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Sharps Big 50: The Gun That Changed the History of the West

What would America look like without the Sharps Big 50?

Once in a while, the true impact of a technology cannot be seen until far after it has disappeared. Like the first nomad who consciously planted a seed to grow into his next year’s food supply, often times the gravity of a moment in history is hard to get ahold of at the time. So it goes with the Sharps Big 50.

Used extensively in the American West for shooting buffalo, bullets from this gun were not only capable of long range shooting, but packed a punch when they got to their target.

Watch this video to learn more about the Sharps Big 50.

Arguably, this rifle did more to change the history of the American West than any other firearm.

During the 1860s, the US was industrializing at a frantic pace on the Eastern seaboard. The population was growing and factories were springing up as an economic fire lit up beneath Americans. To run the engines that powered factory machines, manufacturers needed belts, and the best belt material at the time was leather, specifically buffalo leather.

Due to its tough nature, buffalo leather lasted longer than other leather, a fact that people liked. Not only was there a high demand for buffalo hides, but when people heard reports of the immense herds on the Great Plains they thought the resource was nearly unlimited.

To meet the growing demand, and with the Sharps Big 50 in hand, buffalo hunters traveled western lands shooting buffalo by the tens of thousands. More miners than hunters, these men would skin the hide and take the tongue, which was served as a delicacy in the east. They would then move onto the next fallen buff leaving the meat and carcass to rot. In this fashion, they helped to promote the industrial economy of the East, but the role they played in the shaping of America is not limited to their economic impact.

On the other side, the US Army was having a heck of a time trying to subdue the powerful nomadic tribes of Native Americans on the plains. Tribes like the Comanche, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and the legendary Lakota had cost the US Army money, time, men, and a lot of headaches to little or no avail. Settlement of the plains would not have occurred with these sovereign tribes still in control of the territory.

Although these tribes could fight the Army, there was one enemy they couldn’t overcome: hunger.

As buffalo hunters used the Sharps Big 50 to decimate the vast buffalo herds on the plains, they also removed the primary food source of these determined tribes. Lack of food and starvation were the biggest reasons many people in these tribes moved to reservations. General Philip Sheridan is credited with saying of the buffalo hunters, “These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years.”

So not only did the Sharps Big 50 promote the industrialized economy on the Eastern seaboard, but it also helped American’s to begin the settlement of the Great Plains.

Although it is debatable, the Big 50 may be the most historic gun of the 19th century.


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Sharps Big 50: The Gun That Changed the History of the West