A Brief History
On March 5, 1836, Samuel Colt formed Patent Arms Manufacturing, the forerunner of Colt’s Firearms Manufacturing Company which in turn became today’s Colt’s Manufacturing Company. (For a companion list for this article, please see our list of “The Top 10 Famous Pistols.”)
Digging deeper, we find the reason for the founding of this company was the invention and patenting of the revolver, a pistol with a revolving cylinder that can fire 6 times in rapid succession (originally 5 times, later changed to 6) compared to the single shot pistols of the time.
Colt’s Paterson revolver, named after Paterson, New Jersey where the factory was located, was not history’s first attempt at a revolving firearm, but was certainly the first successful and useful model.
Through aggressive marketing, fierce protection of his patents, and perhaps even bribery (he was known to make gifts of guns to potential customers) Colt made enough money that when he died in 1862 he had about $15 million dollars, around one thousandth of the GNP of the United States. That would be somewhere around $17 billion today!
Previous attempts at revolving guns were hampered by the flintlock ignition system of firearms. Once the percussion cap was introduced Colt invented his pistol that would safely fire one cylinder at a time without accidentally igniting all the cylinders, which was catastrophic to the guy holding the gun!
Unfortunately, Colt’s success and successful defense of his patents did have cracked consequences! Colt was unwilling to upgrade his invention to fire metallic case cartridges and stifled any bright ideas from his engineers and workers to protect his investment. Eventually, Smith & Wesson produced revolvers with a bored through cylinder that were loaded with metal cartridges (like we have today) instead of muzzle loaded cap and ball ammunition.
Colt was an inventor of more than just guns, and also made insulated telegraph wire and improved batteries for telegraphy. He even demonstrated underwater mines to the US Navy, successfully sinking a target ship, but did not get a contract because then congressman John Q. Adams opposed such a weapon as “unchristian” being a stealthy weapon not fielded face to face. That is cracked!
Colt also had some cracked morals, and did not hesitate to sell guns to the North and the South leading up to the Civil War. He had no aversion to slavery, and only intense condemnation in the press painting him as a disloyal Confederate sympathizer made him change his mind about establishing a factory in the South. He also sold guns to both sides in any military conflict that he could. He was in it for the money! Well, that and apparently demon slaying…
Sam Colt died in 1862, reportedly of gout, the final cracked part of this history! His name still graces the company making Colt firearms and his name is so synonymous with the revolver that in French, “revolver” is Le Colt!
Question for students: Have you ever fired a Colt revolver? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Colt, Samuel. Sam Colt’s Own Record 1847. Wolfe Pub Co, 1992.
The featured image in this article, an illustration of a Colt Texas Paterson 1836 (.40 cal) firearm with western motif (drawing courtesy of Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company), is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.