The Buffalo Slayer

M ost people would agree that the side-hammer Sharps buffalo rifle is an icon of the Old West.

There is no doubt that over a decade, buffalo hunters used the side-hammer Sharps and other rifles to kill buffaloes in the tens of thousands—heck, the number is undoubtedly in the millions.

The side-hammer Sharps was patented in 1848, and it used paper cartridges with percussion cap ignition. In 1851, an improved model was produced for the military and was issued to numerous Union Army units during the Civil War, most notably the famed Berdan’s Sharpshooters.

Following the war, the Sharps rifle was redesigned to fire metallic cartridges and the models 1869 and 1874 were produced in the thousands for frontiersmen and commercial buffalo hunters. These models were chambered for several of the most powerful cartridges of the time, most notably the Sharps “Big Fifty” (.50-90 Sharps or .50- 2 ½ inch).

This was the cartridge used by buffalo hunter, Billy Dixon, who became famous for his remarkable marksmanship. His most well-known feat occurred at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874—more about that later.

In a lesser known event, Dixon was credited with 116 buffaloes killed from one “stand.” This was considered a record that apparently was never equaled.

Dixon was a member of a party of hunters and skinners hired by a leader, or boss, who organized and led the group. Each day the hunters would ride out in various directions to find shootable numbers of buffalo. Accounts say that Dixon’s shots were heard in the hunters’ camp. When the shots continued at regular intervals for a long period of time, the boss rode out to see what was happening.

When he found Dixon, he saw dozens of buffalo down and Dixon still shooting at the herd, which hadn’t moved or stampeded away. Seeing that Dixon was almost out of ammo, the boss dipped into his own ammo to keep Dixon shooting.

When it was over, 116 buffaloes had fallen to Dixon’s Sharps Big Fifty.

Because of this and other feats of marksmanship, Dixon became well-known among buffalo hunters as one of the finest shots on the plains. Then came Dixon’s legendary shot at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, which began on June 27, 1874.

During this battle, 28 men, including Dixon and Bat Masterson who later became famous as a gun fighter and lawman, held off a combined force of Comanche, Kiowa and Arapaho warriors led by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. This force was estimated to exceed 700 mounted warriors, and they laid siege to the Adobe Walls trading post for three days.

During those three days the buffalo hunters displayed formidable marksmanship, but nothing as remarkable as the shot Billy Dixon made on the third day.

By this time the Indians had gained great respect for the buffalo hunters and the Sharps Big Fifty. So, when three chiefs decided to reconnoiter for their next attack, they rode onto a low hill that they believed was well beyond the range of the Sharps buffalo rifle.

When the defenders of Adobe Walls saw the three mounted Indians, several of them urged Dixon to try a shot. Finally agreeing, Dixon took a solid rest and sighted carefully at the trio of hostiles. He fired and several seconds elapsed. Just as he was about to declare a miss, one of the Indians fell off his horse. The other two immediately wheeled their mounts and rode away.

That evidently broke the siege, and the Indians departed. A couple of weeks later, an Army surveying party arrived at Adobe Walls where some of the remaining defenders told them about Dixon’s remarkable shot and showed them where the Indian fell.

The Army team surveyed the distance at 1,538 yards, which is about seven-eighths of a mile.

Original side-hammer Sharps rifles in good condition are priced at a number well beyond what this poor gun nut can afford. Fortunately, Lyman markets a superb reproduction of the Sharps side-hammer in the Lyman “Model of 1878” single-shot rifle, precision crafted by Pedersoli.

Chambered for .45-70, the Lyman 1878 is not as powerful as the Big Fifty, but .45-70 ammo is much easier to find, and cheaper, too. Besides that, the .45-70 has plenty of oomph to take down any North American big game animal.

When my test rifle arrived, I was impressed by its nicely figured walnut stock, well-fitted steel “shotgun” style buttplate, sculptured pistol grip and slender fore-end with an ebony end cap. Fine laser-cut checkering in a point pattern provides a secure grip and is pleasing to the eye.

The receiver and butt plate have a bright, satin finish, and the 30-inch barrel is blued. An adjustable double set trigger, Lyman tang rear sight and globe front sight round out the rifle’s custom features.

When I uncased the rifle at the local shooting range, it created a bit of a stir among shooters accustomed to seeing ARs, AKs, hand guns and bolt action rifles. I was surprised to discover that several shooters had never heard of the Sharps and its role in the wholesale slaughter of the American bison.

With the rifle not yet sighted-in, I set up a target at 25 yards. My first three shots were all touching, but a bit right of center. I figure it could have been even better, but my aging, presbyopic eyes could not quite adjust to the aperture front and rear sights. At 100 yards, my eye problem resulted in a three-shot group slightly larger than four inches, still slightly right of center.

I believe a better set of eyes could have cut that group down by 50 percent or more. For any shooter with aging eyes, there is a simple remedy for this problem—a pinhole.

Viewing your sights through a pinhole (believe it or not) will make your entire field of view sharper by a considerable margin. This can be as simple as a pinhole through a piece of plastic electrical tape stuck to the lens of your shooting glasses. Trust me—THIS WORKS!

A more versatile solution is made by Merit Corp. of Schenectady, NY, (518) 346-1420. Their little device attaches to your glasses lens with a suction cup.

The suction cup is connected to a short arm that positions an iris-adjustable pinhole so you can look through the aperture at your target. I have one. I just didn’t think I’d need it and left it at home.

I won’t forget next time—maybe.

Of course there will be a next time. A fine rifle such as this one deserves to be blooded on game. Permits for bison hunting are scarce and pricey, but maybe deer or elk might be in this rifle’s future.






Taking a Long Shot

We know that most defensive uses with handguns occur at close range within a short distance of 3-7 yards.  And in most instances if there is a threat further than that hopefully you are able to escape the danger and not be forced to violently engage a fight with the attacker.  But of course there are always exceptions.

When engaging a long distance target with your pistol, a stable rest will help eliminate the natural arc of motion.

Most shooters will probably tell you the maximum effective range with a pistol is somewhere from 25-50 yards.  However handguns can still be effective past this range and it’s only our skill that limits us. 

Of course a rifle is definitely more efficient at stopping a violent threat than a pistol, especially at greater distances, but with a little practice and a strong fundamental foundation of basic marksmanship you will find you can hit targets at 100 yards and even beyond.

Back in 2012, at an RV park in Early, Texas, Vic Stacy assisted an officer who was pinned down by a suspect when Vic dropped the suspect at an estimated 165 yards with his magnum revolver.  Then in 2014 Austin mounted officer Sgt. Adam Johnson hit an active shooter from 104 yards with his S&W M&P 40.  While long distance defensive pistol engagements is not an every day occurrence, it has happened in the past and it might be something you wish to practice. If nothing else it can just be for fun and a personal challenge.

Of course before moving on to further distances you should master your trigger discipline.  If you are hitting the telltale “low left” every shot at 7 yards and have an 8” group it will translate unto an 80” group at 70 yards so keep practicing.  Once you do begin to move back, don’t worry about bullet drop until after 50 yards.  Even the fat and slow .45 ACP will only drop about 3 inches at 50 yards, so just hold your sights dead on and see what you can do.  Make sure you are practicing this in front of a large backstop for safety.  A good dirt berm also helps by showing your bullet’s impact if you are off.  I prefer to shoot at freshly painted AR500 steel targets in order to have instant feedback.  

Once moving onto 75 and 100 yards you can begin to compensate for drop.  A 124 grain 9mm+P defensive round only drops about 11” at 100 yards, so if you are practicing on a silhouette target simply aim for the neck and your rounds should find center mass.  This is where having a red dot sight like the Trijicon RMR really shines.  I’ve been able to knock down 8” plate racks at 100 yards with just a little hold over. With iron sights, instead of keeping the sights level and covering up the target, practice raising the front sight to where it sits higher than flush in the rear sight yet still remains centered.  Then you can still place the tip of the front sight on the target as you press the trigger smoothly.

Learning to engage in distances at long range might not ever be something we might use in a defensive situation, but it sure gives you confidence to know you are able to do such, and then shorter shots are a piece of cake.







Return to CONTENTS Page

Roy Neves: