Thursday, April 15, 2010

Philip Burdette Sharpe, Writer and Ballistician

LIFE Magazine photo:  Sharpshooter, Phil Sharpe
Somebody asked about the mystery (so it is often reported) around the death of 1930s-1950s gun writer Phil Sharpe. For example, on page 105 of Dangerous Game Rifles, Terry Weiland makes note of the allegation that alcoholism drove Sharpe to suicide. Of course, I thought that was a challenge I could meet so I did some research. It appears the cause of death was simply a heart attack.

The paper's announcement of his death (The Gettysburg Times, Wed, Jan 25th, 1961)...


Philip Burdette Sharpe, 57, internationally known ballistics expert and author, died at 3:30 o'clock Tuesday afternoon at the Warner hospital where he had been admitted at noon after suffering a severe heart attack.
Mr. Sharpe lived along the Lower Tract Rd. in Liberty Twp., near Emmitsburg. He had suffered an earlier heart attack in 1957.
He was a veteran of World War II having served as a Captain in Army Ordnance, and since the war had lived near Emmitsburg where he imported custom made rifles from Denmark, did ballistics testing work and wrote technical works and fiction.
Active in Community
Before his initial heart attack he had been active in community affairs. He was a past commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at Emmitsburg and a member of the Francis X. Elder American Legion Post there and of the Emmitsburg Lions Club.
He was also vice-president of the Outdoor Writers Association. Until recently he was a staff writer for the National Rifle Association in which he held a life membership. He was also a member of the Campfire Club of America. Most of his writing on been on ballistics and other technical subjects, but he also had done some fiction writing.
He conducted a business as an importer of rifles from Denmark, guns that had been designed to his specifications for cartridges developed by his own firm of Sharpe and Hart.
Burial at Arlington
Mr. Sharpe was born in Portland, Maine and was a son of the late Elias and Jennie (Clark) Sharpe. Surviving are his widow Marguerite Burby Sharpe, and two children, Phyllis and Philip Jr., both residing in Massachusetts. A brother also survives, Maurice, Cape Elizabeth, Me.
Mr. Sharpe was inducted December 22nd, 1942 and was discharged May 15, 1946, after having served as a captain in the ordnance department of the army. His overseas service was in the European theater where he was chief of the small arms unit in the enemy equipment intelligence service. After he returned to the states following the war, he bought a home near Emmittsburg and set up his business there.
Funeral services Friday morning at 10:30 o'clock at the Wilson Funeral Home in Emmitsburg with Rev. Philip Bower Emmitsburg Lutheran Pastor, officiating. Interment with military honors in the Arlington National Cemetery. Friends may call at the funeral home in Emmitsburg Thursday evening after 7 o'clock.

The Feb 3, 1961 entry in Time Magazine's Milestones column...
Died. Philip B. Sharpe, 57, author and firearms expert who financed his early research by writing detective and adventure stories and who during World War II proved the feasibility of a curved-barrel rifle for house-to-house fighting by putting six shots in an 8-in. bull's-eye at 75 yds. while firing around a corner; of a heart attack; in Emmitsburg, Md.

From the National Cemeteries burial locator:
DATE OF BIRTH: 05/16/1903
DATE OF DEATH: 01/24/1961
(703) 607-8000

This inquiry really piqued my interest in the subject of this rather well-known author's life. I couldn't help but wonder just why his death in what seems to be rather ordinary circumstances to be labeled as "mysterious". In my research I found several other references/questions about his "mysterious" death. There seems to be a lot of interest in his life, particularly among those of us who grew up using his books as a major source of information.

I have discovered the following (exclusive of his professional life):

Philip Burdette Sharp was born in Portland, Maine on 16 May 1903 to Elias and Jennie (Mabelmaylor Clark) Sharpe. Both his parents hailed from New Brunswick, Canada from which they emigrated in 1894 and 1896 respectively. Phil's parents were married in 1897. He had one younger brother Maurice E. (b. 12 Jun 1906 d. 14 May 1997). The family stayed in Portland where Elias worked as an upholster, bed springer, house carpenter and, finally, building contractor. This was a family pursuing the American dream.

He attended Portland University, specifics I don't yet know, and in Oct 1928 married Lotta Marguerite Burby at Portsmouth, NH. In 1930, Phil and Maurice were working for the newspapers. Phil as a journalist and Maurice as a copywriter. Phil and Marguerite (as she was known) divorced in 1936. I'm not yet aware of the circumstances. They had had no children.

Phil must have had a wicked sense of humor as he wrote a letter to LIFE magazine which was published in the Jan 22, 1940 (a lot of things happened to Phil in Jan...) which stated his opinion that there were few if any pretty school teachers. This apparently got something going and in Feb 12, 1940 issue, LIFE responded with an article with a "spread" of attractive school teachers.

Sometime in 1940 Phil married Ethel Marie Harmon and in August 1940 they moved to Fairfield, PA between Emmitsburg, MD and Gettysburg, PA. The 20 acre farm had been selected by Phil as the ideal place to pursue his shooting interests. On 10 Sep 1941 they had a daughter, Phyllis Eileen. On 2 Sep 1943, Philip B. Sharpe Jr. was born. It was during this period that Phil answered the call of his country at war and was sworn in as an ordnance officer serving in both the U.S. and European theater as a small arms expert analyzing small arms.

In 1947 Phil had a severe case of pneumonia. His wife picked him up from the hospital to take him home to fully recover. Imagine his surprise when she took him into a nearly empty house devoid of even the heat or cook stoves! She had also removed hay, chickens and other farm stock! She then turned right around and left for their house on Cape Cod with the kids. Apparently his mailman finally brought him some food. From Jan 1948 through Jan 1955 the two apparently continued their rather acrimonious separation and divorce proceedings. He tried to have her committed and she tried to take him for everything he had. However, she even appealed the final divorce decree issued in Jan 1955.

During this period he had his first heart attack and lost part of his right middle finger to a lawn mower accident. He wasn't to be denied a chance at a happy home life however, and RE-married his first wife, Marguerite, on the 25th of Jan 1955 in Frederick, MD. By October of 1955 Marguerite was presiding over the VFW Auxiliary meeting. In 1958 Phil and Marguerite celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

It seems that he was very involved in many civic groups and, after his service in WWII, in the VFW and American Legion. I don't think that the Gettysburg paper missed very much in the way of his activities and his name appears frequently with at least two extensive articles about his "gun farm".

I have found nothing to substantiate the rumor that alcoholism lead to his suicide. From all accounts that I can find, he was admitted to the hospital with a heart attack and a heart attack was what killed him.

Marguerite passed 16 Mar 1983 and is interred with her husband.  I don't know when Ethel died.  Although both Phyllis and Phil Jr. are deceased, I have found that there are other descendants including great-grandchildren. We wish them the best and hope that they might appreciate their grandfather's accomplishments.

He wrote "Complete Guide to Handloading" and "The Rifle in America" as well as many magazine articles.

- Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories [v 9 #4, October 1926] ed. Edwin Baird (Read Detective Tales, Inc.; Chicago, IL, 25¢, 8¼" x 11¼" pulp, cover by Andrew Bensen) from ToC. pg 61 · Trapped!
- The Author & Journalist [v17 # 2, February 1932] ed. Willard Hawkins (The Author & Journalist, 20¢, 32pp+) pg 7 · Ben Ames Williams Discusses Titles
- Mystery Novels Magazine [v 3 #6, June 1936] (15¢, 128pp, pulp)pg 112 · The Bronze Arrow
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v171 #5, February 18, 1939] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 78 · The Bullard Rifle
- All Western Magazine [v 7 #20, December 1933] ed. Carson W. Mowre (Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 10¢, 112pp, pulp) [Tom Daniels] pg 115 · Burnin’ Powder
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v163 #6, March 26, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 36 · Running the Buff
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v166 #1, June 25, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 92 · The “Colt” Frontier
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v164 #6, May 7, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 71 · The Evans Rifle Tells Its Story
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v167 #4, August 27, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp+, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 80 · Those Old Ballads
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v168 #3, October 1, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 73 · The Henry Rifle
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v169 #3, November 12, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 91 · The Early Winchesters
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v170 #4, December 31, 1938] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 42 · The Sharps Rifle
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v172 #3, March 18, 1939] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp+, pulp, cover by H. W. Scott) [Richard Fidczuk] pg 44 · Early Remington Rifles
- Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine [v171 #1, January 21, 1939] (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 10¢, 128pp, pulp, cover by Saunders) [PSP/Richard Fidczuk] pg 52 · The S. & W. Lemon Squeezer
- Street & Smith’s Western Story [v218 #5, March 1948] ed. John Burr (Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 25¢, digest) asst. ed. J. L. McCulloch. from TOC. [JL] pg 50 · New Generation of Shooters
- Throwin’ Lead, (column) All Western Magazine Jul 1935-Oct 1938 Tells you how to convert those old military rifles into high powered sporting guns.
- Guns and Gunners, (column) Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine 1940-1949
- The Thompson Sub-Machinegun
- Taming a Wildcat Cartridge, Guns Magazine, May 1956

The Adams County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society has a collection of Philip B. Sharpe manuscripts/papers.

In the 1951 edition of Gun Digest, Mr. Sharpe reports that he left the service in 1946, found the Pennsylvania farm and moved there in 1947. This doesn't quite jive with the public record. However the Gun Digest article has photos and specifics on his farm and range setup. Pretty neat.

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