Heritage, 2011, Volume 4 Page: 33
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Rifles used percussion caps for ignition and were the weap-
on of choice for buffalo hunters, mountain men, and fur
trappers during the 1830s through the 1850s.
During the Civil War, heavy-barreled "target rifles" were
used very effectively by sharpshooters on both sides of the
conflict. These weapons were percussion muzzle-loaders,
equipped with telescopic sites, and some weighed as much
as 32 pounds.
After the war, the breech-loading, metallic-cartridge rifle
was perfected at the same time as the commencement of the
Great Bison Hunt, a government-led campaign to destroy
the primary food source of the Indian. The Plains Rifle
quickly evolved into "The Buffalo Rifle," the most well
known of which were made by The Sharps Rifle Company
in Hartford, Connecticut, and The Remington Rifle
Company of Ilion, New York. In the hands of buffalo hide
hunters, these firearms were responsible for the near extinc-
tion of the American bison.
Many heavy Sharps rifles were shipped to Fort Griffin in
the Texas Panhandle during the 1870s. Buffalo hunter and
Army Scout Billy Dixon used his "Big 50" Sharps rifle to
shoot a Native American warrior off his horse at a distance
of more than 1,500 yards at the Second Battle of Adobe
Walls in June1874. Dixon always claimed that this mile-
long shot was just lucky but, nevertheless, this well-docu-
mented fact proves the capability of the "Big 50" in the
hands of an experienced marksman.
made using the standard issue Model 1873 Trapdoor Rifle,
with special sights, fancy checkered stocks, and fine engrav-
ing added. The rifles were chambered for the government
service cartridge, which made it easy to keep a good supply
of ammunition available.
r This is a U.S. Model 1875 Springfield Officer's Sporting Rifle. Only
125 were made to special order for Army officers stationed in the
West during the 1870s.
Pictured above is a .50 caliber Sharps Rifle, the type used in the
As noted, the U.S. military encouraged the bison hunt as
a method of forcing the Plains Indians on to reservations by
robbing them of their most-essential food resource and,
thusly, making these tribes dependent on government-
issued food supplies. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong
Custer (see image at top of next column) hosted many bison
hunts during his years on the Plains and was carrying a
long-range, Remington-Hepburn hunting rifle when he was
killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. The rifle
was never recovered, but shell casings from it were found on
Last Stand Hill.
In the 1870s, army officers stationed on the western fron-
tier could order, at their own expense and for their personal
use, "sporting rifles" from the U.S. National Armory in
Springfield, Massachusetts. These firearms were custom
By the early 1880s, westward expansion was complete,
signaling the end of the era of the great buffalo hunts, and
the heavy, long-range rifle was relegated to the field of target
shooting. With the invention of smokeless powder and
lighter, stronger, bolt-action firearms, the Plains Rifle was
supplanted as the weapon of choice for the "long shot." Yet,
for 60 years, this rifle was necessary for survival in the
In spite of the fact that it was displaced, the usefulness of
this firearm is not yet over. Today United States military
snipers use the descendant of the Plains Rifle and the "Big
50" Sharps when they routinely make mile-long shots using
the modern .50 caliber Barrett Rifle in war zones like
Tom Power, of Utopia, researches, collects, and sells antique and
historical firearms. All photographs are provided courtesy of the
Volume 4 2 01 1 ITEXAS HERITAGE 33
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, 2011, Volume 4, periodical, 2011; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth254223/m1/33/: accessed May 21, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.