In "The Hunt for Old Guns," we look at 19th-century American firearms – the rare, the unusual, and the iconic. Old gun hunters love stories of the hunt, and in this episode, we’ll talk about the discovery and authentication of an ultra-rare Sharps carbine, the first ever located of just twelve known to exist.
The Iconic Sharps Carbine
Sharps was one of the most iconic makers of 19th-century American firearms. The company started out making guns around 1849 and stayed in business until the late 1870s. The heyday for their carbines was during the Civil War from 1861-1865. The U.S. Army bought almost 400,000 American carbines during that war, of twenty different brands. The most procured was the seven-shot repeating Spencer carbine, at over 95,000 guns.
The second most procured was the single-shot percussion Sharps carbine, at around 80,000. They were one of the more favored of all the carbines, and they saw very extensive use by both sides in the war. Sharps made three models of the carbine at the time, but they were almost identical. At the end of the war, about 33,500 of them survived – a survival rate of around 41 percent.
Preparation for the Indian Wars
Percussion firearms were mostly obsolete by the end of the Civil War, and over 230,000 carbines were left over. It was an easy decision to convert some of those on hand from percussion to metallic cartridges, and the Army decided to convert Spencer and Sharps carbines to fire a standardized .50-70 caliber cartridge. From 1867 to 1869, Sharps converted just over 31,000 carbines under orders from the U.S. Army’s Springfield Armory.
Early in the process, during the spring of 1868, Springfield decided to convert 12 carbines in-house to see if it could make any of the conversion parts more cheaply than Sharps. We’ve known about this for over 40 years. In 1978, based on archival research, Sharps expert Frank Sellers first mentioned these 12 guns in a book he wrote on Sharps firearms.
What happened to those twelve guns, however, has since been a mystery. None of them ever turned up on the market, which is quite extraordinary given the level of effort expended on searching for Sharps firearms.
The Rabid Sharps Collector
It’s important to understand that among American collectors, Sharps rifles and carbines are considered very cool. Mostly, it has to do with both the history of the gun and America in the nearly 30 years that they were used by the U.S. Army – including the era of westward exploration, the Civil War, and the Indian wars. There are few things that set the heart of an old gun hunter aflutter like the sight of a Sharps carbine with a brass patch box.
Now, old gun hunters can be a bit fanatical, and there’s no more fanatical group of them than the Sharps collectors. They have their own club. They have their own magazine. They scour the markets. They have agents searching the gun shows, and they track every Sharps listing that turns up on the internet. They’re all great friends and colleagues, of course, but you don’t want to get in the way when they’re competing for a rare Sharps on the floor of a gun show.
When a candidate for one of the Springfield 12 turned up at the Gettysburg antique gun show in 2021, it generated a lot of text messages. What happened is that a sharp-eyed antique gun dealer was going over a table of carbines, flipping them over one at a time, when this gun turned up.
It looked just like any of the other 31,000 Sharps conversions, but when he looked carefully at the buttstock, there was something missing…
A cartouche is a small stamp in the wood, typically on the left side of a gun stock near the wrist. It’s an inspection mark, and it contains the initials of the inspector who approved the gun. As it happens, almost every single one of the 31,000 Sharps conversions was inspected by a Springfield Armory inspector named David F. Clark. At the start of the conversion process, Springfield sent him over to the Sharps factory to inspect the conversions for the government as they were completed. Clark’s cartouche contains his initials, DFC. On almost every one of the 31,000 conversions, he put his mark on the center-left side of the buttstock.
But this Sharps conversion didn’t have a DFC cartouche on the stock. The dealer knew this was unusual, but not unheard of by a long shot. It could have been worn off in the field. It could have been a replacement stock for one that got broken. Or it could have been sanded off decades later by an unthinking collector.
What the gun did have, however, was a very clear LCA cartouche near the wrist – the cartouche of long-time Springfield employee Lucius C. Allin. At the time, Allin was foreman of the Springfield “Filing Shop” where guns were repaired. While Allin was known to inspect some of the Spencer carbines that were being converted at Springfield then, he’s not known to have ever inspected a Sharps carbine.
The Search for Evidence
The LCA cartouche was a big deal. While it was a very strong indicator, it wasn’t totally definitive in identifying this as one of the famous missing Springfield 12. More evidence was needed. The dealer bought the gun, brought it back to Texas, and we began talking about other possible ways of authenticating it. Unfortunately, detailed measurement of key parts, and comparison of those to other conversion Sharps carbines, didn’t turn up a smoking gun.
The dealer gathered additional historical evidence from the archives at Springfield, and we started to focus on the parts that had been made at Springfield to check on costs. Those parts had been documented by others, and what we turned up was an unmarked rear sight. All of the rear sights on these Sharps carbines are marked with the name of R.S. Lawrence and the date of his patent. But not this one; this one had no markings at all.
Archival records show that when Springfield converted these 12 guns, it found that it could make four parts more cheaply than Sharps. Two of those were the rear sight leaf and the rear sight base. This was the second piece of evidence. The gun was carrying an unmarked copy of the Sharps rear sight, consistent with the conversion of the 12 at Springfield.
The third piece of evidence clinched the deal. It involved a peculiar combination of matching serial numbers on the gun and the pattern of the rifling.
On Sharps carbines, the serial number is found in two places – on the bottom of the barrel under the forearm and on the upper tang. When new, those numbers matched. With the 31,000 conversion carbines, however, there was a problem. Many of the barrels had been shot out during the war, and many others were too worn to be used. Most of the rest were sent to Springfield to be sleeved down to .50 caliber and re-rifled.
Sharps, however, didn’t send back the entire gun. It removed the barrels and sent just those back to Springfield. When they were returned to Sharps after sleeving, no attempt was made to match the barrels with their original receivers because all of the parts were interchangeable. As a result, the serial number on the Springfield-altered barrel of these conversions never matches the serial number on the receiver.
In addition, Sharps used a diagnostic six land-and-groove rifling pattern while the Springfield pattern used three lands and grooves. The upshot was that the Springfield 12 are the only converted Sharps carbines with both matching serial numbers and Springfield rifling.
Between the LCA cartouche, the unmarked rear sight base, and the combination of matching serial numbers and Springfield rifling, the evidence was conclusive. After 44 years of searching,by some of the most fanatical gun collectors in America, one of the Springfield 12 had finally turned up.
So Where Were They Hiding?
One thing, however, left us still scratching our heads. Where have these twelve guns been hiding out for 44 years? Were they stored away for contracting purposes? Sent to military museums? Returned to Sharps? Destroyed? Broken down for parts? Any of these were easily within the realm of possibility.
Like the carbine, however, the answer turned out to be hiding in plain sight. The guns were simply issued out to the field, where they saw action in the Indian wars like thousands of other Sharps carbine conversions. We discovered this when the dealer was looking it over again and noticed sling wear abrasions on the left side of the stock.
In the hunt for old guns, it doesn’t get much better than this.