April 16, 2019
By Bob Campbell
I enjoy a modest vintage tool collection and have an interest in what the great men of the past did with the technology available. Recently, I was amazed by the clockwork in an 1850s lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, not to mention many implements from the Wright Brothers experiments not a hundred miles away.
I am no less impressed by the Starr revolver of Civil War fame. While I strive to remain objective because I’m a Colt fan, at the time the Starr was introduced, it was on an even footing with Colt as each was a relatively newcomer to the weapons scene.
Today the Starr is gone while Colt remains, but it’s not necessarily because the Colt gun was superior. I have examined many revolvers of the period, and the Starr revolver is as well made as any and a better combat revolver than most. I liken it to the Enfield Mk II revolvers: ugly, yes, but formidable beyond any question.
Eben T. Starr set up a factory in Yonkers, New York, to manufacture revolvers beginning in 1856. Starr’s father and grandfather were well respected for making swords and rifles for the U.S. Army. The Starr revolver was first manufactured in .36 caliber and incorporated a double-action-only trigger. A .44 caliber version was added later, and the company produced single actions as well.
The main points in the original patent for the double action were the trigger and a trigger-guard-mounted sear. Starr called the part that moves the cylinder and cocks and drops the hammer a “lifter lever,” and the actual trigger rested in the rear of the trigger guard. This arrangement was used in several double-action revolvers, notably the Iver Johnson, in later years. The lever does its work and then meets the sear, which drops the hammer.
The double-action trigger/lifter lever pull is heavy, about 18 pounds, and long but smooth. There is a kind of safety lever on the back of the lifter. If the safety lever on the rear of the lifter lever/trigger is in the down position, that lever strikes the frame and prevents the revolver from firing.
While most double-action-only revolvers in that period had spurless hammers, the Starr hammer has a spur—although the trigger cannot be cocked. This may have been a reason the Army asked Starr to redesign the piece into a single-action revolver.
The Starr revolver isn’t common. The .44 caliber model double action is the most numerous; by most accounts, 23,000 were manufactured. This revolver features a round six-inch barrel. At two pounds, 14 ounces it is a substantial revolver but fairly well balanced.
The frame isn’t really a solid frame, but the topstrap resembles the Remington revolver, which was rated stronger than the Colt. The sights are interesting, with a rear notch in the top of the hammer that serves no real purpose. It is insignificant and cannot actually be seen as the revolver is cycled. The front sight is a dovetailed post.
The Starr is opened by unscrewing a lock screw near the recoil plate and tilting the barrel downward. The cylinder is easily removed for cleaning.
In double action the trigger press operates differently from what we’re used to today. When you press the trigger and the revolver fires, you need to let the trigger snap back quickly. If you try to work the trigger slowly, the action may not reset.
My example is 162 years old and works well. The stepped grip aids in stabilizing the hand for double-action fire. In this regard it is superior to many early double-action blackpowder revolvers. I load the revolver carefully with FFFg blackpowder, seating the ball over the powder and only then capping the piece. Crisco is placed over each cylinder to guard against chain-fires—multiple chambers firing simultaneously. (Ed. note: There seems to be general disagreement on whether grease or wads prevent chain-fires; some shooters say the cause is the cap/nipple.)
For low-recoil loads, 25 grains of FFFg is a useful load, but since I seldom fire this revolver I used the standard service load of 30 grains of FFFg under a Hornady .457 ball. This nets more than 840 fps, and it’s well regulated for 15 yards. At 10 yards I can fire a six-shot five-inch group pretty quickly.
Back in the day when the single-shot “horse pistol” was common and might extend a trooper’s will just past saber range, the Starr did much more than that. The nice-handling double action made a deadly weapon, and the .44 ball was deadly on men and horses at short range. It’s a marvel such a well made and fitted revolver could be purchased prior to 1860.