Samuel Colt

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.

Further Reading on Samuel Colt

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.

Additional Biography Sources

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.

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