On last night’s episode of Top Shot, contestants began their first challenge with a simple bullseye competition using a Sharps breech-loading rifle. The two shooters whose bullet was closest to center of the target got to pick the teams for the remainder of the series (unless they suddenly decide to draft-in refugees from The Biggest Loser). I cry foul. How is a shooter supposed to know how to aim an antique weapon with baked-in “quirks” without a single practice shot? That’s like throwing a bunch of drivers in a race car they’ve never driven and timing their first lap. All you really learn: who sucks least. Only worse, because later shooters got an idea of how to aim from the previous competitors. Anyway, the gun, the gun . . .
A bit of business first. Top Shot host Colby Donaldson referred to the Sharps breech-loader as the first military sniper rifle, deployed during the American Civil War. That would be the Sharps 1859. As TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia pointed out in the comments below, the rifle that the contestants fired was the Sharps Model 1874, produced nine years after the Civil War ended.
So here’s a rundown on the original Sharps breech-loader, as that’s the more historically important gun and, not unimportantly, the gun I’ve already written up . . .
The 1859 Sharps rifle was certainly used as a sniper rifle by Civil War soldiers, but it wasn’t specifically designed as such. A quibble perhaps, as the expensive for its day ($25) Sharps breech-loader was [eventually] the standard-issue long gun for the 2nd United States Volunteer Sharpshooter Regiment. The Civil War outfit also known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters.
The Regiment used the weapon at the the Battle of Sharpsburg, where they did not prove decisive. In fact, Berden was criticized by his peers for general incompetence and avoiding the battlefield. That last charge may have had something to do with resentment; Berden’s men could engage the enemy at stand-off distances (up to 500 yards), whereas the average soldier was often fighting at spitting distance.
According to Wikipedia . . .
The Sharps made a superior sniper weapon of greater accuracy than the more commonly issued muzzle-loading rifled muskets. This was due mainly to the higher rate of fire of the breech loading mechanism and superior quality of manufacture.
In the days before easily interchangeable parts, manufacturing quality was a hugely important factor for any weapon’s success. (The second rule of a gunfight: use a gun that works.) Even though the Sharps was plenty damn accurate for a “mass produced” rifle of its day, a sniper still needed a couple of shots to know where their bullet was landing. Hence the importance of rate-of-fire.
As far as shooting a Sharps goes, the falling-block weapon’s 47 inches long and weighs nine pounds. It fires .52-caliber 475-grain projectiles from a 50-grain cartridge (converted to .45-70 Government in 1873). There’s minimal recoil. The biggest “issue” is getting the projectile to go where you’re aiming it. To that end, the Sharps had a hinged rear sight.
Well that’s funky. Were the Top Shot contestants using it? I don’t recall so. If not, that would have put them at something of a disadvantage. But it should be said that I can’t find any shots of Civil War reenactment enthusiasts using the sights. Most use the front sights and “Kentucky windage.” As with any gun, experience and a few practice shots are key ingredients for accuracy.
Which were denied the Top Shot competitors who were, again, firing the 1874 model. The NRA Museum says this about that rifle: “Nicknamed ‘Old Reliable,’ this arm, available in a variety of calibers, barrel lengths, sights, and other features, became a favorite with both Plains buffalo hunters and competition shooters. Many Fancy-Grade models featured engraving which ranged from simple scrollwork to elaborate hunting or western scenes on their surfaces.”
And there I was thinking that Old Reliable was a geyser. A Sharps 1874 in reasonable condition will run you around $2200. There are plenty of repro models available, including several manufactured by our pals at Uberti, ranging from the sublime Cavalry Carbine ($1709) to the extra sublime bison-festooned Extra Deluxe ($4289).
Anyway, one wonders why Top Shot chose the Sharps breech-loader. Despite the mistaken nod to the Civil War, perhaps it had something to do with the Tom Selleck movie Quigley Down Under, wherein the eponymous hero shoots a long range Sharps 1874 to some effect (although not, as planned by his employer, to the detriment of the Aboriginals).
Or Top Shot’s producer may have picked-up on the popular misconception that this weapon ushered in the term “sharpshooter.” It did not. The Germans were using the word scharfschutze long before Mr. Sharp was born. Americans had been using the English version of the expression at the turn of the 18th century. Perhaps earlier.
Still, it makes for good TV.
[Click here for Roy Hill’s: The Truth About Top Shots’ Sharps Shooters]