A New Frontier: Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878

A newer addition to the Scavengeology Museum History Bunker, a Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardt Rifle. It was cutting-edge technology for the time, being a hammerless single-shot rifle with an internal firing pin. The sleek, modern rifle was designed by Hugo Borchardt, who would later become famous for the design of the early semi-automatic “Borchardt Pistol,” the predecessor to the German Lugar – much later popularized in the Red Dead Redemption video game series.

Hunters, frontiersmen and a Mormon scion favored it.

Buffalo runners in the waning days of the great hunts, Rocky Mountain outdoorsmen and a son of Brigham Young were among the Westerners who took to the last and most advanced of the famous Sharps rifles, the Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878. As the Model 1874 had proved a tried-and-true frontier workhorse, and this updated model lacked the distinctive outside hammer, the Sharps-Borchardt didn’t set any sales records. But frontiersmen gradually conceded that the new Sharps action was an improvement, and more and more orders came in to the company. One typical customer admitted he didn’t like the rifle at first because it was “hammerless” but ultimately decided it was “much quicker and safer.”

The Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 Was Extremely Advanced for Its Day, by George J. Layman

Hugo Borchardt was a mechanical genius with a definite flair for design and a born businessman. Born in Germany in 1844, he immigrated to the United States when he was 16 years old and became a naturalized citizen. At the age of 28 he became Superintendent of Works for the Pioneer Breech-Loading Arms Co. Two years later, he became a foreman with the Singer Sewing Machine Co. and 2 years later at the age of 32, became the Superintendent of the Sharps Rifle Company. 

THE ELEGANT SHARPS BORCHARDT, Guns Magazine

Sharps produced some 8,700 Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardts between 1878 and 1881, when the company closed its doors. It offered nine styles of the rifle, some bearing names identical to those in the Model 1874 line, including the Hunters Rifle, the Business Rifle, the Military Rifle, the Mid-Range Rifle, the Long-Range Rifle and a host of other sporting varieties. One could also custom order variations from Sharps’ inhouse shop for an additional charge. To accent the flat frame sides of the Sharps-Borchardt, the factory offered hard rubber or fancy walnut panels.

The Sharps-Borchardt was available in any caliber from .40-50 to the buffalo-dropping .45-100. Its sleek lines and radical characteristics appealed to such famous Western gunsmiths as Denver’s Carlos Gove, who did repair work for buffalo hunters and demonstrated the accuracy and efficiency of this rifle.

Another fan was Alfales Young, one of Mormon leader Brigham’s 50-plus children. On July 20, 1878, Alfales placed a $150 order with the Sharps Rifle Company for a deluxe engraved Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 Long-Range Rifle with a leather trunk case, reloading tools and cartridge cases. The rifle was set in beautifully figured Italian walnut, and the left side of the stock bore an oval silver plate inscribed, ALFALESYOUNG / SALT LAKE CITY / UTAH. Alfales, who worked as a newspaperman, used the rifle for long-range hunting and shooting and kept it until his death on March 30, 1920.

The Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 Was Extremely Advanced for Its Day, by George J. Layman

The last model ever produced by the Sharps Rifle Company was the Model 1878 Sharps-Borchardt. This was a very modernistic “hammerless” rifle that has only been somewhat duplicated by more recent single-shot designs like the Ruger No. 1. Lighter than the Model 1874, which was still in production, the Borchardt model was most commonly chambered for the easily available 45-70 Government cartridge, as well as other smaller calibers like the 40-50 Sharps.

The vast majority of the different variations available weighed in at less than 10 pounds. Other than the hammerless drop-block action, the one other feature that set this model apart from other Sharps rifles was a sliding safety. The company produced about 8,700 of the rifles before ceasing the manufacture of all Sharps rifles.

Along with the demise of the great buffalo herds of the West also came the demise of Sharps rifle production. Shooters and hunters no longer had a need for a rifle that consumed powder and lead in such great quantities. And Sharps Rifle Company found it increasingly difficult to compete with the new repeating lever-action rifle models produced by Winchester. Thus, manufacturing at the Sharps plant in Bridgeport, Conn. ceased in 1880, with the last assembled rifles shipped in 1881. During the 32 years of Sharps rifle production, only about 160,000 rifles were ever built. However, those rifles solidly established a legacy that few other rifles have ever come close to matching.

Collecting the Old Reliable Sharps Rifle, by Toby Bridges, Gun Digest
A Civil War era Sharps carbine, in the middle.

With the dissolution of the Sharps Rifle Company in 1881, Borchardt returned to Europe permanently. Over his working life, he designed not only the Sharps-Borchardt action and the C-93 pistol, but a variety of inventions ranging from shirt neck shapers to electrical household appliances for gas lighting and heating and in 1915, patented a toggle-action, semi-automatic rifle. Borchardt passed away in Berlin in 1924 at the age of 79.

THE ELEGANT SHARPS BORCHARDT, Guns Magazine

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