Regardless of one’s views on the use of firearms by private citizens, it is important to know about these powerful devices. Perhaps no other American brand name of firearm is better known than Colt, which began in 1836 with the creation of the Colt revolver.
Its inventor, Samuel Colt, was born July 19, 1814 in Hartford, Connecticut. His father ran a small silk and woolens factory, and young Colt began working at an early age among the machines and bolts of fabric. He was talented with machines and all things mechanical, though not terribly successful as a student. At age 15, he set off as a deckhand on a ship to India, where he is said to have first worked up the idea for a gun that could fire multiple times without reloading. Upon his return, he studied chemistry briefly with his father’s dyeing staff. Then he left on a long, three-year trip that took him from Canada to Louisiana, during which he developed skills as a showman and master marketer while lecturing on chemistry and science.
In 1836, at the age of 22, Colt obtained a U.S. patent for the Colt revolver. The weapon contained a revolving cylinder that could hold six bullets, allowing the user to fire more times without reloading than any other firearm had before. Earlier pistols were available with one- and two-barrel designs, but Colt’s design, which he may have conceived of while observing the workings of the capstan on a sailing ship, was the first of its kind and earned an important place in munitions history.
Shortly after obtaining his patent, Colt found financial support for a manufacturing business from his uncle. He set up shop in 1837 in Paterson, New Jersey, establishing Patent Arms Manufacturing, but the Colt revolver was at first unsuccessful. Adoption of this new type of revolving cartridge was slow in coming. He tried to sell his revolvers to the U.S. government, but the Army was said to have objected to the gun’s use of a percussion cap, which had been invented 20 years earlier but was just beginning to come into use. Officials were concerned with the device’s safety in emergencies. Colt was forced to close down his factory in 1842.
Meanwhile, however, the industrious Colt had also created several other revolver models including the belt, pocket, and holster revolvers, as well as two kinds of longarmor rifles. He had also developed ideas for waterproof ammunition, underwater mines, and technologies unrelated to the firearms business, including an underwater telegraph line and contributions to what would later become inventor Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph.
Then, in 1846, the Mexican War began, and the U.S. Department of War came to Colt for help. They had heard reports about the Colt revolver from the Texas Rangers, who had bought and used the guns during battles that they had fought against Indians in Texas using U.S. Dragoon forces in 1845. Captain Samuel H. Walker of the U.S. Army worked with Colt on improved designs for the guns and ordered 1,000 of the new model, which Colt dubbed the “Walker” pistol. Colt ⎯ who suddenly found himself with a large order but no factory ⎯ enlisted the help of Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the cotton gin inventor, who had a factory in Connecticut. The shipment was complete by mid-1847.
In 1848, Colt re-established his business, working out of a rented facility in Hartford. Five years later, he was well on his way to becoming one of the most prosperous arms manufacturers in the world. In 1851, he became the first American to open a plant in England, which advanced his international reputation. In 1855, he incorporated Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford. By 1856, he was among the wealthiest businessmen in the U.S., famous for advanced firearms performance as well as intricate, exquisite design and craftsmanship.
He died at the young age of 47 on January 19, 1862. His wife, Elizabeth, continued to run Colt Firearms with great success until 1901, when the company was sold to investors.
Today, Colt's firearms are manufactured and sold through Colt's Manufacturing Company, headquartered in Hartford, CT.