The opening segment of Top Shot Season Two had 16 competitors replicating the shooting test for the United States Sharpshooters at the start of the Civil War. Well, sort of . . .
The shooting test was pretty spot on. In his book Sharpshooter: Hiram Berdan, His Famous Sharpshooters and their Sharps Rifle, author Wiley Sword (I swear) reproduces a newspaper ad from the Dec. 11, 1861 issue of Minnesota’s Central Republican. Those wishing to become Union Sharpshooters had to fire “a string of 50 inches in 10 consecutive shots at 200 yards with globe or telescope sights from a rest.”
That’d be 10 shots all five inches or less from the target’s center point, or within a circle 10-inches wide. Top Shot’s competitors were shooting at a 10-inch circle at 200 yards. But they only one had shot. Not 10.
Not many of the Top Shot contestants’ bullets got close to the target. According to Wiley Sword’s research, about half the applicants passed the shooting test back in the 1860s. That’s not surprising; the aspiring sharpshooters back then were well-practiced with their own, not entirely dissimilar rifles. More to the point, they didn’t get tossed into the test completely cold, with a gun they’d never seen before.
No question: the rifle used on Top Shot was a Sharps breech-loader. But we can tell from a loading scene that it was an 1874 Sharps using metallic cartridges, not an 1859 Sharps. Although Top Shot made a big deal of the gun’s Civil War heritage, the 1874 arrived nine years after the end of the War Between the States. The 1874 looks pretty similar to the 1859, but isn’t near as complicated to load and fire.
The earlier rifle used paper or linen cartridges with percussion caps or a pellet priming system (sort of like modern roll caps). To fire the 1859 Sharps breech-loader, the shooter inserted a .52 caliber conical lead ball into the chamber from the breech, followed by a charge of black powder wrapped up in a paper or linen tube (called a cartridge).He then positioned the cartridge so that closing the breechblock would rip the cartridge. This would better expose the powder to the blast of fire from the primer, be it percussion cap or the pellet.
The later 1874 model came in a variety of calibers,. The .45-70 is probably the most common example you’ll find in use today; I’ll bet that’s what they used on Top Shot. It fires a .45 caliber lead bullet atop a charge of 70 grains of black powder in a self-contained brass cartridge with the primer in its base, just like most modern ammo. To load this version, you open up the breech, insert the metallic cartridge, and then close the breech. Done.
Tmarsh posted on TTAG that he was a contestant on the show. He revealed that the producers left out a crucial scene. Before the contest, an expert demoed the Sharps breech-loader. The Sharpspert described his sight picture at 200 yards.
Both types of Sharps were extremely accurate for their time. The U.S. Sharpshooters claimed plenty of hits at hundreds of yards, including one case where they drove off a Confederate signal battery from a distance of 1500 yards. Allegedly.
Billy Dixon is arguably the most famous user of the1874 Sharps. At Adobe Walls, Texas, during Quanah Parker’s attack on the outpost, Dixon shot a native warrior off his horse from over 1000 yards away. Or so the story goes.
Only firearms enthusiasts like myself and a few members of TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia noticed the difference between the named and the actual gun used. By Top Shot’s own admission, it’s not about the weapons. At least not for them.
[Click here for RF’s History Channel Top Shot Gun: Sharps Breech-Loading Rifle]