Colt's Manufacturing Company

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Colt's Manufacturing Company is located in Hartford, Connecticut. Incorporated in 1855, Colt's Manufacturing produced and sold firearms for the law enforcement and sporting industries. Colt had produced firearms for the military since the early years of the republic. This relationship with the U.S. military can be traced back to the company's founder, Samuel Colt (18141862), who was fascinated for many years with revolvers and other types of weaponry. While on a voyage to Asia, Colt developed his now famous "revolving pistol." The crucial design aspect of this invention was that the revolving cartridge advanced the chambers each time that the trigger was pulled. The Colt revolver represented greatly increased firepower.

While the flintlock pistol was only able to fire one or two shots at a time, Colt's pistol was able to fire up to six shots before reloading. In 1832 Colt attempted to obtain a patent for his pistol from the U.S. government. He was also interested in marketing his revolver pistol among ordinary citizens as well as military procurement officials. By the late 1830's Colt's pistol had been tested and had gained wide acceptance with the military. The Colt pistol was quite effective in the Seminole Indian conflict (18351842) and the Texas War of Independence (18321836). Colt, however, was unable to expand sales with the gun-buying public because of their unfamiliarity with the basic concept of the revolver. More frustrating for Colt was his inability to get a sales contract with the federal government, even after the positive performance of the revolver in Florida and Texas. In 1842, Colt's economic condition became so dismal that he had no alternative but to leave the firearms industry altogether.

To meet his financial obligations that same year Colt had to sell the U.S. patent on the revolver that he had received back in 1836. Nevertheless, there were those in the military establishment who were favorably impressed with the performance of Colt's new invention in the Texas War of Independence. In particular, Captain Samuel H. Walker encouraged Colt and helped him improve the revolver design. Unlike the earlier model, the "Walker" was simpler and more easily manufactured. More important, Captain Walker was able to secure for Colt a United Sates Ordinance Department purchase contract for a thousand Walkers. With the help of his friend, Eli Whitney, Jr., Colt was able to produce and deliver this order by the middle of 1847. The United States Army demonstrated the superiority of the Walker in the war with Mexico (18461848).

Further achievement of success was due not only to the effectiveness of Colt's weaponry, but to his efforts in the area of marketing. Traveling across Europe and the United States, Colt succeeded in touting the superiority of the Colt revolver.

In 1855, Colt opened a huge plant in Hartford, Connecticut in which he was able to manufacture 150 guns per day. That year Colt named his new company the Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. By the beginning of the American Civil War (18611865), Colt employed 1,000 workers and reporting yearly revenue of 250,000 dollars. Upon his early death on January 10, 1862 Colt left his business to his wife, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt. From 1862 to 1901 the Colt manufacturing company was a family firm.

Colt's original factory was destroyed by fire in 1864. Elizabeth Colt saw to it that the new structure was as fireproof as possible. Another significant development for the Colt company was the contribution of another firearms designer, John Browning. After the Civil War Browning helped develop and produce a "gas-operated" machine gun. Unlike the hand crank-operated Gattling machine-gun, the Browning version used the escaping muzzle gases to help power the mechanism. Colt Firearms also developed and produced the Browning designed Automatic Rifle and the Colt 45 semi-automatic pistol.

Early in the twentieth century, Colt Firearms enjoyed a secure relationship with the U.S. military. Its Colt 45 semi-automatic weapon was widely used both in World War I (19141918) and World War II (19391945). The Second World War generated enough orders to maintain an employment level of about 15,000 in its Hartford factories. Its fate hinged on being able to maintain government orders for its weaponry. Following the end of World War II, the U.S. government lost confidence in Colt's aging factories and production techniques. Also, as Colt's workers were now unionized, so the payroll expenses increased. While the Colt business gained some financial ground during the Korean War (19501953), U.S. Government sales dramatically declined at the end of that conflict.

In the year of its centennial, 1955, Colt Firearms needed cash. It merged with Penn-Texas Corporation, led by Leopold D. Silberstein. Penn-Texas was a holding company that ran subsidiary companies. Colt Firearms was one of many other subsidiaries. In 1959 a block of stockholders ousted Silberstein and took control of the business under the new title of Fairbanks Whitney. Under this new leadership, Colt Firearms improved its standing with the U.S. military by developing new weaponry. In 1960 Colt came out with the M-16 full-automatic rifle. With the U.S. fighting in the Vietnam War (19591975), there were heavy demands on Colt to supply arms for the troops. By the end of the 1960s Colt had produced one million M-16s which had become standard issue for U.S. soldiers.

In the 1970s, the Vietnam War came to a formal close. Colt Firearms then confronted the challenge of peacetime production. During this period its management turned to variety of novel markets in the gun industry. For example Colt Firearms turned its ingenuity to the development and production of sporting guns and rifles. Colt also focused its marketing skills on those who collect rare and unique firearms. In 1976 Colt opened the Custom Gun Shop. The Custom Gun Shop produced and sold copies, for example, of the Walker and the 1860 Army revolver. As the 1970s came to an end, Colt's Custom Gun Shop was reporting yearly revenue of three million dollars.

Despite the success of the Custom Gun Shop, however, Colt was still in a slump. Unable to overcome its financial difficulties, Colt Firearms laid off about 700 employees between 1982 and 1983. Facing an uncertain future, the remaining employees, members of the United Automobile Workers union (UAW), went on strike in 1986. The situation for Colt management was made even more tenuous when it lost its contract on the M-16 in 1988.

The company, however, survived and business began to turn around. In 1989 C.F. Holding Corporation bought Colt Firearms for $100 million. Renamed Colt's Manufacturing Company, it was able to end the UAW strike in 1990. Under the terms of the agreement, Colt Manufacturing hired back its workers and gave the union three seats on the board of directors. Furthermore the state of Connecticut assumed 47 percent ownership of the company. Colt Manufacturing proved unable to compete successfully in the gun market, however, and in 1992 the company declared bankruptcy.

In 1994, Donald Zilka (of Zilka and Co.) bought Colt's Manufacturing Company. Not only did Zilka attempt to upgrade the production facilities, he also bought out some of the competition that produced firearms and other types of weaponry. Zilka bought Saco Defense, which produced and sold military and sporting weaponry. Saco Defense produced the M-60 machinegun and the Weatherby rifle. In 1998 Colt Manufacturing finalized an agreement with the U.S. military to produce the M4A1 rifle. In trying to anticipate consumer demand, Colt Manufacturing is also developing a "smart gun" which can only be fired by a person wearing a particular microchip. This allows families to have guns for home protection without worrying about their children accidentally discharging them. In preserving the place of the sidearm in the home, Zilka hopes to maintain Colt's place in the firearms industry in the years to come.


Edwards, William B. The Story of Colt's Revolver: The Biography of Colonel Samuel Colt. Harrisburg, PA: The Stockpole, Co., 1953.

Ellis, John. The Social History of the Machine Gun. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Grant, Ellisworth. The Colt Legacy: The Colt Armory in Hartford, 18551980. Providence, RI: Mowbray Co., 1982.

Haven, Charles T. and Frank A. Belden. A History of the Colt Revolver and other Arms Made by Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company from 1836 to 1940. New York: Bonanza Books, n.d.

Kennett, Lee and James La Verne Anderson. Contributions in American History, Number 37. London, UK: Greenwood Press, 1975.