December 31: Middletown’s Nathan Starr Arms the Nation


As a major in the Continental Army, Nathan Starr forged and repaired weapons as part of his service during the Revolutionary War.  After the war was over, Starr returned to his hometown of Middletown, Connecticut, and made a living manufacturing blades of a different sort: mostly agricultural tools like scythes for local farmers.

In 1798, however, Starr found himself once again forging tools of war, receiving the federal government’s first-ever contract for sword production.  In response to increased international tensions between the young United States and the empires of Britain and France, the U.S. government sought Starr’s assistance in producing 2,000 cavalry sabers.  In order to meet his deadline, Starr subcontracted out various stages of manufacturing to other local craftsmen — men he knew and whose work he was familiar with.  On December 31, 1798, Starr received a payment of $2,000 from the federal government for his delivery of 2,000 quality sabers, which were delivered well ahead of schedule thanks to his method of “piecing out” the manufacturing process to skilled local craftsmen.

A rare surviving example of an 1808 Nathan Starr cutlass, from the USS Constitution museum’s collections. (USS Constitution Museum)

The very next year, Starr used the profits from his first government sword contract to buy a parcel of prime land along the banks of the Coginchaug River in Middletown, where he eventually built a sizable factory to house his ongoing weapon-making operations.  In 1808, Starr received another massive government contract for 2,000 cutlasses and 2,000 pikes for the expanding U.S. Navy, and once again, he delivered his arms far ahead of schedule.  In the hands of thousands of American sailors, Starr’s short, narrow naval sword became known as “the cutlass that fought the War of 1812.”

By the end of the War of 1812, Starr, together with his son Nathan Starr Jr., had firmly established themselves as one of the foremost arms manufacturers in the United States, producing not only swords, sabers, and cutlasses, but muskets and rifles as well.  Starr also had the honor of creating the elaborate ceremonial swords awarded to some of the most famous heroes of the War of 1812, including Commodore Isaac Hull and General Andrew Jackson.  Starr’s commercial fortunes began to decline on the eve of the Civil War, when the U.S. government started producing its own weapons at federal armories instead of relying on private contractors.  Still, Starr’s blades still saw plenty of action in the Civil War as freshly-recruited Union soldiers frequently carried them into battle.  Over the approximately fifty years that Nathan Starr was actively producing arms for the federal government, he helped to arm thousands of American soldiers and sailors and helped establish Connecticut’s national reputation as a hub of quality arms manufacturing — a reputation that persists well into the present day.

Further Reading

Nathan Starr’s Cutlass Fought the War of 1812,”

Cutlass Made by Nathan Starr,” USS Constitution Museum