Christian Sharps is probably responsible for designing the most successful and recognizable family of breechloading percussion longarms of the 19th century. Sharps’ early training in the field of firearms had occurred at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in Virginia, where he went to work in 1830 under the supervision of gun designer and pioneer of parts interchangeability, John Hall. Sharps worked at Harpers Ferry for over a decade, learning the art of gun making, as well as the early concepts of parts interchangeability and assembly line production. In 1848, Sharps received his first patent for a breechloading carbine and moved to the Philadelphia area, where he proceeded to contract with a local gun maker to manufacture his new design.
The first Sharps patent firearms were produced by A.S. Nippes of Mill Creek, PA in 1849 and 1850. By 1851, Christian Sharps formed the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, CT. As the company was not yet ready to produce arms, Sharps entered into an agreement with Robbins & Lawrence of Windsor, VT to manufacture his arms. By 1852, RS Lawrence (formerly of Robbins & Lawrence) moved to Hartford and became the master armorer of the Sharps Rifle Company, and manufacture of the arms began in house a year or so later. However, Christian Sharps and the others at the Sharps Rifle Company did not always see eye to eye, and in 1853 Sharps left the company that bore his name and returned to the Philadelphia area.
Over the next seven years, the Sharps Rifle Company continued to grow, producing a variety of carbines and rifles of various patterns, with each new pattern an attempt to improve upon their earlier designs. Several thousand arms were produced by the company during this time both for various small US government contracts and for sale to the general public. The Sharps Rifle Company really struck gold with the introduction of their “New Model” 1859 series of breechloading percussion carbines and rifles, which they subsequently improved upon with the “New Model” 1863 pattern. During the Civil War, the Sharps Rifle Company produced thousands of carbines and rifles for the US government with more than 77,000 of his carbines being purchased for use by the US military. However, all this success was without the namesake of the company at its helm. Rather, Christian Sharps established a new business under the name C. Sharps & Company in Philadelphia in 1854.
The C. Sharps Company initially produced a single shot, breech loading pistol and quickly followed this up with a “pistol rifle” design. In 1859, Sharps received a patent for what would be the most successful design and the biggest money maker for his new venture, a four-barreled pepperbox pistol. Sharps produced the guns in a wide range of variations, based upon their caliber, and thus their frame size. The guns were manufactured in .22RF, .30RF and .32RF, and over the next few years Sharps produced thousands of the easily concealable personal protection cartridge guns.
In 1862, Sharps entered into a partnership with William Hankins, and for the next four years the firm of Sharps and Hankins concentrated on manufacturing percussion breechloading carbines and rifles for the US army and navy. In 1866, the partnership was ended, and Sharps returned to working under the C. Sharps and Company name, continuing to manufacture his 4-shot pepperbox pistols. Sharps remained in business making these handy little guns until 1874, when he passed away and the business was closed.
The Sharps Pepperbox design was an innovative way to manufacture a repeating metallic cartridge handgun without running afoul of the Rollin White patent on the bored through cylinder that Smith & Wesson had an exclusive arrangement to use and without violating the Colt patent that controlled cylinder rotation activated by the cocking action of the hammer. Rather than using a single barrel with a rotating cylinder, Sharps used multiple barrels with a rotating firing pin. The Sharps design had a square cross section, with two side-by-side barrels stacked on top of two other side-by-side barrels. While the percussion pepperboxes of pervious decades had utilized rotating barrels, which aligned with the hammer when fired, Sharps’ design had four fixed barrels that were fired by a rotating firing pin in the single hammer. Each time the hammer was cocked the firing pin rotated one quadrant clockwise to bring it into alignment with the next barrel. The single action pistols had a sheathed spur trigger that moved forward in its sheath each time the hammer was cocked. To load the pistols, the hammer was placed on half-cock to defeat the interlock mechanism, a safety feature that was not present on all the variations, and a button was depressed that released the barrels to slide forward on the frame. The empty cartridges could then be removed from the chambers and fresh cartridges inserted. During production, the location and the style of the release changed, but the basic concept never did. Interestingly Sharps’ 1859 patent also included an extractor system that was never incorporated into any of his pepperbox designs.
Over the decade and half that Sharps produced his little pistols, some 156,000+ would be manufactured in four basic types. They were the Model 1 in .22RF with about 89,000 produced, the Model 2 in .30RF with about 37,000 produced, the Model 3 made by Sharps & Hankins in .32RF Short with about 15,000 produced and the Model 4 (Bird’s Head or “round butt”) in .32RF Short and Long with another 15,000 produced. Within each model were numerous variations based upon small changes in physical design, markings, latch systems and grip material. Barrel lengths varied with each model, in keeping with the frame size and caliber, with the standard length for the Model 1 being 2.5”, the standard length for the Model 2 and Model 3 being 3” or 3.5” and the standard lengths for the Model 4 being 2.5”, 3” or 3.5”. Of course, as with any Sharps product, custom barrel lengths were available by special order and at an extra cost. Varnished wood grips or hard rubber, “gutta percha” grips were standard for most of the production, depending upon the model. The majority of the production was finished with blued barrels and silver plated brass frames, with the exceptions of the Model 1D which had an iron frame, as did the Sharps & Hankins Model 3s series. It is also worth noting that the Sharps & Hankins version had the rotating firing pin mounted inside the frame and not on the face of the hammer. Again, custom order finishes and grip materials, as well as engraving, were all available by special order at extra cost.
The downside to any manufacturing company being run by the inventor of the item being produced is that the inventor’s need to constantly improve upon his design usually leads to numerous and costly wastes of time as parts are changed, tooling altered, etc. The fact that the very successful Model 1, with more than 89,000 units manufactured was produced in five variations during its fifteen years in production attests to this. With some 60,000 Model 1A pistols produced, Sharps’ constant need to improve things meant that that balance of the production went through four additional variations, even though they only represented a third of the Model 1s total production.
The Sharps Pepperbox is one of the most instantly recognizable pistols ever produced, and in addition to the more than 150,000 produced by Sharps, many more thousands were produced around the world, copying Sharps’ design. Some, like those manufactured by Tipping & Lawden in England or Ghaye of Liège were made under a licensing agreement with Sharps, while others were outright patent infringements and forgeries. The Sharps Pepperbox has the honor of being one of the few 19th century firearms designs that is still being produced today, both as reproductions of the mid-1800s gun and as modern variations based upon a long-expired patent design.
Offered here is a FINE condition example of a Sharps Model 4B Pepperbox. The 4B was the most produced variant of the Model 4, with about 9,000 manufactured. Roughly 15,000 of the Model 4 Pepperboxes were produced, with only 25 of the 3 ½” barreled model 4D produced, about 2,000 Model 4A guns, about 9,000 4B guns and about 4,000 4C guns. The most instantly noticeable feature of the Model 4 Pepperboxes were the “bird’s head” grip frames, with all of the other Sharps patent pepperboxes have a flat butt. Like the Model 3 Sharps & Hankins pepperboxes, the Model 4 pistols were chambered for the .32RF Short cartridge. The Model 4A and 4B were produced with 2 ½” barrel clusters and were sometimes referred to as "Bull Dog" pepperboxes. The Model 3 was made with 3” barrels and as noted above the extremely scarce 4D had 3 ½” barrels. The 4A use a screw on the front underside of the frame to secure the barrels, while the 4B and 4C guns used a pivoting catch. The Model 4 was produced with blued barrels, a color casehardened frame and smooth rosewood grips. Serial numbers were placed on the left side of the grip frame under the grips and on the bottom of the barrels. The only markings were a two line patent mark on the right side of the frame which read SHARPS PATENT over JAN. 25, 1859. The barrel was released to move forward by placing the hammer at half cock and then pushing a round checkered button on the left side of the frame downward.
This example of a Sharps Model 4B is in about FINE condition. The pistol is serial numbered 1775 on both the frame under the left grip and under the barrel cluster, placing it at the beginning of Model 4B production. Although the general serial number range for Model 4B guns is from 1,000 to 11,000, the large majority are found above number 2,000. Some of the early Model 4B guns were actually 4A guns that had the screw barrel stop removed and the new pivoting stop installed. These can be identified by the filled screw hole in the bottom of the frame. This is not an altered 4A to 4B gun, so it must be one of the earliest production Model 4B pistols to be made this way.
The pistol is marked in two lines on the right side of the frame:
JAN. 25, 1859.
The markings on the pistol remain crisp and fully legible. The pistol retains about 40%+ of its original bright blue on the barrel cluster, with the strongest blue in the protected areas of the barrel’s fluted recesses. The balance of the barrel finish has primarily flaked away, leaving a mottled, moderately oxidized plum brown patina that shows some very lightly scattered minor surface roughness. The barrels are primarily smooth, but some lightly scattered pinpricking is present here and there. The color casehardened frame retains about 50%+ of the original color, which has dulled and faded with time. The area of most vivid mottling that remains is the front portion of the left side of the frame, forward of the barrel release catch. The balance of the frame has a faded, brownish-gray patina with some scattered mottling from the original finish and scattered traces of color here and there. The hammer and trigger both have a brownish-gray patina, with some nice fire blue remaining on some of the smaller parts of the firing mechanism. The rotating firing pin functions exactly as it should, rotating each time the hammer is cocked. The breech locking system works correctly and the pistol does include the interlock safety system that requires the hammer to be placed on half-cock in order for the barrels to be released to move forward. The bores remain in about VERY GOOD condition. They are mostly bright with scattered freckles of darker oxidation and with scattered light pitting along their lengths. This is typical of rimfire arms from that period, as the caustic priming compound could cause major metal erosion very quickly. The smooth wood grips are in about FINE condition. They remain very crisp with sharp edges and show no breaks, cracks, chips or repairs. There is one minor surface chip on the upper edge of the left grip where it meets the frame. Otherwise, the grips show some light wear and scattered handling marks but show no real damage or abuse. They have a rich chocolate color with a reddish undertone that is very attractive.
Overall, this is a crisp and very attractive example of a relatively scarce Sharps Model 4B Pepperbox. The gun remains in a very nice state of preservation with lots of blue on the barrels, some attractive case colors on the frame and a nice set of rosewood grips. This would be a nice addition to any collection of pepperboxes, pocket pistols or Sharps' patent firearms and remains in very nice condition.