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The tragedy of the Starr carbine: early faith in this pre-civil war design was spoiled by issue of the wrong ammunition.

As a group, the Union carbines of the Civil War were the most attractive shoulder arms of the conflict. Light, short, fast firing and accurate, the breechloading, cavalry carbines signaled the coming end of the single-shot muzzleloader era. In fact, it is remarkable how many Civil War carbine models easily transitioned from being percussion guns to rimfire and centerfire arms. Come to think about it, even those old, obsolete, muzzleloading Springfield and Enfield muskets morphed into trapdoors and Sniders following the war.

There were 19 major, breechloading, cavalry carbine models fielded between 1861 and 1865. In terms of total wartime production, the Big Five were the Spencer (94,196), Sharps (80,512), Burnside (55,567), Smith (30,062) and bringing up the rear, the Starr (25,603). Having covered the Sharps, Burnside, Smith and Maynard (20,002) carbines in past issues, I thought it would be interesting to review what was one of the most controversial carbines of the war--the Starr--the carbine they loved to hate.

The Starr family of gunmakers was a distinguished lot. Ebenezer T. Starr, the inventor of the Starr carbine and revolver, was born in 1816 in Middleton, Connecticut. Ebenezer was the son of Nathan S. Starr, Jr. and the grandson of Nathan S. Starr, Sr. Both elder Starr's were well established in the armaments business and were renowned for having fulfilled numerous government contracts for swords and firearms from 1795 on.

Patented in its final form on September 14, 1858, the .54 caliber Starr carbine was compact, nicely machined and incorporated some excellent design features. Like the Sharps, it was a falling block design activated by a combination triggerguard/lever, but there the similarity ended. The breechblock of the Starr pivoted away from the end of the barrel as the block was lowered. Pivoting with the breechblock was a robust locking wedge which, when the breech was closed, firmly supported the block from the rear and locked it into the frame.

The Starr fired a linen wrapped cartridge carrying a 0.555-inch diameter, 445-grain lead bullet and 63 grains of black powder. To control combustion leakage at the breech, Starr milled an angled, annular groove in the face of the breechblock, which mated with and closed over the similarly shaped end of the barrel, forming a tight, almost gas-proof joint.

Two of the marketing claims of the day made by Starr to distinguish his design from the Sharps were his pivoting block, in contrast to the vertical sliding block of the Sharps, minimized block-to-frame, metal-to-metal contact and wear and that the pivoting breechblock seated the linen cartridge uniformly in the chamber when loaded without cutting off the end of the cartridge case and dumping a bit of powder in the action.

On the whole, the Starr is a sleek, well-thought-out design featuring a 21-inch barrel, an overall length of 37.5 inches and a weight of just over 7.25 pounds. It carries a single brass barrel band, a brass buttplate and a sling ring on the left side of the frame. The barrel was blued. The frame and lock plate were color case-hardened, and the stock was walnut.


Why then did the Starr loose favor with the cavalry? It wasn't due to its design. In fact, the Starr made quite a hit with the professional ordnance corps even before it was patented.

In January, 1858 Ebenezer Starr presented his carbine for testing and evaluation to Captain J. Ingraham, Chief of the Navy Bureau of Ordnance and to Colonel Henry K. Craig, Chief of Army Ordnance. Captain Ingraham assigned the evaluation of the Starr to Commander John A. Dahlgren, Officer in Charge of the Ordnance Office at the Washington Navy Yard and Colonel Craig selected Major William H. Bell of the Washington Arsenal.

Commander Dahlgren reported, "I caused one hundred rounds to be fired from it in succession, after which the movement of movable parts were found to be nearly, if not quite as free, as before firing; the mark was six hundred yards distant, and the accuracy very good. I have no hesitation in recommending that some pistols and carbines of Mr. Starr's model be tried in several of our ships."

Major Bell commented that "I have the honor to state, that the carbine was to-day fired with forty rounds, at three hundred and fifty yards, and performed remarkably well, the accuracy of fire at that distance not being exceeded heretofore at this place."

Reports from the actual field ranged from "a superior arm" to "worthless." Here's a sampling.

Captain James H. Young, Commanding Officer of L and M Companies of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry wrote, "... they have proved themselves more efficient in all weathers, than any other arm with which I am acquainted. They do not foul while being rapidly fired, no gas escapes from the breech, and they can be loaded more rapidly and cleaned more rapidly than any other arm."

12th Missouri Cavalry: "They hang fire, and often three or four caps are burst trying to get them to shoot, before they go off. The distance from the tube to the head is too great and the passage too crooked."

The overwhelming majority of the negative reports focused on the failure of the Starr to fire the cartridge.

How could that be?

Through the painstaking forensic work of ammunition historian, Dean S. Thomas, whose monumental, multi-volume studies of both Federal and Confederate ammunition, we have the answer.

"On June 23, 1863, Major Peter V. Hagner, Inspector of Contract Arms ... was anticipating that Starr carbines would soon be in the service ... and wrote General Ripley, Chief of Ordnance, that the 'Starr carbine uses the same cartridge as the Sharps.' Given that ordnance officers had previously stated that outwardly the Starr 'closely resembles Sharp's,' this news from Hagner was welcome to the Ordnance Office struggling to supply so many different carbines with ammunition."

It was all downhill for the Starr carbine in the service of the cavalry following Hagner's erroneous conclusion and recommendation that Sharps ammunition was compatible with the Starr because the Ordnance Office then began issuing Sharps ammunition to Starr carbine armed units.

Receiving that early shipment of Sharps ammunition, our Captain James Young of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry armed with the Starr carbine wrote to the office of the Chief of Ordnance: "I have made some experiments with the arm for the purpose of determining the suitableness of the Sharps Carbine cartridge for it and find that this cartridge is too short; the chamber of Starr's Carbine being longer than that of the Sharps, and the consequence is, the explosion of the cap does not always ignite the cartridge. Twenty rounds were fired from a rest at a target 5 foot x 5 foot--200 yards distant, and there were seven failures of the cartridge to ignite after the explosion of the cap, and all missed the target; some of the balls going over, others to the right and left and under."

Although production of proper ammunition for the Starr was initiated beginning in the last quarter of 1863 and continued through the war, those early experiences of Federal cavalry units with Sharps ammunition and Starr carbines poisoned the waters for the most part.

Interestingly, before the conclusion of the war, Starr successfully morphed their percussion model into a metallic cartridge carbine by changing out the breechblock, hammer and barrel. Five thousand of the new model Starr, chambered for the .56-52 Spencer cartridge, were ordered by the Ordnance Department, and many were issued to the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry in the spring of 1865. As an aside, the Starr cartridge carbine lock pictured here was purchased many years ago from the Dixie Gun Works, which had barrels full of them. The mounting screws have been sawn off so I suspect that those late model Starr cartridge carbines were quickly sold for scrap following the war.

The end of the story is that Starr Arms Company went out of business in 1867, and Ebenezer Starr vanished from the gunmaking scene. Through no fault of his own, his splendid percussion carbine was the carbine the troopers loved to hate.

Further Reading

Round Ball to Rimfire: The History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition. Part Two: Federal Breechloading Carbines & Rifles, by Dean S. Thomas, hardcover, 522 pages, [c] 2002, $49.95, from Thomas Publications, 3245 Fairfield Rd., Gettysburg, PA 17325, (800) 840-8782,

Starr Arms 1864 Gun Catalog, softcover, 23 pages, $11.95 Reprinted by and available from, Cornell Publications LLC,
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Author:Bodinson, Holt
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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