The Sharps buffalo gun, known as the Big 50 but often nicknamed,’ the gun that shoots today and kills tomorrow.’ The .50-90 Sharps rifle cartridge is a black-powder cartridge that was introduced by Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in 1872 as a buffalo hunting round. Like other large black-powder rounds, it incorporates a heavy bullet and a large powder volume, leading to high muzzle energies.
In the hide-hunting years of the 1870s, the heavy Sharps rifle was the of choice with many mountain men. While they made most of their shots at around 200 yards or less, the savvy buffalo hunters realized that when hunting in Indian country, they should keep about 10 cartridges set aside for self-defence. With these few rounds, they were able to keep hostile tribesmen at a safe distance until they made it back to camp.
Once such event happened in 1874 in the Texas pan-handle in which sharpshooter Billy Dixon shot and killed a Comanche brave who was seated upon his horse more than a mile away. Now that single shot reportedly scared the Indians off and brought what could have been a costly battle to an end.
‘There was never a more splendidly barbaric sight. In after years I was glad that I had seen it. Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the southwestern Plains tribes, mounted upon their finest horses, armed with guns and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming like the wind. Over all was splashed the rich colors of red, vermillion and ochre, on the bodies of the men, on the bodies of the running horses. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the tails and manes of the horses, and the bronzed, halfnaked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass. Behind this headlong charging host stretched the Plains, on whose horizon the rising sun was lifting its morning fires. The warriors seemed to emerge from this glowing background’ Billy Dixon.
Dixon’s famous shot took place on the third day of the second Siege of Adobe Wells in which an Indian force, some 700 strong attacked Adobe Wells in which some 28 men, including a 20 year old Bat Masterton and Billy Dixon were present. It was on the third day after the initial attack that Dixon took his famous shot. Fifteen Indian warriors rode out on a bluff nearly a mile away to survey the situation. At the behest of one of the hunters, William “Billy” Dixon, already renowned as a crack shot, took aim with a “Big Fifty” Sharps that he had borrowed from another man, and cleanly dropped a warrior from atop his horse. “I was admittedly a good marksman, yet this was what might be called a ‘scratch’ shot.” This shot apparently so discouraged the Indians that they decamped and gave up the fight.
William “Billy” Dixon (September 25, 1850 – March 9, 1913) was an American scout and buffalo hunter active in the Texas Panhandle. He helped found Adobe Walls, fired a legendary buffalo rifle shot at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, and for his actions at the “Buffalo Wallow Fight” became one of eight civilians ever to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor.
Now these days many people debunk Dixon’s famous shout, claiming that he couldn’t have made it as such a length but a group of ballistics experts and forensics scientists have recreated the shot and discovered that it was indeed possible.
Phil Spangenberger wrote in True West Magazine – Among modern-day nonbelievers was a forensic scientist who claimed a .50-90 Sharps could not throw a bullet out that far. In response to this technician’s curiosity and disbelief, in the fall of 1992, fellow gun writer and long-time amigo Mike Venturino was invited, along with the folks from Shiloh Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, to travel to the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, to use some then-newly declassified radar devices to test the performance of several types of ammunition.
Using a machine rest modified from a gun carrier from a Russian T-72 tank, they started firing away. For the first Sharps shot, with the gun carriage elevated to 35 degrees, a 675-grain bullet, pushed by 90 grains of FFg black powder, and with a muzzle velocity (mv) of only 1,216 feet per second (fps) launched the bullet over 3,600 yards distant. That’s 10,800 feet—over two miles! The scientists couldn’t believe it, so a second round was touched off. This time the lead projectile weighed 650 grains with a mv of 1,301 fps. Using the same 35-degree elevation, the bullet landed 3,245 yards away. When one of the mathematicians calculated some data he suggested they reduce the elevation to about 4½ to 5 degrees to duplicate Billy Dixon’s shot. When this was done using the same load, the lead slug landed 1,517 yards downrange—almost the exact range of Dixon’s controversial shot. A five-degree muzzle elevation can easily be achieved with only the rear barrel sight on a Shiloh Sharps. This writer has made similar long-range shots with his own .50-90 Shiloh Sharps, using 90 grains of FFg black powder and a 515-grain bullet, while testing firearms for Guns & Ammo magazine.
According to Venturino, with 35 degrees elevation, the bullet gained a maximum height just short of 4,000 feet and was airborne a full 30 seconds. In my own experimentation with my Big Fifty Shiloh Sharps at similar distances, I found that with the slight muzzle elevation of around five degrees, I counted three full seconds between firing the shot and seeing the bullet kick up dirt in the target area. So the next time some modern gun “expert” wagers that you can’t put a bullet a mile out with a Sharps buffalo gun—take the bet!
Phil Spangenberger has written for Guns & Ammo, appears on the History Channel and other documentary networks, produces Wild West shows, is a Hollywood gun coach and character actor, and is True West’s Firearms Editor.