The old saying goes like this: God created men equal. Colonel Colt made them equal.
Samuel Colt accepted an order for 1,000 revolvers from Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers on this day in 1847. At the time, although he had some success selling his guns abroad, his five-shot revolver was a ways from being the storied weapon that the Colt would become.
“Firing five shots in less time than one man could reload a flintlock weapon should have guaranteed large orders from the government,” writes James Donovan for Texas Monthly. “But the Paterson, as Colt’s first revolver became known, was fragile and fired a small-caliber ball, and it had to be half-disassembled to reload, so military tests were unimpressive, as were sales.”
Walker’s stipulations, according to Mark Crawford for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers: he wanted an improved version of the revolver that Colt had patented in 1836. It needed to hold six bullets, be simple to reload and “be powerful enough to kill a man with a single shot.”
“Before Colt began mass-producing his popular revolvers in 1847, handguns had not played a significant role in the history of either the American West or the nation as a whole,’ writes History.com. Short-barreled handguns were costly and inaccurate, according to the website—though some elites still insisted on dueling with pistols.
The weapon of choice, writes the website, was the knife, with western pioneers preferring the Bowie knife. In fact, writes historian Pamela Haas in her 2016 book on American gun history, the idea of a “multi-firing” gun was seen as superfluous for the everyday person. Samuel Colt’s first gun company went bankrupt for this reason.
With the Mexican American War,and the Civil War in the mid-19th century, Colt was positioned to get rich off revolver sales—and he did. When he died in 1862, a year after the Civil War broke out, his fortune was an estimated $15 million. His wife and heir Elizabeth Colt kept the empire running, Crawford writes.
Colt “saw the value of myth-making,” writes PBS. “He marketed his gun as an essential part of the American frontier, working to promote his brand and build his market.” Colt sold to the military, but he also sold to Gold Rush miners, settlers, cowboys in Texas, and “lawmen on the nation’s western frontier.”
But though Colt’s patented revolver was a historically important invention, writes historian Eric Hintz,”his truly groundbreaking innovation was the perfection of a manufacturing process that enabled production of 10,000 identical copies of that revolver.”
Rather than relying on skilled gunsmiths to produce individual weapons that had to be repaired on their own, Colt and his workers came up with “precise molds for forging the basic metal pieces” and specialized finishing tools that would make the pieces exact replicates of one another, he writes.
These innovations meant that the Colt Armory in Hartford, Connecticut could turn out about 150 weapons per day in 1856, writes History.com, and that the guns could be made cheaply enough to be afforded by average people—like settlers and miners.
Colt’s machining techniques also put Hartford on the map as he trained ambitious mechanics who went out and started their own enterprises, building such implements of peacetime as sewing machines and bicycles.