Gift from an Advanced Alien Race?
The 1858 Starr Revolver

24

Left: The six shot, SA/DA Starr Model
1858 was the most advanced revolver
fielded in the American Civil War, but its
unique manual of arms made it unpopular
with the Union cavalry.

The gun was cocked with the lower trigger and fired with the
upper in SA. In DA, both triggers were pulled simultaneously.

Above: In U.S. Navy testing, the 1858 Starr fired 900 rounds straight
without cleaning or failures. This was amazing reliability, considering
Colt cylinders got jammed on their arbors from fouling after 50 shots,
if they didn’t get jammed by fragmented caps sooner.

If we go by the historical record alone, the cap and ball Model 1858 Starr Revolver had to be the most advanced American handgun issued during the Civil War while simultaneously being the least popular.

The U.S. purchased about 20,000 of these well-made and uniquely engineered SA/DA revolvers, mostly for the cavalry, but by mid-war, the Union Army made it clear they didn’t want it and requested the design be simplified into an SA-only model. In 1864, the Model 1858 Starr was withdrawn from service and put into storage for the duration of the war. The Starr Model 1863 is a simplified SA replacement, went on to have a reputable wartime career, while most of the advanced Model 1858 revolvers were sold surplus and ended up in European armies. Was the Model 1858 Starr really that bad, or was this a case of pearls before swine? I don’t think it’s either.

The Model 1863 Starr, a simplified, SA only
version of the Model 1858 Starr built at
the request of the U.S. military.

In DA mode, the sliding extension at the rear of the firing
lever depresses the sear at the end of its stroke to fire
the gun.

On the back surface of the trigger, there’s a sliding extender that is
pushed downward to activate the DA function of the 1858 Starr.

Rocky Start For Double-Action

In the Model 1858 Starr, I see the ergonomic layout and shooting characteristics of a modern DA revolver. Most American DA revolvers of the pre-Civil War period, and there were very few, could only fire DA, which was seen as a serious disadvantage at distant ranges where the long trigger pull upset the shooter’s aim. Like a modern revolver, the Model 1858 Starr was designed for both fast DA, close combat shooting as well as carefully aimed SA precision firing.

The American Cooper Firearms Company’s five-shot .31 caliber pocket revolver, the English-made double- and single-trigger Tranter revolvers and the .44 Beaumont-Adams revolver all shared this important feature with the Model 1858 Starr, but only the Adams and Tranter had serious military potential. Until 1877, when Colt introduced its own line of SA/DA revolvers, the 1858 Starr, Beaumont-Adams and Tranters were the only practical big-bore, full-sized DAs around. The latter two were very successful in Europe before and after the American Civil War, but few were imported here. I suspect this was due to a general bias against DA revolvers.

By the early 1850s, English gunsmiths were going all-in on the SA/DA concept as the future of revolvers and their engineering seems to have matured faster than ours. However, the small quantities imported and the rejection of the Model 1858 Starr suggest that Americans overall just weren’t into DA shooting. Fighting a bloody and desperate civil war of appalling scope doesn’t seem to have made them more receptive to the idea either.

Still, I think the Model 1858 Starr would have had a chance to make a grand name for itself, especially in close combat where its fast-firing DA feature would have been most valuable, but for one peculiar feature. It could not be thumb cocked for SA shooting like every other revolver American soldiers had used.

It operated in a manner we would be completely familiar with today.
Unlike the Starr, it had only a five-shot cylinder.

Like the 1858 Starr, Harrington & Richardson’s American series of solid
frame, small caliber revolvers used a sear tripped by the end stroke of
the trigger in a mechanically separate operation from rotating the
cylinder and cocking the hammer.

The hammer can only be cocked by pulling back the firing lever.
This was the feature that caused consternation among Federal troops.
Note that the actual trigger is the protruding sear at the rear of the triggerguard.

For Want Of Cocking The Hammer

On the Model 1858 Starr, the only way to cock the hammer was by pulling back the trigger, referred to in company literature and hereafter as the firing lever. When in SA-only mode, the hammer was cocked with the firing lever, but to actually discharge the shot, one had to shift the trigger finger behind the firing lever to depress the exposed sear mounted at the rear of the triggerguard. If the shooter wanted to activate the gun’s DA feature, a sliding extension at the rear of the firing lever was pushed downward so it protruded far enough to automatically trip the sear at the end of the pull stroke and discharge the gun in the manner of a conventional DA revolver. With a little dexterity and care, a shooter could set the firing lever for DA but still shoot SA by halting the trigger pull after the hammer cocked but before its stroke concluded in tripping the sear. That’s easier said than done under stress.

The hammer’s thumb spur was surely a source of confusion, too, comparable to putting a doorknob on a door that could be used to unlock it but not pull it open. The spur just invited thumb cocking, but was intended only for placing the hammer at half cock, loading, and de-cocking without firing. Trying to force the hammer further back could damage the action since it jammed the hand against the rachet lug of the stationary cylinder. I believe this was the gun’s fatal flaw in military service. It was just different enough from what the troops were accustomed to that it confounded and frustrated many of them to the point they rejected it. Its operation was not only counterintuitive to them but required the kind of fine motor skills that humans lose in high-stress situations … like battles.

Despite its many merits, the Model 1858 Starr was a bust in military service, and its fate was a classic case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. You could say the means by which the 1858 Starr operated was an engineering dead end, but I think that’s only true in the sense that its unique manual of arms wasn’t as readily accepted as its inventor, Ebenezer Starr, imagined it would be. Mechanically, the concept of using the trigger stroke to first rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer, and then conclude by actuating the independent function of discharging the firearm by depressing an exposed sear positioned at the rear of the trigger guard, was sound. This reappears in many successful American firearms of the early metallic cartridge era, particularly the small caliber solid frame revolvers of Harrington & Richardson.

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