How to Use a Sharp Shooter Shovel

Author: Ray Herndon

Whether it's called a SharpShooter Shovel, a Tile Spade, Drainage Shovel, or Transplanting Spade, this tool is ideal for digging a narrow trench, or transplanting deep-rooted shrubs and perennials.

Perhaps they got the name SharpShooter long ago because their narrow blades looked like the bayonets of soldier's rifles when laborers walked to work with them resting on their shoulders.

Perfect Shape for Narrow Trenching

man using a sharpshooter shovel to dig a trench

Why use this crazy looking spade if you already have a regular old round point shovel? I was skeptical before I tried it. Although I really dig the versatility of the traditional shovel, sometimes the Sharp Shooter is better. That long narrow head can dig a deeper trench while moving less earth than the shorter, wider round-point shovel. Less earth moved to accomplish the same goal means less strain on your back and shoulders, giving the sharpshooter an edge for those jobs.

The long narrow head of a SharpShooter is the perfect width for trenching to lay in standard 4 inch or 6 inch drain tile. The HISCO SharpShooter shovel that I tried is 6 inches wide and 14 inches long, whereas a common round-point shovel head is 9 inches wide and 11 inches long.

And a narrow point penetrates the soil with less resistance. For a smaller person with less mass for pushing the shovel point into the dirt, this difference alone enables them to tackle trenching projects that might otherwise be impossible.

Better Lift and Hang Angles

comparison of the lift angle of a sharpshooter and a common round point shovel

Another difference between the SharpShooter and a traditional round point shovel is in the LIFT and HANG of the tool. The lift is the angle of the handle in relation to the blade, and the hang is the depth of the curve of the handle near the part where it joins the blade.

A shovel designed especially for digging, like a sharpshooter or a garden spade, will have less lift and hang than a common round-point shovel. To see this clearly, put the shovel head flat on the ground and hold it that way with your foot. The handle will angle upwards. The greater the distance from the end of the handle to the ground, the greater the shovel's LIFT.

My old long round-point shovel has a lift of about 25 inches. While for the HISCO SharpShooter shovel, the lift is 10 inches. This means that when standing erect with the handle in a vertical position, the sharp shooter spade will dig almost straight down, but the round-point shovel will dig at more of a 45 degree angle.

When digging straight down, a shovel with lots of lift and a deep hang will be angled away from the operator, causing him to lean far over the blade. That inefficiency slows progress and increases back strain. The SharpShooter's advantage became clear to me on a recent project. See more on: Choosing a Shovel

SharpShooter Technique Proven in the Field

At the low end of our meadow, water bubbles up across a wide area after every rain, creating an impassable muddy slough. At one end of this muddy mess, a vernal pool formed. I suspect that a seasonal spring lies a few feet from the pool and opens up after the clay soil is softened by rain. I dug a narrow trench in extremely compacted, heavy silty clay soil between the pool and the area where I suspect the tiny spring may lie, both to drain the muddy area by channeling water to the pool, and to free the seasonal spring.

The narrow SharpShooter penetrated two inches of soil easily, but to go deeper I used a digging bar technique. Once I'd gotten a couple of shovels full of soil out to start the ditch, I worked my way backward, about 2-6 inches at a time. That might seem like a slow process, but the sharpshooter could dig down about 14 inches with each bite in soil heavy enough to warrant a mattock or digging bar. With the sharpshooter, I was pleased that I could move along steadily without switching to the mattock more than once.

My SharpShooter technique uses a rocking motion to displace the soil a little at a time, and ease the blade deeper. With a foot on the shoulder of the sharpshooter shovel, press down and then push the handle a bit forward. Maintain foot pressure while leaning back. Repeat the motion, rocking back and forth, until the blade has wiggled in to it's maximum depth. Then lever the handle backward to pry the heavy soil up and out of the ditch.

Transplanting Shrubs

using a transplanting spade dig up a shrub

When transplanting a shrub, a common round-point shovel with lots of lift and a deep hang cannot dig straight down, since the angle of the handle would force it into the branches. If you move the handle back to a vertical upright position, the blade will then cut in diagonally under the shrub because of the high lift angle. This risks slicing through the valuable roots. To avoid slicing the roots, you could still use a round-point shovel at a diagonal angle a few inches further away from the base of the plant, but doing this will create a much heavier root ball, and the diagonal angle cut may not be deep enough to dislodge the shrub, especially since the round point shovel blade is about three inches shorter than the SharpShooter.

Alternatively, you can dig a narrow ditch in a circle around the base of the shrub, at the "drip line" which is the distance from the trunk to the tips of the biggest branches around the shrub. The lower lift angle and deeper penetration of the SharpShooter blade enables you to dig this way when transplanting shrubs, while moving less soil. Once the ditch is dug deeply around the root ball, use a sharp shovel to cut the soil and roots underneath the root ball. The the shrub and root ball can be lifted or dragged out of the hole.

Design Variations

SharpShooters may be long-handled or have a shorter handle with a D-grip. The shorter version offers advantages when working in tight spaces, and many people love the D-grip feature. It appears to be the most popular version. Maybe because I am tall, I like the long straight handle better. With a longer handle, I feel like I have greater leverage and control while standing more erect. It is a personal bias.

HISCO tile spades with long and short handles


The SharpShooter is not for scooping and throwing material, like a square-blade shovel or manure scoop. It is superior for situations where you need to make a fairly deep but narrow cut in the ground. Power trenchers are a more expensive alternative, and not practical for certain small jobs, especially in confined spaces. For those jobs, a SharpShooter makes a big difference.