The Colt Legend

"Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal." This post-Civil War slogan would have been music to Sam Colt's ears had he lived long enough to hear it. Yet, even before his death at the age of 47, he knew that his invention of a weapon capable of firing without reloading was a tremendous success throughout the world. Some 19th-century historians have gone so far as to say that Sam Colt's invention altered the course of history. Whatever the case, when all was said and done, no one could deny that Sam Colt had achieved both fame and fortune known to few other inventors.

As a direct result of his invention and the marketing and sales success that followed, Sam Colt and his firearms played a prominent role in the history of a developing America. So popular was the Colt revolver during the latter half of the 1800s that it was perhaps the best-known firearm not only in this country but also in Canada, Mexico, and many European countries.

Origins of the Company

Sam Colt's success story began with the issuance of a U.S. patent in 1836 for the Colt firearm equipped with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets. Colt's revolver provided its user with greatly increased firepower. Prior to Colt’s invention, only one- and two-barrel flintlock pistols were available. In the 173 years that have followed, more than 30 million revolvers, pistols, and rifles bearing the Colt name have been produced, almost all of them in plants located in the Hartford, Connecticut, area.

The Colt revolving-cylinder concept is said to have occurred to Sam Colt while serving as a seaman aboard the sailing ship Corvo. There he observed a similar principle in the workings of the ship's capstan. During his leisure hours, Sam carved a wooden representation of his idea. The principle was remarkable in its simplicity and its applicability to both longarms and sidearms. Nevertheless, Colt's idea was not an instant success. At the outset, many people preferred the traditional flintlock musket or pistol to such a novel weapon.

In 1836, Colt built his first plant in Paterson, N.J., then one of this country's fastest-growing manufacturing centers. Sam Colt's uncle, a successful local businessman, was willing to help young Sam form the company. At age 22, Sam Colt was the firm's chief salesman and new business.

Colt soon developed and produced three different revolver models: the pocket, belt, and holster; and two types of long armor rifles: one cocked by a hammer, the other by a finger lever. In all cases, gunpowder and bullets were loaded into a revolving cylinder while the primer was placed into a nipple located on the outside of the cylinder, where it would be struck by the hammer when the trigger was pulled. Despite the generally favorable performance of the product in the hands of early buyers, sales were sluggish. Even though the U.S. government purchased small quantities of the Colt ring-lever rifle and the Colt 1839 carbine, quantities ordered appear never to have exceeded 100.

In 1842, the Paterson company, known as the Patent Arms Manufacturing Co., closed, auctioned much of its equipment, and entered bankruptcy proceedings. Sam Colt then turned his attention to selling the U.S. government on his ideas for waterproof ammunition, underwater mines for harbor defense, and, in association with the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the telegraph.

In 1845, however, units of the U.S. Dragoon forces and Texas Rangers engaged in fighting the Indians in Texas credited their use of Colt firearms for their great success in defeating Indian forces. U.S. War Department officials reportedly were favorably impressed. As a result, when the Mexican War began in 1846, Capt. Samuel H. Walker, U.S. Army, traveled East, looked up Sam Colt, and collaborated on the design of a new, more powerful revolver.

The U.S. Ordnance Dept. ordered a thousand of the newly designed revolvers, which Sam Colt called the "Walker." Suddenly, Colt was back in the firearms business but without a factory. He turned to Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the famous inventor of the cotton gin, who had a factory in Connecticut. It was there that the order was manufactured and shipped by mid-1847.

The 1850’s: Early Success

In 1851, two significant developments had a major impact on the future of the company. Sam Colt became the first American manufacturer to open a plant in England, thereby solidifying his reputation in international markets. And he began purchasing parcels of property in what was then called the South Meadows, an area of Hartford that fronted on the banks of the Connecticut River. The parcels sold at remarkably low prices because they were often flooded. To address the flooding, Colt privately commissioned a two-mile-long dike. The dike cost twice as much as the 250 acres, but the new plant, operational in 1855, was protected from the river's uncontrolled flow.

Colt’s factory was equipped with the most up-to-date metalworking machinery available and was capable of turning out 5,000 finished handguns during its first year of operation. Knowledgeable of the latest achievements of New England's world-famous machine tool industry, Colt lost no time in specifying interchangeable parts, some 80% of which were turned out on modern precision machinery. Sam Colt is reported to have said, "There is nothing that can't be produced by machine," and his factory's production machinery achieved a remarkably high degree of uniformity for the mid-19th century. Typically, the metal parts of a Colt revolver were designed, molded, machined, fitted, stamped with a serial number, hardened, and assembled.

An unabashed promoter of both his company and the City of Hartford, Colt raised the distinctive onion-shaped dome, topped with a cast-bronze rampant colt, over his factory. That assured that every Hartford resident and visitor who saw the dome would ask about it and learn the Colt success story.

In 1855, Colt incorporated his business in Connecticut as the Colt's Patent Fire Arms Mfg Co., with an initial issuance of 10,000 shares of stock. Sam Colt retained ownership of 9,996 shares and gave one share to each of four business associates, including E.K. Root, his trusted factory superintendent and an inventor in his own right. By 1856, the company was producing 150 weapons a day; and the reputation of Colt firearms for exceptional accuracy, reliability, workmanship, and design had spread throughout the world.

Business success brought Colt fortune and fame. He became one of the ten wealthiest businessmen in the U.S and was awarded the honorary title of “Colonel” by the Governor of the State of Connecticut in return for political support. Colonel Colt had long enhanced the beauty of his firearms by adding engraving and gold inlay, but as the renown of his firearms spread, he expanded his engraving department. Colt's show guns and presentation pieces, exquisitely engraved and generously inlaid with gold, consistently won prizes at international trade fairs. Many were presented publicly to heads of state, including Czars Nicholas I and Alexander II of Russia, King Frederick VII of Denmark, and King Charles XV of Sweden.

Colt's Patent Fire Arms Mfg Co. sold its product line through a small force of traveling salesmen, known as agents, and through 15 to 20 jobbers who acted as wholesalers selling large quantities to individual retail outlets. The company also maintained sales offices in New York City and London. In addition, the sales department accepted direct orders at the plant from the rich and famous, friends of the Colt family, and those ordering large quantities.

Decades ahead of his time, Sam Colt was later recognized as one of the earliest American manufacturers to realize fully the potential of an effective marketing program that included sales promotion, publicity, product sampling, advertising, and public relations. His success made him perhaps the richest man in Connecticut and a pillar of the Hartford community. When Sam Colt built his home, Armsmear, an ornate mansion replete with greenhouses and formal gardens on the western edge of his armory property, it was deemed fitting that it should be one of New England's grandest residences. Armsmear remains standing to this day and is now an Episcopal home for the elderly.

1860 to 1900: War, the Death of Sam Colt, and Growth of the American West

Samuel Colt's health began to fail late in 1860 as the country moved toward Civil War. Prior to the actual declaration of war, Colt continued to ship his product to customers in southern states, but as soon as war was official, Colt supplied only the Union forces. The Armory was running at full capacity by year-end 1861, with more than 1,000 employees and annual profits exceeding $250,000. Samuel Colt died on January 10, 1862, at the age of only 47, having produced in his lifetime more than 400,000 guns. His estate was reportedly worth $15 million, a fantastic sum for the time.

Following Sam Colt's death, control of the company remained in the capable hands of Mrs. Elizabeth Colt and her family until 1901, when the company was sold to a group of investors. During that 39-year period, a number of significant events and developments impacted the Colt product line.

The Colt Armory and adjacent office structure burned to the ground in 1864, causing the suspension of all but limited military production for almost three years. The factory was rebuilt and, at Mrs. Colt's direction, was constructed to be as fireproof as possible. In 1867, the company began production of Dr. R.J. Gatling's machine gun, a semiautomatic firearm operated by a hand crank that turned a cluster of six to ten barrels while feeding ammunition into the breech.

Further change and growth came in the 1870’s. In 1872, Colt began to manufacture its first breech-loaded revolver that used self-contained metallic cartridges. That gun became world-famous as the Single Action Army® Model 1873 and it was designed to use metallic ammunition that contained its own primer. In the years just prior to introduction of the 1873, thousands of percussive Colt revolvers had been converted to use a front-loaded, center-fired cartridge and there was pent-up demand for a gun designed for the new cartridge. The Single Action Army was an immediate sales success. Eventually, it became the stuff of legend as the “Peacemaker”® and "the gun that won the West." Between 1873 and 1941, Colt produced more than 350,000 Single Action Army revolvers of varying caliber, including almost 40,000 of the .45 caliber model sold to the U.S. government.

Product expansion continued during the 1880s, Colt introduced a full line of firearms ranging in size from concealable derringers to hammerless shotguns.

The line encompassed a large number of double action revolvers in various calibers, slide and pump action rifles, and the first revolvers with swing-out cylinders for easier loading. As its fame and reach grew, Colt Firearms had no single competitor. Smith & Wesson offered the greatest competition for the Colt line of handguns. Where rifles and shotguns were concerned, Remington and Winchester were the strongest competitors.

No other U.S. company produced as many fully automatic rifles, best known as machine guns, as did Colt Firearms. In large part, this was due to Colt’s long and profitable relationship with John Moses Browning. As early as 1891, Colt Firearms worked with Browning to produce a gas-operated, air-cooled (later water-cooled) machine gun. That gun was first delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1897 and was destined to play a major role in both the Boxer Rebellion and the Spanish-American War.

The Colt-Browning relationship included not only his machine guns and the well-known Browning automatic rifles (BAR) but also the world-famous Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol. Because of its effective stopping power, the Colt .45 was purchased in large quantity by the Department of the Army and, as the Model 1911A1, became the standard-issue sidearm during both World War I and World War II. Colt delivered approximately 2.5 million Colt .45 pistols to the U.S. government alone and also offered the pistol for sale commercially with tremendous marketing success. During both World Wars and subsequent military actions by the U.S. Armed Forces, Colt was a major producer of sidearms, rifles, machine guns, BARs, and antiaircraft guns for the U.S. Department of Defense.

1901 to 1960: Turn of the Century until Vietnam

Following Mrs. Colt’s death, the Colt Firearms Company was sold to outside investors in 1901. From that time until 1955, the company had only eight presidents. During those 54 years, Colt Firearms faced and successfully dealt with the usual problems that confronted firearms manufacturers: the need to rapidly increase levels of employment and production during wartime, followed by corresponding shrinkage when the war was over, and the resulting need to diversify to other products. Colt was generally profitable for its shareholders and continued to pay a dividend each year, even at the height of the Great Depression when earnings were near zero. To diversify, the company learned to make machinery, printing presses, ticket punches, plastics, and commercial dishwashing machines.

With the onset of war, in 1942, Colt more than tripled its workforce to 15,000 employees in three plants. During the final year of the war, Colt production rates were faltering, the company was losing money, and the government was losing confidence in Colt management's ability to keep pace, mostly because of its antiquated machinery and largely inefficient production techniques. Following World War II, the fortunes of the company fluctuated like a roller coaster with sales and earnings almost entirely dependent upon government orders. Those increased sharply during the Korean conflict but dropped precipitously after the Korean truce was signed in 1952.

By 1955, the company was losing money and faced a deficit that was growing each month as orders declined and existing orders were canceled. By September of 1955, Colt’s board decided to seek a merger partner. They found Leopold D. Silberstein and his company, the Penn-Texas Corporation, a new type of holding company called a "conglomerate."

Colt Firearms became a wholly owned subsidiary of Silberstein’s holding company, based in New York City. The Silberstein family of diversified companies also included Pratt and Whitney Company of West Hartford, a manufacturer of machine tools. Several years later, in 1959, a group of investors took control of the company, dismissed Mr. Silberstein, and changed the name of the company to Fairbanks Whitney, reflecting its acquisition of the Fairbanks Morse Company of Chicago.

1960 to 1994: From Vietnam to Bankruptcy

Another milestone in the history of Colt was reached in 1960, when Colt introduced the AR-15® semiautomatic rifle, based on a design by Eugene Stoner. It was followed shortly thereafter by the M16 military full-automatic version. Involvement of the United States in Vietnam again put heavy demands on Colt to supply arms for the troops. On the commercial side of the business, Colt’s commemorative line of firearms was introduced.

Changes came again in 1964, when the parent company reorganized under the name Colt Industries and the firearms subsidiary became Colt's Inc., Firearms Division. During the 1970s Colt's continued in a positive direction with the introduction of its Sharps Rifle, Sauer Rifle, and Blackpowder Reproductions. Colt management also responded to an increasing demand for engraved firearms by expanding Colt's staff of engravers. In 1976, the successful sale of the Colt National Sporting Goods Foundation auction firearm encouraged Colt management to officially form the Colt Custom Gun Shop. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s Colt continued to expand its black-powder line to include, among others, reproductions of the famed Walker and the 1860 Army revolver.

New automatic pistols, the Combat Government Model® and the .380 Government Model®, were introduced in 1984. Colt suffered a serious blow that same year, however, when the U.S. government chose to replace the Colt .45 as the official sidearm for the armed forces.

1986 proved to be an eventful year. The company celebrated the 150th anniversary of Sam Colt’s first patent with a line of commemorative firearms. They included the Single Action Army Sampler Edition, with engraving of four historical patterns representative of famous Colt engravers, and an engraved Single Action Army Exhibition model that was sold at auction for $150,000.

Another significant event in 1986, however, was the commencement by the United Automobile Workers Union of a bitter strike, which began on January 25 and would continue for four years. In the middle of the strike, in 1988, Colt suffered another blow, loss of the government contract for M16 rifles. Eventually, the strike was brought to an end in March, 1990, with the sale of the Colt Firearms Division to a three-party consortium that included private investors, the union employees and the Connecticut State Employees’ Pension Fund. With the end of the strike, new products were introduced. They included the Double Eagle™ double-action pistol, the Colt Anaconda® .44 Magnum double-action revolver, and the redesigned Sporter Rifle.

Colt’s post-strike good fortune was short-lived. Just two years after the sale, Colt firearms was bankrupt and it entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization proceedings in March, 1992. Litigation commenced over rights to the Colt name and trademarks. Despite bankruptcy and litigation, however, the business of the company somehow progressed. The new Colt .22 Automatic was introduced in 1993, along a compact automatic rifle based on the Colt M16, that became known as the M4 carbine. In 1994, while still in Chapter 11, the company closed the Hartford Armory and relocated the entire business to the West Hartford manufacturing facility from which it operates today. Additionally, Colt was awarded a sole source contract to supply nearly 19,000 of its new M4 carbines to the U.S. Army and to joint Special Forces personnel. In September, 1994, a new group of investors purchased the company and Colt finally emerged from the eight-year period of turmoil that began with the January, 1986 strike.

1995 to 2009: Return to Glory

Colt’s exit from bankruptcy launched a rebirth and rejuvenation of the company that propelled it to today. Commemorating its move from the famed Hartford Armory, Colt unveiled "The Last Gun" in 1995 which was the last Single Action Army® revolver produced at the Hartford Armory. It was elaborately engraved and embellished with historical gold inlays representative of the Colt family and company lineage. At the same time, new commercial products were introduced, including the Colt .22 Target pistol, the Colt Match Target® rifle and Colt .38 SF-VI revolver. The Colt .22 Target pistol was named "Handgun of the Year" by the Shooting Industry Academy of Excellence.

In 1997, more new commercial products were introduced. They included the Pony® Double Action pistol, Defender™ carry pistol, and the DS II® revolver. The Colt Custom Gun Shop brought out the Python® Elite revolver and the Gold Cup™ Trophy pistol.

Colt’s military business also began a return to its former glory in the aftermath of the bankruptcy.  Colt won a contract to produce 16,000 Colt M4 carbines in 1996. In 1997, it won a follow-on contract for another 6,000 M4 carbines. In 1998, the U.S. Government ordered M16 rifles from Colt for the first time in ten years, in excess of 32,000 units. Complimenting that was a contract to upgrade 88,000 M16A1 rifles to the A2 configuration for the U.S. Air Force. During 1998, Colt negotiated an agreement with the U.S. Government that solidified Colt’s position as the exclusive supplier of the M4 carbine through the first decade of the 21st Century.

By 1999, Colt enjoyed a backlog of military rifle/carbine orders amounting to approximately 59,000 units. On the commercial side of the business, the acquisition of Ultra Light Arms, Inc. put Colt back in the sporting rifle business. The Colt Cowboy revolver and Pocket Nine™ pistol were also added to the product line. Completing a pair of highly engraved and gold inlaid Dragoon revolvers, the Colt Custom Gun Shop proved once again that it was the leader in the industry. This matched set recalled the famous presentation Dragoon that was given to the Sultan of Turkey by Samuel Colt (c.1854) and which is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The most significant event of 1999 was the arrival of Lt. Gen. William M. Keys USMC (Ret.) as President and Chief Executive Officer. A decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Keys took the helm of the company at a critical time. Dozens of municipalities around the country had brought lawsuits against Colt and other leading handgun manufacturers, distributors and dealers and the cost of defending the litigation threatened to bring the company and the other manufacturers to their knees. Gen. Keys shepherded Colt through the legal thicket and presciently and successfully reoriented the business back toward military and law enforcement customers. Those efforts culminated in the 2002-03 spinoff of Colt’s military and law enforcement rifle business to Colt Defense and the establishment of the Colt M4 carbine as the standard-issue combat rifle of the United States Army and Marines. As a combat veteran and an avid shooter and collector himself, Gen. Keys has provided the company with a leader who appreciates and understands firearms as few others do.

In 2000, Colt introduced the XSE Series line of handguns with features including front & rear serrations, an elongated hammer slot, and an aluminum trigger. Available to customers in Government®, Commander®, and Lightweight Commander® models, the XSE Series line of handguns offered customers extraordinary features not available in similar 1911 frame packages.

The Series 70 Government Model and WWII Replica O1911A1 were introduced in 2002. These marked a triumphant launch of the O1911 Replica Series of guns. Packaged in its original configuration with 2 magazines and kraft styled box, the O1911A1 was faithful to its progenitor, the O1911. The Series 70 Government Model also proved to be a big hit among collectors and custom gunsmiths. With a 70 Series firing system, its ruggedness and dependable action allow high maintainability and repeatable accuracy.

Colt introduced the Colt Gunsite Officers Model™ Pistol in 2003. A joint venture with the Gunsite® academy for shooters, this carry ready pistol was built specifically for avid shooters with personal protection in mind. For Gunsite® pistol customers, the company also included a redeemable coupon for training at the facility. With the conclusion of a 4,000-unit run, the World War II Replica O1911A1 was retired. Colt then went back to the roots of the original design of the O1911 with a flat mainspring housing, small grip safety, wide spur hammer, and original carbonia blue finish. Again, limited runs of 4,000 units were placed on the Replica Series. The reintroduction of the .38 Super in 2003 established an affordable option to its users with stainless steel or carbon steel.

The year 2005 marked the 50th anniversary of the Colt Python®. Highly embellished with gold inlays and select walnut grips, the 50th Anniversary Colt Python was a smash hit with collectors. The, in 2007 Colt leaped back into the concealable carry market with the Colt New Agent® pistol, one of the finest .45 ACP barrels on the market. With trench style sights that give the owner a snag-free action, the New Agent is currently the lightest gun in the Colt handgun product line. 2007 also marked the end of the 4,000-unit run of the model O1911. In its place, the O1918 WWI Black Army was introduced. With a black oxide finish, the O1918 is a WWI Replica dedicated to commemorate the third rendition of the original O1911 pistol used during WWI. To meet production needs for the US Military during WWI, Colt changed the standard Carbonia Blue finish to an almost black finish, giving it the name of “The Black Army.” A limited run has been placed on the O1918.

In 2008, Colt brought back the Frontier® Six Shooter and Sheriff’s & Storekeeper’s models for collectors. The Colt Frontier Six Shooter was first introduced in 1877. It quickly became adopted as a sidearm for those carrying a .44/40 rifle. As the frontiersman’s workhorse at the time, very few of the originals can be found in peak condition. Its reintroduction in 2008 offered a replica handgun for enthusiasts seeking only the finest in craftsmanship. From its original design commencement in 1882, the Sheriff’s & Storekeeper’s Model was destined to be a frontrunner as a concealed carry handgun with .45 caliber stopping power. Built on a black powder frame, the Sheriff’s & Storekeeper model copies its original concept in a 3-inch barrel Sheriff’s, or 4-inch barrel Storekeeper. Both calibers and barrel lengths include the two-line address on top of the barrel, and are manufactured with an ejector-less barrel. The Combat Elite® also was reintroduced in 2008, offering an upgraded XSE package that provides users with options above standard XSE series guns.

For 2009, the company has brought back the 10mm Delta Elite®. A competition model for the avid shooter, the 10mm retains its original design with a forged stainless steel frame, slide, slide stop, and barrel. Features such as Wrap Around Rubber Grips with Delta Medallions, White Dot Sights, an Arched Main-Spring Housing, Combat Hammer, and 80 Series Firing System give the Delta Elite the winning combination of proven capability and endurance for the handgun enthusiast and retro collector.

For shooters looking to add accessories to their Colt handgun, Colt introduces the O1070RG, the Colt Rail Gun™. This new handgun is marketed with exciting features for the law enforcement community, the shooting enthusiast, and personal defense gun owner. New features for the Colt Rail Gun include a military style accessory rail, Smith & Alexander® upswept beavertail grip safety, Colt single side tactical safety, Novak® Rear Sight, and other standard features of the XSE Series.

For the 4th Quarter of 2010, when seconds matter most, count on the New Agent® DAO (Double Action Only) to provide the backup. The New Agent DAO proves Colt’s commitment to its customers, with the return of a double action pistol. The Colt New Agent DAO mimics its predecessor with a snag free trench style sight, and small, lightweight, accurate and reliable features. With .45ACP stopping power, the New Agent DAO makes for the ultimate concealable carry.