My experience with the percussion version of the Sharps rifle has been not good. I would call it testy. And it dates back probably twenty years or more. Originally I bought a sporting variety of the gun sometime in the 90s, and with it bought the brass cartridges made by Pedersoli at the time. I was so excited, and those bullets were among the first I ever cast (casted?).
The methodology was to help a basic problem that all percussion Sharps rifles have. They leak gas, right up into your face. Those brass open end cartridges were meant to work in concert with a captured ring in the breach to slam backward, and protect the gap between the breechface and block. It worked for about 3 rounds, when I was unable to extract the “spent” case.
Banging down through the barrel with a range rod didn’t help. Trying to drag it out with a vice grip didn’t help. Nothing helped. It was stuck, seemingly forever. The block wouldn’t go back in, so it was stored apart from the gun, and seems now to be lost. But at some point, being moved from here to there, that cartridge fell out. I don’t know when.
These days most people either single load their Sharps with a powder measure while tipping the gun up, or they use a paper cartridge. The original paper cartridges for the Sharps had a tail, and you actually cut the tail off as you closed the block. I’m sure it just worsened the gas problem, so eventually they moved to butt end cartridges like you see here.
One of the guys I follow on Youtube is Mike Beliveau, at the Deulist’s Den. He recently did a series on the 1859 Sharps infantry rifle, and in it attempted to show you how to make paper cartridges for that gun. I love his approach to videos, because he gives you the history, as well as the range time. It’s a great channel to subscribe to, and I highly suggest it if you love these old historical guns.
His paper cartridges didn’t work so well. And though he seems to have them actually going bang in his last iteration, the methodology is a big too difficult for my taste, and I don’t think his “tissue paper” approach is going to travel well.
It just so happens that as his videos came out, the cartrigekits.com project was just about ready to release a new .54 percussion Sharps kit, so we decided to get out some editorial on it. I’m going to see if I can find Mike’s email and offer to send him one.
Long term, I’m sure that I will get into more details about the history of the Sharps rifle, and the accuracy and ballistics of the gun, but for now, Mike has a really nice overview of the history. My goal for this Black Powder Project is to get you out shooting with as little headaches as possible, and if you are in the market for a percussion Sharps, this approach to paper cartridges will be your best bet.
We are using the Eras Gone Richmond Sharps bullet mold, which, as you can see, is out of stock right now. The bullets are available around the web, including some at cartridgekits.com. This bullet is much easier to use than the original Pedersoli pattern mold, which has no historical reference whatsoever. They just made a bullet that worked in the gun, with their awful brass cartridges. Absolutely stay away from those things if you encounter them. I had one one jammed in one of my rifles for years and was unable to extract it.
Paper cartridges are the way to go in any percussion Sharps. But because the bullet is so heavy, making it out of straight cigarette paper like the cap & ball pistol cartridges is a bit of a stretch. You could do it, but they may break in your hands as you are pulling them out of the box to load.
For these cartridges, we are going to use something called “end wraps” for the barrel. They are use by hair salons to do perms and dye jobs when they do streaking or ends. Think Bon Jovi back in the day. You will find these on Ebay and Amazon, and they are not expensive at all. I am using the 2 1/2 x 4″ size, and it is more than ample for these cartridges.
The end wraps are made from a thin and fibrous paper, thinner than coffee filters, yet very strong, so that if you grab a cartridge by the end, the bullet weight won’t break it off in your hand.
The problem with end wraps is that they are useless for the back of the cartridge where the flame has to burn through. I have tried them and even 209 primers don’t burn through reliably.
So for the back we are going to use our standard cigarette rolling papers. But the circle cutter has to be larger, like 1″, or you could try a 3/4″ if you can find one. I’m using a 1″ and it works good. As I showed in the video though, the large circle cutters don’t like the rolling papers. They are made for like card stock, and the rolling papers, even when you use a stack, tend to bind it. Don’t worry about it. Even if you have to tear small section, the 1″ has plenty of extra meat to spare.
From there it is really no different than the cartridges for the revolvers. Which is kind of a head scratch for me.
If you look around the web, especially Youtube, there is a lot of hubub about how to make paper cartridges for this gun, and they are all way way way more complicated than this simple methodology. It could be that until now there just wasn’t a good paper cartridge former I guess. But if you watch the videos, they make a really big thing out of measuring your chamber so that you but the cartridge right up against the breech.
This cartridge system was made for what you’ll find to be the majority of the replica Sharps out there. The ones I have all have the same chamber size, including a Pedersoli sporting version that I did not use in the video (the one that had the brass cartridge stuck in it that I have somehow misplaced the block for). There is a replica out there called a Garrett Sharps that supposedly has a smaller chamber, and that gun is supposed to be able to interchange with the parts from an original, so I can’t speak for an original or that gun.
As you can see from the video, that supposedly crucial measurement isn’t important if you lube dip your cartridges. The lube hits the rifling before the bullet, and holds it there. You use your finger to set the cartridge at exactly the breechface, and they fire reliably using the cigarette paper. If you were setting up for competition, or hunting, you could of course pierce the paper as the breech closes with a nipple pick, which would draw out a few grains of powder. For the Garretts, and theoretically the originals, even if you had a shorter chamber, you could just cut your paper slightly shorter and pop the cartridge out to insert the bullet after you dump your powder.
Hence the head scratch. It just isn’t that complicated.
As we expand this Black Powder Project into its own space, I’m sure we will spend more time with these guns down the road, both the percussion and the Quigley version with black powder. I’m thinking about sending one of these guns out for the breech job that I spoke about in the video, and that Mike at the Deuler’s Den sent his gun out to. It uses a rubber O-ring to contain the gas. It’s an interesting idea to say the least.
Make sure that for these percussion guns that you only use black powder by the way. That angled fire channel is not well designed, and this gun went through several iterations in the 1850s and 60s before it was rescued by its conversion to brass cartridges. As an early breechloader, it’s a heck of a sexy gun, but they just don’t work that well. The black powder substitutes have a much higher ignition temperature and I don’t think you will get reliable ignition. I didn’t even bother.
Watch the video if you have or plan to purchase one of these nifty historical reproductions that came about during the crucial maturation process of the breechloading firearm. Or if you have had one for many years and were discouraged at how terrible it worked when you got it. The percussion Sharps is really not as complicated as many would have you convinced. I was able to form reliable paper cartridges that always go boom on my first try.