Perhaps the principal firearm contributing to the decimation of the buffalo herds in the United States was the Sharps Sporting Rifle, an improvement on the Christian Sharps patent of 1848 for a single-shot rifle with a breech block in a mortise perpendicular to the bore. This innovation provided a breech mechanism strong enough to handle safely the large cartridges needed for adequate killing power on buffalo at great ranges, a property possessed by very few rifle actions available in the early 1870s. Sharps rifles were manufactured in a variety of calibers. The extreme weight of the octagonal barrels allowed numerous shots to be fired before the rifle overheated and also helped to absorb the hard recoil of heavy charges. The double-set trigger helped shorten the lock time of the long hammer-fall and aided long-range shooting by instant discharge. The sight was attached to the metal tang strap behind the breech mechanism, a feature that increased the sighting radius and improved long-range accuracy considerably. The shotgun buttplate was a bit wider and longer than the normal military plate and helped to distribute recoil. Hunters fired from stands, from which they killed as many buffalo as they could before the herd panicked. This called for precise accuracy and a powerful cartridge for instant one-shot kills. The Sharps rifle achieved these qualities with perfectly smooth cylindrical bullets wrapped with banknote paper before loading. This paper was all that engaged the rifling in the bore and fell away after the bullet passed out of the muzzle, leaving the slug unmutilated and smoothing its flight.
The Sharps rifle dramatically altered the Great Plains. In the mid-1880s buffalo were estimated to number in excess of twenty million. In twenty years, scarcely a specimen remained from the four great herds in the United States. The original purpose of the buffalo "harvest" was to supply meat to railroad workers, and every herd was touched by rail activity. However, the major stimulus to the slaughter of buffalo came with the development of a method for tanning the hide into leather for luggage and similar articles. Almost overnight an army of hide hunters descended on the Texas herd, which ranged from Dodge City, Kansas, to the Colorado River north of Austin, Texas, and a slaughter began, protected by a line of forts-Fort Griffin, Fort McKavett, Fort Sill, and Fort Phantom Hill. Many buffalo outfitters in Texas were dealers or consignees for Sharps rifles, among them Frank E. Conrad and T. E. Jackson of Fort Griffin, Texas; Lee and Reynolds of Camp Supply, Indian Territory (see LEE, WILLIAM MCDOLE); Conrad and Rath (see RATH, CHARLES) and Asa Tracy of Fort Concho, Texas; William Hyde of Sherman, Texas; and J. C. Petmecky of Austin. The operation of the Sharps Company itself, in close parallel with the era of the great buffalo hunts, ceased in the late 1800s, when the vast buffalo herds were gone forever. See also BUFFALO, BUFFALO HUNTING.
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Mari Sandoz, The Buffalo Hunters (New York: Hastings House, 1954). Frank M. Sellers and De Witt Bailey III, Sharps Firearms (Denver: Chester's Idea Press, 1969). Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle (New York: Morrow, 1943).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
W. S. Peace,
“Sharps Buffalo Rifle,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 15, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
July 1, 1995