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Sharps Rifles, just how far will they shoot

Retyped with the permisson of Shotgun News
Original Story by Mike Venturino
Shotgun News April 2000

One topic about which there is more legend, speculation, and pure folly written is the long range shooting done by the buffalo hunters of the 1870’s. It has often been written that they regularly shot buffalo at enormous distances; such as out to 1000 yards or more. But perhaps the most controversial shot ever made was supposed to have been the one fired by young buffalo hunter Billy Dixon during the famous Battle of Adobe Walls in June 1874.

It was there that Dixon allegedly knocked an Indian warrior from his horse with a single shot a what was latter surveyed to be 1538 yards. Dixon himself said it was simply a lucky shot, while others have said that the event never happened at all, or that the hapless Indian was on a much closer butte about 700 to 800 yards distant. Regardless the Billy Dixon Shot” has been discussed and debated now for well over 100 years.

Whether is actually happened or not, or exactly how far away the target was is pretty much a matter of indifference to me. The whole affair is encased in the “fog of history” and cannot be proved or disproved to total satisfaction. But I am grateful that the controversy exists because it allowed me to participate in the most fascinating scientific shooting test ever performed.

Here is the story. In the fall of 1992, the people at Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing, makers of the beautiful Sharps Model 1874 reproductions, were approached by a group of forensic scientist who were going to have a meeting early in November at the government’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. During the get-together these scientist were going to be allowed to use some recently de-classified radar device to test the performances of various types of ammunition. This new radar apparatus could actually track a single bullet in flight from the time it exited a firearm’s muzzle until it hit the ground.

Most specifically, Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing was asked to bring a rifle chambered for the .50-90 Sharps cartridge. I was invited to travel to Yuma with Kirk Bryan, one of Shiloh’s owners, and during the long drive down from Montana we speculated about why the forensic scientists asked especially for us to bring a Sharps .50-90. Furthermore we wondered why anyone would care about using such state of the art electronic equipment on a blackpowder cartridge rifle.

Once there, we learned why. One of the scientist had written an article in their newsletter stating that Billy Dixon could not possibly have knocked an Indian warrior off his horse at 1538 yards. According to this scientist’s calculations, a Sharps .50-90 (the rifle and caliber that Billy Dixon supposedly used) couldn’t heave a bullet that far. May first thoughts were, “Well, this fellow is going to be awfully embarrassed. Anyone who has played around with these rifles knows a Sharps will shoot that far.” But, I kept my mouth shut and waited for the electronic wizardry to give its opinion.

Things got interesting quickly. We were given photo ID badges, and warned not to take photos of anything; not to even take cameras out of the vehicle. (A picture of row upon row of Russian T-72 tanks would have been impressive!) Anyway, for testing the Sharps .50-90 was mounted in a special gun carrier with the radar set behind it. I would have loved to be able to show you a photo of an old side-hammer Sharps mounted in a gun carrier big enough to hold tank cannons, but as I said cameras were not allowed.

For the first shot with the Sharps the gun carrier was elevated to 35 degrees, and a round carrying a 675-grain bullet over 90 grains of FFg blackpowder touched off. All the scientist running the equipment started stuttering and stammering in front of their screens. Collectively, they were saying, “It couldn’t be! It couldn’t be!” What they couldn’t accept was that the big .50 caliber Sharps bullet started out at only 1216 fps had landed more than 3600 yards downrange.

Several technicians muttered, “Shoot another one. Something must be not working right. “This time the bullet weighed 650 grains and the 90-grain powder charge gave it a muzzle velocity of 1301 fps. With that 35-degree muzzle angel this bullet impacted at 3,245 yards. At this point the scientist who wrote the article saying Billy Dixon’s gun wouldn’t put a bullet out as far as 1,538 yards got very quiet and very red face.

From there on it was all fun. For the next shot the muzzle was elevated to 45 degrees, and another 650-grain bullet fired. This one started out at 1,275 fps, and landed 3,190 yards downrange. However, even more amazing was that this projectile topped 4000 feet in elevation, and was in the air a full 30 seconds!

Another scientist at this gathering then began to do some tapping on his laptop computer using the data accumulated so far. After a few minutes he said, “Elevate the muzzle to 4.5 or 5.0 degrees and you’ll get a Billy Dixon shot.” That was done with the same load and the bullet landed 1,517 yards away. Incidentally, five degrees of muzzle elevation can easily be gotten with on the rear barrel sight on a 30 inch barreled Shiloh Sharps.

Knowing what sort of .50-90 factory ammo Sharps produced in 1874 (450-grain grease groove bullets and 473-grain paper patch) I had brought some .50-90 rounds loaded with 450-grain grease groove bullets over 100 grain of FFg. This load started out at an impressive 1406 fps, but with the muzzle elevated to 35 degrees, the lighter bullet only went to 2,585 yards.

At this point the forensic scientist were getting into the swing of things and asked us what other rifles we had along. So, next we mounted up a Sharps .45-110 which incidentally is the caliber used by Tom Selleck in the movie, “Quigley Down Under,” Load for it was 550-grain bullet over 100 grains of FFg, and muzzle velocity was 1322 fps. With the 35-degree muzzle angle that bullet landed 3,575 yards downrange.

For the next shot, the muzzle was dropped to five degrees and the bullet, starting at 1,361 fps, landed at 1430 yards. Interestingly, when it hit the ground the electronic equipment said it was still moving at 669 fps.

This group of scientists generally agreed that any projectile form a BB on up needs about 300 fps velocity to inflict a possibly lethal wound. Those .50 caliber Sharps bullets fired at 35 to 45 degrees were coming almost straight down at impact but were still going 350 to 400 fps. In other words they were still deadly out at 3500 yards.

Now, it is easy to say, “Well sure a Sharps can heave a big chunk of lead out to impressive distances, but just how accurate can they be at long range?” After all, it is easy to reason that blackpowder is a primitive propellant, and cast bullets certainly are inferior to modern factory made jacketed projectiles. Let’s not forget also that the rifles are carrying only “iron sights”.

Perhaps I would not be able to give an opinion based on actual shooting myself, if not for the help of country/western singer Hank William Jr. In the beautiful Big Hole Valley of Montana, Hank has a sizeable ranch, and during one visit there in the early 1990’s I pointed out a spot which I thought would be perfect for hanging a life size steel silhouette of a buffalo. I said, “That hillside has to be at least 600 or 700 yards from the shooting house.”

On my next visit, sure enough, Hank had mounted a steel cut out of a buffalo bull. It stood five feet tall at the hump and was eight feet long from nose to tail. Hank had the distance from the shooting bench to the ”buffalo” surveyed. It was exactly 956 yards! (So much for my distance guessing ability.) Once the range was set up Hank invited me to bring an array of Sharps rifles and do some test shooting.

Among the Sharps rifles used were both original and Shiloh reproductions chambered for .40-70, .45-70 and .45-110 cartridges. All of these rifles had barrel lengths from 30 to 34 inches, and all were equipped with high quality Vernier type, tang mounted peep sights.

The .45-110 was even on of Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing’s “Quigley Models”, an exact duplicate of the one used by Tom Selleck in the above-mentioned movie. All the ammunition fired carried cast bullets poured by myself and straight Goex FFg blackpowder was the propellant.

On a beautiful, near windless, summer Montana day, Hank and I, along with several onlookers, fired several hundred rounds at his 956 yard steel buffalo. Starting out it was common for both Hank and myself to get three or four hits out of five in a row strikes were not uncommon. One of the first things we noticed was that about five seconds elapsed between the pulling of the Sharps triggers until the “bong” sound of a hit floated back to us!

Then with sight settings noted we began to put some novices behind the butt stocks of these big Sharps rifles; people who had never before fired such a gun. One fellow needed only one sighter, and then hit the buffalo six rounds running.

A couple of the ladies observing our antics then asked to shoot. They required a couple of practice shots and then were running strings of four and five hits themselves. One even commented that they didn’t see why we men folk were having so much fun. She said that hitting “that thing” seemed awfully easy.

And, that’s pretty much the gist of it. Those big side hammer Sharps rifles used by the majority of buffalo hunters in the 1870’s were capable of both impressive accuracy and long range. Whether or not buffalo hunters actually did engage in very much long range shooting we will never know for sure.

I personally don’t think so. They were businessman, not plinkers, and didn’t waste valuable powder, primers, and lead, all which had to be hauled to the buffalo prairie by wagon. But, their rifles were certainly capable of such shooting if the people behind the trigger had the ability to do so themselves.

I do not take any credit for what is printed above, I merly put it here for everyone to enjoy. Mike Venturino is a wonderful writer and many of you have seend his articals in many gun magazines. My only regret is that I was not there to see the origanal test of the Sharps Buffalo Rifle as discribed above. I would have loved to have seen the looks on their faces.

Text and Pictures Copyright 1998 - 2000 © by The Montanan All rights reserved.