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Original Rare U.S. Civil War 1861 Mitchell Contract Variant Sharps New Model 1859 Rifle - Serial 40808

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Item Description

Original Item: Only One Available. This is a lovely example of a rare "1861 Mitchell Contract" variant of the Sharps New Model 1859 Military Vertical Breech 3-band Rifle in the original .52 caliber, serial number 40808. This model features a later version of the Sharps action with an improved gas seal and vertical breech. The "Mitchell Contract" was a relatively specialized small contract made specifically for the U.S. Navy, and only 1,500 of these were procured! They were designed to work with the brass-handled bayonets utilized by the U.S. Navy, and all featured bayonet lugs on the underside of the muzzle. nResearch indicates that these all fell between serial numbers 39,436 and 42,500, so this example is right in line with that.

This specific contract of rifles was intended to help defend the Navy Yards at Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which at the time only had smooth bore arms on hand. To fix this problem, the U.S. Navy had turned to John T. Mitchell, the acting agent of the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing company. It was then agreed that 1,500 total of these would be delivered to the naval yards, 150 at first, with a balance of 350 further at each of the three naval yards to be delivered later. The Ames Sword Company was contracted to manufacturer the brass-hilted bayonets, to be delivered separately. For more information and a detailed history of the contract as well as the U.S. Navy use of Sharps weapons, please see Civil War Sharps Carbines & Rifles by Earl J. Coates & John D. McAulay, pages 42-43.

This rare rifle definitely looks to have seen significant service during the war, and as an arm issued to the U.S. Navy, it would have been exposed to the coastal air at the Navy Yards, which unfortunately resulted oxidation and peppering to the metalwork exterior. It now displays an overall peppery patina, with some of the markings faded away, especially on the barrel. We do not see any signs of refinishing, just long service and years of storage and cleaning. In spite of this, the bore is in very good condition, with clear 6 groove rifling and a mostly bright finish. It does show wear from use and past cleaning, but we usually see these close to shot out or rusted solid, so this definitely ranks as one of the better bores. It does show some oxidation towards the muzzle, as it would have also been exposed to the coastal air.

The falling block action lent itself to conversion to the new metallic cartridges developed in the late 1860s, so many were converted in the late 1860s and were used during the Indian Wars in the decades immediately following the Civil War. This rifle however was not converted, and is still in the original configuration.

Somewhat worn markings on the lock plate read-

APRIL 12TH 1859
OCT 5TH 1852

The left side of the receiver is marked-

SEPT 12TH 1848

The markings on the top of the barrel in front of the rear sight and by the receiver are unfortunately completely ablated from the peppering and cleaning. The rear sight spring bed is still faintly marked:

FEB 15TH 1859

Clear serial number is marked on the receiver tang-


We checked under the fore stock, and barrel is matching numbered, and shows no signs of being messed with. We can see some faded inspector markings on the left breech of the barrel, however they are too faint to read.

This rifle was set up to use the tape primer system, which is built into the lock, however it has been disconnected, as many were. However, it still looks to be intact, so it may be able to be restored to functional condition. The lock functions, but does not hold securely at half cock at all. The action is tight, and cycles correctly, with the condition of the cap nipple suggesting only light use while in service, as also indicated by the bore. As weapons for Navy Yard defense, they most likely did not have much opportunity to firing use, just use while on patrol.

The walnut stocks on this example are in very good shape, especially considering the amount of service that this rifle probably saw. They do show wear and tear from use, including dents, gouges, and small chunks missing, but they still have a lovely aged walnut color. The fore stock does not show any major damage, but there is some missing wood along the woodline, with some cracking on the left side near the nose cap.

The butt stock is missing a chunk on the toe by the butt plate, and there is also a crack around where the lower butt plate screw is on both sides, probably from rust expansion or moisture exposure. The left side of the butt stock also has some letters or symbols carved into the left side, which we do not recognize. There are however still two faint "boxed" cartouches by the receiver on the left side, which definitely have some good research potential for anyone with good eyes. The right side of the butt stock still has a working patch box, which opens relatively easily.

A lovely example of an extremely rare U.S. Civil War 1861 Mitchell Contract Sharps New Model 1859 Rifle, most likely the only example that we will ever have! In lovely patinated condition, this rifle is ready to research and display! It comes complete with a folder of research materials assembled by a previous owner.


Year of Manufacture: 1861
Caliber: .52-caliber
Ammunition Type: Primer Ignited Cartridge
Barrel Length: 30 Inches
Overall Length: 47 Inches
Action: Lever Action Falling Block
Feed System: Single Shot

History of the Sharps Rifle-

The Sharps, which used a nitrated linen or paper cartridge, was available in rifle or carbine models. Approximately 3,000 New Model 1859 Carbine produced early in the production run featured brass furniture and a brass patchbox. Many of these saw service with Georgia troops during the Civil War. About 30,000 more were produced with iron furniture and an iron patchbox. All featured a pellet priming system as part of the lock plate. The New Model 1863 and New Model 1865 Carbines were essentially the same as the earlier model, the differences being confined to barrel markings. SN 32532

This popular Civil War carbine in .52 caliber fired a linen cartridge by either disc primer or percussion cap. It was manufactured by Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. The breechblock drops down to open the chamber on lowering the trigger guard lever. Early model Sharps carbines are brass trimmed and later models are iron trimmed. The principal single-shot carbines of the Civil War were "NEW MODEL 1859" and "NEW MODEL 1863". The only noticeable difference is that many New Model 1859's, but not all, have patch boxes.

The New Model 1863's were made without patch boxes, a wartime procedure to do away with extras. It has a 21 1/2-inch barrel, measures 37 1/2 inches overall, and has a two- piece walnut stock. The barrel and, on some, the buttplate were blued. The frame, lock, and barrel band were casehardened in mottled colors. The fact that the Confederates manufactured copies of the Sharps carbine in Richmond, Virginia, in quantity testifies to its general popularity. This carbine was based on Christian Sharps' patents of 1848 and 1852 and on Richard S. Lawrence's patents of 1859.

Christian Sharps (1811-1874) was the originator of a line of sturdy, practical, and popular military and sporting rifles and handguns that were associated with several events that shaped American history in 19th century, including armed conflict in Kansas during the 1850s, the Civil War, the era of the Plains buffalo hunter, and the rise of modern long-range competition shooting during the 1870s. Sharps worked at John Hall's Rifle Works in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he learned the principles of arms manufacturing. His first breechloading rifle design was patented in 1848, and the toggle-linking trigger guard and vertically operating sliding wedge breechblock of later Sharps rifles and carbines date from that patent. These features are still with us today, and have seen use in both rifle and artillery breech mechanisms. The spring lever-toggle-breech mechanism of the Borchardt-Luger semi-automatic pistol also had its roots in Christian Sharps' lever-linked breech.

In 1850, Sharps moved to Mill Creek, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and contracted with the firm of A. S. Nippes to manufacture two of his sporting rifle designs, which became known as the Model 1849 and Model 1850. Faced with difficulty in obtaining financing for further ventures, Sharps left the Philadelphia area in 1851 and relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, where he formed the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. Lacking production facilities, he contracted with the Windsor, Vermont firm of Robbins & Lawrence to manufacture his new breechloader. This venture continued until 1855.

Among the Sharps-designed firearms manufactured under this association were the Model 1851 "Box Lock" Carbine, which featured the Maynard tape primer system, and the Model 1852 and Model 1853 "Slanting Breech" Carbines, which were equipped with the Sharps-patented pellet primer system as an integral part of its breech mechanism. Model 1853 Carbines were nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles," after noted New York clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Approximately 900 of these arms were shipped in heavy crates marked BIBLES for use by anti-slavery "Free Soil" settlers who were fighting against pro-slavery forces in "Bleeding Kansas" during the 1850s. One of the most famous Free "Soilers" was John Brown, who later used 300 Model 1853 Carbines in his ill-fated attempt to capture the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Christian Sharps served as technical advisor to the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, receiving royalties on the manufacture of their firearms. His relationship with the company was a rocky one, and in 1853, Sharps severed all connections with the firm. There is no evidence that he ever had any further association with the company that continued to bear his name.

In 1855, the Sharps Company introduced the Model 1855 Carbine. These arms retained the slanting breech and buttstock patch boxes of earlier models, but featured the Maynard tape primer system. Approximately 800 .54 caliber carbines were manufactured for the U.S. government, and an additional 6,000 Model 1855s in .577 caliber were purchased by Great Britain. While these carbines were in production, both Robbins & Lawrence and Sharps suffered serious financial losses. The latter corporation went bankrupt, and their operations were taken over by Sharps and moved to Hartford. The Sharps New Model 1859, introduced in that year, was available as a carbine, and in round-barrel military rifle or octagonal-barrel sporting rifle versions.

Its straight-breech design is credited to Richard S. Lawrence, formerly of Robbins & Lawrence, who had become the superintendent of the Sharps Rifle Company. This design, in conjunction with a breechblock-mounted plate capable of slight rearward movement when under pressure, created a moderately effective gas seal. New Model 1859 arms also employed an improved version of the Sharps pellet primer system which allowed the pellet feed mechanism to be disengaged. Ordinary percussion caps could then be used, with the supply of pellet primers held in reserve. Like earlier Sharps designs, the Model 1859 fired a glazed linen combustible .52 caliber cartridge. When closed, the breechblock sheared off the rear of the cartridge, exposing the propellant.

During the Civil War, the Federal government bought over 80,000 Sharps carbines and nearly 10,000 Sharps Rifles. These arms were highly regarded by the troops who used them. Sharps Carbines found favor with Federal cavalry troopers, and New Model 1859 Rifles were used with great success by famous infantry units such as Colonel Hiram Berdan's U.S. Sharp Shooters, perhaps the first specialty troops in the history of modern warfare, as well as the 5th New York (Duryea's Zouaves) and the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (Bucktails). Even the Confederate government recognized the superiority of the New Model 1859 Carbine, contracting with the Richmond firm of S.C. Robinson for the production of 5,000 copies.

The New Model 1859 was followed by the New Model 1863 and New Model 1865 Carbines and Rifles. These were nearly identical to the New Model 1859, differing primarily in barrel stampings, the omission of buttstock patchboxes, and in the design or absence of bayonet lugs. Many versions of all three arms were later converted for use with .50-70 and .52-70 caliber metallic cartridge ammunition in the years following the Civil War. The New Model 1869 Carbine and Rifle, available in .44-77, .50-70, and .60 calibers, were the first Sharps arms designed for use with metallic cartridges. In 1874, the firm was reorganized as the Sharps Rifle Co., with operations remaining in Hartford.

In 1876, manufacturing was moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it remained until 1881. This period saw the manufacture of some of the more notable of Sharps longarms, beginning with introduction of the Model 1874 Rifle. Nicknamed "Old Reliable," this arm, available in a variety of calibers, barrel lengths, sights, and other features, became a favorite with both Plains buffalo hunters and competition shooters. Many Fancy-Grade models featured engraving which ranged from simple scrollwork to elaborate hunting or western scenes on their surfaces. The Sharps Model 1877 shared in the popularity of its predecessor. These deluxe-grade heavy-barreled .45 caliber rifles were designed specifically for Creedmoor and other long-range target shooters. Only 100 of these were produced, and they are as sought-after today by collectors as they were by competitors at the time of their introduction.

The last rifle to be produced by the Sharps Rifle Company was the Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardt Rifle. This arm was developed by Hugo Borchardt, who later became famous for his automatic pistol designs. These rifles, with their flat-sided frame and hammerless appearance, differ notably from earlier Sharps designs. Like the Model 1874, the Sharps-Borchardt was available in a variety of stocks, barrel lengths and weights, sights, calibers, and other features, including deluxe grade models. These popular rifles were produced until 1881, when the Sharps Rifle Company went bankrupt and ceased operations.

Although his association with the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company ended in 1853, Christian Sharps continued to work as a designer and manufacturer of firearms. He returned to Philadelphia and formed C. Sharps & Co., a manufacturer of percussion revolvers, breechloading single-shot pistols and pistol-rifles, and four-shot pepperbox pistols. In 1862, Sharps entered into a partnership with William Hankins. Their new company, known as Sharps & Hankins, continued to produce pepperbox pistols, as well as the single-shot .52 caliber Model 1861 Navy Rifle and the Model 1862 Carbine, both of which featured sliding breech actions. The partnership was dissolved in 1866, and Sharps reverted to the C. Sharps & Co. name. This firm ceased operations in 1874 with the death of Christian Sharps on March 12 of that year.

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