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John Brown’s Sharps Rifle
Division of Military History and Diplomacy, National Museum of American History

John Brown’s Sharps Rifle

Catalog #: 1982.0025.01    Accession #: 1982.0025
Credit: Division of Military History and Diplomacy, National Museum of American History

Dimensions / Weight

Dimensions: x 48.56" W

Physical Description

Sharps sporting, percussion rifle, .44 caliber.

Specific History

This Sharps rifle was made especially for John Brown, though it bears no maker’s mark. Brown carried this weapon on his Kansas campaign in 1856 and later presented it to Charles Blair of Collinsville, Connecticut. In 1857, Brown contracted Blair to forge pikes for the clandestine slave insurrection he was planning for Harpers Ferry.

General History

As a boy of five, John Brown witnessed a slave his own age being beaten with a fire shovel. He vowed to become a foe of slavery. By mid 1800, Brown was fulfilling his vow. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed the two territories to decide the issue of slavery by a popular ballot. The fight in Kansas was so intense that the state earned the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas.” As Missouri pro-slavery “Ruffians” flocked to Kansas, the New England abolitionists bankrolled “Free-Soilers” to move to the settlement of Lawrence, Kansas. Henry Ward Beecher raised money to purchase Sharp's rifles for use by antislavery forces in Kansas. Rifles, said Beecher, are “a greater moral agency than the Bible” in the fight against slavery. The guns were packed in crates labeled "Bibles" so they would not arouse suspicion. Soon the Sharps rifles sent to Kansas were referred to as “Beecher’s Bibles.” In 1856, after abolitionists were attacked in Lawrence, John Brown led a raid on scattered cabins along the Pottawatomie Creek, killing five people. Kansas would not become a state until 1861, after the Confederate states seceded. John Brown had another plan to bring about an end to slavery, a slave uprising. Brown contracted with Charles Blair, a forge master in Collinsville, Connecticut, to make 950 pikes for a dollar a piece. Brown would issue the pike to the slaves as they revolted. On 16 October 1859, Brown led his group to Harpers Ferry where he took over the arsenal and waited for the slaves to revolt. The revolt never came. Two days later Robert E. Lee and his troops overran the raiders and captured John Brown. Brown was found guilty of murder, treason, and of inciting slave insurrection and on 2 December 1859, he was hanged.


Country: United States
States: Kansas, Missouri
Era: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
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