by Jay W. Sharp
July 1, 1863. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A muggy day, with a lifting fog.
“It was about 7:30 a.m.,” said J. David Petruzzi in his article “Battle of Gettysburg: Who Really Fired the First Shot?” America’s Civil War magazine, July 2006.
Marcellus E. Jones, Lieutenant, 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, watched from behind a fence next to blacksmith Ephraim Wisler’s home, on Knoxlyn Ridge, as a Confederate division lead the Third Corps toward Gettysburg. Jones borrowed a Sharps carbine from Sergeant Levi Shafer. He rested it on the fence railing. Quoted by Petruzzi, Jones later said, “I took aim at an officer on a white or light gray horse and firedthe first shot at the battle of Gettysburg.”
While Jones’ claim of firing the first shot would prove arguable, his weapon of choice, the Sharps carbine, signified a growing revolution in small arms development. The Sharps carbines and the Sharps rifles, invented by Christian Sharps and manufactured by Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, would become legends for the roles they played in the theatres of the Civil War, the buffalo-killing fields of the Great Plains and the desert battlefields of the Southwest’s Indian Wars.
Sharps Carbine Compared with the Musket
Cavalryman or infantryman, a soldier armed with a 39-inch long breech-loading Sharps carbine held a real advantage over an enemy armed with a near six-foot long Springfield or Enfield muzzle-loading rifled musket, a derivative of the Napoleonic Wars and the primary weapon of the Civil War.
The soldier outfitted with a Sharps loaded his weapon from the breech, a comparatively simple job either from the back of a horse or from a prone and protected position on the ground. He opened the action, loaded a paper- or linen-encased powder and ball cartridge, closed the action (trimming the paper or linen and exposing the powder), cocked the hammer, pulled the trigger and fired his weapon. His Sharps came equipped with an unusual pellet primer feed, which meant that he did not have to insert an individual primer every time he fired. With training and practice, he could load and fire his single-shot weapon 10 times in a minute. Moreover, when ready to move, he could fit the shorter weapon handily into his saddle boot or over his shoulder.
An enemy armed with a musket had to load his weapon from the muzzle, a clumsy and time-consuming process from the ground and especially from a saddle. He had to hold the weapon roughly vertical, resting the butt on a firm surface. He had to insert a paper-encased powder and Minié ball cartridge into the barrel, withdraw the ramrod from beneath the barrel, ram the cartridge into its seat, return the ramrod to its home, cock the hammer into firing position, insert a primer beneath the hammer, and, finally, pull the trigger to fire his weapon. With training and practice, he might load and fire his cumbersome weapon two or three times in a minute, although sometimes in the chaos of battle he might become confused or panicked, losing track of his loadings. At the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, soldiers had left some 35,000 muskets on the battlefield, 11,000 with empty barrels, 6,000 with one charge each, and 18,000 with two to ten charges, one stacked on top of the other.
Soldiers of the Civil War, especially those of the cavalry, appealed for the Sharps carbines and, later, repeating rifles. Indeed, says, Philip B. Sharpe in his The Rifle in America, “Numerous reports from the Ordnance and other Army boards and letters and certificates on file in the Ordnance Office at Washington attest to superior quality and efficiency of Sharps rifles and carbines…” General officers, however, imbued with West Point traditions and distrustful of enlisted men’s battle skills, usually insisted on the musket. Given more advanced weapons, the generals argued, troops would simply waste ammunition, complicating resupply logistics. Ultimately, Washington officials did order some 90,000 Sharps carbines and 11,000 Sharps rifles during the Civil War, but they also ordered nearly 2.5 million muskets. (Soldiers armed with the millions of muskets inflicted roughly 90 percent of the Civil War’s battle casualties, which included more than 200,000 killed and more than 450,000 wounded. Combined, Union and Confederate forces suffered more than 50,000 battlefield casualties at Gettysburg alone.)
Perhaps most famously in the Civil War, the Union’s flamboyant Berdan Sharpshooters made the 4-foot-long breech loading Sharps rifles (not the carbines, with shorter barrels) their weapons of choice. The first of 20 sharpshooter companies (units authorized personally by President Abraham Lincoln), the Berdan Sharpshooters, according to the internet site 1st United States Sharpshooters, Company “C,” Berdan Sharpshooters, wore distinctive green uniforms. They wore a green forage cap with a black ostrich feather and brogan shoes with black leather gaiters. They meant to blend into the foliage they used for cover.
Before he was accepted, a soldier in Berdan’s Sharpshooters had to prove his skill as a marksman by firing 10 rounds into a target 10 inches in diameter at a distance of 200 yards, with the average distance between the bullet holes and the target center averaging no more than five inches.
Like the other sharpshooter companies, the Berdan Sharpshooters singled out high value targets (for instance, Confederate officers), provided reconnaissance, established battle lines, supported combat-unit flanks and covered retreats. “Berdan Sharpshooters were credited for a higher percentage of kills than any other unit in the war,” according to the site, and they “also suffered the highest casualties.”
After the Civil War, professional hunters, frontiersmen and U. S. troopers carried increasing numbers of Sharps weapons to the Great Plains and to the Desert Southwest.
The Great Plains Buffalo-Killing Fields
Buffalo hunters, including legendary personalities such as Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, armed themselves primarily with large-caliber breech loading Sharps Sporting Rifles, sometimes equipped with mounted scopes, and they began the annihilation of the massive buffalo herds of the Great Plains. For one example, mentioned by Mike Venturino in his article “The Buffalo Hunters and Their Rifles: Image Polishing and Myth Busting,” Guns Magazine, August 2006, a hunter named Jim White carried three 16-pound .50-90 caliber Sharps rifles along with five 25-pound kegs of black power and 700 pounds of lead in his wagon. According to The Handbook of Texas, the buffalo hunters chose the Sharps rifle, with its heavy octagonal barrel, as their instrument of death because many had been converted to cartridge-fire weapons, making them even more convenient. The rifle’s mass absorbed much of the recoil. Its weighty barrel heated up comparatively slowly. Its sighting mechanism or a mounted scope facilitated long-distance kills.
From foul, evil-smelling and vermin-infested camps where they butchered buffalo carcasses and fleshed and tanned hides, the hunters furnished meat to construction workers who built railroads across the West. They supplied leather ($3 for each hide) to luggage manufacturers in the East. They created massive piles of bones, which foragers with wagons scavenged from the plains and sold to fertilizer manufacturers well up into the 20th century. The hunters denied the war-making Plains Indians their buffalo commissary, infuriating the tribes but eventually starving them into submission and opening the plains for settlement.
Within a few decades, the hunters had cleared the Great Plains of tens of millions of buffalo, leaving only a few at Yellowstone and in private herds. The hunters, mostly with Sharps rifles, had completed the most massive slaughter of wildlife in history.
The buffalo hunters, always fearful of attack by the Plains Tribes, kept their Sharps rifles as well as their sidearms close at hand. That foresight paid off near dawn on June 27, 1874, when some 15 professional hunters along with several other frontiersmen came under attack by two or three hundred Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne warriors at the Adobe Walls trading hamlet and stockade on the north bank of the Canadian River on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle.
The wife of one of the hunters, Billy Dixon, would write later (quoted in the Adobe Walls Internet site): “…I was thunderstruck. The black body of moving objects suddenly spread out like a fan, and from it went up one single, solid yell! A war whoop that seemed to shake the very air of the early morning. Then came the thundering roar of running horses, and the hideous cries of each of the individual warriors engaged in the onslaught. I could see that hundreds of Indians were coming.”
“They were coming as straight as a bullet toward the buildings, whipping their horses at every jump,” said Billy Dixon. “There was never a more splendid barbaric sight. In after years I was glad that I had seen it. Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the southwestern Plains tribes, mounted upon their finest horses, armed with guns and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming like the wind. Over all was splashed the rich colors of red, vermilion and ochre, on the bodies of the men, on the bodies of the running horses. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the tails and manes of the horses, and the bronzed, half naked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass. Behind this head-long charging host stretched the plains, on whose horizons the rising sun was lifting its morning fires. The warriors seemed to emerge from this glowing background.”
With their Sharps rifles and their pistols, the defenders fought off the Indians through the morning, losing four men before an uneasy quietness settled over Adobe Walls. They now waited anxiously from behind the walls of buildings and the stockade, not knowing what to expect. They watched through the afternoon and evening. They watched the following day as 15 to 20 of the Cheyenne gathered on their horses on a distant butte perhaps half a mile or more away, overlooking Adobe Walls. They wondered whether this foreshadowed another attack.
At this point, Billy Dixon, famous among the buffalo hunters for his skill with a rifle, leveled a borrowed “Big 50,” one of the most famous of all the Sharps models, picking out one of the Cheyenne warriors. He squeezed the trigger. The discharge shattered the quietness. A long moment passed. Then, Dixon’s target fell from his horse. “Early in the afternoon, the discouraged Indians gave up,” said Earnest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel in The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains.
“We lost the fight,” one warrior said later, according to Colonel W. S. Nye in his book Carbine & Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill. “The buffalo hunters were too much for us. They stood behind adobe walls. They had telescopes on their guns… One of our men was knocked off his horse by a spent bullet fired at a range of about a mile. It stunned, but did not kill him.”
Indians who faced the Sharps rifle in battle referred to it as the gun that would “shoot today and kill tomorrow.”
The Changed Dynamic
In the decade just before the Civil War, frontiersman and U.S. troopers armed with Sharps carbines and rifles began to change the dynamic in the conflicts of the desert Southwest. Earlier, they found that muskets served poorly in battles with Indians armed with bows and arrows. Their muskets, in fact, earned the disdain of the Comanches, Indians of the southern Great Plains, but rapacious raiders in the Chihuahuan Desert. “The superiority of the bow and arrow over the old-type musket was recognized by the Comanches…,” said Wallace and Hoebel. “…they realized that it was inferior to the bow and arrow both in hunting and in war. The muskets had a greater range but a much slower rate of fire, they were difficult to load on horseback…”
In the 1850’s, just a few years after the Mexican/American War, legendary stagecoach operator Henry Skillman, who had just purchased 10 new Sharps carbines, came under attack by Mescalero Apaches in the Limpia Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert in western Texas. He and his companions quickly returned fire. They watched as the Apaches withdrew to what they presumed was a safe distance, dismounting and taunting. They listened as one warrior challenged them to come into the open and fight. “Henry Skillman,” said Wayne R. Austerman in Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, “slipped a cartridge in the breech of his new Sharps carbine, trimmed its sight, and aimed carefully. The Sharps barked, and the Apache pitched backward with a bullet through his head. His stunned comrades picked up his body and quickly retreated beyond the reach of Skillman’s ‘medicine gun.’” Later, Skillman wrote a letter of appreciation to Sharps company: “The ten Sharps’ carbines purchased of you were all put to immediate use in arming my escort…and for range, accuracy, and rapidity of firing, they are far superior to any arm known.”
Just before the Civil War, Dragoons (soldiers trained as both cavalrymen and infantrymen) stationed in Southern California and New Mexico received a few Sharps carbines for field testing, according to Will Gorenfeld, “Dragoon Firearms: More Legend than Fact,” First Dragoons Internet site. Dragoon Captain Davidson reported that “I am satisfied from trial and experience, that Sharps’ carbine is the best weapon yet known in our country for a cavalry soldier. Its range and accuracy are greater than those of the musketoon… …[D]ragoon soldiers have more confidence in it than any other weapons I have ever seen put into their hands…”
After the Civil War, with immigrants moving into and across the Southwest and the Indians struggling against the invasion, the intruders introduced new and improved Sharps carbines and rifles as well as other advanced weapons into the struggle. “The Sharps Model 1859 proved to be a very effective and reliable weapon, and was used in dozens of engagements against Apache Indians in Arizona and New Mexico” said Arnold Franks, “Arms, Equipment, Uniforms and Transportation,” Military History Online internet site.
The Skeleton Cave Massacre
The deadly effectiveness of the Sharps carbine and, likely, other advanced small arms in battles against the Indians of the desert became horrifyingly clear in a drama played out on December 28, 1872, in a remote cave in Arizona’s Salt River Canyon, near Horse Mesa Dam. The sun had just risen when Captain William H. Brown, leading about 100 cavalry troopers and 30 Apache scouts ambushed a band of some 100 Yavapais at the mouth of the cave.
“The surprise and terror of the savages were so complete that they thought only of the safety which the interior of the cave afforded,” said John G. Bourke in On the Border with Crook, “and as a consequence, when my party arrived on the scene, although there were a number of arrows thrown at us…[there was] no attempt at a counter assault…”
One warrior “…climbed to the top of a high rock some distance down the cañon, and there fancied himself safe from our shots, and turned to give a yell of defiance… Blacksmith John Cahill had his rifle in a position like a flash, and shot the Indian through the body.”
Brown asked the Yavapais to surrender. “The only answer was a shriek of hatred and defiance, threats of what we had to expect, yells of exultation at the thought that not one of us should ever see the light of another day… They seemed to be abundantly provided with arrows and lances, and of the former they made no savings, but would send them flying high in the air in the hope that upon coming back to earth they might hit those of our rearguard…”
Brown positioned his force so that “one-half was in reserve behind the skirmish line…with carbines loaded and cocked and a handful of cartridges on the clean rocks in front… the men on the first line had orders to fire as rapidly as they chose, directing aim against the roof of the cave, with the view to having the bullets glance down among the [Yavapais] men, who had massed immediately back of the rock rampart.
“This plan worked admirably, and, so far as we could judge, our shots were telling upon the [Yavapais], and irritating them to the degree that they no longer sought shelter, but boldly faced our fire and returned it with energy, the weapons [probably muskets] of the men being reloaded by the women, who shared their dangers. A wail from a squaw, and the feeble cry of a little babe, were proof that the missiles of death were not seeking men alone.”
The Yavapais mounted a desperate charge into the soldiers’ ranks. One warrior “had sprung to the top of a huge boulder, and there had begun his war-whoop,” when he discovered that “Twenty carbines were gleaming in the sunlight just flushing the cliffs; forty eyes were sighting along the barrels…” Immediately, “the resounding volley had released another soul from its earthly casket, and let the bleeding corpse fall to the ground as limp as a wet moccasin.”
With the end approaching, Brown ordered his men “to get ready a package of cartridges; then as fast as the breech-block of the carbine could be opened and lowered, we were to fire into the mouth of the cave, hoping to inflict the greatest damage by glancing bullets.” Other soldiers, who had climbed above the cave, bombarding the Yavapais with boulders.
About noon, Brown’s force breached the parapet into the cave. “I hope that my readers will be satisfied with the meagrest [sic] description of the awful sight that met our eyes,” said Bourke, “there were men and women dead or writhing in the agonies of death, and with them several babies, killed by our glancing bullets, or by the storm of rocks and stones that had descended from above…” A few of the Yavapais did survive. “…to our astonishment,” said Bourke, “there were over thirty.”
Brown and his force put away their deadly carbines and left the dead where they lay, a mute testimony to the cavalry’s superior arms. Within three months, the dispirited Yavapais tribe surrendered to U.S. Forces at Camp Verde, on the east bank of Arizona’s Verde River. A half century later, the bones of the dead had been recovered from the cave, which became known as Skeleton Cave, and buried at the cemetery of Fort McDowell, at the Yavapai Reservation east of Phoenix. To this day, the cave’s walls and ceiling remain blackened by ancient campfires and scarred by the carbines’ bullets.
A few years after the Skeleton Cave massacre, Christian Sharps died, presaging the end of his single-shot carbines and rifles, which would be replaced by repeating arms. Today, gun collectors treasure the Sharps arms. They pay roughly $100 for a non-functioning model and $700 to $900 for functioning replicas. They pay $100s to $1000s for original weapons, depending on condition and the history. Perhaps they sense a kinship with the cavalrymen, infantrymen, snipers, professional hunters and frontiersmen who used the Sharps carbines and rifles as they changed the face of the nation and the desert Southwest.
Footnote: Thanks to the Fort Seldon New Mexico State Monument for providing the weapons for the photographs in this article
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