not having uniform cartridge length. When the cartridges were too short, the end was not cut by the knife-edge of the breechblock (also known as a  chamber). Later, that problem was solved. The manufacturers decided to create a cartridge wrapped in a thin layer of “goldbeater’s skin,” like Colt’s percussion revolver. The new covering ignited with the explosion from the priming system even if the end of the cartridge was not cut. Because of the new cartridge cover, “the vent opening in the face of the block was moved to the center of the counterbore and extended through a hollow cone so the fire from the primer would impinge directly against the skin base of the cartridge.”4 The vent communicating tube was fashioned to be longer and have two right angles.  That change then required that a small hole be put in the side of the block, filled with a headless screw. The screw's slot, where you would put the end of the screwdriver, was too small and could not turn when it got dirty from old powder and primer. The screw would then strip.  That problem was fixed in the 1863 model by inserting a “screw with a large filaster head."4

Other improvements ranged from the priming system to the sight. One improvement was the tumbler, a mechanism that contributes to the hammer movement, in the priming system. Due to the springs being too small, the tumbler easily broke. A stronger tumbler was put in the 1859 model. Also, a separate sear spring was eliminated and replaced by an extension of the main spring in the 1855 Model and after.
4  Those two improvements ultimately made the percussion system more durable and reliable.

In trying to supply the most favorable priming system, the Sharps would shift between two and then was able to use a third. The 1851 and 1855 models used the Maynard Priming System.  The 1852 and 1853 models used the Sharps Pellet Primer. Then, finally, the 1859 Model and later used the Sharps Pellet Primer with a Cut-Off, allowing for the use of percussion caps.5 See patent section for details.



In trying to supply the most favorable priming system, the Sharps would shift between two and then was able to use a third. The 1851 and 1855 models used the Maynard Priming System.  The 1852 and 1853 models used the Sharps Pellet Primer. Then, finally, the 1859 Model and later used the Sharps Pellet Primer with a Cut-Off, allowing for the use of percussion caps.5 See patent section for details.The breech itself, arguably the most important and defining feature on a single-shot Civil War carbine, was also modified throughout its manufacturing years. The Sharps New Model 1859, 1863, and 1865 Carbines and Rifles have straight, vertical-sliding breeches and are essentially the same model, although they are labeled differently.6 Before the New Model Sharps, the breeches were slanted.7


Just as the models varied due to advancements and in breech styles, the length of the Sharps also changed between models. The barrel length on the 1851 Sharps carbine was 21.625 inches, and its overall length was 37.375 inches. For the 1852, 1853, and 1855 models, the barrel length was 21.75 inches, and the overall length was 37.75 inches. The 1859 Model was 38.625 inches long and had a 21.625-inch barrel. The New Model 1859 and the New Model 1863 carbines had 22-inch barrels and were 39.125 inches long in total. 8

Although known as an impressive single-shot breech-loading carbine, especially with its evolution, the Sharps’ popularity waned with the rise of repeating arms, such as the Henry and the Spencer.9


a According to Historian Winston O. Smith in The Sharps Rifle, there were nine patents that played a part in the advancing technology for the Sharps, and four of them belonged to Richard Lawrence.10  The other possible Lawrence patent is number 8367 that Lawrence patented in Windsor, Vermont on January 6, 1852. However, that patent was for a different type of breech than that used in the Sharps.  That breech rolled to the side to insert the cartridge and was not powered by a guard lever. The other patent, number 6960 dated December 18, 1849, was from Christian Sharps, and from right before he helped establish the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. That patent description pertained to a revolving pistol, and not a carbine or rifle. Christian Sharps’ later patents, starting in 1856, would have been written after his break with the company. I have not found another patent that can be contributed to the Sharps.

1 Martin Rywell, The Gun That Shaped American Destiny (Harriman, Tennessee:  Pioneer Press, 1957), 8.

2 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 45 - 46.

​3 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 86.

Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 52.

5 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 48-49.

6 Norm Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values, 5th ed. (Northbrook: DBI Books, Inc., 1990), 170; Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 6; Col. Berkeley R. Lewis, Notes on Cavalry Weapons of The American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Washington D.C.:  Darby Printing Company, 1961), 18.

7 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 6; Colonel Berkeley Lewis, Notes on Cavalry Weapons of The American Civil War, 18.

8 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 68.

9 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 19.

10 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 47.


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