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The star-crossed Starr.


The Starr Carbine came in for its fair share of criticism from the troops. Were the complaints about this firearm justified?


THE CIVIL WAR ARMS of Ebenezer T. Starr were nothing if not innovative. Perhaps his most famous product--the Starr double-action revolver (see "Double Actions of the Blue & Gray," Guns & Ammo, April 2014) was one of the more innovative handguns of the period, and while it was lacking in some respects, it has to be given high marks for sheer audacity of design.


The same can be said for Starr's single-shot percussion breech-loading carbine. Though damned officially and unofficially by some members of the military, technically it had some interesting features. So, where did it go wrong?

Prior to the introduction of the Starr revolver and carbine, the name Starr was already well known in the arms business. Connecticut maker Nathan Starr and his son, Nathan Jr., produced some of the United States' first indigenous swords, cutlasses and pikes beginning around 1812 and continuing thereon for several decades. His grandson, Ebenezer Townsend Starr, carried on the family tradition, inventing and producing a unique self-cocking revolver in 1858, many thousands of which were purchased by the North during the Civil War, along with a simplified, single-action version of the piece.

Concurrently, Eben Starr, who operated his firm rather peripatetically in Yonkers, Binghamton and Morrisania, New York, also began work on a .54-caliber percussion breech-loading carbine, which he patented in 1858.

Looking to a degree like the Sharps Carbine, the mechanism of Starr's arm was entirely different. While the Sharps breechblock slid downward when its lever was activated, that of the Starr rocked backward. The Starr block had a circular ring incised into its face, which mated with a corresponding ridge on the rear of the breechface to provide a secure gas seal.

The lever itself was secured by an elongated spring-loaded catch that the shooter could unfasten by pushing it to the rear with their index finger, at the same time lowering the lever. Like the Sharps, the Starr percussion nipple was attached to the breechblock, the flash from the percussion cap working its way through a tortuous channel to a small hole on a raised dome in the center of the breechblock, which transferred the spark to the rear of the cartridge.

The cartridge itself consisted of a sturdy linen case and unlubricated 430- to 450-grain conical bullet that featured a single .56 flange at the base. The powder charge varied between 60 and 63 grains.

The Starr was certainly one of the better-looking Civil War-vintage carbines. Measuring 37V2 inches overall with a 21-inch barrel, the gun weighed in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces. Barrel band and buttplate were of brass, the barrel was blued, and the receiver and lock were color-case hardened. The sights consisted of a dual notched leaf rear and dovetailed rounded blade front.

Starr's carbine was first tested by the military in the latter part of 1858 when it was found to perform "remarkably well" and felt by some to be superior to the Sharps in that its flat-based cartridge did not require being cut by the breechblock, as did some of the Sharps ammunition. So far, so good.

With the onset of the Civil War, production on the carbine began in 1862, its introduction being previously set back in deference to Starr's double-action revolver. The arms-hungry federal government contracted with Starr in July and September 1863 to produce some 20,600 of his breechloaders for the Union cause. Trouble ensued.

Despite earlier glowing reports of the arm's efficacy, subsequent evaluation by Ordnance officials revealed shortcomings, one typical rather backhanded comment being, "These carbines are new, and generally in very good order. They are not however --in my judgement--as durable or efficient, as several other patterns, but I failed to find them worthless as reported."


Generally speaking, the major complaints leveled at the arm were the gun's failure to detonate caps, its irregularity in discharging the cartridge and generally poor accuracy.

Starr's carbine was accused of having too weak a mainspring, and the cartridges were considered too short, slipping down into the chamber when the piece was carried on a sling, muzzle down. This latter condition meant that when the cap was fired, the spark failed to reach the cartridge base. It was found that when the Starr was fired with longer Sharps rounds, efficiency was improved.

Similar complaints were received from soldiers in the field, but Starr fought back. His carbine, rifle (no Starr breech-loading rifles were, to this writer's knowledge, ever manufactured) and revolver manual of 1864, as well as describing the workings of his wares, included carefully selected testimonials to their efficiency. To wit, the comments by Capt. WH. Lindsey of the 5th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry: "I hereby certify that the Starr Arms Cavalry Carbine that we have, is in my opinion the best Carbine in the service for Cavalry use. We have now had them in several months in use in all kinds of weather, and we find them always effective after having been wet and they never foul in the least from loss of gas at the breach [sic], while being fired rapidly."





Perhaps Capt. Lindsey might have liked to exchange views with Chief of Ordnance Gen. George D. Ramsay--the officer who initially ordered the Starr carbines--when, after receiving complaints from the field, opined to Starr, "I have to inform you that the 1st New York Cavalry, now armed with the Starr Carbines, which they have had on hand for about 4 months, has made a requisition on this dept, for an exchange of arms, stating that there is a total lack of confidence in their Carbines; and that a few shots rendered them worthless."

Others noted the mechanism could be put out of order by dirt, the lever was too hard to operate, gas seal was only so-so and the sights came loose, among other problems.


Still, the Starr was the North's fifth most-issued carbine, following the Sharps, Burnside, Spencer and Smith, in that order. Ultimately, some 20,201 percussion Starrs were produced. Interestingly enough, like the Sharps and Maynard, the Starr was found to be easily converted to fire a self-contained metallic cartridge and, toward the end of the Civil War, 5,002 of which were chambered in the .52 rimfire round, most of which were purchased by the Ordnance Department--too late to see any service. As well, the British government bought 1,000 converted Starr carbines, which were issued to the Royal Navy in service on the Great Lakes with some 228 ultimately turned over to the Canadian militia. These arms, which do turn up with some regularity on the collector market, are marked with the British Broad Arrow and "WD" (War Department).

Civil War Starrs will be found with manufacturer's markings on the lock, tang and barrels, along with inspector's marks. Though issued primarily to the 1st Arkansas Cavalry, 5th Kansas Cavalry, 11th Missouri Cavalry and the 24th New York Cavalry, it seems only the 1st Arkansas decided to mark their carbines with the unit's name.

I must admit I have not had much experience with the Starr, so I was eager to give one a try to see just how bad or good it was. I put together some paper cartridges consisting of a nitrated onionskin wrapper, Lyman 557489 460-grain conical projectile and 60 grains of Goex FFg blackpowder. Based upon the poor results achieved by Peter Schiffers, as described in his excellent and highly recommended book, "Civil War Carbines: Myth vs. Reality" (Mowbray Publishing,, when using original-style unlubricated rounds, I opted to lube my cartridges with a 50/50 beeswax, tallow mixture. When constructed and compared with an original Starr load, my rounds turned out to be slightly longer, completely filling up the carbine's chamber.



Our evaluation carbine was in good condition with a tight action and pristine bore, though much of the original finish was lacking. A cursory check of the mechanics indicated the mainspring tension seemed to be on a par with most other Civil War carbines I've fired, and this assumption was borne out when we found that out of 30 test shots, not one percussion cap (RWS musket) failed to go off.

On the other hand, I found the lever a bit on the skimpy side and the catch rather difficult to unsnap using one fluid motion. Certainly nowhere as easy to operate as a Sharps, Maynard or Gallager lever.


We fired the piece from a bench at 50 yards. Initial groups were promising, though not stellar. The best spread (an early one) came in at 9V2 inches, close to point of aim. The remainder spread out over 12 to 14 inches, and as the bore became increasingly fouled, a few flyers manifested. Still, for combat use, I suppose it would have been OK--though accuracy-wise, the carbine did not perform as well as many of its period competitors. In the carbine's defense, out of 30 rounds, only two failed to discharge on the first shot, but they exploded, no problem, with a second cap.

With few exceptions (mainly the Sharps and Spencer), it seems that the majority of carbines issued during the Civil War come in for a share of criticism --some more so than others. When one looks at the lack of standardization and the various mechanisms that soldiers had to master, perhaps this is understandable. Too, much can be put down simply to the troopers' penchant for griping about everything from weapons, saddlery, officers, food and just their sorry lot in general. Still, in reading various accounts, the Starr seems to have come in for a fair share of vitriol. Would this be my choice as a battle arm? No, it would be toward the bottom of the list--though certainly better than some of the muzzleloaders the Rebel cavalry was fielding.


This engraving purports to show the Starr Arms factory during the Civil War period. In all, Starr turned out around 25,000 carbines between 1862 and 1864 in both percussion and metallic cartridge. The firm also built some 58,000 revolvers.

These patent drawings give a fair idea of the mechanicals of the Starr--though there were some alterations as the gun was developed and put into production.
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Nov 24, 2016
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