Saturday, February 2, 2019

Firearm Factory of the Month: Sharps Rifle Company

The story of the Sharps Rifle Company and the famous rifle it produced has to start with the man who created it.

Christian Sharps was born on January 2nd, 1810 in Washington New Jersey. 
As a young man Christian "got his feet wet" working for a local gunsmith in his home town.

At the age of 19 Sharps accepted an entry level position at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. While there he worked under the tutelage of Captain John H. Hall. Hall had been following the Whitney technique of manufacturing guns with interchangeable parts as well working on a design for a breech loading rifle.
Sharps thought he could improve upon the early breech loading designs and on September 12, 1848 he was awarded his first patent. The rifle featured a slanting breech action and used paper cartridges.

In 1850 Sharps contracted with Albert S. Nippes of Philadelphia to build his rifles. Albert was a third generation gunsmith, the grandson of Abraham Nippes who started the gunsmithing business on Mill Creek in 1807.

Sharps used the money from the sales of his first model to finance a new company. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1851. Although Sharps was not the sole owner, investors owned the company and Christian was paid a royalty for each rifle as well as collecting a salary for being the Chief Engineer.
The company did not have the capital to build or purchase a factory, so again the manufacturing would be contracted. This time in Vermont with the firm of Robbins and Lawrence, the model of 1851 was originally built in Windsor, Vermont (the first 1,650 rifles, give or take).

Robbins and Lawrence was based in Windsor, Vermont, but had built a new factory in Hartford in 1851 and production of the Sharps rifle was moved there later that year. The factory was located in Hartford at 436 Capitol Ave., on the banks of the Little Mill River (now the Park River) . It was the river that provided power for the machine tools.

In 1852 another improvement to the rifle was made, a patent granted and a new and improved model introduced in 1853.

A Fresh Start

In 1855 Christian Sharps left the company and headed back to Philadelphia to start another venture: The C. Sharps and Company. It is not known if he continued to get royalties from the Robbins & Lawrence operation.

Sharps' new company would produce some pistols including a breech loading version of his rifle and four barrelled derringer

Sharps' new factory in Philadelphia was located at 336 Frankford Road. This was in the same neighborhood as the U.S. Army's Frankford Arsenal.

In 1862 William Hankins bought into the company and it was renamed Sharps and Hankins. The new investment by Hankins allowed them to move into a new factory building. The new factory was located on the east side of 24th Street, north of green street

This map from 1867 listed the business

The Philadelphia directories show that his factory moved four times between 1855 and 1870. In 1867 the partnership of Sharps and Hankins was dissolved. The company name went back to "C. Sharps".

In 1870 Christian Sharps, suffering from Tuberculosis, left Philadelphia and moved to Vernon, CT to start a trout farming business.

Meanwhile the enterprise in Hartford continued, with Richard Lawrence continuing to update the original design  and get patents for the improvements. Several large contracts were awarded for the Sharps Rifle for use by Union Troops during the Civil War.

The rifle and it's uncanny precision made it very popular. So popular that a Colonel (and later Major General) in the Union Army was given permission to recruit 2 regiments of crack shot rifleman. These men were armed with Sharps Rifles and the term "Sharp Shooter" was born. Incidentally that Major General was non other than Hiram Berdan, the inventor of the Berdan primer, still used around the world today.

The Beginning of the End

On March 12, 1874, aged 64 years, at his home in Vernon Depot, CT,  Tuberculosis finally took Christian Sharps life. He had hoped to take a vacation to Florida to help with his condition, but the trip never came to pass.

His body was taken to Philadelphia for viewing, his grave site is supposedly unknown, but legend has it he was buried with one of his rifles.

In 1874, after the death of Christian Sharps, the company he started in Hartford was renamed the "Sharps Rifle Company".

The year 1874 and the Sharps Rifle are permanently connected. The model of 1874 became their most popular model.

It was an 1874 model that Billy Dixon used to make the unbelievable 1,500 + yard shot at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.
It was also the 1874 model that was used in the movie Quigley Down Under starring Tom Selleck and Alan Rickman.

The model of 1874 became known as "Old Reliable" and Sharps began stamping the receivers with that moniker.

It is a bit ironic that the Sharps rifle most people think of today was not designed or built by Christian Sharps.

In 1876 the Sharps Rifle Company relocated to Bridgeport, CT.  They built a new factory next to the rail road tracks on Howard Ave. That same year famous Circus Promoter P.T. Barnum (also a Bridgeport resident) bought shares in the Sharps Rifle Co.

In June of 1876 Hugo Borchardt was hired as Superintendent and Treasurer of the company.

In 1881 the company went under and the building was sold the Columbia Phonograph Company, which later became CBS. CBS occupied the building until 1964.

Timeline of Events

1810 - Christian Sharps is born in Washington, NJ
1829 - Sharps goes to work at Harpers Ferry
1848 - Sharps receives his first patent
1851 - Sharps forms the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford
1852 - Sharps receives his second patent
1853 - model of 1853 is introduced
1855 - Sharps leaves the company to start a new one in Philadelphia
1862 - Sharps enters into a partnership with Hankins
1867 - The partnership with Hankins is dissolved
1870 - Sharps moves to Vernon, CT to start a Trout Farm
1871 - The model that would become the 1874 "Old Reliable" is introduced.
1874 - Christian Sharps dies from Tuberculosis, he is 64. 
1876 - The Sharps Rifle Company relocates to Bridgeport, CT. That same year Hugo Borchardt is brought in to oversee operations
1881- The Sharps Rifle Company goes bankrupt.

What Remains

The old Nippes Gun Mill still stands on Mill Creek outside of Philadelphia.

it can be found at

The Hartford Robbins & Lawrence factory was turned over to the Weed Sewing Machine Company in 1870, I believe that both guns and sewing machines were made in the factory for a few years. 

In the drawing below you can see the Little Mill River, behind the factory.

The factory was later part of the Pope Manufacturing complex in which bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles were produced. The Pope operation included 17 acres from Capitol Ave in the north to Broad Street to the east and Laurel Street to the west.

The old factory at 436 Capitol Ave is long gone, replaced by this building which houses the Connecticut Department of Health. 
The Little Mill/Hog River (now Park River) that once powered the machinery now flows under the streets of Hartford before emptying into the Connecticut River at the I-91/Whitehead Freeway junction.

The Pope complex is now part of Pope Park in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood (just south of the 436 Capitol Ave location)

The original home of the C. Sharps Company in Philadelphia was listed as 336 Frankford Road. That address no longer exists, it sits in the middle of the intersection of Frankford and Robbins Street.

The factory occupied by Sharps and Hankins could be one of the buildings next to the St. Francis Xavier School and Church, which sits to the east of N.24th Street and above (north) of Green Street.

The Bridgeport Factory was standing until a few years ago

The building at this location is now apartments, called the Cherry Street Lofts, renting in the summer of 2018. The building can be found at 437 Howard Ave.


The Sharps rifle left a legacy that is still alive. Thanks to the emergence of Cowboy Action Shooting and movies like Quigley Down Under, there is renewed interest in Sharps rifles.

There are several companies making faithful reproductions.

The Shiloh Rifle Company of Montana
Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing was started in 1976, located in Big Timber Montana.

C. Sharps Company of Montana
The C. Sharps company began in 1975 in Richland, Wa. They moved to Big Timber, MT in 1980. Their factory is just one block from the Shiloh Rifle Company above.

Davide Pedersoli of Italy
Pedersoli has been making quality replica firearms since 1957, their catalog includes 3 different Sharps models

Dakota Arms
When you talk about fine American made firearms, these guys names are sure to enter the conversation

Men Machine and the Carbine
Ardmore Library
IM Conservancy
Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
CT Explored
NRA Museum 
Roots Web

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