In 1836, Connecticut-born gun manufacturer Samuel Colt (1814-62) received a U.S. patent for a revolver mechanism that enabled a gun to be fired multiple times without reloading. Colt founded a company to manufacture his revolving-cylinder pistol; however, sales were slow and the business floundered. Then in 1846, with the Mexican War (1846-48) under way, the U.S. government ordered 1,000 Colt revolvers. In 1855, Colt opened what was the world’s largest private armament factory, in which he employed advanced manufacturing techniques such as interchangeable parts and an organized production line. By 1856, the company could produce 150 weapons per day. Colt was also an effective promoter, and by the start of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) he had made the Colt revolver perhaps the world’s best-known firearm. He died a wealthy man in 1862; the company he founded remains in business today.
Samuel Colt was born on July 19, 1814, in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of textile manufacturer Christopher Colt and wife Sarah. By visiting his father’s mill in Ware, Massachusetts, and helping out at a nearby farm, the young Colt gained an interest in all things mechanical and often dismantled objects–including his father’s firearms–to discover how they functioned. At age 16, he enrolled at Amherst Academy in Massachusetts to study navigation; however, his youthful hi-jinks later got him expelled from the school. His father then gave the teen the opportunity to study navigation firsthand, sending him out to sea on the Corvo, a ship that embarked on a nearly yearlong voyage in 1830.
Aboard the Corvo, Colt became fascinated with the ship’s wheel, particularly the way it could alternately spin or be locked in a fixed position through the use of a clutch. He translated this controlled rotation to firearms and a means whereby a single-shot pistol could be adapted to fire multiple rounds in quick succession. During his time at sea, Colt carved a six-barrel cylinder, locking pin and hammer out of wood. Although this prototype for a pistol featured multiple rotating barrels, in later versions Colt would opt instead for a rotating cylinder containing multiple bullet chambers to reduce the gun’s weight and bulk.
After returning from his adventure at sea, Colt spent two years traveling North America under the name Dr. Coult, hosting a road show during which he entertained and educated crowds on the uses of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). The profits he saved through his skill as a promoter enabled him to perfect his revolver mechanism, and he hired gunsmiths to create a series of prototypes.
Patents for the Revolving Pistol
Colt’s revolver mechanism is considered by some to be more innovation than invention because it improved upon a revolving flintlock (a firing mechanism used in muskets and rifles) already patented by Boston inventor Elisha Collier (1788-1856). The British patent for Colt’s mechanism was acquired in October 1835, and on February 25, 1836, the American inventor received U.S. Patent No. 138 (later 9430X) for his revolving-cylinder pistol. The enhancements listed in this patent include greater “facility in loading,” changes in “the weight and location of the cylinder, which give steadiness to the hand,” and “the great rapidity in the succession of discharges.” Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company began making the Paterson pistol in 1836 at its Paterson, New Jersey, factory using funds advanced by Colt’s family.
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Initially, Colt produced three “revolving” handguns–belt, holster and pocket pistols–and two rifles. All models incorporated a revolving cylinder into which gunpowder and bullets were loaded. Primer was placed on a strike plate outside the cylinder, and combustion was initiated by pulling the trigger and releasing the hammer onto the strike plate. The ability to fire six shots without reloading–a task that required 20 seconds using a single-shot firearm–provided a crucial advantage to soldiers and settlers encountering danger in the nation’s frontier regions. Colt continued to refine his initial design, obtaining patents on such components as a cylinder-locking mechanism, fluted cylinders, longer grips and beveled-cylinder mouths to eliminate igniting adjacent chambers. A savvy businessman, he retained rights to these patents, making his applications as an individual rather than through the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company.
A Business Failure
Seeking a government contract for his guns, Colt visited the office of the U.S. secretary of war, but the Army judged the use of a percussion cap in Colt firearms too innovative and therefore potentially unreliable. Scattered sales in the newly formed Republic of Texas and in Florida, where the Second Seminole War (1835-42) was ongoing, did not translate into the revenue required to maintain the veneer of success Colt needed to impress potential clients. Eventually, the company’s shareholders took control of Patent Arms Manufacturing, and Colt was relegated to sales agent. In 1842, the company was forced to close, and its fixtures and inventory of guns and gun parts were auctioned off to the highest bidder.With his company failing, Colt turned to another interest: perfecting an underwater mine for use in harbor defense. His remote-ignition “submarine battery” required him to develop a waterproof cable capable of transmitting electricity underwater. As with his revolver mechanism, Colt’s innovative cable was adapted from an earlier design: a cable developed by telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872). The relationship between the two inventors led to a partially implemented scheme to install a telegraph line from the New York Merchant’s Exchange to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. (The line went only as far as Fire Island, New York, before the project was abandoned.)
Busy with these new projects, and discouraged by the failure of Patent Arms Manufacturing, Colt also found himself caught up in a national scandal after his brother, John Colt, murdered a printer with whom he did business.
U.S. Expansionism Sparks a Need for More Guns
The 1844 election of President James K. Polk (1795-1849) saw the implementation of Polk’s plans for outward expansion into Texas and the Western territories. Seeing a new opportunity, Colt submitted a sample of his enhanced revolving holster pistol to the U.S. war department. In 1846, with the Mexican War under way, Colt had a visit from Captain Samuel H. Walker (1817-47) of the U.S. Mounted Riflemen. After Colt and Walker collaborated on the design for a new and improved gun, General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) ordered 1,000 Colt revolvers. The guns were delivered to the Army in 1847.
Colt’s guns were now produced in Hartford, where his factory was managed by mechanic-minded supervisor Elisha K. Root (1808-65). Under Root’s guidance, the renamed Colt Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company hired talented mechanics and engineers who continued the innovations Colt had begun. In the early 1850s, a company branch was established in England, and in 1855 a new Hartford factory–the largest privately owned armament manufacturing plant in the world–was built overlooking the Connecticut River. By 1856, the company could produce 150 weapons per day using interchangeable parts, efficient production lines and specially designed precision machinery. The Colt brand was now recognized worldwide through savvy promotion and was associated with quality and dependability. A masterful promoter, Colt positioned his firearms within the American mythos, even hiring artist and explorer George Catlin (1796-1872) to create paintings depicting Colt guns in use by sportsmen and explorers encountering exotic predatory animals in North and South America.
The Civil War and Beyond
During the late 1850s, while tensions mounted between the North and South that would soon lead to the American Civil War, Colt continued to do business with longstanding customers in Southern states. However, when war was finally declared on April 12, 1861, he turned his focus almost exclusively to supplying the Union army. He also outfitted the 1st Regiment Connecticut Rifles, a volunteer regiment from his company’s home state. Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company operated at full capacity and employed over 1,000 people in its Hartford factory. By that time, Samuel Colt had become one of the wealthiest men in America and owned a Connecticut mansion called Armsmear.
The strain of supplying the war effort eventually took its toll on Colt. Suffering from chronic rheumatism, the 47-year-old gun manufacturer died at his home on January 10, 1862, leaving behind an estate worth millions. The company, which manufactured more than 400,000 firearms during Colt’s lifetime, was left to its founder’s wife, Elizabeth, and Root was appointed president. In 1901, the Colt family sold the company to a group of investors.
Still in business today, the Colt’s Manufacturing Company went on to produce the Colt Single Action Army handgun, also known as the Colt .45 or the Peacemaker, the standard service revolver of the U.S. military between 1873 and 1892. To date, the company founded by Samuel Colt has produced more than 30 million pistols, revolvers and rifles.