Investing in Futures – The Value of Handcrafted Contemporary Collectibles
By Dennis Adler
Handcrafted revolvers and semiautomatic pistols have been regarded as investment quality art for decades, in some instances centuries, when it comes to decorated pistols and revolvers from the 1700’s and 1800s. But what of modern handcrafted commemorative pistols?
America Remembers and the U.S. Historical Society have been producing custom longarms, revolvers, and semi-autos (like the Model 1911) for decades and their values continue to hold relatively steady and in some instances increase over time. Hand engraved and custom embellished Colt Single Actions (done by the factory) on the other hand are regarded as the gold standard in contemporary collectibles. Even 2nd Generation Colt Blackpowder revolvers, produced from 1971 to c.1982 (and briefly in the early 1990s from original inventory) engraved by some of America’s most prominent artisans like Howard Dove, Alvin A. White, K.C. Hunt, John J. Adams, Sr., Andrew Bourbon, and Barry Lee Hands, are coveted today by gun collectors. Each, however, in its time, was an investment in both the gun and the artist by customers who purchased them. Little has changed in that respect today with handcrafted, factory engraved Colts still being produced by the factory.
Foreign engraved guns and guns in and of themselves manufactured in Europe have become a category unto themselves, mostly in the form of highly embellished shotguns handcrafted in Italy. It is there that the art of firearms engraving has flourished for centuries, skills handed down through generations of engravers.
Some of the finest and most expensive hand engraving in the world comes from Italy and master artisans like Gianfranco Pedersoli, Firmo Fracassi, Giancarlo and Stefano Pedretti, Manrico Torcoli, Giacomo Fausti (of Creative Art, Italia), and others (see the great Italian engravers series of books from Blue Book Publications), whose work is so highly regarded that customers wait years to have a gun engraved. But Italy is a country rife with talented families of arms engravers living in the Val Trompia and Gardone region, which brings us to this very special, hand built, hand engraved, 24kt. gold and silver inlaid Starr Single Action Civil War commemorative revolver manufactured by F.lli Pietta.
The Original top break revolver
The Starr was the third most commonly carried revolver during the Civil War, and by virtue of having first been produced in 1858 was carried by soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Originally manufactured as a .36 caliber double action revolver, Eben T. Starr was literally years ahead of everyone else in America, including Colt’s, Smith & Wesson, and Remington. Not only had he come up with a workable double action design but his revolver was also the first successful topbreak, although a far cry from the ease of opening that would become the hallmark of Smith & Wesson’s early large caliber cartridge revolvers.
With the Civil War continuing on into 1862 (most had thought it would be over in a few months), the demands for more firearms prompted the U.S. War Department to request a .44 caliber version of the original Starr model, which amounted to 16,100 guns procured by May of 1863. However, the Starr’s double action mechanism tended to confound some soldiers as it could not be thumb cocked like a single action revolver causing many soldiers to malfunction there sidearms in the heat of battle. As a result the Ordnance Department requested that Starr produce a more traditional single action version and with a longer 8-inch barrel (the double action models had 6-inch barrels). This became the most prolific of the Civil War era Starr arms, with production of the 1863 single action model reaching 25,000 by the end of 1864.
The real advantage of the Starr was its topbreak design. Although Eben T. Starr didn’t patent the idea (Sam Colt had actually proposed such a design among his 1850 Dragoon patents but never produced any), Starr made improvements to the concept by mortising the top strap to fit over the standing breech, thus giving his guns incredible strength.
By simply unscrewing the large knurled cross bolt that passed through the breech, the barrel and topstrap tilted downward allowing an empty cylinder to be replaced in a matter of seconds with a fresh reload. The one drawback to this design was loosing the cross bolt while changing out cylinders; the same inherent problem that plagued Colt revolvers if a soldier inadvertently lost the barrel wedge during a cylinder swap.
On the plus side, the Starr’s unique cylinder design did away with the conventional center arbor (around which both Colt and Remington cylinders revolved), and instead the long ratchet shaft seated into the breech at the rear and locked into the frame with a conical bolt protruding from the front of the cylinder. As a result, Starr revolvers were less apt to foul because they didn’t have a cylinder arbor, but as advanced as the Starr was, without government contracts the New York firm found that it could not sell its guns competitively with Colt and Remington in the civilian market, and two years after the war ended, Ebenezer Townsend Starr was out of business.
Many of the guns that remained in inventory or surfaced as military surplus were modified for the use of metallic cartridges, mostly by individual gunsmiths, while other still unused guns were given over to engravers to embellish with the hope that a fancier looking Starr might sell better. It is not known how many Starr single actions were engraved in the floral motif pattern after the Civil War but likely no more than a few dozen. Only a handful of original guns in this design are known to exist today and they are almost all on the single action frame.
The Pietta Starr
In the Spring 2011 issue of Guns of the Old West we debuted the machine engraved version of this gun made by F.lli Pietta, which is currently sold exclusively through Cabela’s. The hand engraved version shown is a limited edition, each of which is built to order and costs an impressive € 6,109 Euros or $8,736 in the US.
Limited to only 150 guns worldwide, they will be produced from 2011 through 2015 to correspond with the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War from 1861 to 1865.
The period correct Union Civil War flap holster shown with the gun is also limited to 150 examples; each handmade by Alan and Donna Soellner of Chisholm’s Trail Leather and fitted with a gold-plated, hand engraved plaque mounted on the flap. The handmade holster sells for $295.
The Starr flap holster, which is unique among Civil War rigs because of the gun’s shape and 8-inch barrel length, was chosen over a conventional walnut presentation box for the hand engraved Sesquicentennial model because boxes generally end up as table clutter, while a matching, period correct holster numbered to the gun becomes an accompanying piece of display art.
What is the future value of such a serious investment? One has to look at quality, the maker’s reputation, and of course, the individual gun itself, which given its limited edition and design brings a certain cachet to the table.
The engraving pattern of this model is also based on an authentic 1860’s Starr single action. The original gun, engraved c.1867-1869 (and manufactured by Starr Arms Co. around 1861) recently sold through Rock Island Auction Co.
The engraving on the limited edition Starr is taken from that original but further embellished by the factory engraver to surpass the work done on this series of post Civil War revolvers in the late 1860s.
F.lli Pietta’s factory master engraver is shown working on the first gun (the finished example in this article). The method has gone unchanged for centuries, using a small chisel and hammer to skillfully tap and engrave the pattern into the metal. Hand engraving is a master’s art form. There is no erasing!
Inlay work with 24kt gold wire is a slow process. The engraving must be undercut so that there is a slight edge under which the gold wire is pressed and hammered into place. This is a very slow and time honored technique used by master engravers the world over, but nowhere as effectively as in Italy where gold inlay work is used on handcrafted shotguns manufactured by Beretta, Fausti, Rizzini, and Fabbri, among others.
In addition, the guns bear the Pietta family name inlaid in silver across the top of the barrel, and a stylized banner on both sides celebrating the Civil War Sesquicentennial 1861 to 2011.
The deeply cut engraving in a broad floral motif is all hand inlaid with 24kt. gold wire in varying tones to add color and depth to the work. The hammer, trigger and loading lever are all color casehardened and the guns are highly polished before receiving a deep, royal blue finish to set off the gold embellishment.
The finishing touch is a pair of deluxe, hand checkered walnut grips copied from an original design used on presentation Starr revolvers in the 1860s.
Award winning firearms historian and author R. L. Wilson, who at one time owned and ran American Master Engravers, says, “The Pietta Starr Civil War Sesquicentennial single action revolver is a beauty.
The floral motif engraving pattern is reminiscent of show pistols made for Samuel Colt’s exhibitions in the 1850s. Overall, I am impressed with the style, quality, design, and reasonable price for a gun with gold inlay work – it is an instant collector’s rarity.”
For the US market, the custom built Starr models will be available exclusively through Dixie Gun Works in Union City, Tennessee, as a special order item. Will they become a future collectible? The answer, perhaps, is in one’s desire to have something so beautifully fashioned and rare that only 150 people in the entire world will be able to own one. For some, that alone is priceless.