C. Sharps & Co. Pepperbox

Smith & Wesson’s success with the Model 1 revolver had massive repercussions for the American gun industry. With cartridge ammunition becoming the de facto standard, manufactured had to quickly pivot from the old cap and ball design. To make things worse: Smith & Wesson’s lock on the bored-through cylinder also meant that producing a competing revolver wouldn’t be legal until at least 1869 when the patent was set to expire.

Solutions to this problem showed a lot of creativity, and this pepperbox pistol from Christian Sharps was one of the more successful examples.

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More than a box of pepper

The gun had four separate barrels, each with its own separate firing chamber. Unlike a revolver with its rotating cylinder, this pepperbox kept its barrels stationary and instead rotated the firing pin. This meant that four rounds could be fired in rapid succession, and it could be reloaded fairly quickly. The gun’s squat proportions would have also given it an edge over the Smith & Wesson for its concealability.

Sharps started manufacturing these guns in 1859 and maintained almost continuous production until 1874, with over 85,000 examples produced during that time. This wasn’t quite comparable to Smith & Wesson manufacturing over 250,000 Model 1’s, but it bode much better than many of Smith & Wesson’s ill-fated competitors.

By 1874 the patent on the bored-through cylinder had long since expired and the revolver with the bored through cylinder had proven itself to be the pre-eminent handgun design. Not coincidentally, Christian Sharps also died in 1874. The company reorganized after his death and continued to make rifles under a few different names until it ceased operations altogether in 1881. Unlike many successful companies that continued to thrive after the death of their founder(s) (Smith & Wesson included), Sharps did not appear to have the organization in place to do that.

The Devil in the Details

This particular gun has a few interesting details worth pointing out.

The grips are made of thermoplastic, which is often erroneously called “gutta percha.” Finding a set of grips as clean as these is sometimes difficult—especially with the delicate figured pattern in them.

This pistol didn’t have cartridge extractors; the spent shells would simply need to be dug out with one’s fingernail, or perhaps a pocketknife. Smith & Wesson’s only marginally better solution was to fit an extractor rod under the barrel, which necessitated the removal of the cylinder from the gun (and heaven only knows how many cylinders were thus lost). It really wasn’t until the top break revolvers of the late 19th century that a workable extractor mechanism came into being.

The trigger on the Sharps Pepperbox is the same spur trigger style as many pistols from that era. Since there was no drop safety or hammer rebound mechanism, it was probably best to carry the Sharps Pepperbox with one chamber empty, lest a bump to the gun result in an accidental discharge.

Interestingly, Sharp’s initial patent on the rotating firing pin was dated December 18, 1849. He was granted another patent on January 25, 1859, which looked much more like the gun shown here. Sharps had clearly been tinkering with this design for over a decade—and ironically, it was probably Smith & Wesson’s development of cartridge load ammunition that gave Sharps the ammunition design he needed to make it work.

And work it did! For all of the Sharps Pepperbox’s foibles, it’s one of the more workable non-revolver designs from this era.

Sadly, I’ve never been able to locate Christian Sharps’ gravesite. One of his obituaries noted that he had been buried in “Vernon Center,” but there are several cemeteries in Vernon (Tolland County, CT), and I’ve found no more specific reference.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for your informative article. I have one of these 1959 Sharps #4 pepperbox and the rotating firing pin does not rotate and for the life of me I do not know how it works. If by chance you know a gunsmith in the USA privy to this gun to fix it please let me know?
    And/or an informative article the details how it rotates ? Anything would help?
    Many thanks,

  2. My uncle died last year and has an 1859 C. Sharps pepperbox pistol in very good condition with a leather holster from the same period and some bullets.
    It has 43830 stamped on the bottom of the gun’s grip butt and 1050 on one side engraved. We’re wondering what it might be worth. It has no rust and solid engraving, but the hammer and trigger are stuck. Any idea what it could need? I’m guessing some pins are bent or missing or–?

  3. How can I tell which model it is? It has an engraved looking thermoplastic grip and brass barrel. I think the spring is missing or broken, as the hammer and trigger are locked. Perhaps it has a safety that I am unaware of or don’t know how to find or unlock.

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