A Spade is a Spade… or Sharp Shooter

Some examples of shovels and hole digging equipment. The tile spade, a.k.a. sharp shooter is on the left. Photo: familyhandyman.com

I’ve been in grad school at NC State for almost 4 straight years now. Ever since I’ve arrived in North Carolina, I’ve thought that the use of the word “sharp shooter” to describe a tile spade (what I’ve always refferred to as a spade; see picture on right) has been kind of weird. I never made the connection to it’s regional “sharp shooter” name until yesterday. While I was TA’ing a soil classification class yesterday, the professor for the class, David Lindbo, finally explained to me why people in North Carolina, specifically soil scientists in NC, call it a sharp shooter.

"Sharp shooters" are carried similarly to the rake and garden hoe in this victory garden poster. Photo: naturemoms.com

A sharp shooter is an accurate rifleman, i.e. a sniper. When walking, a rifleman sometimes carries his or her rifle on their shoulder with one hand holding it in place. Soil scientists hold their spades the same way when they’re not using it, or are walking to where they plan to sample soil, thus their spade is their rifle/sharp shooter, hence the name. See the poster (left) to see the two ladies in red carrying a rake and garden hoe in the same manner.

This may not seem like that big of a deal to most of you, but I’m obsessed with finding meaning behind the origin of certain words and their uses. It’s been bugging me for 4 years, and now I know.

Now I’m curious if this is just a regional thing, or a soil scientist thing that is nationwide, or worldwide. If you do or don’t use the term “sharp shooter” in reference to a tile spade, please say so in the comments section, and where you’re from.

22 thoughts on “A Spade is a Spade… or Sharp Shooter

    1. I agree. Tile spades have a different end on them. Flatter than a sharp shooter. And to me a shovel is different than a spade. A shovel lifts or moves soil while a sharp shooter or “spade” is long and narrow- made to break up or pierce soil. I typically use both when mapping. WY

  1. I’ve never even heard of a spade till I was trying to figure out what shovel to used, till I realized their Is a spade? I’ve always called those shovels sharp shooter shovel? From Texas and my dad is a landscaper.

  2. The Oregon Society of Soil Scientists puts out a newsletter called ‘The Sharpshooter’. It seems like all the soil-types I knew at Oregon State University called it a sharpshooter. Thanks for the info!

    1. Carl! Fancy meeting you here. 🙂
      I’ve been commissioned to settle the spade dispute once and for all in meme form.
      Thanks to this site I now know my regionalisms are correct.

      Oh, and from what I’ve gathered in Oregon & the Intermountain West, Sharpshooters/Montanas are commonplace with the occasional King of Spades used in forested areas.

  3. Yep – I use the term sharpshooter. Have been living in TX since I was 20 (I’m 53 now), and various Southern stares before that (OK, LA, AL).

  4. Sharpshooter was the term my grandparents and parents used for our transplanting spades, and it’s all I’ve ever called mine. My family is of German descent, farmers and Texans. Enjoyed the article…stay curious! 👍

  5. Archaeologists in Mississippi also refer to them as “sharpshooters”, as did the soil scientist we worked with.

  6. USDA-NRCS soil scientist (retired) in Texas with over 30 years (1972-2006) field soil mapping and classification experience. Don’t know about the origin of the term, but we always called them “sharpshooters”. Also, the AMS heavy metal sharpshooter is the very best investment for digging in clayey soils such as Vertisols, especial during dry conditions.

  7. My mother always referred to it as a sharpshooter so I’m sure she would have
    heard it from her father. He was from the Virginia/Tennessee area, born in the late 1890’s

  8. Spade is pointed,round nose. Sharp shooter is short handle, flat narrow blade. Your time spade is a trench digger. WY/MT. archaeologist and avid gardener

  9. Calling a tile spade a ‘sharpshooter marks you s someone who knows the difference between a spade and a shovel. I’m originally from Missouri, but everywhere in the US I’ve gone, the old hands know what I mean if I ask for a sharpshooter!

  10. for the 40 years of using one in Iowa it was called a spade they could be long handled of short with a D handle. When I relocated to Arizona they had a similar shovel that looked like a spade but it was much heaver in weight to dig in the rocky and hard soils.

  11. I live in Texas and I have never called it anything but a sharpshooter. I really didn’t even know that wasn’t it proper name. It’s my go-to shovel. My father is a landscaper and has been in the field for fifty years or more. When he was growing up he lived on a nursery and I have been around plants, trees, ect my entire life. Thanks for the information on this very useful tool.

  12. I first saw the term “sharpshooter spade” in an essay by the great garden writer Henry Mitchell, so looked it up and found your post here. I wonder if the term is Southern? I have a spade similar to the tile spade in your picture, but the place I bought it from listed it in their catalogue as a “rabbiting spade,” which refers to rabbit “management” in England. I believe it’s also called a “transplanting spade,” which is what I use mine for, here in Victoria, B.C. In any case, it’s an excellent tool.

    1. Interesting incites! I haven’t heard of the “rabbiting spades” or “transplanting spades” terms yet, but both make sense.

  13. I live in Kansas and everyone here calls it a sharpshooter but grew up in S Dakota and we called it a spade or a tiling spade. We DID NOT call it a sharpshooter. I think that is a sourthern term.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Growing up in Iowa, that’s what we called it as well. I also live in Kansas now, so I’ll have to keep my ears pinned to see what people in my area call it.

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