February 25, 1836: Sam Colt Patents His Revolver

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A Brief History

On February 25, 1836, Samuel Colt of Hartford Connecticut made good on the “All men are created equal” theme by making sure they stayed that way.  Colt did this by patenting his famous revolving cylinder pistol.

Digging Deeper

The revolving pistol was not a new concept, and previous efforts using flint lock pistols were attempted with uneven results.  The loose powder in the pan of a flintlock made “chain firing” all too possible and keeping the powder in the pan as the cylinder rotated was also difficult at best.  Once the percussion cap was invented and reached common use (1820’s) the possibility of a viable revolver became apparent, at least to Mr. Colt.

Colt’s arms business in Patterson, New Jersey flopped along for several years, with firearms and underwater mines as products.  In 1847 Colt got his big break when the Texas Rangers ordered 1000 large revolvers and the success of those guns greatly enhanced the reputation of Colt revolvers.  Built using the mass production method of interchangeable parts, it was easy to repair Colt revolvers and made them attractive from an economic standpoint as well as effectiveness.  By 1857 Colt was the giant of the revolver industry, until his patent ran out and competitors used his ideas coupled with a solid top strap giving their guns greater strength than Colt’s.   During the US Civil War Colt sold revolving pistols and rifles to both sides, a golden time of firearms sales.  Unfortunately for Sam Colt, he died of Gout in 1862 at the age of 47 and did not live to see his legacy grow to legendary proportions.

Besides underwater mines, underwater detonators, underwater wires, rifles and pistols, Colt also dreamed up an early form of metallic cartridge as well.  The cartridges for muzzle loading muskets of the time were made of paper containing powder and a bullet.  The soldier would load the paper cartridge into the muzzle and ram it down the barrel, prime the nipple, and fire.  This eliminated the need for measuring a separate powder charge each shot.  To somewhat waterproof the cartridge, the paper was sometimes wax coated, which worked only marginally well.  Colt came up with a thin tinfoil wrap for the powder and bullet cartridge which kept the cartridge more waterproof than waxed paper and other attempts (rubber, etc) at making an all-weather cartridge.  He even managed to sell 200,000 of these tinfoil cartridges to the US Army.

When proper metallic cartridges became available during the Civil War, Colt was caught unprepared for the change, and the bored through cylinder used by metallic cartridge revolvers was patented by a Colt employee, Rollin White, but White sold the use of the patent to arch rival Smith & Wesson, a company which proceeded to corner the market in rapid reload metallic cartridge revolvers.  Despite losing some technological advantage, the Colt revolver after the Civil War entered its famous “Peacemaker” stage with the 1873 Army model Single Action  Army (SAA) .45.  This is the gun commonly seen in movies and television shows about the old West, and is the favorite of gun slingers and trick gun handlers.  Along with the Winchester ’73, the Colt Peacemaker is often referred to as “The gun that won the West.” After a couple gaps in manufacturing, the Peacemaker has been in production from 1976 through today.

By the time of Sam Colt’s death, he had sold over 400,000 of his revolvers, but failed to live to see the success and fame of his Peacemaker and the 100 year supremacy of the Colt 1911 .45 automatic pistol.  Even today, the most sought after modern revolvers are the Colt Python .357 Magnums that are no longer made (since 2005).  The Colt Python is prominently displayed on the ‘zombie-pocalypse’ television show, The Walking Dead, carried by the main hero, Rick Grimes.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite revolver?  Do you favor revolvers or semi-automatic pistols?  Give us your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Belden, Frank A. and Charles T Haven.  A History of The Colt Revolver and the Other Arms Made by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company from 1836 to 1940.  Random House Value Publishing, 1988.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.