feature By: William P. Mapoles Photos by Victoria Patton | February, 20
In the two previous issues of this publication, I shot the “slant-breech” Models 1851 and 1852 for function and accuracy. In this issue, I will test the Model 1853 “slant-breech” carbine in the same manner, with a bit of history thrown in. I promise not to dwell on the story of the abolitionist John Brown, “Bleeding Kansas,” and “Beecher’s Bibles,” because we have all read about that before. Instead, I will focus on a lesser-known bit of Sharps history, namely the Model 1853 in the hands of the 1st Dragoon Regiment, and the Confederate Territory of Arizona.
In the late 1850s, the 1st Dragoons were stationed roughly from the New Mexico Territory, through California, to the Pacific Northwest. The regiment numbered about 650 souls on a good day, and there were often not enough horses to go around. Individual companies were stationed at key forts scattered throughout the frontier wherever trouble was expected. The Dragoons brought some semblance of law and order to the Wild West, sometimes with an iron fist, but most often with thoughtful diplomacy.
So, what did an average Dragoon soldier look like at that time? According to data collected by the government in the 1850s, the average American adult male weighed a bit less than 150 pounds. The mounted services often preferred soldiers weighing less than 140 pounds to go easier on the horses. The majority of males worked on farms at the time, so picture a slim, strong, wiry little guy with a deep, dark outdoor tan. Since toothbrushes were not yet in wide use, imagine our soldier with a wry, toothy grin and brown teeth stained by strong coffee and tobacco. And yes, he was quite smelly from sweat and livestock, and he likely had lice. Did the Army issue toilet paper? Nope, but they did have soap. Nevertheless, he was typically jovial and fun-loving, especially on payday. As you can imagine, he spent a lot of time thinking about how to get alcohol and women.
In the late 1850s, the Dragoon’s armament consisted of a mixed bag of obsolete and experimental guns. Here is an excerpt from a letter dated March 20, 1857, from Lt. Col. Phillip St. George Cooke, endorsed by Gen. Winfield Scott, to the Adjutant General of the Department of the West: “The armament of the cavalry arm has been so varying that there would seem to (be) no controlling authority on the subject…In the first six companies of the (2nd Dragoon) Regiment under my immediate command, three have an arm, long discarded – Hall’s carbine (.54 cal Model 1843 breechloading smoothbore) – and based on no other authority than the fancy of a Captain of the regiment. Two (companies) have an incompatible supply of Sharp’s Carbines, and one has the musketoon (.69 cal Model 1847 muzzleloading smoothbore); and what is worse, these arms have been more or less mixed in some of the companies. I would solve the difficulty of selection by discontinuing the use of any firearm, other than Colt’s large (3rd Model Dragoon) six shooter, with which they are now armed. The loss will be nothing! The revolvers will hit and kill at one hundred and fifty yards. The long gun, used mounted, is more apt to miss than the revolver, from the use of the bridle hand in aiming it. I favor much, sharp sabers, and would desire a scabbard that would not dull them...”
Fortunately, the above recommendation was not heeded, or Sharps might have gone bankrupt. Having personally shot many Colt cap-and-ball revolvers over the years, I would not want to bet my life on hitting an enemy combatant at 150 yards unless he was standing still and out in the open. Imagine a bad guy shooting at you with a rifle from behind a tree at 75 to 150 yards, and all you have is a revolver and saber! You wouldn’t know it from Cooke’s letter, but the Dragoon Regiments were fully trained in both ground and mounted combat, and regardless of Cook’s advice they were eventually fully equipped with the Model 1853 Sharps carbine by 1860 to 1861.
By January 1861, the situation with the Apaches in the Southwest was really heating up. The Apaches had killed many Anglo and Mexican ranchers, destroyed five Butterfield stage stations, and ambushed numerous stagecoaches and a wagon train, killing hundreds. Then in February, a new and blundering lieutenant from the 1st Dragoons hung three of Cochise’s relatives and three other Apaches, when the negotiations for the return of a kidnapped Caucasian boy spiraled out of control (aka: “The Bascom Affair”). That started the Apache War that has been called by some historians as “the longest war in U.S. history.” (It ended with the surrender of Geronimo in 1886.) Indian depredations started to increase exponentially, and virtually every family in the territory was severely impacted.
Then in March 1861, all hell broke loose when Arizona voted to secede from the Union to side with the Confederates, and by the summer, Arizona was declared a Confederate Territory. On the map, Confederate Arizona encompassed the southern half of both modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, and it ran from Texas to California. This was where most of the population, mines, and ranches were located. The northern half of modern-day New Mexico and Arizona (north of the 34th parallel) was still called the U.S. New Mexico Territory, also running from Texas to California. Surprisingly, there were almost no black slaves in Arizona; however, slavery was nothing unusual in the Southwest as some Indians and Mexicans routinely bought and sold captives/slaves, while the Spanish had extreme peonage. There were slaves of all races, including whites. What the residents of the region really wanted was protection from the Indians, and the U.S. Army had not done a very good job at it. The Confederates offered to do better.
A large column of Confederates immediately set out from El Paso, Texas, to drive out the Union troops and to fully occupy the new CSA Arizona Territory. The 1st Dragoons stationed in Arizona were ordered to burn their forts, to destroy all property they couldn’t carry, and to leave immediately carrying plenty of ammunition. They were to escape and regroup with sister 1st Dragoon companies in California. However, it was decided to leave two 1st Dragoon companies behind to ensure all facilities and supplies were completely destroyed to keep them out of the hands of the Confederates and Apaches. These two 1st Dragoon companies went on to fight the Rebels in a number of engagements carrying their Model 1853 Sharps carbines and Colt revolvers. Anyone who possessed a Sharps rifle in this chaotic time-period was rich indeed. By the fall of 1861, the 1st Dragoons (minus the two companies) had regrouped in California and received orders to board ships to be sent back to fight the Civil War, where they eventually became part of the Army of the Potomac.
As the ragtag Confederates moved north from El Paso into Arizona and New Mexico, they picked up many local volunteers and swept the Union regulars before them, capturing forts and valuable supplies along the way. Interestingly, one of these volunteers was a man named “Bean,” in later years to become Judge Roy Bean, known as “The Law West of the Pecos.” The Confederate tide seemed unstoppable as the shocked Yankees fell back, regrouped, and fell back again. The Confederate goal was to capture the Union forts, occupy the major towns, and link up with sympathizers in California. A Confederate pathway to the Pacific Ocean was the ultimate dream.
Southern California was also a hotbed of secession, and the Union authorities were very worried, so they used military units like the 1st Dragoons to keep the peace and to deprive the secessionists of this valuable real estate. In addition, young men flooded into the Union ranks from Northern California and elsewhere in response to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. They wanted to fight.
The Confederate force, consisting of several thousand volunteers from Texas and Arizona, rolled on and they won a major battle called “Valverde,” in February 1862. Santa Fe and Tucson were taken, and their next objective was Fort Union in northern New Mexico, which was the Union regional headquarters, supply depot and arsenal. The Confederates wanted to push the Union Army completely out of New Mexico and into Colorado. They simply kept on winning even though poorly equipped, mostly with muzzleloading musketoons, shotguns, and a few captured rifled muskets. Some Confederates had ’53 Sharps carbines as well.
Then in March 1862, came the battle of Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail, and while the Confederate Army won the three-day battle, in the process a band of Union soldiers slipped around behind the Rebel flank and destroyed the large Confederate wagon train carrying most of their supplies. About 80 wagons were destroyed and 500 horses and mules were killed or scattered. In this barren land, food and water was key, so the Confederates pulled back to Santa Fe, only to find the locals also in dire straits. Lacking logistical support, the Confederates began the long march back to Texas, with many dying along the way from thirst and starvation. What started with glory and victory ended in tragedy, and Glorieta Pass has been called “The Gettysburg of the West,” even though much smaller in comparison.
Meanwhile back in California, James Carleton, an expert in desert logistics and a former major in the 1st Dragoons, was placed in charge of the Union volunteers in southern California. He had an eye toward driving the Confederates back into Texas and occupying Arizona and New Mexico for the duration of the Civil War. His men were called “The California Column,” and they gathered their forces in Yuma for the upcoming campaign. The California Column had a real challenge on their hands, with multiple enemies to fight all at once (Confederates, Apaches, Navajos, and Mexican bandits). In the Summer of 1862, after massing their supplies, they invaded the Confederate Territory of Arizona and eventually accomplished their mission, establishing forts and supply depots along the way through Tucson and into West Texas. They had many skirmishes with the Confederates and the Indians, and they would occupy the entire area until 1866, desperately trying to keep the peace in this bloodstained region.
Now comes the ironic twist according to Messrs. Coates and McAulay in their book “Civil War Sharps Carbines and Rifles.” At the time, the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry Regiment of the California Column was equipped mainly with Model 1853 Sharps carbines, and we have quite a few of those serial numbers starting with a list dated February 1862 [note 1]. It seems that some of John Brown’s Model 1853 Sharps carbines were confiscated by the U.S. Army in 1859 after his attempted insurrection at the Harpers Ferry Armory in Virginia; and interestingly, several of those exact serial numbers have turned up in the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry serial number lists. As stated previously, the 1st Dragoons were consolidated in California in late 1861, so they could be shipped back East to fight in the Civil War. Coates and McAulay feel that the 1st Dragoons had been issued the confiscated John Brown carbines first, and later left them in California upon their departure, whereupon they were re-issued to the 1st California Cavalry troopers. However, since their book was published in 1996, it seems that a military order from the headquarters in Washington, D.C., has surfaced in the archives, directing the 1st Dragoons to retain their weapons [note 2]. Maybe this order arrived in California too late, was changed or countermanded, and the change has been lost to history. Who knows? In any case, I’m sure that John Brown, while his body was “amoldering in the grave,” was delighted that his 1853 Sharps carbines were being used to fight those “damned State’s Rights advocates.” That was his intention to begin with, right? It just happened in an interesting roundabout way.
The Test Guns – The Model 1853
A total of 10,519 Model 53 carbines were made from November 1854 to December 1857, and the U.S. Army purchased 4,930, with orders starting in January 1858 through January 1859 [note 3]. The majority of those purchased by the Army saw very hard usage before and during the Civil War. They weigh 7 pounds, 10 ounces. The barrel caliber is .52, with the land-to-land diameter being .525, and a groove-to-groove diameter of .550, giving a groove depth of .0125. The bore condition on the test gun is about a nine on a scale of 10, and it has six lands and grooves of about equal width. The barrel is 21.5 inches long and the sight radius is 18.25 inches.
There were four different breechblock variations during the lifetime of the Model 1853, and sometimes Sharps would replace the blocks with updated versions before selling and shipping them, especially for government orders. Therefore, the block in a particular gun today might not be the same one it was originally manufactured with in the 1850s. The ’53 Sharps production began using a platinum ring breechblock, and it ended up with a Conant patented design with a recessed cavity, steel ring/washer gas seal, and an added right-angle “projecting vent” in the flash channel. The test gun was of this latter design. Of course, the goal was to reduce gas leakage from the block, and I must say that the leakage was noticeably less between this Sharps and the earlier platinum ring guns. In addition, I noticed less binding and sticking of this block from fouling than with the platinum ring guns. However, the additional 90-degree turn in the flash channel slowed ignition and caused some hangfires, even with extra-strength musket caps. People who shoot percussion muzzleloaders are very familiar with the problem of too many sharp turns in the flash channel diminishing the spark from the cap.
The block-to-bouching (chamber sleeve) gap on the test gun was .001-.0015 as measured with a feeler gauge. When fired, gas pressure in the Conant cavity seems to pull the block forward, or perhaps the steel ring moves forward microscopically (or probably both), which gives a very respectable gas seal. In spite of all the improvements, Sharps still had a problem with this last ’53 block design, because occasionally the steel ring would come lose and completely jam-up the action. I don’t quite understand how this could happen, but I know from experience that a soldier can break anything. The Sharps New Model 1859 with the Conant/Lawrence gas plate eventually fixed this problem.
The sights are a brass blade front, and a folding rear ladder-with-slider; probably the worst rear sight ever invented. The historical records are full of requests for new sights and sliders. (This is why they are being reproduced today by Richard Wetnight for guns missing them [note 4]). A better sight was eventually designed by Lawrence and appeared on late-model ‘53s, and on the subsequent Civil War models. Luckily, in the ladder-down position, the test carbine shot dead-on for the 100-yard target.
Nearly all of the 1853 carbines purchased by the Army have the nine-inch sling ring bar, which means that they were made before the summer of 1856. Late in production, the bars were shortened to prevent the carbine from inadvertently tipping muzzle-up while attached to the baldric carbine sling. Some carbine barrels were evidently issued “in the white” (not blued or browned), because when I removed the forearm of the test gun, I could see no signs of bluing/browning, even under 5x magnification. The machining marks in the metal under the forearm look like other models that were issued in the white, while the rest of the barrel looks like it was polished by a soldier with the usual fine “brick dust.” That was the style at the time.
The Right Bullet, Lubricant, and Powder Charge
To be consistent with the previous tests of the Model 1851 and Model 1852, I used the same Sharps bullet mould, which is a close copy of eight excellent original bullets found at a pre-Civil War Dragoon fort. The average weight of my bullet was 455 grains (pure lead), with the top band measuring .531, the middle band measuring .539, the bottom band at .548, and the ringtail about .460. The bullets were visually inspected, but not weighed for the shooting test, because I wanted to duplicate historic military results, not pinpoint match accuracy.
I have been asked why I didn’t used GOEX or Swiss 3Fg for my tests. First, a coarse grade of powder was recommended by Christian Sharps. Second, it stands to reason that a fine powder with higher gas pressure would result in more gas leakage at the breech. Third, more gas leakage would more quickly erode the face of the block and chamber sleeve with micro-striations. Finally, higher pressure can damage the shooter and a fine old gun, so stay safe with light, or factory equivalent charges.
The Paper Cartridge
By experimenting with paper cartridges with a folded tail, I learned that the chamber would hold a maximum of about 49-50 grains of powder. This meant that about 10 grains of powder and paper were cut off the end of the cartridge tube by the knife-edge of the breechblock. Each time, the excess was dumped on the ground. I prefer flat-based paper tubes, which were known at the time, but they hold slightly less powder; hence the 46 grains of Swiss 1½ Fg. This is due to the angle of the “slant breech,” which is 22 degrees. Even so, I was still able to duplicate the velocity of the 1858 Army test.
My bullets have a ringtail, which is proper for this model, and the inside diameter of the paper tube is a snug fit on the ringtail (.460), resulting in a long, thin, cartridge. Years later, for the New Model 1859 and 1863, Sharps recommended a flat-based bullet with a larger diameter paper or linen tube that would fit around the full diameter of the bullet (.548). This resulted in a shorter, fatter cartridge with more powder capacity. Of course, all flat-base paper tubes are designed to fit the chamber exactly and eliminate the need to shear off the end of the cartridge with the knife-edge of the breechblock.
Even though the Sharps gave increased firepower, the Dragoons were often short of cartridges, so they were issued bullet moulds and cartridge-forming sticks to roll their own. To complicate matters further, the cartridges were frequently damaged inside the tin-lined cartridge boxes, especially while bouncing around on horseback. So how many rounds did they typically carry? Twenty to 40 rounds seems to be the norm for dangerous, mounted patrols; however, according to some of the more experienced mounted officers of the era, 26 rounds per man was considered “an abundant supply.” The European armies called for between 16 to 26 rounds per mounted trooper. The U.S. Cavalry cartridge boxes got smaller and smaller over time, so that by the Civil War, the Pattern 1861 box only carried 20 rounds [note 6]. It is ironic that while the Dragoons could shoot faster with the Sharps, they still carried about the same amount of ammunition as with the .69 caliber smoothbore musketoon. It seems short, sharp skirmishes were the norm, especially with Indians and bandits.
Accuracy Test Results
All record groups were fired from the benchrest position, using front and rear bags, at a distance of 100 yards. All groups were measured center-to-center of the two widest shots. The load was 46 grains of SWISS 1½ Fg at 813 fps. Five, five-shot groups were fired: Smallest Group: 2.125 inches. Largest group: 4 inches. Average Group Size: 3.18 inches. The bore was wiped between the five-shot groups. One 10-shot group was fired without cleaning, and the group size was four inches.
I also did quite a bit of shooting at 200 meters on a 12 by 14-inch gong, and at 300 meters on a standard silhouette javelina. After I fired a few times to get the sights adjusted for the distance, I could regularly hit the steel, providing the wind wasn’t blowing too hard. In the 1850s, people used to complain that there were no distance numbers stamped on the Sharps rear or tang sights. The sights were adjustable, but the rear sight bases and ladders were left blank – no numbers. Now I know why after my tests. With the different bullets, throat depths, powder charges, and paper cartridge types, there were simply too many variables to come up with standardized range approximations.
The groups fired during this test compare favorably with the previous test results on the Model 1851 and Model 1852, but the chronograph numbers for the Model 1853 were the best. However, the overall best accuracy was obtained with the Model 1851. I attribute that to the different, and much shallower rifling on the ’51 (.008), while the rifling on the ’52 and ’53 was .012 plus. The Sharps Company probably thought that the deeper rifling would help with fouling, a common belief of the era. (On subsequent Civil War models, they went much shallower.) Nevertheless, all of the groups from all of the test guns show that the “slant-breech” Sharps carbine had excellent accuracy for a military carbine with open sights, as well as very good long-range killing power when compared to muzzleloaders of the day. It was light and short, recoil was manageable, and there simply wasn’t much better in terms of firepower until the Spencer and Henry rifles hit the field. I would have hocked my wife’s jewelry to get one. S
1. Earl J. Coates & John D. McAulay, “Civil War Sharps Carbines & Rifles,” Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1996, page 49. A great book, highly recommended.
2. Jim Perrin, “A Model 1853 1st California Cavalry Sharps Carbine,” Sharps Collector Report, Vol. 26, No. 3, Sharps Collector Association, page 14.
3. Roy Marcot, Edward Marron, Jr., Ron Paxton, et al, “Sharps Firearms, Volume 1, the Percussion Era,” Northwood Heritage Press, Tucson, Arizona, 2019, pages 210-213. Anyone interested in percussion Sharps’ should have this wonderful new book.
4. Richard Wetnight makes exact reproductions of early Sharps rear and tang sights that are excellent, plus they are in stock. You can email him at email@example.com.
5. Charlie Hahn’s great paper cartridge tubes can be obtained by calling: (410)-627-4726, or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Roy Marcot, et al, as above, pages 222, 314-315.