Colt, Samuel (1814-1862)
Samuel Colt (1814-1862)
Restless Youth. Like so many of America’s nineteenth-century inventors, Samuel Colt hailed from New England. He was born to a well-off family in Hartford, Connecticut, and at ten entered his father’s factory. He also went to school until his fourteenth year (a fairly rare occurrence in the 1820s) and would have gone longer if he had not run away from his Amherst, Massachusetts, boarding school. The young runaway sighned on as a sailor on a ship bound for calcutta, India, and spent some time wandering the world’s oceans before returning to work again for his father. Dyeing and blaeching textiles did not, however, appeal to Samuel’s restless soul. Using the meager knowledge of chemistry he learned from the dyeing work, the eighteen-year-old Colt began touring the country as the learned “Dr. Coult,” lecturer on chemistry. His lectures consisted mainly of getting his listeners giddy on nitrous oxide gas at a time when laughing-gas parties were a current fad. After three years of this activity Colt decided to use his lecturing profits to invest in an invention that he thought had a future.
The Revolver. On his Calcutta trip Colt had spent his spare time carving a wooden toy gun in which the usual single-shot cartridge chamber was replaced by a six-chamber revolving cylinder. He was not the first to think of the revolver or repeater firearm, but his design outlined most others, and he secured patents for his vision in England (1835) and the United States (1836). In the expansive economic climate of the mid 1830s the twenty-one-year-old was able to secure a three-hundred-thousand-dollar credit line, enough money to organize the Patent Arms Company and begin revolver production at a paterson, New Jersey, factory. At first the young enterpreneur found it difficult to convince the nation’s largest arms buyer, the U.S. Army, to purchase his guns, in part because of the revolver’s tendency to explode several cartridges at once. In 1837, however, Colt’s revolving rifles proved useful in the Seminole War, and the Texas Rangers likewise found Colt’s weapons excellent for Indian fighting. Texas became Colt’s largest market, but neither Texas sales nor a small federal government order was enough to keep Colt’s factory in business. He closed its doors in 1842 and went on to other things.
Mexican War. When the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, Texas Rangers armed with Colts fought alongside the U.S. Army in the first invasion of Mexican territory. After Gen. Zacharv Tavlor noted the superiority of Colt’s revolves, the Quartermaster Corps gave Colt a twenty-eight housand-dollar contract to supply a thousand of the weapons. Colt had to build a new prototype for the factory to copy because ha had sold his last revolver five years earlier. Since he no longer had a factory of his own, he rented an empty armory near New haven, Connecticut. Colt lost three thousands dollars on the first order, but he was back in business to stay. The Mexican War made Colt’s weapons standard in the army, and Colt had to increase production rapidly to meet public and private demand. The revolver’s reputation in Indian warfare led to increased orders as more and more Americans moved west. Orders increased even more after Colt’s revolver was displayed at the London Crystal Palace industrial exhibition in 1851.
A Big Business. In 1852 Colt opened a giant factory in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, replete with housing, a library, and a public hall for his workers. The three-wing, tghree-story, thousand-foot-long Colt Armory (which when enlarged in 1862 became the world’s largest private armory) combined arms manufacturing with advanced mass-production techniques as well as a factory that made precision machine tools. Blending the recently invented turret lathe with both old and new cutting machines, Colt had already achieved the tolerances necessary for interchangeable weapons parts by 1851. But it was the production of these specialized machines at the Hartford factory that added a new dimension to Colt’s profits. he sold both the weapons and the machines needed to make them. Colt supplied his machines to british armories at Enfield and the Russian armory at Tula. Colt also attracted the best mechanics of his age to design tools for his plants, such as Elisha K. Root. Root, considered “one of the ablest mechanics New England has ever produced,” took over the armory after Colt’s untimely death in 1862. Root, (and Colt before him) mentored some of the most famous American inventor-mechanics of the nineteenth century, including F.A. Pratt and Amos Whitney of Pratt-and-Whitney engine fame.
Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1931).
The American inventor and manufacturer Samuel Colt (1814-1862) first developed and popularized the multishot pistol, or revolver, which found wide use in the last half of the 19th century, especially in the American West.
Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Conn., the son of a prosperous cotton and woolen manufacturer. In 1824 his father sent him to work in one of his dyeing and bleaching establishments; Colt attended school at the same time. His behavior in school, however, was such that his father sought to discipline him by sending him on a sea voyage as an ordinary seaman. It was a one-year trip to India and the Orient, and it was apparently on this voyage that young Colt began to work on a revolving pistol. On his return he worked for a year in his father's bleachery and then left to travel on his own. Little is known of his activities for the next few years, but for at least a part of that time he billed himself as "Dr. Coult" and gave popular lectures on chemistry and demonstrated the effects of laughing gas.
Colt continued to work on his idea for a pistol and by 1831 had constructed at least two versions of it. By 1833 he had made both a pistol and a rifle on the principles which he later patented in the United States. Just about this time he wandered off to Europe, where he acquired patents in both France and England. He returned to America in 1836 and received an American patent that year. The primary feature of his pistol was a revolving cartridge cylinder which automatically advanced one chamber when the gun was cocked.
During 1836 Colt built a factory in Paterson, N.J., to make his revolvers, but failing to receive a contract from the government he was unable to produce and sell the gun in quantity. Forced to sell the patent for his revolver, he turned to the problem of submarine warfare, receiving some financial help from the government to build an experimental submarine battery.
In 1846, with the declaration of war against Mexico, the demand for guns rose, and Colt was given a government contract for 1000 of his revolving pistols. Quickly he bought back his patents and opened an armory in New Haven, Conn. This new government patronage, coupled with the growing popularity of the gun in the West (where it was ideally suited to the new kind of horseback warfare being carried out against the Indians) brought Colt financial success at last. His exhibit at the 1851 Crystal Palace international exhibition in London caused widespread comment—for the excellence of his weapons, but most importantly for the example they gave of the mass production of interchangeable parts, which came to be known as the American system of manufactures. In 1855 Colt built his great armory at Hartford, Conn. (the largest private armory of its time), and he lived out his life as a prosperous and respected manufacturer.
A good introduction to Colt's life and works is William B. Edwards, The Story of Colt's Revolver: The Biography of Col. Samuel Colt (1953). There is a vast literature on guns, written for buffs and collectors, much of which contains references to Colt and his pistol.
Barnard, Henry, Armsmear: the home, the arm, and the armory of Samuel Colt: a memoria, s.l.: s.n., 1976.
Grant, Ellsworth S., The Colt legacy: the Colt Armory in Hartford, 1855-1980, Providence, RI: Mowbray Co., 1982.
Keating, Bern, The flamboyant Mr. Colt and his deadly six-shooter, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. □
By the 1870s, Colt firearms (including the Gatling gun) could be found in virtually every part of the world. Moreover, former Colt workers proved instrumental in transferring the machine‐based technology initially developed in the small‐arms industry to technically related industries making such consumer durables as sewing machines, typewriters, business machines, bicycles, and, eventually, motorcycles and automobiles. Though many gifted individuals contributed to what, by the 1850s, became known as the “American system of manufactures,” Samuel Colt was the system's most vocal spokesman. Few other manufacturers achieved greater prominence or exerted greater influence on the developing American economy during the age of the first Industrial Revolution (c. 1815–76).
William B. Edwards , The Story of Colt's Revolver, 1953.
R. L. Wilson , Colt, An American Legend, 1985.
William Hosley , Colt: The Making of an American Legend, 1996.
Merritt Roe Smith
American firearms manufacturer who popularized the revolver. His single-barreled pistols and rifles featured a cartridge cylinder rotated by cocking a hammer. In 1855, Colt built and maintained the world's largest private armory. Although his guns were not initially wellreceived, his pistols were the most widely used in the American Civil War. His Colt Industries plant took the manufacture of interchangeable parts and the assembly line further than any industrialist before him.