By Tom Morrow
It would not be an exaggeration to say Samuel Colt won the West – with his revolving six-shot pistol.
At a time when America was being tamed across the plains and then a Civil War, the fast-firing revolver Colt designed and manufactured provided law enforcement, the military, and civilians, both law abiding and criminal, a weapon unlike no other at the time.
Born July 19, 1814, Sam Colt founded Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company (today Colt’s Manufacturing Company) and made the mass production of the revolver commercially viable. During the American Civil War, his factory in Hartford supplied firearms both to the North and the South. Later, his firearms were prominent during the settling of the western frontier. When he died in 1862, he was one of the wealthiest men in America.
Colt’s manufacturing methods were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. His use of interchangeable parts helped him become one of the first to use the assembly line efficiently. Moreover, his innovative use of art, celebrity endorsements, and corporate gifts to promote his wares made him a pioneer in the fields of advertising, product placement, and mass marketing.
After hearing soldiers talk about the success of the double-barreled rifle and the impossibility of a gun that could shoot five or six times without reloading, Colt decided that he would create the “impossible gun” – and, he did.
Capt. Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers had acquired some of the first Colt revolvers produced during the Seminole War and saw first-hand their effective use as his 15-man unit defeated a larger force of 70 Comanche in Texas. Walker wanted to order 1,000 Colt revolvers for use by the Rangers in the Mexican-American War. Those first revolving-breech pistols had become so popular the word “Colt” was often used as a generic term for the revolver.
In 1850 Gen. Sam Houston and Gen. Thomas Jefferson Rusk lobbied Secretary of War William Marcy and President James K. Polk to adopt Colt’s revolvers for the U.S. military. Rusk testified: “Colt’s Repeating Arms are the most efficient weapons in the world and the only weapon which has enabled the frontiersman to defeat the mounted Indian in his own peculiar mode of warfare.”
Colt’s preoccupation with marketing strategies and patent protection caused him to miss a great opportunity in firearms development when he dismissed an idea from one of his gunsmiths, Rollin White. White had an idea of a “bored-through” revolver cylinder to allow the use of metallic cartridges in a handgun. After Colt fired White for suggesting an improvement to his revolver, White took his idea to Colt’s competitor, Smith & Wesson, who patented his invention and kept Colt from being able to build cartridge firearms for almost 20 years.
As the American Civil War approached, Colt supplied both the North and the South with firearms. In 1859 Colt considered building an armory in the South and as late as 1861 had sold 2,000 revolvers to Confederate agent John Forsyth. Although trade with the South had not been restricted at that time, newspapers labeled him a Southern sympathizer and traitor to the Union. In response to these charges, Colt was commissioned as a colonel in the 1st Regiment Colts Revolving Rifles of Connecticut, however the unit never took the field and Colt was discharged on June 20, 1861.
It is estimated that in its first 25 years of manufacturing, Colt’s company produced more than 400,000 revolvers. Colt set up libraries and educational programs within his armories for his employees. These provided seminal training grounds for several generations of toolmakers and other machinists, who had great influence in other manufacturing efforts of the next half century. In 2006, Samuel Colt was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Samuel Colt died of gout in Hartford on Jan. 10, 1862. At the time of his death, Colt’s estate, which he left to his wife and three-year-old son Caldwell Hart Colt, was estimated to be valued at $15 million (more than $350 million by 2018 standards).
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