Pietta’s Rare Civil War Guns
Starr, Spiller & Burr, J. H. Dance, and LeMat
By Dennis Adler
This year marks the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, not only one of the greatest chapters in American history, but also the wellspring for many of the most interesting handguns invented in the mid 19th century.
When the war started in 1861, Colt and Remington were the principal American armsmakers supplying revolvers to the Union. A majority of Federal soldiers were already armed with either Colt 1851 Navy revolvers or 1858 Model Remingtons. By summer, the Colt factory was burning the midnight oil turning out its new 1860 Army by the thousands to fulfill Ordnance Department demands, but as the war escalated Colt and Remington could not keep up with the Union demand. To arm its soldiers the U.S. government was also purchasing guns from as many small armsmakers as possible, and this brings us to the third most issued sidearm of the war, the Starr revolver.
Inventor Ebenezer T. Starr’s design was for a double action, topbreak model chambered in .36 caliber percussion; what the U.S. military regarded as the “Navy caliber” (.44 was classified as the “Army caliber”). The Ordnance Department initially purchased 1,810 Navy models. In 1862 Starr added a .44 caliber Army version.
Though innovative, the Starr’s double action design tended to confound some soldiers as the trigger was actually a “lifter” used to rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer. By pulling the lifter fully to the rear it struck the hammer release, a small, curved stub projecting outward from the frame. The gun could be cocked with the lifter for an aimed shot using the hammer notch, after which the revolver could be touched off by pulling it the rest of the way, or roughly aimed and fired rapidly by pulling the lifter as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, if a soldier tried to thumb cock the gun like a single action, it would jam. One officer in the 12th Kentucky stated: “The man who sold these pistols to the government and the contractor who bought them ought to be hanged as traitors.” Inundated with complaints the Ordnance Department requested that Starr build a second model, a more “traditional” single action with a longer 8-inch barrel (the double action models had 6-inch barrels). Introduced in 1863 this model became the most prolific of the Civil War era Starr arms, with production of the single action reaching 25,000 by the end of 1864.
The majority of 20th century firearms enthusiasts were not that familiar with the Starr until Clint Eastwood used one in his Oscar winning western Unforgiven. After the film a demand arose not only for good originals but for a reproduction.
The Starr had been a difficult gun to make in the 1860s, and fundamentally, not much had changed by the late 1990s when Italian armsmaker F.A.P. F.lli Pietta decided to build both the .44 caliber single action and double action Starr models. In 1998, after more than a year in development, the Starr double and single action revolvers were introduced. Today they are regarded as two of the most historically accurate reproduction Civil War firearms ever manufactured.
Why Southern Guns?
The South’s innovations in arms making during the Civil War gave Pietta a wealth of guns to examine in researching rare American percussion arms to recreate.
The choice of the J.H. Dance & Brothers revolver was one of the more unusual. Back in 1862 the government of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate States of America had appealed to the patriotism of anyone who could contribute in the production of guns. Among a handful that came to the aid of the Confederacy was J.H. Dance & Brothers in Texas.
Their prototype was presented on April 22, 1862 and a few months later the .44 caliber Dance was in production. The design was based on the Colt 1851 Navy, but Dance further simplified the revolver by eliminating the recoil shield, thus creating a distinctive, flat sided frame. The Navy’s barrel was also replaced by a half octagonal, half round barrel similar to that of the Colt 3rd Model Dragoon. Dance revolvers were produced in both .44 and .36 caliber models; the .44 with an 8-in. barrel, and the .36 with 7-3/8 in.
Among the handful of revolvers produced in the South during the war, the Dance was considered one of the finest arms of the period. The guns remained popular following the war, and famous owners included Geronimo (at least he was pictured with one), and infamous highwayman Bill Longley, who is said to have killed his first man with an 1862 Dance.
Another of the more unusual Southern revolvers was the Spiller & Burr. A true hybrid design, it was a Southern recipe for making a new handgun by combining Whitney and Remington-style solid frames with a Colt mechanism. It was designed by Edward Spiller and David Burr.
Together they formed Spiller & Burr receiving a contract to produce 15,000 revolvers over a period of two and one half years. From the very start the company fell well behind schedule and by 1863 was considered in default of their contract.
By then the course of the war had changed, the Confederacy had suffered great setbacks at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and in desperation, on January 7, 1864 the Confederate government purchased the entire Spiller & Burr company, patents, and tooling and moved production from Atlanta to Macon, Georgia. According to Firearms of the Confederacy by Claud E. Fuller and Richard D. Steuart, there were minor variations of the Spiller & Burr revolvers but the number of guns manufactured never approached the total ordered.
The estimated number of Spiller & Burr revolvers (both Atlanta marked and unmarked) is 1,450 with production divided between Atlanta from 1863-1864, and the Confederate arsenal in Macon, Georgia, through 1865. Pietta has built substantially more in the last decade!
Don't miss the second part of this article with the results of the weapon test and the expert's conclusions. Follow the Editorial Pietta.