Shooting A Sharps
Copyright 2004 by Dennis Dezendorf

Just before Christmas, the Lady and I were driving down the road and she was telling me about this guy at work who was talking about a falling block rifle. She couldn't picture it in her mind, and I couldn't describe it accurately. I saw a pawnshop and pulled in, telling her "Come on, we'll see if we can find one and I'll show you."

The Lady loves pawnshops. She is especially attracted to those sparkly carbon crystals kept under glass at a pawnshop. We've found a couple of pretty good deals and she is a willing participant if I give her time to look at the jewelry. We walked in the door and I asked the counterman, "Got any falling blocks on the rack?"

Click for full size photo "Sure do" he said, and took down a Sharps 1874 replica. Made by Pedretti, and marketed in the US by IAB, the rifle was in .45-70. He handed it to me, and I turned to my Lady and explained how a falling block works. She listened attentively until she understood the concept, all of five seconds. "Got it," she said, and turned to the diamonds under the glass.

I examined the rifle. The wood was pristine. The action was stiff. I dropped the block and peered down the bore. It looked brand new. The only fouling I could see looked like dust, down near the chamber end. The same type dust I have seen on rifles left sitting in the rack too long. I looked at the tag hanging from the lever, which said that it was a used rifle, and the price was $625 US dollars. I asked the counterman, "Has this rifle ever been fired?"

"Doesn't look like it, does it?" he replied. "If it has been fired, it was only once or twice."

I cocked it and tried the trigger. Stiff as a board, it broke at about 20 pounds. I noticed a set trigger, cocked the hammer, set the trigger and tried it again. It broke at about one pound. Hmmm. I handed the counterman the rifle and the lady and I walked out the door.

Later that evening, I found myself searching for "1874 Sharps" on the internet. The Pedretti is one of the Italian replicas of that rifle commonly associated with the buffalo trade of the late 1800's in the United States. Original rifles can still be purchased although at figures that reflect the scarcity and workmanship of that era. Reproductions are available from a number of makers, both domestically and abroad. A person can spend just about any amount of money on a Sharps replica, depending on how he wants it set up. They can be had in any number of calibers, to include the "Big 50" calibers used by the likes of Kit Carson and Billy Dixon.

Of the reproductions available, the Pedretti is down in the lower price range, and new rifles can be had for $800 - $900 US dollars. My research indicated that the Italian manufacturers made historically accurate rifles, down to the spacing on the tang for aftermarket sights. They also used the same lock geometry as the originals, resulting in little levers trying to move large springs. Trigger pulls were heavy and set triggers were usually fitted to counter the force necessary to move the trigger.

The next day was Sunday and we had a day of shopping planned, getting ready for Christmas. When we drove by the pawnshop, it was closed. Sunday night, while the Lady played on the computer, I watched the movie "Quigley Down Under" on the DVD. I wanted that rifle. I knew my money would be tight leading up to Christmas. I mentioned my desires to the Lady. "Go put it on layaway." Monday afternoon I did just that. I walked into the pawnshop after work and put the Sharps on layaway.

The .45-70 cartridge was adopted by the US government in the late 1800's. It was chambered in a variety of rifles and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity lately as sportsmen rediscover how lethal a large heavily constructed bullet can be. Cowboy Action shooting is in part responsible for the reawakened interest in the cartridge. It was originally loaded in two basic loadings. The 45-70-500 was a .45 caliber, 500 grain bullet over 70 grains of black powder. The 45-70-55 was the same 45 caliber, 500 grain bullet loaded over 55 grains of black powder. Some say that the 55 grain loading was designed for carbines.

I've never experienced this caliber in my personal battery, and didn't have any supplies for loading it. I've been shooting muzzleloaders for over 20 years and know the basics of loading black powder, but had never tried that propellant in a cartridge. I determined that this rifle would never be fouled with smokeless powder. I would shoot black powder cartridges in it exclusively. I needed brass, primers, molds, reloading dies, and time to gather all the accoutrements before the rifle came home.

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Two .45-70 cartridges, with flat point and spire point bullets. The one on the left is a .357 magnum, for scale.
The first order was from Midway USA. I went online and found brass and reloading dies. Starline brass was $32.99 per 100, and Lee dies were $19.97. I ordered them. When the UPS man came, I looked into the .45-70 brass. Hmmm. Lots of space there. I took out my black powder measure for my muzzleloader and set it to 70 grains. Filled the measure, then dumped it into the brass. Made a mess on the kitchen counter and got out the broom. 70 grains won't fit in new brass. Starline uses solid head brass, just like Winchester and Remington use these days. The old brass was balloon head brass that held more powder. I started fiddling with powder measures and found that the 4.3 cc measure from my Lee dippers fills the brass where I can seat a wad and get a little compression on the charge. While I had the brass out, I took the time to chamfer the cases. Then, I seated primers in them while watching TV.

Lets talk about muzzleloaders for a moment. When you seat a muzzleloader ball down on the powder, you seat the ball or conical bullet directly on the powder. Airspace under a black powder bullet is bad. We are careful to mark the ramrod to make sure we get the same compression each time. When we seat the ball to the mark we have made on the ramrod, we know that we have the same compression on the powder and that the ball is firmly seated on the propellant.

Black powder cartridge reloaders want the same thing. The bullet has to be seated on the powder with no airspace in the cartridge. Black powder cartridge reloaders have also learned that they get best accuracy when they put a wad or grease cookie between the powder and the bullet. Because black powder is granular, when it settles into a column (like dropping it into a straight walled case), there is air between the granules of powder. Some reloaders have devised drop tubes, compression dies, and all manner of devices to settle the powder, minimizing the airspace in the case. I'm a simple kind of guy, preferring to run my life on the KISS process. I also wanted to minimize the impact on my checkbook. I also did not want to reinvent the wheel. The old timers were getting fine accuracy and utility from these rifles long before I was born.

So I called my buddy, Junior Doughty. Junior has played with .45-70 and is familiar with the peccadilloes of loading for it. He promptly sent me some cast bullets in two weights and some Buffalo Felt Wads, along with instructions on how to use them. I went to my local grocery store and bought some hog lard, 79 US cents. I also dug around in my reloading stores and found a block of genuine, raw beeswax.

Click for full size photoJunior makes a lube he calls Junior Lube. You can find a recipe for it here. I didn't want Alox in my lube, so I omitted it. My lube is beeswax and lard, mixed in 50/50 proportions by volume. The first thing I had to do was process the beeswax, which consists of melting it in water. I put mine in a disposable measuring bowl (Dollar Store, 3 for a dollar) and put it in the microwave. When the beeswax melted in the bowl, the liquid wax floated to the surface and the impurities settled to the bottom. I repeated this process three times to get pure wax. I then put a half cup of beeswax and a half cup of lard (measuring cup, Dollar Store, one dollar) into one of my disposable bowls and melted the wax and lard. When the resultant mixture was cool, I had lubricant for my bullets and my wads. Lubing the wads was easy. I simply melted a cup of lube in a measuring cup and dropped the felt wads into the hot mixture. I stirred them around with a spoon, then put wads and lube back in the microwave for a minute. The lube got re-heated and the felt wads absorbed more of the mixture. I spread the wads out on a sheet of newsprint and waited until morning. I stored them all in a sandwich bag.

Click for full size photo On a subsequent trip to pay the layaway on the rifle, I measured the holes on the tang for a peep sight. I knew that the rear sights on the rifle were a full buckhorn, and found examples on original rifles on the internet. I also knew that most shooters wanted better sights and usually installed those better sights on the tang of the rifle. I commenced an internet search for better sights. Creedmoor sights are readily available as aftermarket accessories for Sharps rifles. You can spend upwards of $400 for a really fine vernier sight, but I am a Frugal Outdoorsman. I can't see spending that kind of money for a sight. I looked around and found one at Track of the Wolf ( in my price range. They shipped it to me for $42.35.

Late in January, I finished paying off the rifle and brought it home. The counterman told me that the rifle had set unappreciated and unloved on his rack for several months before I put it on layaway. Until then, I was the only guy who expressed an interest in it. When I put it on layaway they removed it from the rack and stored it in the safe with the other guns. Since then, three guys came in wanting to buy it. He told them "Tough."

The first night it was home, I took it apart to look at the lock and see if I could figure out why the trigger pull was so horrible. I have a Thompson Center Renegade with set triggers and the front trigger on that rifle trips at about six pounds. The set trigger lets it go at about half a pound. I pulled the lock off the Sharps and was pleased to find that it is a lot like the Renegade lock.

Before I go any further, I have to say this: Adjusting triggers, resetting sears, stoning lockwork is potentially dangerous. Without some formal training and a good dose of common sense, the delicate interaction of the lockwork might be damaged by tinkering with it. I did what I did on my rifle. It might not work on yours, and I don't recommend that anyone do what I did. Sear engagement is critical to the safety of a rifle. If you take apart your rifle and tinker with the lock, you might create a dangerous condition that could result in inadvertent misfires, and potential injury or loss of life. Don't do anything to your lock unless you are willing to assume the risk.

That said, when I pulled the lock off the Sharps, I saw that someone had been in there before me. The sear had some burrs on it that engaged the tumbler with a vengeance. I took the stone out and worked the burrs off the sear. While I was in there, I generally smoothed everything, getting off burrs, file marks, and tool marks. I reassembled the rifle. The set trigger wouldn't work. Damn. I took the rifle down again and inspected the trigger assembly. The set trigger has a spring that bears against it. When it is set, it places tension on the trigger bar that trips the sear. That spring wasn't bearing on anything. I adjusted it, lubed the lock while I had it out. Reassembled everything. It worked. The main trigger broke at about eight pounds. The set trigger tripped at something under a pound.

While tinkering with the triggers I got online and looked at some sites that discuss set triggers. I wound up at Track of the Wolf where I learned that the Pedretti triggers are just exactly like the triggers on the original 1874 Sharps rifles. They don't have a backlash screw and must be set before cocking the lock. This is important to know. Newer triggers and those found on replicas today allow the shooter to cock the lock or set the trigger in any order. Triggers without a backlash must be set before the lock is cocked. That doesn't make the rifle unsafe. You must set the trigger before you cock the lock to the half-cock notch. In newer rifles like my Renegade, the trigger can be set just before I am ready to shoot it. On the Sharps, the trigger must be set first. It isn't safe or unsafe, it is just different. The best safety for any shooter is the brain between your ears.

While I had the screwdrivers out, I installed the Creedmore sight. It went on just like it was supposed to. Five minute job. No problems. My sight does not have a windage adjustment. I will order a globe sight for the muzzle end later. I can drift the front sight in the dovetail to adjust for windage, and it has been my experience that once set for windage, any rifle will shoot where it looks. The rifle came with a silver blade sight on the muzzle. It looks elegant sitting out there. The only problem with it is that I cannot see it, except in bright sunlight. When the checkbook recovers, I will order a globe sight, probably with a bubble level.

The next night, I decided to load some ammo for the rifle. The only black powder substitute I had available was a pound of Cleanshot. I bought it last year when I ran out of Goex powder for my Renegade. Goex powder is made in Louisiana, but for some reason there is only one retailer in the state that stocks it. I like Goex powder because it is real black powder. I've used Pyrodex too, but decided to try Cleanshot the last time I bought powder. It cleans up easily, seems to give good service in my muzzleloaders. I'll probably go back to Pyrodex later, but the first loads will be Cleanshot.

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Finger-lubed bullets ready to load.
Because the brass had already been processed and primed, I took the beeswax/lard mixture out of the fridge and finger-lubed some bullets. Next, the cases were charged with powder, by funneling in 4.3cc of Cleanshot in each case. Next comes the wad. The wads that Junior sent me seemed a little large for the case, but with finger pressure, they slid into the mouth of the case.
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Looking down into the cases. Loaded with powder and wads seated with the butt of a Sharpie marker.
I know I had enough lube on the wads, because my homemade lube tended to squish out of the wad when I pressed them into the case. I needed something to seat the wad down on the powder. A sharpie marker worked just fine. Using the butt end of the sharpie, I pushed the wad against the powder, just like using a short ramrod.

Lets take a minute here and talk about indexing. One of the things the cast bullet shooters have learned is that indexing a bullet with the case, and indexing the loaded round in the chamber tends to give better accuracy. I'm sure the Cast Bullet Association could explain it in more detail, but take my word for it; orienting the bullet in the case the same way each time, and orienting the loaded round in the chamber the same way each time, leads to better accuracy.

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Cases and bullets marked for indexing.
Junior marks his molds with a fine scratch on the nose of the bullet. When the bullet falls out of the mold, it shows that scratch mark. I covered that mark with Sharpie ink to more readily see it. Then I marked my cases in the same way. I oriented each mark on a feature of the headstamp of the brass so that each brass case would be loaded in the chamber in the same orientation.

Click for full size photo My Lee hand press easily handled the bullet seating. I lined up the marks on the case and the bullet and seated the bullets so the marks align. Now, I can chamber the ammo with the mark pointing up, and know that my bullets will enter the barrel the same way each time. In this picture I have ten rounds, each indexed, with two bullet types, the 450 Lee FP and the 500 Lee 3-R. I used a firm crimp because I am a believer in crimping bullets.

Click for full size photo Time to go to the range. I use the public range maintained by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. One mile east of Woodworth, this range offers archery, shotgun, pistol and rifle opportunities. The rifle range is 100 yards, with covered shooting benches. Trained rangemasters are on duty each Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. Targets, staplers and assistance are free. Cost to use the range is exactly zero.

Click for full size photo I set up a target at 25 yards, and fired off a few shots to get the rifle shooting on the paper. When I touched off that big rifle everyone stopped and looked. The rangemaster asked, "Black powder, huh?" I told him "Yep." The target on the right was shot at 25 yards with iron sights. Four out of five in the same inch square. One flyer outside the group, ruining what would have been a really nice target. We cast bullet shooters find that fairly regularly. One shot in every string will land outside a good group, opening up a nice group into a lousy one.

Click for full size photo This target was fired next, off the bench at 100 yards. Three shots for record, two in one hole, one flyer off to the right. Still, three shots in four inches ain't bad, with iron sights and gusty breezes. That is what makes cast bullet shooting so much fun, and what makes cast bullet shooters so particular about the way they load their bullets. If I ever decide to use this rifle for serious target work, you can be sure I will weigh my bullets and only keep certain ones for target work, then I will index the bullets to the cases and I'll weigh the powder charges. I might even weigh the lubed wads, to make sure that everything is like everything else.

Click for full size photo For plinking, though, the reject bullets are fine. This next target is 25 yards, offhand. Five shots in two inches. That is "minute of beer can" work. I didn't do anything fancy, just seeing if the rifle would plink. It does.

For folks that say a shooter has to spend over a thousand bucks to get fine shooting with a Sharps rifle, I say nonsense. This Pedretti is one of the least expensive of the bunch. My expenses getting the rifle to shoot are detailed in this article. So far, I have $722.10 spent on the rifle and accessories I didn't already have. I am still going to put a globe sight on the front of it. Track of the Wolf will sell me one for about $25.00, so for under $750.00 including dies, brass, etc., I will have a Sharps I can shoot for fun, for competition, for meat. Let those rich fellows spend their hard earned money. I'll spend what is left over buying baubles for my lady.

Copyright 2004 by Dennis Dezendorf

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