Selecting a Sharps: Shiloh’s Pricey Single Shot is Our Pick
However, Cabela’s or Cimarron’s less expensive versions of the 1874 Sharps will do until your $1,700 Shiloh Hartford Model arrives in a couple of years.
[IMGCAP(1)] The single-shot rifle was an important part of the history of the American frontier, from the time of Lewis and Clark through the epoch of the mountain men, to the post-Civil War buffalo hunters. Lewis and Clark had their military flintlocks, the mountain men had their percussion Hawkens, and the buffalo hunters had their cartridge-firing Sharps. All of these rifles were in many ways very similar. All had long octagonal barrels of relatively large bore size, and the rifles were over-built to guarantee longevity under demanding use. They got used very hard, indeed. In spite of their stout construction, not all that many originals survive today in good condition.
The Sharps rifle was encompassed within the development of both percussion and cartridge firearms. The design began as a breech-loading percussion arm, developed before the Civil War, toward the end of the mountain-man era. After the war the basic design was altered into a brass-cartridge rifle.
The Sharps breech-loading percussion rifle saw great use in the Civil War on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Some 140,000 Sharps rifles were produced prior to, and during that war. Most of them were the carbine model, with 22-inch barrels, which fired a paper “cartridge,” or a pre-measured charge of powder wrapped in combustible paper, with the paper stuck to a ball or conical bullet.
After the war, cartridge-rifle development continued at a great rate. Many percussion Sharps rifles were converted to fire brass cartridges. The first Sharps made by the company for cartridges was the model of 1869, though fewer than 1,000 were made. The 1874 Sharps, production of which actually started in 1871, was a cartridge rifle designed for sporting purposes. It became the first choice of those who preferred a powerful single-shot rifle over the Henry or Winchester 1866 repeaters, which were not all that potent. The new Sharps proved very popular with buffalo hunters, plainsmen and knowledgeable frontier riflemen of all sorts.
The 1874 Sharps came in many varieties, the most prolific being the Sporting Rifle. Calibers ranged from .40 to .50. Some of the most common rounds were .40-70, .44-90, .45-75, .45-100, .45-120, and the military calibers of .45-70 and .50-70. But by 1881 the Sharps rifle company was out of business, though the rifles were used up until at least the beginning of the last century.
Today, the demand to own a Sharps rifle far exceeds the supply. Cowboy Action shooters who partake in the long-range side events love them. The movie Quigley Down Under, with Tom Selleck using a Sharps made the demand for Sharps rifles skyrocket, and several makers today offer a “Quigley” model.
Any good original 1874 Sharps brings important money today. Rare versions of the 1874 Sharps bring well into five figures. The vast demand for the breed has been partially met by several modern manufacturers, notably Pedersoli in Italy, sold through various outlets such as Cabela’s and Cimarron Arms, and by the Shiloh Rifle Company of Montana. We say partially met, because the rifles from some makers, notably Shiloh, have a three- or four-year waiting list.
We have long wanted to test Sharps rifles, but we hadn’t been able to secure one of the higher-cost varieties until recently, in this case the Shiloh 1874 Hartford Model Sharps, $1,702. We then obtained two others, the Cimarron Sharps 1874 Silhouette, $1,095; and Cabela’s 1874 Sharps, $850; to test against it.
The latter two were both Pedersoli rifles. They had somewhat different features, but nearly identical sights, actions, and barrels. All were .45-70s. We obtained some Winchester 300-grain jacketed hollow-point ammunition, and two types of Buffalo Bore’s three popular offerings, with 350-grain JFP and 430-grain gas-checked cast-lead-bullet loads to shoot in the guns. Then we got busy and learned how they performed:
Cabela’s 1874 Sharps
Cabela’s offers four versions of the 1874 Sharps. At $850, ours was the cheapest. Next up the price ladder was the Heavy Target Model, for a penny less than $1,000, in either .45-70 or .45-120. Then comes the Quigley Sharps in either .45-70 or .45-120, at $1,300. Finally, there is the Deluxe Engraved version at a cost of $1,430. All have a twist rate of 1 turn in 18 inches.
Our rifle had a straight-hand walnut stock with checkering that wrapped all the way around the forend and the wrist. The checkering gave good traction. The butt was covered with a curved, case-colored steel plate. To our test shooters’ dismay, the area that contacted the shoulder seemed almighty small. Sights were a buckhorn rear, and driftable blade front. There was a secondary rear ladder sight that could be flipped up for long-range shots. When deployed, it remained in place securely against spring pressure. It was marked with numerals from 1 to 8, and held a sliding click-stopped U-notched rear sight.
Fit and finish of the Cabela’s 1874 Sharps were overall very good. The wood pores were nicely filled with an oil-type finish. However, the hand-done checkering adjacent to its borders was not fully pointed up. The case coloring on action, hammer, trigger-guard/lever, and butt plate was attractive and reasonably well done. The hammer was checkered, and gave good traction to make cocking easy. The barrel polish was fairly well done in that the sides of the octagonal barrel were flat with no waviness. However, the edges of the eight sides were very slightly rounded; they should have been sharp to match original rifles. The bluing was not as good as it ought to have been. There were splotchy areas that appeared to be a darker black all up and down the barrel. We could remove some of this by rubbing very lightly with 4-0 steel wool. When we did so, we removed a slight amount of oxidation that might have contributed to the spotty look. One area of bluing next to the rear sight was slightly abraded in a few spots, though the rifle had been well protected in its shipping box.
Loading the Sharps requires putting the hammer into its half-cock position before opening the breech, for safety reasons. Then the lever that forms the trigger guard is pressed downward, which lowers the breech block. A cartridge is inserted, and the lever is raised to bring the breech closed. To fire the rifle, the hammer is placed on full cock. The rifle may then be fired by either a press on the forward trigger, or by setting the rear trigger and touching the front, for a very light release. The set trigger had an adjustment screw protruding from between the two triggers. We left it alone.
The hammer serves as the only safety on this rifle, just as with originals. If the hammer is not placed in half-cock position before loading, it rests on the firing pin extension, causing the firing pin to protrude into the chamber. A cartridge could conceivably fire if the breech rose abruptly enough against the uncocked hammer. Unfortunately, with the Pedersoli design the half-cock position had the hammer high enough that if it were to slip, or if the hammer’s half-cock notch were to be broken through some mishap, the hammer might have enough force to fire the cartridge. On original Sharps rifles and on the Shiloh design, the half-cock position is about an eighth of an inch above the firing pin. On the Pedersoli design, the hammer is about half an inch high at half cock. We believe this design ought to be changed to reduce the height of the half-cocked hammer to forestall any potential problems with unintentional firing.
Opening the breech was easy and forthright with the Cabela’s Sharps. As the breech block reached bottom, it brought an extractor rearward, withdrawing the contents of the chamber. Brisk opening would sling empty cases rearward like an ejector. The system worked very well, and we had no problems with it during our field testing.
At the range, we found the sights to be adequate, but we’d make two changes. The front sight blade was stamped out of a sheet of aluminum, and the edge, which the eye sees when aiming, was rough. This needed the touch of a file. That would expose bright aluminum (the piece was gold colored), which would make the second problem, a too-bright rear surface, worse. Although the rear curved surface was probably similar to what was on original Sharps rifles, we’re sure frontier riflemen changed their sights to suit their eyes. We’d change this one. The front sight was driftable for windage, but the fixed rear sight had no provisions for elevation changes. That would have to be taken up with a higher or lower front sight blade, or by filing either the front or rear unit as needed, to suit one’s chosen ammunition.
The Cabela’s Sharps liked two types of ammunition about equally. Both the Winchester 300-grain and the Buffalo Bore 350-grain ammunition went into 100-yard, three-shot groups of around 2.0 inches. Our best was 1.2 inches with the Buffalo Bore ammo. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hit the paper reliably with the 430-grain, cast-lead, gas-checked Buffalo Bore ammunition. We moved up to 25 yards and fired a 4.1-inch group that had one bullet striking notably tipped. The bore was not leaded, so the bullets were not stripping. This turned out to be related to rifling twist, as we found out when we tried that ammo in the Shiloh.
Recoil, particularly from the Buffalo Bore ammunition, was right up there. The small area of iron on the butt succeeded in bruising one of our shooters who had lots of experience with hard-kicking rifles, and he was wearing a heavy winter coat at the time. Given a choice, we’d like a larger area on the butt for extended shooting sessions, but hey, you’ve gotta be tough to be a “buffler” hunter.
Cimarron Sharps 1874 Silhouette
Essentially the same rifle as the Cabela’s gun, we wondered at the $1,095 retail price. This rifle also had an oil-type stock that was well done. The case coloring was reasonably attractive. The metal polish was comparable to that of the Cabela’s version, but the bluing here was far superior to the other. There were no streaks, and no abrasions.
The Cimarron stock had a pistol grip and, happily, a much larger butt plate. The pistol grip let us haul this version of the Sharps tightly into our shoulder, and combined with the larger butt plate, that helped control recoil.
The walnut was not as quite nice as that on the Cabela’s, but it was adequate. There was no checkering at all. Inletting and overall workmanship was about equal to the other rifle, which was very good. One big difference was in the spring pressure of the action lever. This Cimarron version took much more effort to open and close, and if your hand was between the lever and the trigger, you could get bit as the lever snapped upward with strong spring pressure.
Accuracy was not quite as good as that of the Cabela’s rifle, averaging about 6 inches with the Winchester and 3 inches with the 350-grain Buffalo Bore ammunition. Again, the rifle didn’t like the 430-grain cast BB bullets, giving a 4-inch group at 25 yards with one striking sideways. We moved up only when we couldn’t hit the paper reliably at 100 yards.
There were no mechanical problems with the rifle at all. Both the Cimarron and Cabela’s versions would need the sights to be regulated for one’s chosen ammunition. As they were, both hit our 100-yard target with no adjustments by us. Some shots were a bit high, some a bit low. The interior of the barrels looked extremely good, but as we noted, both of these had 1 in 18-inch twists.
Shiloh 1874 Hartford Model Sharps
The standard features of this $1,702 model include the Hartford collar at the breech end of the barrel, pewter forend tip, either shotgun (fitted) or military-style butt stock, standard wood, double set triggers, and a 30-inch barrel in five choices of configuration. In addition, the rifle comes with either full- or half-buckhorn rear, and blade front sight. That means that in its basic configuration, the sights and general appearance would have looked a whole lot like either the Cabela’s or Cimarron rifles, for around $700 more. It’s worth every penny of that, in our opinion.
It’s all about Quality with a capital Q. The Shiloh had a perfectly flat, very well polished, sharp-cornered barrel with what appeared to be perfectly done rust bluing, which gave it a semi-matte glow that could be picked out across the room. When a barrel is around 30 inches long, and is attached to the relatively compact action of a single shot, the barrel dominates the rifle’s appearance. If the barrel looks good, the rifle looks good. This barrel looked great.
Where the muzzles of the two Pedersoli rifles showed notably visible lathe marks and a deep, wide funnel-shaped relief that served as a crown, the Shiloh had a dead-smooth muzzle with no trace of machining marks, even under 8X magnification. It had a small beveled relief on the rifling. The top of the barrel had the following markings: “Shiloh-Sharps Model 1874” about a third of the way up the barrel toward the muzzle; and “CALIBRE 45” over “2 1/10,” located 2.5 inches forward of the action, also on the top flat. The barrel was drilled and tapped for the spring of the normal rear sight.
Moving back to the action, it was machined with flat sides, sharp corners, and clearly defined contours, unlike the vague appearance of the other two rifles’ actions. Where the others had good case coloring, that of the Shiloh was beautifully even, slightly muted, and expertly applied, with a final result that was tasteful and rich looking without being garish. In other words, it looked exactly right.
We could feel a huge difference between the Shiloh and Pedersoli designs in the feel of their action levers. The Shiloh felt precise and smooth, almost sensual. By contrast, closing the other rifles’ actions felt like slamming a car door. We pulled the pin on the side of the Shiloh and dropped the breech block out. This took only the force of our fingers. The nose of the trigger-guard/lever had a small roller that ran against a fixed portion of the action as the block moved up and down. This, plus better fitting and care in manufacturing, resulted in the big difference in feel between the Shiloh and the Pedersoli rifles. The action pin had a tapered nose that was designed to go back into the rifle easily, and we were able to replace it with our fingers.
We also pulled the pin on one of the Pedersolis, and had the devil of a time getting it back in. There was a small step on the end of the cross pin, and the edge of that step had a sharp shoulder that didn’t belong there. We had to hammer the pin back into the Pedersoli with a plastic mallet. Both the extractor and action pin of the Shiloh were nicely case colored, and filed to attractive flat surfaces on those portions that the eye could see. The other two rifles’ parts were blued, and rough-looking by comparison.
Although the Shiloh Co. appears to make good use of investment-cast parts, all the visible surfaces, and some you can’t normally see, are very well ground, or filed, or otherwise well finished. The information we had on the Pedersoli design indicated it used a forged receiver. At any rate, all of these rifles had way more than adequate physical strength in their actions.
Our test shooting was done on dark-gray overcast days, and the light was quite poor. This undoubtedly limited our abilities with all rifles, but we did manage to get one superlative group fired with the Shiloh along the way. However, most of the time we couldn’t see the target well enough through the small hole in the Shiloh’s front sight. We longed for a simple post, but the front sight insert didn’t seem to be replaceable. If this rifle were ours, and we wanted to take it hunting, we’d come up with a better front sight. Even the simple sights on the Pedersolis would be a vast improvement for field use.
The inletting of the Shiloh Sharps was far superior to either of the other two. It looked like the wood had grown against the iron of the rifle, particularly around the back of the action. However, the stock finish left a little to be desired. An oil-type finish, it left the pores very much open. We could fix that with Lin-Speed, but it doesn’t seem we ought to have to. The butt plate was checkered and seemed to be made of hard rubber. It was large enough that this was a comfortable rifle to shoot.
On the range, we found the Shiloh shot fully up to its appearance. Our first group with Winchester’s 300-grain JHP measured 1.1 inches. Our groups with the Buffalo Bore 350- grain weren’t all that great, undoubtedly hampered by our inability to see the target. These averaged nearly 4 inches.
Finally came the moment of truth. Would the Shiloh like the 430-grain Buffalo Bore lead-bullet load? Our first group went into 3.8 inches from the 100-yard bench. At least they were all on the target. The light suddenly cooperated, and for a few brief moments we were able to see the target clearly. We fired three shots with as good a sight picture as we had had all day. Zowie! All three shots were touching.
Why would the Shiloh shoot these fast, heavy lead bullets so much better than the other two rifles? Twist rate. The Shiloh’s rifling was visibly very much tighter than the 1:18 twist of the Pedersoli, though we couldn’t measure it to our satisfaction.
We ran out of time before we could find out how well any of these three rifles shot with low-velocity heavy lead bullets, or more important, with black powder. If we get time to test these, we’ll upgrade this report in the future.
In our collective opinion, there’s only one rifle of this trio that’s completely worthy of the name Sharps, and it’s the Shiloh, which, by the way, is made entirely in the United States. Unfortunately, there’s a long waiting list for these rifles. You’ll have to pay a good down payment and wait for up to four years for your rifle to be done. If you’re willing to pay more than the current list price, and are not all that particular about special features or about which model you want, several dealers have, over time, ordered Shiloh rifles on speculation, and may have one in stock.
Shiloh’s rifles list for as little as $1,504, for either the rather plain Business rifle or the Montana Roughrider. Other designations sell for around $1,700, and some, like the various Creedmoors, go for around $2,800. The most expensive rifle, without any extras which can drastically raise the price, is—you guessed it—the Quigley Model, for $2,860.
Gun Tests Recommends
Cabela’s 1874 Sharps, $850. Conditional Buy. We thought the Cabela’s rifle was adequate, but we wonder at the relatively high price for such a simple design. It would seem that a rifle like this could be manufactured for a great deal less than $850, but no one seems to be doing so. If you want a representative Sharps for less than a grand, this one would fill the bill.
Cimarron Sharps 1874 Silhouette, $1,095. Conditional Buy. If you can get the Cimarron for anywhere near the price of the Cabela’s, either one would make a fine choice. We liked the checkering of the Cabela’s, but preferred the stock design of the Cimarron. Cabela’s shows a similar stock design on its Heavy Target Model, but the price is $1,000. Cimarron also offers two other models of the Sharps, the Billy Dixon Model for $1,495, and the Quigley Model, also at $1,495. Any can be ordered with a variety of options. Check the company’s website at cimarron-firearms.com for more details.
Shiloh 1874 Hartford Model Sharps, $1702. Buy It. We’re sure that most red-blooded American shooters would like to own a Sharps rifle. If you want one, it probably should be the best possible representative of an original Sharps, which was one of the finest U.S.-made rifles to ever see the light of day, and an icon of our frontier history.
We believe this rifle ought to be a very well-made reproduction of the early Sharps, and the best we’ve seen so far is the Shiloh. Yes, the Cabela’s and Cimarron Pedersoli-built rifles are pretty good, but we believe they’re going to be stop-gap measures to keep you relatively happy while you wait for your Shiloh. Buy it, no matter how long you’ve got to wait.