The Sharps
By
Joe Bilby

        In the summer and fall of 1861, Sharpshooter companies were raised in a number of Northern States, including Minnesota, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin. Most, but not all, of these companies were consolidated into the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters (U. S. S. S.), raised in response to a proposal by Hiram Berdan, a noted inventor and first class target shooter. The 1st Regiment, mustering ten companies, was commanded by Colonel Berdan and the 2nd, consisting of eight companies, by Colonel Henry A. Post.
        In order to be accepted as a sharpshooter, a volunteer was expected to pass a qualifying marksmanship test. A Minnesota newspaper advertised for Sharpshooter recruits who were "able bodied men used to the rifle." Prospective sharpshooters were expected to shoot "a string of 50 inches in 10 consecutive shots at 200 yards, with globe [aperture] or telescopic sights from a rest." None of the bullets were to be more than five inches from the center of the bull. A candidate shooting offhand was required to achieve a 50-inch string at a distance of 100 yards.
        Measuring the length of a string, which extended from the center of the bull to each of the bullet holes, made a "string" score. The criterion, roughly a ten-inch group by today's standards, was not unusually demanding of a practiced rifleman. Needless to say, many future sharpshooters fired groups considerably under the minimum requirement. One, Charles A. Townsend of Wisconsin, "fired five shots at 200 yards with a total measurement of three and three-quarters inches." About 50% of sharpshooter aspirants were able to pass the shooting test.
        Sharpshooter recruits were promised $60 for the use of their own target rifles, should they desire to bring them to war. Recruiting officers promised those who reported unarmed, however, that they would be issued Sharps breech-loading rifles. This pledge led to problems for Berdan, as he had originally requested Springfield Model 1861 rifle muskets for his men. Needless to say, Ordnance Chief General James W. Ripley, who had a dim view of breechloaders for infantry use and didn't want to divert the Sharps factory from making much-needed carbines, readily concurred with the new colonel's request. When Berdan changed his weapons preferences to agree with those of his men, however, General Ripley "stonewalled" him.
        Most of the men of the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. arrived in camp in Washington unarmed, and they remained so while Berdan, Ripley, and assorted politicians wrangled over their eventual armament. One recruit, 52 year old Truman Head, also known as "California Joe," purchased his own Sharps Model 1859 rifle. When Joe brought his new Sharps to camp for inspection, sharpshooter enthusiasm for the gun increased. Eventually, the government agreed to buy 2,000 Sharps.
        Berdan's sharpshooters remained virtually without weapons until March of 1862, when they received Colt's revolving rifles, which were accepted reluctantly until the promised Sharps guns could be provided. The 1st Regiment, which accompanied Major General George B. McClellan's army to the Virginia Peninsula, was issued its long-awaited Sharps rifles in May, 1862, and the men of the 2nd received theirs a month later. As predicted, the run of rifles had brought carbine production at the Sharps factory to a standstill for several months. The "Berdan Sharps," was the basic Model 1859 rifle fitted with a double-set trigger and a "fly" in the lock. One trigger would "set" the other which then required very little finger pressure to drop the gun's hammer. It is now believed that many of the 2,000 guns did not have the set triggers. The sharpshooter guns were designed to take a socket-style bayonet, which slipped over the gun's muzzle, rather than the large sword bayonet that most Model 1859 Models were designed to use.
        Together, the two sharpshooter regiments never mustered 2,000 men and, after active campaigning began, there were never more than and most of the time considerably less than, 1,000 sharpshooters on duty with both outfits at any one time. Excess Sharps rifles were stored in Washington, and some of them were issued to other regiments, most notably the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves or "Bucktails."
        In March, 1863, both Sharpshooter regiments turned in their weapons and were completely rearmed with new and reconditioned Sharps from the supply remaining in storage. There were still enough left over for periodic issue to recruits, men returning from sick leave and as replacements for worn out or combat damaged arms. Sharps rifles were also replaced or repaired within the units. Outfits like Berdan's, which were not armed with the standard rifle-musket, were authorized a regimental armorer, and first echelon repair, which included replacement of springs and hammers, was conducted at regimental level.
        The 1st US Sharpshooters were first engaged in battle at the siege of Yorktown on the Peninsula Campaign. The first real fight for the 2nd was Antietam, where, fighting as line infantry the regiment lost 21 men killed in action. The 1st distinguished itself at Chancellorsville, where it captured the 23rd Georgia Infantry. For the most part, however, the sharpshooter regiments were broken up into company or battalion size units and deployed as skirmishers across a broad front. The fast firing Sharps made them very effective skirmishers.
        Both regiments retained their regimental organizations until the end of their initial three-year enlistments in late 1864. Despite the fact that the Union army was besieging Petersburg, a campaign where sniping was a daily occurrence, the high command showed no interest in continuing the existence of these unique regiments beyond their original terms of service. Reenlisted Veterans and recruits who had joined the Sharpshooters since 1861 were transferred to line regiments from their respective states.
        Why were such valuable units allowed to fade into history? Then, as now, commanders were often suspicious of, or openly hostile towards, elite organizations. Early on, Berdan's Sharpshooters established a reputation for individuality and disregard of many military canons. On one occasion an inspecting officer discovered, to his horror, that most of them had thrown away their bayonets as useless appendages.
        A total of over 11,000 Sharps rifles were purchased by the Federal government during the Civil War, and a number of units, like the 5th and 151st New York had companies of skirmishers armed with them. Many were issued to General Winfield Scott Hancock's First Veteran Corps in the conflict's closing months.
        Around 90,000 Sharps carbines served the Union, and through capture, the Confederacy. Confederate attempts to replicate the Sharps at Richmond gave mixed results, and the somewhat crudely crafted clones produced were not popular with Southern horsemen, who believed they had a tendency to blowup in a shooter's hands.
        The Sharps carbine was the weapon of choice in the pre-war cavalry, and undoubtedly the most accurate of the cap lock breech-loading arms perfected in the 1850s. A test of the Sharps New Model 1859 involved five cavalrymen firing at a ten-foot square target as individual skirmishers and by volley at various ranges. As might be expected, individual fire was more accurate than volleys. In individual fire, the shooters scored 19 hits out of 25 shots at 100 yards, 14 out of 25 at 300 yards and a mere 3 out of 25 at 500 yards. When paper cartridges which were sheared off by the gun's breech block and spilled powder in the action were replaced by linen cartridges, Sharps accuracy improved dramatically. All shots fired at 100 and 300 yards hit the target and there was only one miss at 500 yards.
        The Sharps was the only carbine in actual production at the outbreak of the Civil War. Although almost 6,000 New Model 1859 carbines were delivered to the Federal government by the end of 1861, it was not until the spring of 1862 that significant numbers began to reach the field. By the end of that year, an additional 17,000 had been delivered. For the first year of the war, many Federal cavalry regiments were armed with a few revolvers and sabers, and the First Maine Cavalry was not alone in arming its camp guards with ax handles!
        The Model 1859 was eventually modified into the New Model 1863, the same gun sans patchbox. Aside from the repeating Spencer, the Sharps was the most desirable carbine issued during the conflict. The Sharps was the most common carbine used by Federal Cavalry at Gettysburg, with 4,724 in action. The gun's closest competitor was the Burnside, with 1,387 guns represented at that climactic battle. A Sharps in the hands of Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of company E, 8th Illinois, fired the opening shot at Gettysburg.
        As late as March, 1865, with victory around the corner, the 2nd Illinois Cavalry petitioned to "obtain Sharps in the place of Burnside carbines." At war's end, almost 100 Union cavalry units were armed, in whole or in part, with Sharps carbines.

This page last updated 02/12/05

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