Real Old School

Dave Campbell had an opportunity to kick it old school during a visit to the Cody Shooting Complex in Wyoming.

By now the two of you who regularly read my little diatribes have probably figured out that I like the old guns best. I don’t eschew the newest modern stuff; modern guns in many cases have evolved into some of the best shooting platforms extant—witness the AR-15. But the guns that really trip my trigger are the old ones, especially those from the 19th century American West. In most cases the genuine relics of that time have earned a lofty retirement in the collections of well-healed folk and museums. Those of us who like to shoot them are usually relegated to shooting reproductions or replicas. The replica market has evolved to produce some really high-quality guns, several of which I am blessed to own. But what aficionado doesn’t long to spend a little trigger time with the real deal?

This past weekend I was at the Cody Shooting Complex covering the Shooting Industry Masters Tournament—more about that to come shortly. I wasn’t there as a competitor, so I could not shoot some of the interesting courses of fire that made up the match. But I was allowed to participate in the side matches, and one was put on by Wyoming Armory, a Cody-based gunsmithing business focusing on the old guns. Steve Garbe works at Wyoming Armory, as well as edits and publishes a quarterly magazine, The Black Powder Cartridge News. A lifelong enthusiast on black powder cartridges—he claims to have never owned a modern gun—among the rifles present for us to shoot was his original 1874 Sharps Business Rifle, chambered in .45-70. This rifle was made in 1877, and while it did not have some of the frills like fancy engraving many of the replicas do nowadays, it was in fact the genuine article. Although it has been restored with a new barrel liner and breechblock, the rest of the rifle remains just as it was when it was fashioned in the hands of Christian Sharps. During the two-day shoot this 136-year-old rifle was fired some 420 times with the same full-house black powder loads it was designed to shoot.

When my turn came I had quite a bit of nostalgia brewing in my mind. I listened to Steve as he instructed me in its operation, even though I am already familiar with the operation in my own replica. Steve sent a couple of puffs of moist breath down the barrel via the blow tube—an accessory no buffalo hunter was without—to soften the fouling and then handed me a round to chamber. I have to admit that I was doing more “blue-skying” than concentrating on my aim. To think about all that this rifle had seen—herds of bison on the prairie, bands on Native Americans, miles upon miles of unfenced lands uninterrupted by roads and highways, outlaws and cavalry, frontier towns now just a memory—yep, I was a bit giddy. I set the rear trigger and put the base of the front sight across the top of the rear sight, per Steve’s instructions. Unfortunately I was so wrapped up skylarking about the history of this gun I don’t recall where the front sight bead was or where it was supposed to go. So when the hammer fell the 405-grain lead bullet hit the steel buffalo 100 yards away but not where it was supposed to. Didn’t matter, for just a moment I was a buffalo hunter on the wild prairie of the late 1800s with a genuine Sharps rifle. And that made the whole weekend for me.

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