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]

Recommended For You

17 Responses to History Channel Top Shot Gun: Sharps Breech-Loading Rifle

    • Tha’s true. If you wanted to have the team captains picked by pure luck rather than skill, then this is a good way to go.

  1. My son watched the entire first season, and by default, I caught many of the episodes also. That’s representative of the whole show. Load of crap, really. Several of the episodes involve trying trick shots with weapons none of them have ever fired. Again, nothing more than pure luck, with some hand-eye coordination thrown in for shits-n-grins. For the real shooting, the guys with talent did stand out, but were never really given a fair chance. It seemed as if the competition was setup to hinder the good shots and make it more of a survivor show.

    Especially fun was the archery show (completely unnecessary, full of false information) and the knife throwing episode. As if that has anything to do with marksmenship. The wrist-rocket sling shot was kinda funny. But again, why?

  2. All the shooters on Top Shot are great shooters. The poit of the show is to find the person that can pick up a weapon and shoot it well. not just be a great pistol shooter, or an archery shooter, or a mounted cowboy action shooter. You need to be the best. A Top Shot. It was very windy during that challenge and we had an expert who shot the rifle tell us where the gun was hitting at 200 yards with the sights. Now each person will have a different sight alignment and as you saw in the challenge only 1 person actually watched what everyone else did and made a good shot. Evertone else did not “read the wind” or read everyone elses shot before them. LOL

    • For those of you who haven’t made the connection, Mr. Marsh was a competitor on TS S2. Click here for his bio.

      So Terry, I don’t remember seeing that instruction on the finished program. And you’re saying the producers put the early shooters at an unfair disadvantage?

    • If the intent is to find the “best shot”, what the hell was all the stupid soap opera drama injected into the first episode? The youngest guy, a kid really, stood out as a better shot than most. But one of his teammates apparently didn’t like him and put him in the challenge round numerous times. The fact that he survived numerous challenge rounds should tell you something.

      In any event, good luck. Or is it already over except for the airing of the episodes? I wouldn’t mind competing in some of the challenges, just for the hell of it. I’m guessing you had a good time?

      • Sorry, I was talking about the first season, not the first episode. I haven’t seen any of the second season yet.

  3. The big problem was that the story told was about the Model 1851/53 Sharps and then they shot a Model 1874. Watching then shoot a 51/53 would have been much more fun. While a breechloading firearm, it used a paper cartridge and either a percussion cap or Maynard tape primer instead of the modern metal cartridge of the 74.

  4. Are you saying I wrote up THE WRONG WEAPON? The 1874 was the Quigley Down Under gun, right? James, I may have a job for you. . . .

  5. What James said.

    They used a Sharps, but the wrong version for the Civil War.

    My copy of “Sharpshooter” by Wiley Sword says the rifle most associated with Col. Hiram Berdan’s famous unit of marksmen was the 1859 Sharps, which was a paper or linen cartridge gun, using percussion caps or a tape sort of like modern roll caps.

    There was a failed experiment equipping the unit with the Colt Revolving rifles, but they eventually switched over to the Sharps.

    The version of the Sharps used in Top Shot came into use 9 years after the Civil War was over.

  6. Robert,
    As Roy pointed out, I was not saying YOU had the wrong rifle, but that Top Shot did. They told the story of one version of a rifle and then shot a modern copy of a later version of that rifle, one that would not have been in the story they told. Then again, other than a few gun nuts like us and some history and civil war buffs, who would have noticed, anyway!

  7. I second Mr. Marsh’s comment. The show is about how people adapt and excel at a moment’s notice. If you want want to watch people who are already familiar with every tool they use, go watch a match of IDPA, skeet, or 3-gun. They are producing a show aimed directly at people who are not already gun folk, and if they hit their target, we will have more gun folk in America because of it.

    I argue that this competition was 100% fair because we live in a free country. Any of those competitors were free to have bought a Sharps Rifle at some point in their life and become proficient in it.

    • So how do you feel about the show’s producers omitting the part of the process where an expert described his sight picture at 200 yards?

  8. i hate this show. At least in movies the director tries to make the audience feel some kind of empathy for the leading actors.. This show Top Shot is just rubbish. Who cares! Too much ego and self centered individuals competing for recognition. I wish History CH. would cancel this waste of time show. Reality based survival show whom the audience dont give a crap about the shooters. I HATE THIS SHOW!!!!!! i love history ch. but this show makes me think twice..

  9. I just happened here through google…

    I ABSOLUTELY LOVE the show! And like my name says – I don’t know anything about guns. One of my first fights with my husband was because he wanted to get a shotgun for Christmas. I told him absolutely not! Okay, so I capitulated and suprised him with one on Valentine’s Day but I told him I don’t ever want to see it inside the house – that is – he needs to figure out a way to hide it and hide it good! He goes clay shooting with it and he’s pretty good – 3 clays thrown out by the machine at the same time, 3 bullets in his shotgun, and he hits all 3 clays. Pretty consistently.

    Anyway, I have grown to appreciate my husband’s skill on the shotgun but I still don’t like guns, I still don’t know anything about them, and have no interest in knowing anything about them. Then comes Top Shot.

    I watched the entire first season “On Demand” when Season 2 was just about to start – they had it available on the cable. And I have to say, I got HOOKED!

    I don’t really care about the nitty-gritty info I read off this blog – I was just happy to know that rifle (or close to it) was used in the Civil War and how, apparently, it takes a lot of skill to shoot it – I mean if the Top Shot contestants were having such a miserable time with it…

    I love the way the show is structured – enough drama to keep me (who doesn’t know anything about guns/bows/axe/etc) glued to the TV. I couldn’t wait to have my husband watch the last episode (I got him addicted to the show too!) because of how Jamie sic’d it to them by getting immunity! LOL! That was awesome…

    So yeah, if the intent was to get people like me gaining an appreciation for firearms/weaponry and its history, then Top Shot succeeded with flying colors! I even read up on the Civil War firearms because of this blog. Hah!

    • I am glad you got hooked on top shot ,your thought on firearms is bred into you by news that public is subject to on a daily bases. A small number of thugs
      and nuts make headlines. The tens of milions the use firearms for sport dont
      try it your self you may like it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *