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Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Model 1859 Sharps Rifle and Telescopic Sight Used in Harper's Donelson

When planning to write a series of historical novels set in the American Civil War (ACW) I needed to decide what would be the firearm of choice for the main character, James (Jamie) Harper.  Although he serves in an infantry unit, I wanted Harper and his battalion to carry a weapon other than the Springfield rifled muskets assigned to most of the Federal infantry regiments.

Sharps Rifle Model 1859
I needed a weapon which had distinctive properties and which had existed long enough prior to the war that Harper could have used it when he served as a U.S. Deputy Marshall in the Nebraska-Dakota territory.  It did not take long to settle on the Sharps rifle as Harper’s weapon of choice because of its relative uniqueness on the Civil war battlefield, the reputation of the weapon with the First and Second U.S. Sharpshooter regiments, and because they were produced in sufficient numbers that the purchase of six hundred rifles by a battalion benefactor was a plausible premise.

The Model 1859 was reported to have a maximum effective range of one thousand yards.  When I was writing the first drafts of the Shiloh Trilogy, I accepted this number at face value and had my characters, happily blazing away at hapless Confederates from ranges over half a mile.  That was until I moved into an office with a window.

One day while busily writing away, I happened to gaze out of the window and mentally go through a sniper’s checklist on a target on the other side of the freeway.  While doing so, it became obvious that trying to sight onto a target the size of a single man over that distance would be very difficult without a telescope.  The apparent target size is about the same height as the front sight of most rifles.  Out of curiosity, I checked Google Maps and discovered that the house across the freeway was only six hundred yards away!

So, if my hero was to earn his reputation as a marksman, either he would have to have supernatural eyesight, or he would need a telescope on his rifle.  This set me on a quest to discover whether a telescope had ever been used with the Model 1859 Sharps Rifle.  I checked the websites of the two companies currently manufacturing this model or its successor, the model 1862.  No, they did not manufacture telescopes for the rifles, nor did they provide any modifications which would allow a scope to be mounted and aligned on the weapon.

Next, I did a search of antique firearms dealers and contacted many of them via email or telephone.  All returned the same response: the Model 1859/1862 Sharps Rifle did not use a telescopic sight.  So, I resigned myself to rewriting those chapters where Harper takes on targets at extreme ranges.

Fortunately for Harper and his men, I did one final internet search, trying to prove that the Model 1859 could mount a telescope.

Voila!  The Horse Soldier, a military antiques dealer in Gettysburg Pennsylvania showed exactly the weapon of Harper’s dreams in their on-line catalogue: a Model 1859 Sharps Rifle with a telescopic sight manufactured by William Malcolm of Syracuse, NY.  The Horse Soldier description of the rifle included a serial number associated with those on the weapons issued to the USSS regiments.
Sharps Model 1859 with Malcolm Telescopic Sight
So now, I can show the documentation proving that such a combination could have existed at the time in which the Shiloh Trilogy takes place. Unfortunately, I did not have the $12,000 asking price for the weapon and even if I had, it sold the same day that I found it.

My thanks go out to the National Museum of American History for use of the photo with the open sights and to The Horse Soldier for allowing the use of their photograph with the Malcolm sight.  
Harper's Donelson is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble On-Line, Smashwords, and Kobo.
Sean Kevin Gabhann is a Vietnam-era combat veteran of the US Navy.  He first became interested in American Civil War history during the centennial celebration and he owns an extensive library of primary and secondary material related to Civil War.  He especially wants to write about campaigns in the West because of a fascination with the careers of U.S Grant and W.T. Sherman.  Gabhann lives in San Diego, California.

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