The Intriguing Starr Double Action
This Unique Revolver Was The Third Most Issued Revolver By The Union Army In The Civil War.
The Starr revolver of the Civil War was, in my mind, a better and more advanced design than either the Colt or the Remington. The Starr double-action revolver may just have been too advanced for the average Union cavalryman because while the initial Army and Navy issues were double actions, Starr was requested later in the war to discontinue their double actions and simply build single actions. In any case, the inventor, Eben T. Starr of Yonkers, N.Y., was ahead of his time, building both advanced revolvers and carbines for the Union throughout the years of the Civil War.
Many decades ago, my father and I were passing through New York City, had a few hours to spare, so we decided to pay a visit to Robert Abels’ antique gun shop on Lexington Avenue. At the time, Robert Abels was one of a handful of first class antique arms dealers in the United States. His inventory and periodic catalogs were priceless plus his prices were very reasonable considering the quality of the arms he was dealing.
Browsing around Abels’ small, but gun packed, shop, I happened to spy an original Starr buried among the Colts, Remingtons and Manhattans. It was a double action all right but there was something different about it. It sported a high-polish blue and a price tag that read only $65. We asked to see it. Then the real facts came to light. The previous owner had not only refinished it, but had replaced the original military sights with 1950s-era Micro target sights. It functioned perfectly. Removing the single disassembly screw, we opened the frame, removed the cylinder and looked down the bore. It was spotless as were the chambers.
After a minute of intimate conversation, we agreed we would split the cost and offer $60. Abels took the offer in a heartbeat. I think he really wanted that revolting Starr out of his shop and out of his sight, but that messed-up Starr gave us many, many hours over many years of shooting fun.
So when our kindly editor asked if I would like to review his Italian, Pietta-made, Starr double-action replica, I couldn’t jump fast enough.
The Starr’s break-open design (above) is rugged and easy to clean and
maintain. Removing this one screw (below), allows the shooter to
begin disassembly of the Starr.
Eben T. Starr obtained his initial patent in 1856. In it, he claimed two unique features to his design: a “lifter lever” which looks exactly like a traditional revolver trigger and a real sear-releasing trigger which is the triangular-looking metal projection at the rear of the triggerguard. In short, pulling the trigger-looking “lifter lever” of a Starr double action revolver only rotates the cylinder and brings the hammer to full cock. In fact, you must use the “lifter lever.” You can’t thumb cock the hammer of a double-action Starr.
At that point, you have a choice to make. You can either continue pulling back the “lifter lever” until it contacts the small, projecting trigger at the rear of the triggerguard and fires the piece, or you can remove your finger from the “lifter lever” and place your finger behind the “lifter lever” and directly on the little, projecting trigger and fire the piece.
Looking more closely at the “lifter lever,” you can see a small, sliding, strip of metal on the rear of the lever that has a hump folded in it. If the hump is in the “up” position, the “lifter lever” will contact the trigger and fire the piece as you pull though. If the hump is in the “down” position, the hump will hit the frame and prevent the “lifter lever” from contacting the trigger so you can fire the piece with the trigger alone. It’s simply a way of “programming” the Starr, and I tip my hat to Mr. Starr. It’s darn clever.
Since you can’t cock the hammer single action and must use the “lifter lever,” I think that’s why his double-action revolvers never caught on with the troops who were conditioned to Colt and Remington single actions. Can you imagine in the heat of battle trying to haul back on the hammer of a Starr, and it won’t budge!
The Starr revolvers and carbines were produced at Binghamton and Yonkers, N.Y. By far, the Yonkers facility was the larger of the two, and come to think of it, an historical tie-in is Kimber’s current manufacturing facility is located in Yonkers, N.Y.
A young Holt and his father enjoying an afternoon shoot
with their Micro-sighted Starr wa-a-a-y back when.
The Starr double action can only be cocked by pulling the trigger.
The hammer spur won’t get you anywhere without the trigger’s help.
The first model produced was the double-action, .36-caliber Navy between 1858-60. Three thousand were made. More or less concurrently, the double action, Army model in .44 caliber was produced with a total production figure of 23,000. Then, from 1863-1865, Starr dropped the double-action models and made 32,000 single-action Army models in .44 caliber. The double-action models featured 6-inch barrels and the single actions, 8-inch barrels.
During the Civil War, Starr also produced 20,601 percussion, .54-caliber carbines and 5,002 cartridge carbines in .52-caliber rimfire. In government tests, the Starr was rated better than the Sharps. Like many Civil War arms manufacturers, the Starr firm did not adapt well to a peacetime economy, and by 1867, the Starr Arms Company closed its doors.
The Pietta-made double-action Starr replica is an incredibly accurate copy of the original, right down to that “sliding hump” to program the “lifter lever.” Having a Starr once again in my hands impressed me even more with design features often overlooked.
One of them is the strength of the break-open frame. Starr designed the top strap so it swings down and seats in milled mortises on both sides of the standing breech. Secured then with the cross-bolting disassembly screw, it’s a very rigid, strong design. The other is the cylinder pin is integral with the cylinder and is simply a short cone that mates with a seat in the frame. It doesn’t foul like the long cylinder pins of a Colt or Remington, and it’s a cinch to clean and keep lubricated.
The short, conical, integral, Starr cylinder pin (top) is unusually easy to clean and maintain. The Starr ratchet (bottom) is robust and should be kept lubricated with a modern gun grease.
The more I look at a Starr, the more impressed I am.
How did the replica shoot? My load was 22 grains of Goex’s new, premium, Olde Eynsford FFFg black powder, a greased felt wad, a .451 ball smeared over with a dab of Wonder Lube 1000. Percussion cap size was a slight problem with the Pietta nipples. I had CCI No. 10 and No. 11 caps on hand. The 11s were too loose, and the 10s were a bit tight, requiring two hammer strikes to fire (one to seat the cap, the other to fire it). Some experimentation with caps from Remington and RWS is called for.
The illustration here shows the quality of the Starr, and its capability as a fighting handgun. At 20 yards, on a torso silhouette, it delivers a killing group of six shots. I can’t do any better with my Glock .45. What tickles me at the range is the attention I get when I touch off a black-powder load. It doesn’t go “Bang.” It goes “Ka-Bam” and everyone comes over to see what new magnum I’m shooting.
The Starr double action was years ahead of its time. I can understand why the single-action conditioned cavalrymen didn’t like it with its “lifter lever” action that couldn’t be thumb cocked.
When I look at my rather modern Iver Johnson, Super Sealed Eight .22 revolver, with its “lifter lever” looking trigger and that real trigger in the rear of the triggerguard, I have to believe Mr. Starr is up there smiling, or maybe it’s Mr. Iver Johnson up there, giving us the wink and saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun”!
By Holt Bodinson
The Starr savaged this target with its six
shots at 20 yards. A great cavalry revolver!
Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms 9th Edition by Norm Flayderman, softcover. 669 pages, $39.99. Krause Publications, 700 East State Street, Iola, WI 54990, (715) 445-2214, www.krause.com