American Single Shot Rifle Association

The Single Shot Rifle Journal

Feature Of The Month

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A Freund Sharps: Echoes From The Frontier.

By Tom Schiffer

Lovers of Western lore well know that the buffalo rifle on the western plains was the Model 1874 Sharps. It is remarkable that a rifle designed for external priming (Model 1863 Sharps etc.) would lend itself so well to conversion to a metallic self-contained cartridge (Model 1868 through 1874 Sharps). It does not require a mechanical genius to see that the transition from the one to the other was done, if not seamlessly, certainly smoothly. Many percussion actions were converted to metallic cartridge use, for both the US military and civilian consumption. But the most celebrated of these on the killing fields was the Sharps...a model 1874.

Indians killed buffalo with arrows from a bow that would be laughed off of an archery range today. Many were killed as (later Confederate General) Henry Heth took them riding horseback with the service pistol, presumably a caliber .44 Dragoon Model. The buff was tough to put down, but was not armor plated. However when the buffalo harvest really got under way, the methods adopted centered around use of a heavy bullet launched from the muzzle at about the speed of sound. Accuracy was needed to some hundreds of yards as well as some resistance to wind drift. Even these big bullets did not often put a buffalo down at the shot, but were sure enough of execution to allow multiple animals to be put down at one "stand". To be sure, there had to be skill (and some luck) in selecting the animal to shoot next, and sufficient distance from the herd allowed to avoid spooking the rest of the animals. This is not to mention the shooting skills required. The newer repeating rifles were not in it, due to the low powered cartridges they utilized at that time. For more about this, see Encyclopedia of Buffalo Hunters and Skinners (2003) by Gilbert, Remiger and Cunningham.

A number of single-shot rifles were capable of chambering the cartridges needed for this work. Among them were the Remington rolling block and the Springfield "needle gun" as the E. S. Allen designed military rifle was known in the west. But none achieved the notoriety of the big Sharps. The factory stamped "Old Reliable" on the barrel, and not without some justification. But a western gunsmith, Frank Freund, thought that as good as it was, the Sharps could use some improvement. Accordingly, Freund (which means "friend" in German) made a number of enhancements to the design. Notable among them was a double extractor...not as much appreciated today as it was in the days of copper cartridge cases which were prone to stick in the chamber. A single extractor was prone to tear through the head of the soft copper, leaving the stuck case to render the rifle useless until cleared by more draconian means. Another improvement was the alteration of the breechblock and the standing breech to provide cam power to seat a reluctant swollen or dirty. Both were real improvements. Then too, there were the "More Light Sights", patented by the Freunds.

General interest in the Freund Brothers dates from the fine, well-researched, articles in Gun Digest in 1957 - 58 (11th and 12th editions) by the late John Barsotti. John was, after all, a professional historian (Ohio Historical Society). While I did not know him until his later years, John was a tireless researcher and writer for Muzzle Blasts and, later, Gun Digest. In 1965, I met NRA staffer Bud Waite who told me the story of the Roosevelt Freund Sharps. In more recent years, there is the fine book by Pablo Ballentine on Freund & Bro., Pioneer Gunsmiths. I have seen very few Freund rifles, but always find them interesting. The information in these articles comes from the above sources, plus the rifles themselves and their owners.

The Freund brothers, Frank and George, were immigrants and, after establishing in Denver, followed the construction of the railroad across the West. They established their shops in a succession of locations as the centers of commerce, such as they were, moved west with the construction of the railroads. Barsotti says Frank had an association with Jim White the famous buffalo hunter. Frank is said to have done some gold prospecting as well as buffalo hunting. North Platte, Julesburg and later Durango (George Freund), all were host to the Freund shop one time or another. Frank was the inventor, but George too was a fine workman. The rifles shown in these articles were altered by the Freunds. Likely, from actions supplied by the Sharps factory "in the white" (unhardened) which allowed easier alteration and engraving.

Users of Freund firearms were among the doers and shakers of the time period. Barsotti lists a number of them in his Gun Digest articles, Freund & Bro. They included Civil War Generals Phil Sheridan, Edwin M. McCook, Wesley Merritt, and George Crook. There were John Phipps, scout who rode 236 miles in three days through a Wyoming blizzard with the news of the Fetterman disaster, John Hutton, friend of Jim Bridger, General George W. Wingate, President of the NRA 1886 to 1900, William F. Cody aka "Buffalo Bill", Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, Webb Hayes, grizzly hunter, Luke Vorhees, Supt. of Black Hills Stage Line, and C. F. Zimmerman, gunsmith and arms dealer in Dodge City. There were also the professional Western hunters, George Riley, Harry Tount, John Terry, and J. A. Milne. Then there was Major J. H. Smith, known as "Hell Roaring Jake" Smith In later years, Frank Freund also made rifles presented to Theodore Roosevelt. These latter were given to a White House staff member according to Ballentine. According to M. D. Waite (NRA Technical Staff), this was Roosevelt's footman and Waite aided him in selling it.

In recent years, Pablo Ballentine pulled it all together in his book Freund & Bro, Pioneer Gunmakers to the West (1997). The distinctive rifle with the leather forend cover, illustrated here, is owned by friend Bob Holter. This is the same rifle pictured on page 319 of Ballentine's book. According to Ballentine, and confirmed by Holter, it was made for Montgomery C. Meigs, Surveyor General of the United States, and was handed down through the family to daughter, Mrs. Orr, then to Dede Jasiman, from whom it was acquired by Bob, many years ago. It has a 28 inch barrel in .45 2 7/8 and has a serial number on the tang of 156478. Balentine says the barrel is serial numbered 157404 and tells that after taking off the rear sight and removing the ramrod and wooden key, the leather forend cover may be slipped off. It is truly a distinctive and arresting rifle, with its leather forend, ramrod under the barrel and engraving on both sides of the Sharps paneled action. It should be noted that the leather covered forend was not so covered due to a repair, but was made that way. There is an intact wooden forend under the leather. You will also note the distinctive buttplate that is not of Sharps manufacture.

Freund modified rifles cost more than the mine run rifles of the day. For this reason, it is not surprising that some of the owners of Freund rifles were men of distinction. It is also certain that all lovers of fine rifles, and fine craftsmanship will hold these rifles in great esteem. Add in a history coupled with excellent provenance to an historic figure and you have a real piece of history in your hands. In the next issue of SSRJournal, we will look at another Freund Sharps and some interesting information about the first mayor of Cheyenne...another Freund Sharps owner.