Post written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian
“If I can’t be first, I won’t be second in anything.” – Samuel Colt, 1844
Born in Hartford, CT, in 1814, Samuel Colt transformed the evolution of firearms. An ambitious inventor and successful industrialist, Colt was fascinated by machinery from an early age. He enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked, including his father’s guns. One of his earliest and most valued possessions was the flintlock pistol used by his maternal grandfather while serving in the Continental Army.
As a young boy at school, he was introduced to a scientific encyclopedia that contained information about Robert Fulton and gunpowder, both of which provided a great deal of inspiration for the curious Colt. While working in his father’s textile plant, Colt developed an interest in chemistry and gained more expertise with the tools being used by the craftsmen there.
In 1830, Colt was a passenger onboard the ship Corvo. The idea for a revolving firearm purportedly came to Colt while watching the ship’s wheel and noticing that the spokes always returned in perfect alignment with a clutch that locked the wheel in position. Most pistols produced prior to Samuel Colt’s invention fired one shot at a time and took 20 seconds to reload. Instead, Colt’s gun featured an automatic, revolving chamber that enabled the handler to fire six shots in succession. Samuel Colt received U.S. Patent #9430X for this revolutionary invention on February 25, 1836.
“The good people of this world are very far from being satisfied with each other and my arms are the best peacemaker.” – Samuel Colt, 1852
With the financial assistance of wealthy relatives, he was able to open Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson, NJ, in 1836. Colt created a product with interchangeable parts, thereby increasing productivity and decreasing the cost of materials. The company used a force of traveling salesmen, known as agents, to peddle their wares to individuals and small shops as well as 15 to 20 jobbers to coordinate large scale purchases with wholesalers. He was among the first businessmen to use celebrity endorsement and corporate gifts in an effort to promote his products, regardless of the negative attention it sometimes resulted in. Colt was an innovator in the fields of advertising, product placement, mass marketing and mass production.
Colt’s repeating firearms were first exhibited at the American Institute Fair, held at Niblo’s Garden, in 1837. His weapons were well-received and the designs earned him a gold medal for the Best Many Chambered Cylinder Rifle. The images show the judge’s reports for his entries at the 10th Annual Fair. The Fairs provided an opportunity for inventors of every imaginable craft not only to exhbit their materials, but to earn the prestige that came with winning one of the American Institute’s premium awards. At the 1852 Fair, one judge deemed Colt’s revolving pistols to be “decidedly superior and unsurpassed in workmanship”.
In 1847, the Texas Rangers ordered 1,000 revolvers from the Colt factory to aid with their efforts in fighting the Mexican-American War. Improved manufacturing made the guns much safer and the business expanded rapidly. His firearms were also prominent during the settlement of the Western Frontier, as they allowed pioneers to defend themselves, their homes, and their livestock. Of course, they were also used by gunslingers and outlaws such as Wild Bill Hickock, John Wesley Hardin and Jesse James. In fact, many proponents said that “Colt won the west”. His advances transformed the revolver from a utilitarian object to a symbol of pride.
By 1860, his factory in CT was the largest private arms manufacturing plant in the world and had produced over 400,000 revolvers. The large tract of land he purchased included the Armory, a manor known as Armsmear, employee tenement housing, a game hall, discussion rooms and a library. Colt’s revolvers were the preferred sidearm of civilians, soldiers and outlaws alike. At the beginning of the Civil War, his company supplied arms to both the North and the South, as he was a capitalist and saw no reason to make a moral decision in the matter. However, newspapers such as the New York Times and Hartford Daily Courant branded him a traitor and Southern Sympathizer and eventually, the factory only supplied weapons to Union soldiers.
Ironically, at the time of his death from gout in 1862, Colt had never fired one of his guns at another human being. He had become one of the wealthiest men in America at the age of 47. Samuel Colt was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. The original company has gone through many changes over the years, but the factories in Hartford, CT still flourish and the Colt name is synonymous with quality firearms.