The "Big Fifty" Sharps Rifle

This comprehensive article on the historical Sharps buffalo rifle was written by Elmer Keith in June, 1940.

The following article was originally published in the June, 1940 issue of The American Rifleman.

For many years I have heard of the “Big Fifty” Sharps—ever since I was a very small boy wearing knee pants, blouse waist and a Windsor tie. Many old buffalo hunters in Montana told me of using or seeing them used on buffalo and other game during the seventies. As long as I lived in Montana and since then I have been watching for one, and had run down many clues only to find the result was either a .40 or .45 caliber side hammer Sharps Buffalo. Even these were very scarce and most of them long since picked up by collectors. Once in Helena I though I was going to get one. I did buy the Sharps outfit left by the old buffalo runner at his death—a great amount of .45 caliber 2 7/8” Berdan cases, some primers and a couple of ammunition cases for carrying the paper patched ammunition on the belt. Also some Sharps moulds in both .45 and .50 caliber paper patches. But of the rifles, never a trace, nor could the relatives say what had become of them.

At one time I owned forty Sharps side hammer rifles in calibers of .40, .44, and .45, using various length shells of both straight and bottle-neck persuasion, but in the whole lot there were just two of .50 caliber—a carbine altered from percussion tape lock and picked up on the Custer battlefield a few years after the fight, and a long light round barrel full stocked .50-70 Civil War sniper’s rifle with sling loops and peep and globe sights. Both these Sharps were single trigger and both really .52 caliber. I used the long sniper’s rifle a great deal, using heavy paper for my patches and patching that 473 grain slug so that it fitted tight in the fired case. It was very accurate for its light weight and I shot a good bit of game with it including one old mule deer.

After nearly thirty years’ search, I finally picked up two of the real old big fifty Sharps buffalo rifles in 16 pound weight with double set triggers and 30” octagon barrels. One of them I obtained from my old friend W.H. Lenneville, formerly of North Dakota. It takes a 3 ¼” straight case and was really overbored and is .52 caliber instead of .50. He had made a high comb heavy massive stock for the big weapon and added some lead under the buttplate to bring it to a fair balance and a weight of 21 pounds. The bore is pitted throughout, but the lands are deep and as far as the condition of the bore is concerned it should shoot as well as ever. The other big fifty is identical in every way except that it is a true fifty caliber and uses the .50-95-743 grain load with 2 1/2” straight case. Bore of this rifle is badly, almost hopelessly, pitted for over an inch at the muzzle and it would have to be shortened to 28” barrel length to ever make an accurate rifle of it. Balance of bore is in about the same condition as the gun taking the 3 ¼” case.

Both these Sharps are of course side hammer, and the first model after the percussion lock. Both are stamped on top flats of the heavy barrels “Sharps Rifle Manufg. Co. Hartford, Conn.,” the .50-95 in two lines and the .50-170-700 in one straight line. Both have the old silver-tipped fore-end typical of this model, and made before the Sharps Company adopted the slogan OLD RELIABLE that was stamped on the later model of side hammer Sharps. In fact, these are the rifles that established that trade name of Old Reliable. Both rifles have the regular long-range open sights, and I fitted a vernier long-range peep sight to the .50-170-700. As shown by the serial numbers, the .50-170-700 is the earlier made rifle. I have used several Sharps in .44-77-470 caliber of this same model, and one of them was formerly owned and used by Liver Eating Johnson. All had the same silver fore-end tip and none were stamped Old Reliable. All were Hartford Sharps, while the Old Reliable model seems nearly always to be stamped as made at Bridgeport, Conn.

The old buffalo hunters I talked with, and who are now gone to the Happy Hunting Ground, differed in their descriptions of the cartridge used by the big fifty, some claiming it was .50-95-473, and using a 2 ½” straight taper case, while a few others, including Waldo P. Abbot, were just as positive that it took at 3 ¼” straight taper case and a charge of 15 to 170 grains of powder and a 600 to 700 grain patch ball. Mr. Lenneville knew a man who had seen the .50-170-700 used on buffalo and who stated flatly it took a 3 ¼” case. Several years ago, I purchased a quantity of U.M.C. 3 ¼” straight big fifty cases of Mr. Lenneville. These established the fact beyond a shadow of a doubt that the big fifties were also made for this length of cartridge case. Lenneville and I each started looking anew for a rifle to handle them, and he was finally lucky in locating one. Strange to say, I got another, a duplicate, in .50-95 caliber from Jim Wade at the same time that Mr. Lenneville shipped me his big fifty. Previously I had seen a couple of 14-pound .50-95 Sharps of this model but these two are the only heavy 16 pounders I have ever seen in .50 caliber. Some of the lighter weapons were written up in The Rifleman some years ago.

From all accounts of the old timers who used or saw the big .50 caliber buffalo guns used, these accounted for more buffalo than all other guns together, a great many of the old timers making this statement. They also figured in a good many Indian fights the buffalo runners had with the various tribes while exterminating the buffalo. Some historians claim several were used in the famous Dobe Walls fight, where a little handful of hide hunters and skinners plus the complement of storekeepers at the post held off a vastly superior force of Indians for a couple of days of hot fighting. I can well imagine what the big fifty would do to both an Indian pony and his rider lying on the off side, as it would certainly penetrate both very easily.

To date I have put over 300 shots through this big fifty, using charges of from 150 to 170 grains of F.g. black powder. I soon found that the modern primers of non-mercuric persuasion did not seem to do as well as older primers. The 3 ¼” cases were of the Berdan primer type, it looks as if the Sharps Rifle Company must have later rechambered this big rifle to take the longer modern primer U.M.C. case; or else there were 3 ¼” Berdan cases in use. With all loads, extraction has been free and easy and very little swelling of the case has occurred even though all this shooting has been done with just 20 cases.

The groove diameter of the rifle mikes .525” just ahead of the chamber and has a short throat, while the groove diameter at the muzzle is just .519”. Evidently the bore tapers all the way from chamber to muzzle. Rifling is identical to the .50-95 except for larger groove diameter. Narrow, deep lands and wide grooves. This barrel has six lands making just about one full turn in the 30” barrel, minus the length of the chamber. The new cases are too small to receive a bullet large enough to fill the bore and must be fired first by seating a bullet in the throat ahead of the case and thus expanding them. Also, the mould received with the rifle is a solid one piece mould casting a tapering 700 grain slug, exact weight depending on temper of the metal. I like one to sixteen tin and lead for Sharps, but one must use harder metal for this rifle or rather this mould, otherwise in cutting off the sprue with the attached sprue cutter it pulls the base of the bullet away form the side of the mould and badly deforms the bullets. Further, after the bullet is cast and the sprue cut, you have to invert the mould and tap it gently with a stick of wood and gradually jar the slug down out of the mould onto several folds of cloth. This tapping in turn upsets small rings on the sides of the bullet, and I am positive I will never get best results from this rifle, or know just what it is really capable of, until I have Yankee Specialty Company make me a good two piece mould as they have for other Sharps calibers.

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9 Responses to The "Big Fifty" Sharps Rifle

Mark Skaggs wrote:
July 09, 2013

What an Awesome article. i could read Mr. Keith's writings all day long. i am a gunsmith and Apprenticed under such a man named Malcolm Jackson in Calif. these men were so talented and it's hard to imagine the things these men made and did with common hand tools and non CNC machinery and the accuracy that was achieved . Man what i would have given to hang around with Mr. Keith or Mr. Pope or Mr. Ackley for a while and learn what they had to teach me.Malcolm used to say Son there is the right way, the wrong way and Malcolm's way and were going to do it Malcolm's way till you learn a better way to do it.

Joe Clephane wrote:
February 04, 2013

I guess my point was that I fully understood the authors love of his firearm and truly meant any disrespect at all toward him. I have been a fan of his since I was a small child. My father is a lifetime member of American rifleman and this author inspired my love for firearms so much I enlisted in the u.s. army rangers out of harmony church, ft. Benning, ga. Again I truly meant no harm and was just telling about my love of these old firearms. I am sorry that we all can't get together and personally discuss our love for these firearms. I only used a issue list of spring fields from the post museum of firearms issued for different battles. I in no way dispute the facts that there were other firearms on the battlefield that day. My heart goes out to all firearms owners for the loss of this great author whom many of us shooters found great inspiration in. With regret if I sounded anything other than respectful, I enjoyed the article very much .

Quentin M. Thomas wrote:
August 15, 2012

Dobe Walls should be Adobe Walls. THis is where Billy Dixon with a Sharps Big 50 hit a mounted indian at 1538 yds. Thanks for the article

JL Sellers wrote:
February 02, 2012

I can only say if more articals were written with this kind of knowledge and care, I would certainly have a higher respect for our modern sports writer. I am just a young pup when it comes to these Big-Bore rifles but with a keen interest and I have not found a better artical to-date with the info nessary to really understand how to shoot these rifles. So hats off to Elmer Keith and the "American Rifleman". Remember this artical was writen in 1940 and without the NRA and "American Rifleman" these articals and knowledge would not be available to the new or young shooter and this history, knowledge and tradition would be lost, and we'll be left with the "modern sports writer" and thier articals better left in the manufactures catalogs.

Jack Harrison wrote:
January 15, 2012

I had the privilege of spending a day with Elmer at his home in 1973. He was truly knowledgeable and a gentleman of the first order. His writings were based on field experience and experimentation. Further, he was never shy about vocalizing his opinions. Whether you agreed or not, his opinions were based on facts.

Bill T wrote:
December 28, 2011

Gentlemen, The late & great Elmer Keith forgot more than 99[%] of the 'experts' of today will ever know, combined! Elmer ras the real deal and sent more lead down range we can imagine. i grew up reading his articles every month and nobody today writes or live fired like Elmer did.

Mark Soderquist wrote:
March 09, 2011

Joe, as to your doubting the authenticity of a sharps rifle being recovered at Custers battlefield. Know this that the late 1980s archeological dig done on the battlefield revealed that over two dozen different gun manufacturers where represented. Most of the variety was from the Indians scavenged weapons and yes they included Sharps cartridges and at least two Sharps rifles were known to have been carried by men in Custers outfit. By the way I thought it was a great article.

Keith M wrote:
February 21, 2011

Joe what is the point to your comments? Do you know the reputation and career of the Author? Elmer was born in 1899 and was a well respected rancher, gun enthuiast, and writer. He was involved in the creation of the .357 mag with Phil Sharpe and is accredited of being the driving fore behind the .44 mag. The article on the big sharps was amazing. I learned more about black powder big .50 bores from this article than I thought was possible. You might think anout giving respect to a true gentleman and knowedable shooter instead of dismissing him because he wrote 3 pages of quality information on a subject that he spent a lifetime researching.

Joe Clephane wrote:
February 08, 2011

i dont think i ever met a true shooter that just goes on and about a gun.it's been a long winter up here in the woods of brown co.,indiana and i guess i didnt have anthing in particular picked out to do today so i in fact did enjoy this mans true love of his gun.i've got an ol original 1873 45-70 that i keep that i aquired from my grandfather and i have shot several hundred bullets through it and i guess i still do get a real kick out of it. i have'nt done much reloading for it though yet ,but i have bought win. 45-70-500 and i have saved all my brass so as i can reload them if i feel up to it but i think i am coming to the end of this story by sayin that i do believe that it was the springfield 45-70 that carried the day on custers battlefield .i reckon you just might look up the rifles issued to custers regt.and find they were in fact issued the 45-70 springfields from the military owned gun company located in springfield,mass. i love my old gun to but im afaid that most of those 50 and above cal. were used by civilians to shoot buffalo from the train to feed pasengers and their rr.crews and workers. i guess i have gone on enough for today ,so happy frettin while i load another 45-70 in my sprifield and fire another round. joe clephane.and it did'nt take me 3 pages to get my point across.