The Legendary Sharps Rifle

The legendary Sharps Rifle

Elliott Marston: Ah-ha. The legendary Sharps Rifle.

Matthew Quigley: You know your weapons. It’s a lever-action breech-loader. Usual barrel length’s thirty inches. This one has an extra four. It’s converted to use a special forty-five caliber, hundred-and-ten-grain metal cartridge, with a five-hundred-forty-grain paper patch bullet. It’s fitted with double-set triggers, and a Vernier sight, marked up to twelve-hundred yards. This one shoots a mite further.

Elliott Marston: An experimental weapon with experimental ammunition.

Matthew Quigley: You could call it that.

Elliott Marston: Let’s experiment.

The famous “Bucket Shot” in the 1990 movie Quigley Down Under starring Tom Selleck and Alan Rickman is one of my favorite clips in all of cinema. Just thinking about it makes me happy. I’ve often wondered how long of a shot the Quigley character made in the movie and how realistic that scene actually was. And before any killjoy feels the need to jump in here: yes, I know this is a movie and didn’t happen in real life. Anyway, let’s start with the basics (this might be a good time to watch that clip again for a refresher).

First, how long was the shot? Figuring this out was a little more difficult than I anticipated. Upon direction from Rickman’s character, Marston, one of the ranch hands gets on a horse, picks up a bucket, and then rides down a road until Marston fires his pistol in the air as a signal for him to stop.

One guy measured the amount of time the rider carried the bucket in question while riding a horse at a full gallop, then divided that time by the average top speed of a horse like that, and came out with a range of 782 yards.

Another fan of the movie found one of the men who worked on the original movie set in Australia where they filmed that scene, then managed to find the ruins of the movie set on Google Earth based on his conversation with that man. After finding the remains of the ranch on Google Earth, he measured from the spot where Selleck and Rickman were standing while filming that scene to a spot on a small hill where the rider stopped and placed the bucket.

He came up with a distance of 325 yards. Other fans of the movie have come up with estimates ranging from 400 to 550 yards based on other aspects of that scene. I don’t claim to be an expert at estimating ranges, but 300-400 yards just “feels” right to me for that shot.

As you’ll see here in a minute though, the details make a BIG difference here. Quigley was using a specially modified Sharps rifle shooting metallic cartridges loaded with black powder. Black powder cartridges have a much lower maximum velocity limit than smokeless powder. So even though Quigley was shooting a cartridge capable of handling a whopping 110gr of powder, that bullet wasn’t going very fast.

My Lyman reloading manual shows several 45-110 Sharps loads that reach velocities up to 1,600-1,800fps with a 535gr cast lead bullet.

Those loads use smokeless powder, and aren’t exactly the same as the load the Quigley character “used” in the movie, but this will still give us a pretty good approximation of what would go into making a shot like that in real life.

The bullet in my manual has a BC of .402 and we’ll go with a muzzle velocity of 1,700fps (which is likely a little faster than what a guy like Quigley would have used in real life). With a 100 yard zero, that bullet will drop a whopping 55.7″ at 325 yards and have a .68 second time of flight. Extend the range to 400 yards and we’re looking at 97.8″ of bullet trop and a .87 second time of flight.

At 782 yards that bullet has an incredible 574″ of drop and takes 2 seconds to reach the target! Put another way, Quigley would have had to aim nearly 48 FEET above the bucket and even a barely noticeable 2mph crosswind would cause that bullet to deflect by nearly 2 feet at 782 yards.

Furthermore, the sound of the bullet impacting the bucket would take another 2 seconds to return to the shooter after the hit (an incredible 4 seconds after the shot). So, this means it’s all baloney, right? Just an interesting and entertaining scene we shouldn’t take too seriously?

Not so fast. Go back and watch the scene again. Quigley used that Vernier sight to make that sight. “Ladder” sights like that can greatly assist a shooter in correcting for elevation when making a shot like that. Plus, he also took a few seconds to determine the prevailing wind direction and estimate its speed.

Really “long range” shots in that timeframe (especially on game) were typically in the 200-300 yard range, but a skilled marksman with the right gear could certainly hit a target at what some might even consider an obscenely long range. Doing so was extremely difficult, but not impossible.

More recently, a number of black powder enthusiasts have made shots using comparable rifles and ammunition on similar sized targets out past 1,000 yards at the range, so we’re talking about a feat that’s definitely within the realm of possibility.

There’s even one guy who did his own “recreation” of the Quigley shot at 782 yards, standing and shooting free hand using his Sharps rifle.

So, even that is possible. The fact that Quigley did so without knowing the exact distance to the target and with zero “sighters” is what makes it such a remarkable feat.

For instance, let’s go with the shorter range estimate. 55 inches of holdover is required to hit it at 325 yards and 68 inches of holdover is required at 350 yards.

In other words, a range estimation error of just 25 yards at that relatively “short” range is likely to result in a complete miss of the bucket because of the extreme “rainbow like” trajectory of that round.

On the other hand, it’s not a big stretch of my imagination to believe that the “finest long distance marksman in the world” could make that shot at 325ish yards. Even standing, offhand, on command, and with zero sighters.  And do it all three times in a row. I’d say that’s challenging enough to be impressive, but still “easy” enough to be achievable.

If you enjoyed this discussion of external ballistics, you’ll probably also really Hunting Guns 101 too.  That training contains a thorough overview of external and terminal ballistics so you’ll learn how bullets actually kill animals as well as some specific examples of rifles and scopes ideally suited for a variety of hunting situations. You’ll also discover the various factors that affect bullet penetration and expansion and learn a couple different methods of choosing the ideal cartridge/bullet combination for a hunt that will deliver ideal terminal performance on whatever game you’re hunting.

Additionally, you’ll receive access to my extensive (and growing) library of ballistic gel test results that demonstrate the wide spectrum of results you can expect from different cartridges and bullets that you can use to tailor your hunting load to the specific situation.

The training also includes:

The weird reason why certain rifle cartridges seem to be so much more effective on many species of big game than you might think from looking at their ballistics on paper (and what specific cartridges I’m talking about).

A vital lesson all hunters can learn from the perplexing reaction an animal had after receiving a perfect shot to the vitals from a big magnum cartridge (and what this particular hunter could have done differently).

The three key words you need to look for on a box of ammo that will determine whether or not you should hunt with it (and this has nothing to do with kinetic energy).

2 attributes experienced hunters prioritize when selecting ammunition to use under really windy conditions.

A clever trick old time hunters used in the days before laser rangefinders when sighting in their hunting rifles to extend their effective range afield.

And much more!

If that weren’t enough, you can get Hunting Guns 101 at a giant discount until midnight CDT on 22 December (Friday).

Get it here:  https∶//huntingguns101.com/order

Happy Hunting,

John McAdams

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