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Big Timber rifle maker produces replicas of Sharps from 1800s
Neil Wellnitz uses a micrometer to measure a dovetail machined into a Sharps rifle barrel. The dovetail will hold the gun's rear sight.

No detail, no matter how small, is overlooked in the creation of the replica Sharps rifles crafted by the Shiloh Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. in Big Timber.

They even make their own screws.

"We don't have to depend on nobody," said Kirk Bryan, the company's president. "We've been down that road before."

The Sharps rifle is one of the most celebrated in the history and folklore of America in the 1800s. Its unique design, a movable breech block that slid down for loading, allowed its marksman to fire rounds quicker and farther than contemporary muzzleloaders. A skilled Sharps rifleman could fire 10 rounds a minute, compared to three for a muzzleloader. And the shooter didn't have to stand up to load, exposing himself to enemy fire. In addition, the rifle was accurate out to 1,000 yards in the hands of a top-notch sharpshooter.

During its short and bloody lifespan, the Sharps helped the Union Army win the Civil War and aided in the near-extermination of the American bison from the Great Plains.

More than 140 years later, the mystique and lore surrounding the firearm have allowed the Shiloh Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. to maintain a steady worldwide business in a small Montana town.

"If you make a good product, people are going to come and get it," Bryan said. "They're a lifetime gun."

Bryan's father, Bob, bought the business in 1991 from Wolfgang Droege. Droege, a master tool maker, started the company in 1976 in Long Island, N.Y., before moving the operation to Big Timber. Droege eventually split with his partner, who started C. Sharps Arms Co., also in Big Timber. Kirk Bryan eventually took the Shiloh Sharps Rifle business over from his father.

The company now employs 23 people and turns out anywhere from 800 to 1,100 rifles a year, depending on how fancy each rifle is made.

"If they were all exactly the same, we could do a lot more," Bryan said.

Instead, each rifle is built to order with the customer choosing the model of rifle, barrel weight and caliber and additional features such as the type of wood used in the stock, engraving and type of finish on the metal. Rifle calibers range from .30 to .54. Bryan said no one model is more popular than another.

When they're done, the rifles can vary in price from $1,650 for a basic model on up to one rifle that will cost "a touch over $18,000" when finished.

Shiloh makes 15 different styles of rifles based on the Sharps Model 1863 percussion rifle and the Model 1874 cartridge rifle. There are rifles made just for target shooting, such as the 1874 Creedmoor. There is the 1874 Military Rifle and the famous 1874 Sharps Buffalo Rifle. From start to finish, a rifle will take about a month to a month-and-a-half to build with all of the parts, no matter how small, forged or made in-house.

What sets Shiloh apart from its competitors is that Shiloh's parts are exact replicas of the originals. Any part in the new rifles will fit a Model 1863 or Model 1874 original.

"With these guns, if a guy breaks a firing pin, you can take one out of a new gun and put it in an old one, they're all interchangeable," Bryan said. "It's the only Sharps in the world where the parts fit the original."

That includes the screws.

History of the Sharps rifle

Despite its use in the Civil War by the Union cavalry, the Sharps rifle is probably best known for its utilization by buffalo hunters.

"During the 1860s and 1870s, it was the primary gun used by buffalo hunters," said David Kennedy, curator of the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyo. "When cartridge ammunition was produced, it was highly prized for accuracy, especially over long ranges.

"A lot of people credit the Sharps rifle with the near-extermination of the buffalo," he added.

It was at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in West Virginia in the 1830s that Christian Sharps learned about assembling rifles and the breech-loaded rifle.

In 1840, he struck out on his own and by 1848 filed a patent for a gun with a "sliding breech-pin and self-capping."

By 1850, the first models of Sharps Sporting Rifles were being made in Mill Creek, Penn., by the A. S. Nippes firm, according to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

One of the famous people in history who owned a Sharps rifle was John Brown, who in 1859 overtook the Harpers Ferry Arsenal and tried to foment a slave uprising. Captured by Gen. Robert E. Lee, Brown was tried for treason and murder and was hanged.

Another was Hiram Berdan. He organized a regiment of Union sharpshooters in 1861 during the Civil War. Featuring the best marksmen in the country, the regiment may be most well-known for its skirmish with Confederate troops on July 2 during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The sharpshooters laid down "an amazing amount of accurate fire," Kennedy said. "It was a withering fire that held off the enemy."

The word sharpshooter, however, did not come from the Sharps rifle. Instead, it first showed up in America in 1802.

The Sharps was popular with buffalo hunters because of its long-range accuracy and the fact that it could deliver a heavy bullet. Buffalo hunters preferred the .40-90 round, according to Kirk Bryan, president of Shiloh Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. "It was similar to today's .22-250 — flat-shooting."

"Basically, it was a cartridge the size of your pinkie," Kennedy said.

The rifles were also reliable and solidly built.

"They weren't going to fall apart or explode like some other guns," Kennedy said.

At the top end, Sharps rifles could fire bullets up to 550 grains. In comparison, a modern big game rifle such as the .270 uses a 130-grain bullet.

The resurgence in the popularity of the Sharps rifle can be tied partly to the 1990 movie "Quigley Down Under," starring Tom Selleck as sharpshooter Matthew Quigley.

"There are a lot of folks who miss those simpler times," Kennedy said. "And this is one element of that.

Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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