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Early models of the Sharps rifle, notably the 1859 and 1863 models, were breech loading using either loose black powder or paper cartridges. Later Sharps rifles, notably the buffalo guns of the 1870s, also were breech loaders but used brass cartridges. The earlier guns, popular during the American Civil War, are popular with reenactors of that historic period. The original guns should not be fired unless inspected by a qualified and knowledgeable gun smith. Modern reproductions of the guns can be fired using black powder or its equivalent.
Preparing the Paper
The paper cartridge used in the Civil War era Sharps rifles is made from nitrate soaked paper. Cigarette papers can be substituted if large enough sizes are available. If not, soak a cloth bond paper (not wood-pulp based) in a mixture of water and potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate is added to the water until the point of saturation, or the level where the potassium nitrate will no longer be absorbed by the water. Soak the paper in the nitrate water for about a minute and then hang it to dry.
Cut the paper to size. For a .45 caliber Sharps, this about 1 11/16 inches by 3 inches. Paper for the .54 caliber should be cut to 1 15/16 by 3 inches. Wrap the piece of paper around a dowel the same size as the bullet and glue the seam with a glue stick.
Loading the Paper Cartridge
Insert a bullet into one of the open ends of the tube. The bullet can be glued in place or tied in place. For a more traditional cartridge, tie a silk thread around the paper cartridge to compress the paper into the lube grooves on the bullet.
Add black powder or Pyrodex to the open end of the tube. Standard load for the .45 caliber is 60 grains of black powder, while 80 grains of black powder is standard for the .54 caliber.
The open end is twisted shut and traditionally tied closed with a silk thread. The end also can be glued closed.
Keith Allen, a 1979 graduate of Valley City State College, has worked at a variety of jobs including computer operator, medical clinic manager, radio talk show host and potato sorter. For over five years he has worked as a newspaper reporter and historic researcher. His works have appeared in regional newspapers in North Dakota and in "North Dakota Horizons" and "Cowboys and Indians" magazines.