Today there is a lot of interest in shooting both original and replica Civil War guns. Re-enactors shoot blanks. Members of the North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) use live ammunition. A gun that you almost never see at either of these two kinds of events is the Starr carbine. There’s no secret as to why, I suppose. During the Civil War, these carbines weren’t popular.
The Starr faced two disadvantages. First, during the Civil War, firearms were in a high state of flux. Most guns were muzzleloaders. A few, however, including the Starr, were breechloaders. Breechloaders were relatively new and their operation would not have been all that obvious. To use a Starr, a soldier needed to be trained. Unfortunately, that rarely happened. Second, the Sharps carbine was around in far larger numbers. The Sharps and Starr used almost identical ammunition and were similar in appearance, but there were important, subtle differences. If you knew how to use a Sharps but were given a Starr, you had a serious problem that you probably were unaware off.
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The primary complaint against the Starr was that it would not fire much of the time. As John McAulay writes in Carbines of the Civil War, of the 61 officers answering the 1863-64 Ordnance Office survey, only 17 considered the Starr to be either fair or good while the rest considered it poor or worthless. Were these officers wrong? No, but they caused the problems that they then complained about by not properly training their troops.
One of the problems was the ammunition. The Starr used a 444-grain, 0.555-inch-diameter bullet propelled by 62 grains of black powder contained in a linen cartridge with an overall length of about 2 inches. The Sharps used a 450-grain, 0.54-inch-diameter bullet propelled by 60 grains of black powder contained in a linen or paper cartridge of about 2 inches. Most Starr carbines were issued with Sharps cartridges. Unfortunately, these 0.54-inch-diameter projectiles would go too far into the Starr’s chamber—far enough, in fact, that the fire from the musket cap could not reach the powder. That definitely would cause a misfire.
Misfires might have come from a couple of other easily prevented sources. If the hammer spring was a bit soft, that might have caused problems. If you experienced misfires, you could try replacing it. Parts were readily available. Some shooters also believed that the “fire channel” on the Starr, the path within the breechblock between the nipple and the powder charge that the fire from the musket cap travels in to get to the powder charge, could cause problems if it wasn’t routinely cleaned. That is undoubtedly true.
It is also important to note that there were no misfires in the 1858 trials for the carbine done before the gun was accepted. In fact, as John McAulay writes, some of the officers who tested the gun before its introduction preferred the Starr to the Sharps.
Loading & Takedown
Making up a charge for a Starr is easy. Just press a well-lubricated North East Industrial (neihandtools.com) #525.544 Sharps-style lead bullet into the chamber and fill all the rest of the space with black powder. I picked this bullet because I had the mould and, when I tried it, I found that its ever-increasing driving band diameters helped seal the breech. Also, this oversized Sharps-style bullet does not go too far forward in the Starr’s chamber.
NEI’s #525.544 Sharps-style bullet is a near-perfect fit for my Starr. The driving bands have diameters of 0.536, 0.546 and 0.553 inches. Cast from pure lead, it weights 530 grains. It is a bit heavier then the Civil War projectile, but it works just fine. When I push it into the chamber, the second driving band is just a hair too large. It chambers easily, but it is as big as it could get and still work. That means it does a nearly perfect job of sealing the breech. Note that this Sharps-style bullet has a bigger diameter than the Civil War Sharps bullet. That is why this one works and the Civil War one did not.
Now let’s take a Starr apart. It couldn’t be easier. Just remove one screw and take out the two-part breechblock and lever. The Starr is a split-breech design, meaning that the breechblock has two parts. When the lever is pulled down, the rear half of the breechblock moves straight down, while the front half pivots backwards, allowing easy access to the chamber.
Both halves of the breechblock are connected to the lever used to open the action. The front half of the breechblock is connected to the lever via the screw we took out earlier. The linkage between the lever and the rear of the breech is a bit more interesting. Here a boss on the lever fits into a circular opening in the block. The hole in that boss, oddly enough, doesn’t do anything. Also note that all the parts are simple and massive. There is little that can go wrong here.
Another clever idea is the gas seal. It consists of a brass ring pressed into the front of the breech. When the action is closed, the barrel extends back into the outer circular opening around this seal. It is easy to not notice this seal, but it is very important. When buying a Starr, you want to be absolutely certain that this seal is there and that it is intact. As we will see later, if you do have a problem, spare parts are available.
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There has been more than a little disagreement, incidentally, as to just how effective this gas seal is. If it is badly damaged, it probably will not work at all. If it is intact, however, it will work well enough. All of the early breechloaders had some problems with gas leakage, but the Starr system worked better than most. You do have to wonder how many shooters in recent years have failed to realize that the Starr had a gas seal, shot a carbine that didn’t have a good one and then gave up on the gun because it leaked.
There is a way to shoot a Starr with a damaged gas seal and not have it leak. Just use a plastic or brass case to hold the powder and bullet. Priming, of course, would still have to be done via the nipple on the exterior of the gun. If such cases were available, the condition of the original gas seal wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, these cases aren’t readily available. Some have been made over the years, so we know that this idea works, but finding one today would be all but impossible. Still, if you have the skill, making such a case probably wouldn’t be all that difficult. Such cases might well not appeal to the purist be-cause they were not used in the Civil War, but they would solve this problem once and for all. I wish that someone would offer these commercially!
Primerless cartridge cases that held just the powder and bullet for early breechloaders were used on a number of Civil War carbines. The Burnside, Gallager, Smith and Starr Civil War carbines all used them. Brass or plastic cases are available for all these guns except the Starr. Also there is a similar brass case for some modern Sharps replicas. Original Sharps and the currently made Shiloh Sharps didn’t use them, but some of the other replicas do.
There is another possibility that I would like to try but, alas, I have no mechanical ability. I would think that you could make a brass or copper disk the same size as the rear of the chamber with a central hole for the fire from the percussion cap to go through. Just put it in the chamber behind the powder charge and fire the gun. The disk would act as a gas seal, and when the two-part block opened, it could be easily removed. Nobody has ever reported trying this, so either it is so stupid others knew better or it is so simple that no one ever thought of it.
Another part needing attention is the cleanout screw in the front half of the breechblock. When buying a Starr, be sure that this cleanout screw can be easily backed out because this is how you get to the fire channel.
There are, I’m told, at least two types of fire channels. On my gun, the opening behind the cleanout screw goes straight back into the breech and also goes straight up to the nipple. On some, this channel is different. I wish that I could be more specific, but I’ve never seen such a breechblock.
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Also look carefully at the nipple. It would be nice if the nipple weren’t frozen in place. That isn’t critical, but it would be nice. Make sure, however, that it hasn’t corroded over because that would be a serious problem.
Some of the ignition problems encountered in the Civil War with the Starr might have come from the oddly shaped Starr nipples because they are a little shorter than most. I’d bet that if you had trouble with one during the Civil War that you probably replaced it with any nipple you could find. That would seem like a reasonable thing to do, but it might have added to the misfire problems.
Once you get the breechblock out, soak the two pieces in Birchwood’s #77 Black Powder Solvent, available from Dixie Gun Works. It is really amazing just how much crud this stuff can loosen up. Scrub the two parts of the breechblock and the lever with a nylon brush. Wipe out the fire channel under the cleanout screw and below the nipple with a Q-tip. Soak everything in Outer’s Tri-Lube and let the parts sit for several hours. Run a cleaning rod with a large patch soaked in Birchwood’s solvent down the barrel until no more blackpowder fouling comes out. Then soak a patch in Tri-Lube and run it down the barrel, too. Check the barrel again in a day or two to see if any more crud has shown up. If it has, clean the gun again.
The Starr has one last potential problem that you want to be sure to deal with. With the breechblock and lever removed, position the gun upside down on the edge of a table. There might be an area under the rear of the forearm and below the frame where a shelf forms. This isn’t a design feature. It is just an oddity of construction. Dig out any crud that may have built up here. Wipe this area out with Birchwood’s solvent and then Tri-Lube. Civil War reports suggest that if this area isn’t kept clean it can eventually fill with gunpowder. If that happens and if that gunpowder detonates, you’d be lucky if the only the forearm comes off. Periodic cleaning easily eliminates this potentially serious problem. I have, incidentally, heard reports that some old Sharps might also have this problem, but I have not personally seen such a gun.
Now let’s discuss parts. The Rifle Shoppe (therifleshoppe.com) makes parts for a long list of old guns, including the Starr. Lodgewood (lodgewood.com)and S&S Firearms (ssfirearms.com) might also have spare parts for your Starr carbine. Finally, Romano Rifle (romanorifle.com) can make parts and perform any necessary hand fitting.
Years ago, Larry Romano made a prototype Starr carbine, but there wasn’t enough customer demand to start production. Still, Larry is well versed in making parts for and repairing these interesting old guns. Larry, in fact, can fix almost any old gun. He has made parts for my Civil War Burnside and my vintage 1870 Evans lever action. Larry also makes beautiful replicas of a number of Civil War rifles and carbines. I have one of his Maynard replicas and owned one of his Spencer rifles. He even makes a Civil War Tarpley. His guns and his work are not cheap, but he does truly beautiful work.
As we have seen, the Starr had its problems, but they are all problems that can be either easily fixed or totally avoided. If you know what you are doing and take good care of your Starr, it will provide hours of fun. Sure, you could just go buy a current replica of some kind but, well, shooting an original, particularly an odd original, just has an appeal all its own.
Why aren’t Starrs more heavily used in re-enactments and N-SSA events? Because a lot of people have seen the Civil War ordnance survey results in McAulay’s excellent book and, because of that, never tried one. More interesting still is how emotional some people get about how bad these guns were even though they have never tried one. Try one! There is a lot to like here!
One last point: Some people believe that shooting one of these old guns will decrease its value. If it is in perfect mint condition, that is true. What you want is a shooter. When I buy a gun of this type, I look for one in excellent mechanical condition with a good stock but a finish that is far from being stellar. That knocks a lot off the price, doesn’t detract from its shootability and gives me a gun whose value isn’t going to decline if I shoot it a lot.
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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.