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Hiram Berdan's Sharpshooter’s Rifle
Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History

Hiram Berdan's Sharpshooter’s Rifle

Date: ca 1870
Catalog #: 5826    Accession #: 24188
Credit: Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History


Christian Sharps Company; Springfield Armory (Manufacturer)

Christian Sharps got his start in the gun making business by working at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. The first Sharps firearm was patented in 1848, and by 1850, the first models of Sharps Sporting Rifles were being made in Mill Creek, Pennsylvania by the firm of A. S. Nippes. In 1851, a new breechloader was being made in Windsor, Vermont by the firm of Robbins & Lawrence. Rifle production continued in Vermont while a new Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was formed in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1855, manufacturing was moved to Hartford and continued until 1876. Operations were then moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut until 1880. Although the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company bore his name, Christian Sharps was not the principal owner. In 1854 he began his own C. Sharps & Company to make his own handguns. He formed a partnership with William Hankins in 1862. Sharps & Hankins manufactured four-barrel pepperboxes and single-shot breech loading rifles and carbines. That partnership ended in 1866. Christain C. Sharps & Company ceased operations with Sharps' death in 1874.

Dimensions / Weight

Dimensions: 7" H x 52" W x 2" D

Physical Description

Sharps breech loading rifle, .50-70 caliber. This rifle was owned by Col. Berdan. It was used for Army trials of the .50-70 centerfire cartridge after the Civil War.

General History

Hiram Berdan was an inventor considered by some to be the best marksman in America. At the outset of the Civil War, Berdan believed the infantry tactics being used were outdated. He wrangled a meeting with president Lincoln and presented his idea of forming a special unit, "Sharpshooters,” made up of soldiers from every state. Their goal would be to fire on specific targets rather than simply firing in mass. Lincoln was impressed with the idea and authorized 100 men to join Berdan. They were the only volunteer unit in the war to bear the designation “United States” and to be supplied by the Federal Government. In order to accomplish the accuracy need, Berdan chose a unique gun. Shortly before the Civil War, a new type of gun that was a combination of a rifled musket with a minie ball increased the firing distance by almost three times. The Sharps breech loading .52 caliber rifle could fire to distance of 300 yards. Now the enemy could be devastated before reaching close proximity. The rifle used a one piece cartridge which included a minie ball tied to a cylindrical cartridge of paper which held powder. The block at the breech of the firing chamber slid down and when closed, it clipped off the tail of the cartridge, exposing the powder. When the hammer fell on the cap, a fulminated mercury charge ignited the powder, sending the minie ball through the gun barrel. A quick sharpshooter could fire as many as 8 rounds per minute.


Country: United States
State: Connecticut
War: Civil War
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