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BERDAN’S SHARPSHOOTERS MODEL 1859 NEW MODEL SHARPS RIFLE – AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE OF THIS HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT RIFLE WITH ALL OF THE RECOGNIZED FEATURES OF A BERDAN’S SHARPS RIFLE:  This is an excellent specimen of the Model 1859 Sharps Rifles which were specifically made for, and issued to, the famous 1ST and 2ND United States Sharpshooter Regiments organized by Colonel Hiram Berdan in 1861 and 1862. 


Hiram Berdan, born in Phelps, New York on September 6, 1824, was working in New York City at the onset of the Civil War.  By the 1850’s he had become widely recognized as an inventor and as a talented civil and mechanical engineer, with such inventions to his credit as mechanical baking ovens, dough kneading machines, and collapsible lifeboats.  His most notable invention, and the one on which he built his personal fortune, was not the firearms cartridge primer design which still bears his name, but rather a simple wrought iron pan which held several cast iron balls.  He secured a patent for this simple device in 1853, and it became known as “Berdan’s Gold Quartz Ore Amalgamator”, revolutionizing the method for extracting gold from raw ore in the California Gold Fields.


Colonel Hiram Berdan

In addition to the fame he earned for his inventions, Berdan had also been recognized as one of the nation’s greatest marksmen dating back to the mid-1840’s.  Numerous newspaper articles reported his skill with muzzle loading percussion target rifles, to the extent that his reputation as an accomplished marksman was well established.      

While some writers have characterized Berdan’s concept of a regiment of sharpshooters as a revolutionary step in the field of military science and tactics, in fact the value of riflemen applying concentrated, directed, well aimed fire against the enemy had been recognized long before the Civil War.  Dating back to before the American Revolution, only the most intransient or foolhardy officers discounted such marksmanship as anything but a very real threat to their safety.  The ability of well trained riflemen to inflict substantial casualties among individual officers, senior NCO’s and artillery men, thereby compromising the enemy’s ability to prosecute an attack, was only limited by the length of time necessary to reload the muzzle loading rifles – considerably more time consuming than reloading the smooth bore muskets carried by regular infantrymen. And too, especially in North America, in general terms the graceful design of most rifles, the lack of a bayonet, and the wide variation in calibers made the rifle more operationally problematic on the battlefield than was the more robust standard issue musket.  

Berdan embraced this concept when he began to advertise recruiting events in each state which would allow him to hand select the finest marksmen from those who applied through competitive shooting trials.  From those selected, he formed two regiments, ten companies to the regiment, with an intended 100 men per company.  Whether or not he ever met his manpower goals of 1,000 men per regiment at any one time has been debated, but he certainly recruited enough skilled marksmen to support the two regiments with one estimate numbering 1,750 men in the original enlistment.  In addition to establishing minimum standards of marksmanship, Berdan also provided instruction in estimating distances, adjusting the aiming point when firing up or down an incline, and compensating for the wind – all skills still being taught in long range shooting schools.  Berdan titled these units the First Regiment of United States Sharpshooters, and the Second Regiment of United States Sharpshooters.  President Lincoln was so impressed with Berdan’s idea and his efforts that he authorized the two regiments be brought into federal service.     


The First Regiment of US Sharpshooters was mustered into service on August 1, 1861, and over the course of the next twenty eight months, approximately 1,388 men enlisted on the rolls.  The regiment was actively engaged with the Army of the Potomac, present at such battles as the Peninsular Campaign, the Second Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg.  The Second Regiment of US Sharpshooters, also incorporated into the Army of the Potomac, was mustered into service on October 4, 1861, with some 1,132 men serving the regiment over the next forty plus months, writing a unit history as impressive as that recorded by the First Regiment.  Due to the manner in which these soldiers were intended to be used, they were seldom deployed on the battlefield in regimental order; rather they were allocated in smaller units to address specific targets or to interrupt evolutions or maneuvers by enemy forces.   

One notable example of the effectiveness of the Sharpshooters occurred during the Battle of Gettysburg.  On the morning of July 2, 1863 a small detachment of Sharpshooters was sent forward and deployed in the path of Confederate General Longstreet’s advance.  In the course of the day, Berdan’s green clad soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Trepp, expended more than 14,400 rounds of ammunition, inflicting what Longstreet later described as “heavy causalities”, causing Longstreet to delay his advance and eventually withdraw.  This delay prevented the Confederate forces from securing the Peach Orchard, and more importantly kept those forces from attaining the superior positions on Big and Little Round Top.  


Colonel Hiram Berdan with famed Sharpshooter, Truman ("California Joe") Head 

When Berdan first organized his regiments, even though he had assembled a very skilled body of marksmen, they continued to labor under the same limitations experienced by similar units in the past.  Berdan’s men entered the war armed with a variety of single shot, muzzle loaded target rifles, manufactured for the shooting bench and not for the battlefield, in a wide variety of calibers – some bored for unique calibers which rendered them virtually worthless without the custom made bullet mold originally supplied with the rifle.  Of course, these rifles had no provision for mounting a bayonet.  Reloading was still a slow process which often exposed the shooter, thus negating any advantage he would have enjoyed by remaining concealed, and maintaining a steady supply of ammunition to the soldiers in the field continued to be a problem.   

The Sharps Rifle Company was well established by the time hostilities erupted in 1861.  Sharps rifles and carbines were well respected as hardy and reliable firearms, having been sorely tested throughout the West in the hands of immigrants, hunters, miners flocking to the gold fields, and of special note, they were favored by US Army dragoons and cavalrymen over all the other models of carbines and rifles then being issued to the troops in the antebellum years.  Based on this proven record of performance, in 1861 the US Army Ordnance Department secured a contract with Sharps to purchase virtually the company’s entire production of military style firearms for the foreseeable future.     

Berdan reached the same conclusion when he settled on the Model 1859 “New Model” Sharps Rifle - a robust, well built, accurate firearm, designed and engineered for heavy use in a demanding environment – as the rifle which would resolve all of the firearms related issues which were plaguing his regiments.  The breech loading design was easily reloaded without the soldier exposing his position and it was capable of maintaining an impressive rate of sustained fire.  Further, the rifle used a standard cartridge and priming system already in production and readily available through the army’s supply system.   

The “only” obstacle he faced in securing these rifles was to finagle an interruption of the Sharps Company’s effort to meet the Ordnance Department’s demands – no small feat when every unit in the army was clamoring for new arms.  Berdan negotiated the hallways of power and with the intercession of President Lincoln and the Secretary of War he secured a commitment from Sharps to provide 2,000 Model 1859 Rifles to his two regiments.  Any other colonel focused on arming his regiment at that time would have been more than satisfied with this result.  No so, Col. Berdan.  He pressed forward by specifying that Sharps incorporate features which were not standard on the rifles currently under production, further confounding Sharps’ efforts to meet their standing contract with the Ordnance Department.  Berdan required his rifles be fitted with double set triggers, a lock fitted with a fly on the tumbler, that the lever latch be omitted, and finally that they be fitted with a socket angular bayonet of the standard pattern in use by the regular infantry regiments.  Berdan prevailed, his requirements were met, and the 2,000 rifles were delivered. 

Not only did these added features increase the efficacy of the rifles in the hands of Berdan’s Sharpshooters, but these very same features had the unintended benefit of making this lot of historic rifles unique.  The combination of these features, and the additional inspectors’ stamps which were applied to the rifles in this special order, have enabled modern collectors to positively identify Berdan’s Sharps Rifles from the other Sharps rifles of the period.    

The first delivery of Berdan Sharps Rifles was made on April 11, 1862 and the last lot was delivered on May 24TH, with the shipments being allocated to the two regiments presumably in equal parts, and directed to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia for the 1ST Regiment and to the Washington Arsenal for the 2ND Regiment.  The rifles were then issued beginning on May 8, 1862 to the 1ST Regiment while they were at Yorktown, Virginia.  The 2ND Regiment received their issue of rifles beginning on June 6, 1862, at Fredricksburg, Virginia.  

Considering that the war was in its first year – not yet a full 12 months since the first shots of the war were fired on Fort Sumter - with all the attendant demands on available manpower, arms, and equipment which the mobilization entailed, that Berdan was able to obtain approval to recruit his two regiments, and then train them, design, produce and issue their distinctive green uniforms, and that his special order rifle of a unique configuration was approved, financed, manufactured, and delivered as quickly as it was, is quite a remarkable feat of logistics.   




The two most often cited serial number ranges have been provided by Wiley Sword – between 54412 and 57567, and by Roy Marcot – between 54,374 and 57,574.  A third researcher who was collecting serial numbers from rifles which met the criteria of the Berdan’s Sharps expanded the lower end of the range to 41576 while indicating that the highest number he had recorded was 56,900.  All three researchers agree on the characteristics of the Berdan Rifles such as featuring the double set triggers, the lack of the lever latch, and that they were fitted for the angular socket bayonet.   

The serial number of this rifle – 56211 – is legibly stamped on the upper receiver tang, with the same matching number stamped on the underside of the barrel.  This serial number falls well within the recognized range of serial numbers of the Sharps Rifles issued to Berdan’s regiments of sharpshooters.  While this specific number does not appear in any of the known or published lists of Berdan’s Sharps, those lists are far from being comprehensive and they account for relatively few of the total of 2,000 rifles issued to the two regiments.  Worthy of note, this serial number falls between two confirmed Berdan Sharps Rifles - serial numbers 56113 and 56219 – recorded on the list published by Wiley Sword. 

While I had the fore arm removed to photograph the barrel serial number, I noticed an unusual feature that is definitely an added value to this rifle.  The fit of the fore arm to the barrel was so well executed that the serial number stamped on the barrel left an impression in the corresponding section of the fore arm’s barrel channel, resulting in a mirror image of the serial number in the wood.  The numbers impressed into the wood present in reverse of the serial numbers stamped on the barrel, the numerals in the wood matching the exact location of the numerals on the barrel.  While Sharps did not intend for there to be a serial number stamping on the fore arm, this mirror image of the barrel stamping confirms that this fore arm is indeed original to this rifle.   

Through the efforts of several researchers through the years, a well documented and widely accepted profile of the Berdan Sharpshooter Model 1859 New Model Sharps Rifle has been established which enables collectors to positively identify the rifles issued to the 1ST and 2ND Regiments of U.S. Sharpshooters.  All of these recognized unique characteristics are present on this rifle, to include: 

1.  The “JT” cartouche, applied by Ordnance Department inspector John Taylor on the          left flat of the stock that lies between the wrist and the receiver. 

2.  The “OWA” initials of Ordnance Department inspector Orville W. Ainsworth stamped     on the left barrel flat forward of the receiver.  The “Berdan Sharps” are the only Model 1859 Sharps Rifles which bear this particular inspector’s stamp. 

3.  Double set triggers.  A design known as a single stage set trigger – i.e. the rear trigger    must be set prior to cocking the hammer, and the front trigger will only fire the rifle if it is set prior to cocking the hammer.  This was a well accepted design which had been   incorporated in the early long and plains rifles, especially on those rifles most recently     made famous during the fur trade and western expansion eras by the Hawken Brothers     and Dimick in St. Louis.  This design simplified the manufacture of the mechanism     and in use, reduced the chance for a failure.  The net effect of a set trigger over a standard trigger was to lighten the pressure required to release the sear and fire the rifle, which in turn facilitated the accuracy of the shot. 

4.  No lever latch.  Berdan eliminated the sliding spring loaded latch which engaged the      rear tip of the loading lever and held it closed.    

5.  A little known feature of these rifles is the pin punch stamp which was struck on the interior face of the patch box lid as the final inspection and acceptance mark applied by John Taylor, the government inspector assigned to the Sharps Rifle Company factory.    

6 .  30” barrel fitted with a square front sight base which served to mount the triangular     socket bayonet rather than the sabre bayonet Sharps offered with some other models of their military rifles.   

This rifle has survived in remarkably very good to excellent condition.  Within the context of having been in the hands of Berdan’s Sharpshooters, it shows evidence of having been issued and subjected to service in the field, however without any signs of abuse, neglect or poor storage. 

The surface of the barrel is overall smooth with a pleasing even blue turning to plum brown color.  The original bright blue finish is still present under the forearm.  The barrel bands still retain quite a bit of the original blue finish. 

The bore is excellent, clean and bright throughout with only some light frosting on the breech end, but no dark patches or distinct pitting.  The lands and grooves are distinct for the full length of the bore.  

The receiver, breech block, lever, trigger plate, patch box assembly, and butt plate all retain visible traces of the original case color patterns.  The interior of the patch box lid shows some faded and mottled case colors, as well as the proper pin punch stamp.

The muzzle end of the exterior surface of the barrel has some very minor isolated pitting.  As the pitting is limited to this area of the barrel and did not extend into the balance of the length, it suggests that this is where the soldier grasped the barrel when the butt was resting on the ground.  Another possibility suggests that the rifle may have been carried balanced across the soldier’s shoulder - butt to the rear while he grasped the muzzle end, much in the manner one sees professional hunters and guides carrying their heavy rifles on safari.  This may also explain the absence of both sling swivels.  For whatever reason the sling swivels were removed – perhaps the soldier or a later owner decided they were an impediment when aiming the rifle and the sling was an unnecessary appendage. 

All of the Sharps manufacturing and patent information stamps are present and legible on the lock plate, receiver, and barrel. The serial number on the upper receiver tang is present and fully legible, as is the serial number on the bottom of the barrel.  The barrel serial number is impressed in a mirror image on the bottom of the fore arm’s barrel channel. 

The lock mechanism and breech block function properly with a very crisp action, functioning as sharply as the day the rifle was manufactured.  The percussion cone is full form and has not been peened by careless dry firing. The double set triggers are intact and fully functional, and the release is very crisp. 

The Lawrence Pellet Primer Mechanism is fully complete, including the internal coiled spring, and is fully functional.  This is an underrated added value as the internal parts of these primer mechanisms were more often than not removed at some point in the history of many Sharps Rifles and Carbines.  All of the components of the mechanism – the sliding cover, the spring follower, and the pellet cut off lever are fully functional.    

The original rear sight is fully intact, functions properly, and the Lawrence patent information is present and legible on the sight base.  The original combination front sight base and socket bayonet lug is in place near the muzzle with the original German silver sight blade intact.

The screw heads have clean, sharp slots without any excessive wear or damage, and many of the screw heads retain some of the original bright blue finish. 

The condition of the butt stock and forearm is quite nice and both retain the majority of the original finish.  The forearm is overall smooth with crisp edges to the barrel channel and only a few minor handling dings.  The butt stock is full form, even to the point that the toe of the stock is fully intact without the characteristic chip missing as is so often found.  There are no cracks, age checks or grain splits in either piece.  The butt stock shows more handling wear than does the forearm – not abuse, but a function of how the rifles were carried and exposure to service in the field.  Otherwise, the butt stock is solid and is tight to the receiver with no movement. 

The cartouche is present on the forward upper left side of the butt stock where it abuts the receiver.  The rounded-end rectangular outline is fully legible and the characters – “J.T.” – are worn, but still lightly legible.  The butt stock is stamped "43" on the wood between the patch box mortise and the butt plate, likely a unit applied inventory number. 

Photocopies of several articles dating back to 1975 which were published in The Arms Gazette and Man At Arms by Wiley Sword and Ralph Arnold covering these rare Berdan Rifles will accompany this sale.  

In spite of incredible odds against it, this New Model 1859 Berdan Sharps Rifle has managed a remarkable trifecta by surviving the passing years in any condition – a relatively rare model – one of only 2000 produced for Berdan; remaining in its original configuration without being subjected to any of the common post-war modifications; and having retained the legible unique inspectors’ stamps – which can be identified to a very historic Civil War regiment.  This rare specimen compares well above the average of other Berdan Sharps Rifles which have been offered on the market in recent years, and the combination of the condition and the mechanical integrity of this rifle rates it as one of the superior examples.    

The collecting fraternity continually searches for those very special pieces which by  virtue of their firm historical association can transport us back to a specific place and time by simply cradling them in our hands, and stimulate our imaginations to reach out to the soldier, cowhand or warrior who carried them.  This New Model 1859 Sharps Berdan Rifle is such a specimen which will leave no doubt that you are holding a true piece of Civil War history.  Due to the demand for such historic arms, they seldom appear on the market, and this will be an opportunity to add an investment grade Sharps Rifle to your collection.  (1012) $25,500



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