Collector’s Corner

Investing in Futures – The Value of Handcrafted Contemporary Collectibles

By Dennis Adler

Pietta hand engraved Starr
Pietta hand engraved Starr

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.

The Italians

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.

Collector's Corner Pietta hand engraved Starr
The Starr was a gun used primarily by the Union, but the guns were being made as early as 1858 (in double action) so it was not uncommon for Confederate troops to be carrying a Starr revolver. The Pietta is then suitable regardless of whether you are a fan of the North or the South as it pays tribute to the war itself from 1861 to 1865.

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.

Collector's Corner Pietta hand engraved Starr
The hand engraving and gold inlay work are what add value to the Pietta Starr. “I feel considering the work, the gold and silver, etc., that the price [of the Pietta] is reasonable,” says R. L. Wilson, noted firearms authority and author of Steel Canvas, The Book of Colt Firearms and The Book of Colt Engraving.

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 revolver