Samuel Colt – a True Pioneer of the Firearm Industry

Samuel Colt – a True Pioneer of the Firearm Industry

Samuel Colt is one of the most well known and respected names in the firearms industry, but what many may not know is that he is also highly regarded as a pioneer of industry as a whole. Colt’s contributions to the manufacturing process and his prowess in marketing created a standard by which many others would follow. A great number of historians even credit the original Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut as being the model for the Industrial Revolution.

Colt was essentially the first firearm manufacturer to use a successful assembly line, and was also the first gun maker to manufacture interchangeable parts. He only lived to the age of 47, but in his lifetime he managed to establish a legacy that will not be soon forgotten. Thanks to his creative thinking, he developed some of the world’s earliest successful revolvers, and did so in fairly rapid succession. 

The primary problem that many faced with firearms in those days was that they took too much time to reload. This left the shooter exposed and vulnerable, and those were terrible things to be for a soldier standing on a battlefield. Colt was determined to change that and in time he certainly did.

So let's take a look back at how Samuel Colt contributed to the progression of industrialization, and some of the revolvers that helped make him a firearms legend.

Many books on Colt conclude that the idea for this revolver mechanism first came to him as a teenager. After causing an accidental fire at his school, his father sent him off to learn the trade of a Seaman. While aboard a ship sailing from Boston to Calcutta, he would have an epiphany that inspired him to build a wooden model of a revolving pepperbox pistol. He was not the first to attempt such an invention, but the idea of revolving a cylinder with a pawl attached to a hammer, was uniquely his. 

Upon his return to the states, Colt immediately set out to build a working prototype of his revolver. He was able to secure the aid of a locally renowned gunsmith named Anson Chase in Hartford, CT.  Colt worked closely with Chase to build the very first metal version of his gun, but when he attempted to fire it, the revolver exploded. The reason for the mishap was that they had failed to incorporate a separation between the nipples of each chamber, so when one was fired, it would light the chamber next to it as well. Luckily for him, this was just a mere learning experience and the only injury was to the prototype itself. 

However, the setback was costly because young Sam Colt didn’t have a lot of money, and the cost of gunsmith’s services weren’t cheap. His father who had helped him initially had become financially strained, so with no one else to turn to, Samuel Colt had to find other ways to fund his firearm endeavor. 

Through a friend of his father, Sam secured a job traveling to the largest cities in the United States and Canada, giving lectures on the use of newly developed nitrous oxide (laughing gas). He took on the stage name persona of Dr. Coult of Boston and Calcutta and managed to earn enough to continue the work on his gun. Colt was well spoken and charismatic and several archived newspaper articles from that time show that his lectures were well received and entertaining. Colt learned a lot about showmanship and appealing to the consumer while being on the road. These were skills that he would later use to become successful in the gun industry. 

By 1832 Colt had managed to fund two more guns built by Anson Chase, a pistol and a rifle. Both had incorporated Colt’s revolving mechanism. It should also be quickly noted that the advancements made between flintlock to percussion caps are what allowed Samuel Colt’s idea to work in the first place. However, for the sake of staying on topic, it is probably best that we save those details for another story. 

Anyhow, during his travels, Colt would also seek the help of other gunsmiths to work on his revolver mechanism. It is believed that there were actually many that were possibly consulted, but not credited with much, although they may have actually contributed to his ultimate success. However, it is well documented that during his time on the road is when he first established a working relationship with gun maker John Pearson of Baltimore. 

Even as Colt traveled, he would correspond with, and send money to Pearson to keep his firearm work going. Letters sent between the two of them showed that Colt was eager to secure the ownership of his idea with a patent. But, at the advice of his father’s close friend who was coincidentally the U.S. Commissioner of Patents, Henry Ellsworth, Colt patiently waited until he and Pearson had his invention complete and fully functioning before pursuing legal ownership.

And then, in 1835, the time had finally come, he gave up his job and traveled to Europe to register the first patent for his invention. He then returned to the United States and filed for the patent here. The reason behind this was again due to advice he had received from Ellsworth. He advised Colt, that because of the way that European patent laws were structured, he wouldn’t have been completely protected from infringement if he filed in the U.S. office first. His patent in the U.S. was issued on February 25, 1836. 

With his patent fully protecting his rights on the four key principles of his mechanism through 1857, Samuel Colt was able to obtain financial backing from his cousin Dudley, a New York City Attorney, and a few of Dudley’s friends who were also successful NYC businessmen. This would be the start of the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Patterson, New Jersey.

By the summer of that year the New Jersey factory began producing pistols, rifles, shotguns, and carbines. Each would use a revolving cylinder that held no less than five shots. However, the most significant gun to come out of the factory was its namesake, the Colt Patterson revolver. 

Colt repeatedly attempted to get his guns accepted by the military, hoping that a contract with the government would assure his success. But this never got beyond the politicians and decision-makers, so he began using his skills learned on the road to eliminate the middleman. He started selling his arms directly to the consumer, the men doing the fighting. This strategy wasn’t going to bring Colt great wealth, but it would certainly help him gain some recognition for his repeating arms. 

The Patterson factory ultimately did not fair well financially, and in 1841 was forced into bankruptcy. By 1842, the factory was closed down for good. Now, if the factory only existed for seven years, you may be wondering how anything they produced could have been all that significant?

Well the first thing to consider is the timeframe that all this is taking place. Colt received his patent just two days after the Battle of the Alamo began. The Seminole Wars between the Native Americans and the U.S. Army had been going on in Florida for years, and the Mexican-American War was already brewing, and would begin just a few short years later.

So, as we just mentioned, Sam Colt managed to get his guns in the hands of soldiers, albeit by untraditional means. A number of the men that were fighting the Seminole Indians were among those carrying the Colt Patterson Revolvers. Their accounts of superior firepower in battle quickly became the best word of mouth advertising that Colt could have ever hoped for. 

The Natives had grown accustomed to fighting against the single shot arms of the Army and would often wait until the soldiers were forced to reload before attacking. The 5-shot Patterson, however, came as a surprise to the charging warriors and aided the Army in achieving victory even when they were vastly outnumbered. 

These stories, along with some first hand accounts, led to correspondence between Samuel Colt and Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker of the Texas Rangers. Walker would make a personal request to Colt to build a more powerful handgun for his Rangers. Walker asked that the gun be at least 6-shots and have enough stopping power to kill a horse. He could also make a guarantee to Colt that if he could accomplish this, an order of at least one thousand pistols for the military would be forthcoming.

Colt agreed to work on the pistol with Walker, but the problem was that he no longer had a factory. So, Sam Colt sought out the help of Eli Whitney III (son of the cotton gin inventor). Whitney already had plenty of money and a working factory in Whitneyville, Connecticut, so once the two savvy businessmen ironed out the details, which included naming Whitney as the recipient of the military contract; the massive Colt Whitneyville Walker went into production.

The Colt Walker was a single-action revolver that held six .44 caliber black powder charges. The revolver weighed four and a half pounds and had incredible stopping power out to one hundred yards. However, it was much too large to be carried on the hip, so it was typically holstered on the saddle of the horse. In 1847 the Colt Walkers began being issued in sets of two to the U.S. Mounted Rifles (Calvary). Each pair of guns came with the loading tools and a powder flask. The Colt Walker would be the most powerful handgun ever made and it remained as such until the 1930s when the .357 Magnum was invented.

Sadly that same year, Captain Samuel H. Walker would be killed in the final battle of the Mexican-American War. Just shortly after receiving his own custom set of pistols from Colt. Rumor has it that they were found still holstered alongside his saddle after his death.

However, the revolver baring the Walker name would mark the turning point in Samuel Colt’s career. In the summer of 1847, Sam Colt secured an order for another 1,000 revolvers for the military, and began the task of reestablishing a factory of his own in Hartford. 

The first few hundred revolvers made in Colt’s Hartford factory began the transition from the Whitneyville Walkers to the first type Dragoons. An effort was made to iron out some of the issues soldiers found with the Walkers, such as better securing the ramrod below the barrel. This transition was done with the input of another military officer named Captain William H. Thorton, and soon Sam Colt’s revolver began to evolve. The cylinder and barrel were shortened, which made the revolver more manageable than the larger Walkers. During the experimental stage these guns were built on two different frames, and those first few hundred revolvers produced in Hartford are now often referred to as the Transition Walkers.

Colt would go on to produce a total of three Dragoon generations that each had some design changes. We will quickly summarize a few of the differences here. 

The 1st Dragoon is identifiable by its oval cylinder stops and squared back trigger guard. It has a V-shaped mainspring and there was not yet a roller on the rear of the hammer.

The 2nd Dragoon is identifiable by the rectangular cylinder stops and squared back trigger guard. The early revolvers still used the v-shaped mainspring, which was later replaced with a flat leaf mainspring. In addition, a hammer roller was added to the bottom rear of the hammer to lessen the friction between the hammer and the mainspring.

The 3rd Dragoon is identifiable by the rectangular cylinder cuts and a rounded trigger guard. It also had cuts in the frame to accommodate a shoulder stock, horizontal loading latches, and folding leaf style sights.

Samuel Colt also produced an 1848 Pocket Pistol that is often referred to as the “Baby Dragoon”, which would become his most popular selling pistol to civilians during his lifetime.

Previously we discussed how the events of the era helped establish Colt’s initial success and the same can be said for his continued prosperity. In 1849 the California Gold Rush began and Colt pistols were in high demand, even fetching a premium well above their cost from the factory, if they were sold in the far western territories. The Western Expansion was at its peak throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, and a firearm remained the most necessary commodity for new settlers. Then there was the Civil War, and despite the fact that Sam Colt would die just a year after the conflict began, his arms were already being stockpiled well in advance by the Union Army.

As his offerings of new guns grew, so did Sam Colt’s ability to sell them. He pioneered new methods of marketing, such as using celebrity endorsements to appeal to the civilian market. Colt also found that by spending a dollar to have a revolver engraved could net him ten dollars on its final price. He would gift some of these finely finished guns to the likes of Sam Houston, Brigham Young, the King of Siam, or Czar Nicholas of Russia, and in return they would praise Colt’s work. 

Colt established a workforce of sales representatives and began running flashy artistic newspaper ads that would suddenly make the task of selling his guns even easier. He purchased a 29-page layout in what was the most popular periodical prior to the Civil War, The United States Magazine & Democratic Review. In those pages he profiled his Hartford Factory and showed the readers his advanced mass-production techniques, which incorporated an assembly line and steam powered machinery, and Colt’s use of interchangeable parts. Up until this point, people had not experienced such a creative approach to marketing or manufacturing, and Samuel Colt quickly became one of the most recognizable names in world.

Hoping to expand his international recognition, Colt traveled back to London where he opened a factory along the River Thames, and began producing guns on January 1, 1853. 

During the Crimean War, which pinned Russia and Turkey against one another, Colt Revolvers were in the hands of troops on both sides of the battlefield.

He also managed to secure orders for thousands of his Navy Model revolvers from the British Army, but was unable to land an actual British Military contract, and so after just three years, he considered the factory a failure. He had the London plant closed down and arranged for all remaining inventory and machinery to be sent back to America.

In 1855, he used his newly found wealth to build the Colt Armory in Hartford, it was a factory that was much larger than his first. In June of 1856, he married Elizabeth Jarvis and constructed their Manor, which they named Armsmear. 

As an employer, Colt established the 10-hour workday with a mandatory one-hour lunch break. He built his employees a clubhouse called Oak Hall, where they could enjoy their downtime. He built libraries and established educational programs. Colt’s treatment of his employees was groundbreaking, as he was setting a new standard of business where employees were looked at as an investment in the company's future, and a true asset towards its success.

All of these things showed that Colt was a caring and compassionate man, however, it has also been said that Sam Colt could be a strict disciplinarian and had little patience for laziness or tardiness. He may also have developed a bit of an ego, as he grew more successful. This can be assumed in the case of Rollin White, who had presented him with the idea of the bored through cylinder. Shortly after Sam Colt refused the idea, White was fired. Rollin White would later sell his idea to Smith & Wesson, which helped them launch their start with the Model 1 Revolver

In the final years of his life, Samuel Colt enjoyed a great success and experienced a horrific tragedy. He had grown to be the wealthiest man in America, but he and Elizabeth Jarvis had lost two daughters and a son who had all died in infancy, before finally having a healthy second son, Caldwell Hart Colt in 1858.

Samuel Colt was laid to rest on the Colt property in Hartford on January 10, 1862. He left the bulk of his estate to Elizabeth and their son Caldwell. A fixed sum of money was also willed to his nephew, Samuel Caldwell Colt, and his professional responsibilities were entrusted to his brother-in-law, Richard Jarvis.

After his death, Colt’s gun company would continue to thrive. With the demand of the Civil War and continued expansion of territories in the West, guns remained an absolute necessity. Elizabeth Jarvis would stay in Armsmear with their son, making certain that her husband’s legacy continued on. Even after a fire destroyed the Colt Armory in 1864, she had it quickly rebuilt, demanding that it be constructed more resilient than before. 

Colt’s heirs continued to rely on their most capable gunsmiths in their employ to continue Samuel’s life work. Eleven years after his death, their commitment would become obvious with perhaps one of the company's greatest milestones, the introduction of the 1873 Single Action Army (Peacemaker). A gun that would warrant such demand and receive so much praise that it continues to be produced in some capacity to this day. To read more about the Peacemaker, click here.

As usual we had to sort through a lot of information to formulate our timeline of Samuel Colt’s life, and of course this means that inevitably some interesting details have been omitted. We chose not to include many theories of conspiracies, some dramatic events, or the heartbreaks of his childhood. However, the good news is that there have been many attempts made to clearly document the life of Samuel Colt, so even if your particular interest was not covered here, it shouldn’t require much effort to uncover what you are looking for.