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American Beauties

Part of working in any field where one has an genuine enthusiasm for the subject that becomes one’s daily bread is the learning process that presents itself.

I specialise in English rifles and shotguns but occasionally I am presented with something outside of my comfort zone. This month, two unusual items appeared in the gun room, courtesy of a local collector. Both were American and both were rifles I had never had in stock before. In fact, I was surprised to find things like this existed in a Shropshire gun cabinet, showing a glimpse of just how eclectic the fraternity of gun collectors is. 

The first of the rifles set on the table was a Winchester. Now, every British shooter knows what one of these is but few have any idea about the huge number of variations on the theme that exist. This one was quite rare and featured details that set it apart form the common versions of the lever-actioned icon, familiar from every cowboy move of our collective youth.

The Model 1894  featured here was made, in 1910, in calibre 32-40. It is classed as a ‘semi-deluxe’ rifle with 26” barrel, half length magazine and octagonal barrel, transforming to a round profile ahead of the forend. It was a special order from the factory but came with standard sights. The stock is of better figure than the standard, utilitarian, blanks normally used on these truly working rifles, where, for most users, strength and reliability were the overwhelming priorities in any working tool. People’s lives in much of early rural America literally depended on these rifles coping with serious abuse.

The semi-deluxe would have been ordered by someone with a little more money than most and probably a little less hard on his kit. The butt plate is steel lined and the familiar crescent shape, to fit snugly into the shoulder. It has a pistol grip to the hand and is chequered, as is the forend; many were not. Unusually for a working rifle, this one retains about 65% original finish, the blue is rubbed in places.

.32-40, first developed around 1884, was an effective cartridge in its day; popular with some match shooters as well as being an adequate deer calibre out to 100 yards. The Winchester loading, with smokeless powder for the Model 1894 reached around 1,900 fps with a 165 grain jacketed bullet. By modern standards, it doesn’t really compete but in skilled hands and a good rifle, accuracy out to 300 yards could be on a par with many modern chamberings. Today, supplies of ammunition seem to be limited to occasional releases but hand-loaders have worked with .30-30 brass and lead bullets with a degree of success.

The legal status of this rifle in the UK is that it can be owned as a curio or ornament under Section 58 of the currently valid Firearms Act, which simplifies things for collectors more interested in the objets rather than the shooting, it also means they can be displayed rather than locked away. If an American customer decided to repatriate the Winchester, it would, however, need an export licence, as the rules there are different. As a rifle made after 1898, it is still classed as a modern firearm and would need an import licence and a Form 6 application to import back to its homeland. This is a rare case where UK firearms legislation treats ownership of a particular firearm more freely than the US does!

The second rifle to come in with the Winchester was a Sharps Model 1874. This example is a .45-70 calibre sporting model wit a 30” octagonal barrel.  The rifle is equipped with the original Lawrence ladder sight and, by serial number, can be dated as made in 1876. The name ‘Old Reliable’ is engraved on the barrel, along with ‘Sharps Rifle Co. Conn, .45’.

The .45-70 was a cartridge adopted for use by the US armed forces in 1873, a year before the Sharps was produced. It initially carried a 500 grain bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder. The carbine load , for lighter rifles was 55 grains of powder and a 405 grain bullet. Sharps produced a range of loads for their .45-70, from 293 grain bullets to 550 grains.

The stock is of the army type, which was available as a special order from 1875 ad the forend has a Bridgeport Schnable tip. Overall, the rifle is is very good condition, with just a few historical dings and minor chips.

Sharps made sporting versions of their rifles from the 1840s until the 1880s and in the pre-nitro days they were the big beasts of the frontier. The Sharps 1874 was one of a few rifles complicit in wiping the seemingly endless herds of bison from the American plains. It was designed by Christian Sharps, who had a record of firearms development and his rifles were used to good effect by elite units during the American Civil War. 

Entering the breech-loading era, Sharps marketed the safety of their mechanism with the slogan ‘Sharps rifles never shoot backwards’, unlike some of the rolling-block rifles of their major competitor, Remington. The rolling block could, theoretically, detonate the primer before being fully closed.

As a calibre not on the Home Office ‘Obsolete’ list, .45-70 requires a Section 1 FAC in the UK, but in the US it is not considered a firearm, as it pre-dates 1898 and is, therefore, classified as an ‘Antique’ and can be imported and owned without any restriction.

Rifles of this type are odd propositions in the UK, as the knowledge base is limited and the interest group of users and collectors small. In The US, they are considered American icons and command a much greater breadth of interest. However, the issue of supply is reversed. There huge numbers of rifles of this type available in the US, so prices vary enormously, with a premium put on rarity and original finish. As with many American guns of the Victorian period, these are primarily machine-made tools, rather than the hand-made sporting heirlooms of the British manufacturers. 

Nonetheless, every sector of the market has its niche and I’m always amazed at the immense knowledge of nuance and minor variation that American collectors memorise and recall in order to individually appreciate what, to the untutored eye, represents a collection of outwardly similar and ordinary looking firearms. The devil is in the detail. For example, versions of the Sharps advertised on American sites vary in price from under $2,000 to almost $20,000, depending on the features they exhibit and the original finish they retain. Of course, provenance is also a key factor. If you can verify that you own ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody’s Sharps, you can basically name your price!