“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 age 47, he knew that his invention of a weapon capable of firing without reloading would be a tremendous success throughout the world & would alter the course of history. As a result of his invention & marketing successes, Colt has played a prominent role in the development of America, and has become the most well-known name in firearms throughout much of the world.
Origins of the Company
The Colt revolving cylinder concept is said to have occurred to Sam Colt while serving as a seaman aboard the ship Corvo. He observed a similar principle in mechanical workings of the ship, generally believed to be the capstan or the windlass. It was on the ship that Sam carved the wooden representation of his idea. While the design was simple & applicable to both longarms & sidearms, his idea was not an instant success. Many people still preferred traditional flintlock muskets or pistols to the revolver.
In 1836, Sam’s entrepreneurial career began at age 22, opening his first plant in Paterson, New Jersey with the help of a successful uncle. He soon developed & produced the pocket, belt, and holster model pistols along with two types of rifles. In these models, known as percussion guns, the gunpowder & bullets were loaded into the revolving cylinder, the primer was placed in a nipple on the outside of the cylinder, and then the primer would be struck by the hammer when the trigger was pulled. Despite favorable performance, sales were sluggish & the plant closed in 1842. After the closing of the Paterson plant, Sam began focusing on other ideas, including waterproof ammunition, underwater mines, and also worked with inventor Samuel Morse on the telegraph.
IN 1845, units of the US Dragoon forces & Texas rangers were fighting the Indians in Texas, and contributed their success to Colt’s firearms. As a result, Captain Samuel H. Walker of the US Army collaborated with Colt in designing a new, more powerful revolver. Dubbed the “Walker”, the US Ordnance Department ordered one thousand of the new pistols. Without a factory, Colt turned to Eli Whitney Jr. who had a factory in Connecticut, to fill the thousand gun order in 1847.
In 1851, Sam became the first American manufacturer to open a plant in England, solidifying his reputation in the international market. Sam also began purchasing land on the South Meadows, an area of Hartford on the Connecticut River. The factory became operational in 1855, incorporated as Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt, aware of the achievements made in New England’s machine tool industry, specified interchangeable parts for his guns. Colt’s aggressive marketing campaigns were just as important, and many of his highly decorated & engraved guns won prizes at international fairs, and were also presented publicly to heads of state, including Czar Nicholas I of Russia, King Frederick VII of Denmark, and King Charles XV of Sweden. By 1856, Colt was producing 150 weapons a day, and the reputation of models like the 1851 Navy and 1849 Pocket as accurate, reliable, and of the finest workmanship & design had spread throughout the world.
Colt’s success brought him fame & fortune. He became one of the ten wealthiest businessmen in the US, became a pillar of the Hartford community, and was awarded the honorary title of “Colonel” by the governor of Connecticut. He and his wife Elizabeth built Armsmear, his private mansion with greenhouses & formal gardens at the western edge of the armory property, where it still stands today.
Civil War, Elizabeth, and the End of the 19th Century
Sam’s health began to fail in 1860 as the country moved towards the Civil War. Prior to the formal declaration of war, Colt continued to supply his customers in the southern states. Once official, Colt supplied only the Union forces. By the end of 1861, the factory was running at full capacity with over one thousand employees and annual profits exceeding a quarter million dollars. On January 10, 1862, at age 47, Samuel Colt died, having produced over 400,000 firearms and building a fortune worth fifteen million dollars, an incredible sum for the time.
Sam’s early death left his industrial empire and fortune to his widow Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt. Elizabeth’s inner strength and deep love for her husband gave her the determination to maintain ownership of the company and see that his legacy lived on.
In 1864, the Colt Armory burned to the ground, causing the suspension of all but limited military production for three years. Under Elizabeth’s direction, the factory was rebuilt and made to be as fireproof as possible. Just after the rebuilding of the factory, Colt began building Dr. R.J. Gatling’s machine guns, 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 & growth came in the 1870’s when Colt began to manufacture revolvers that used self-contained metallic cartridges. This change gave birth to the famous Colt Single Action Army Revolver, which was introduced in 1873. The Single Action Army was an immediate sales success and soon became known as “the gun that won the West”. Between 1873 and 1941, Colt produced more than 350,000 Single Action Army revolvers, including about 40,000 of the .45 caliber model produced for the U.S. Government. Famous proponents of the revolver include Buffalo Bill Cody, Bat Masterson, General George Patton, and Teddy Roosevelt. Single Action Army production continues to this day. Product expansion continued through the end of the 19th century to include the Model 1877 and Model 1878 double action revolvers, the New Army & New Navy models with the first swing out cylinders, concealable derringers, shotguns, and rifles.
Early 20th Century & The World Wars
In the late 19th century, Colt began a long and profitable relationship with John Moses Browning, producing his many designs on machine guns, the Browning Automatic Rifle, the Model 1903 and Model 1908 Automatics, and most famously the Model 1911. Because of its effective stopping power & reliability, the Model 1911 became the standard sidearm for the Department of the Army in World War I, and as the Model 1911A1 in World War II. Colt delivered approximately 2.5 million 1911 & 1911A1 pistols to the US Government alone and also offered the pistol for sale commercially with tremendous marketing success. During both World Wars and subsequent US military actions, Colt was a major producer of sidearms, rifles, machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns for the US Department of Defense.
Post War through the 1990’s
At the conclusion of the world wars, Colt continued to be at the forefront of innovation. This period saw the introduction of the Commander lightweight semiautomatic pistol, the Cobra lightweight revolvers, the Colt Commemoratives, and what many consider to be the finest revolver ever produced, the famous Colt Python. Another milestone in the history of Colt happened in 1960, when Colt introduced the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, based on the design by Eugene Stoner. It was followed shortly thereafter by the M16 military full automatic version. The involvement of the US in Vietnam again put heavy demands on Colt to supply arms to the troops. To this day, the AR-15 platform continues to be the most popular rifle in the US.
The 1970’s also saw many positive changes for Colt. The introduction of the Series ’70 pistols, Sauer Rifles, and the Blackpowder reproductions continued Colt in a positive direction. Additionally, 1976 saw the official beginning of the Colt Custom Shop, expanding its staff of engravers to respond to increasing demand for engraved firearms.
The middle of the 1980’s through the middle of the 1990’s were a difficult time in Colt’s history, with the U.S Government replacing the 1911 as the official sidearm of its armed forces and a 4-year strike, however, Colt persevered through these times and introduced new successful models, including the Double Eagle double action pistol, the Anaconda, and a redesigned Sporter Rifle.
Move to West Hartford to Present Day
In 1994, the Hartford Armory was closed and moved to its present day location in West Hartford. Commemorating the move from the armory, Colt unveiled “The Last Gun” in 1995, which was the last Single Action Army produced at the Hartford Army and elaborately embellished with engraving and gold inlays representative of the Colt family & company lineage.
Today, Colt continues to produce firearms for our military, law enforcement, commercial, and international markets. It is with pride in the legacy left by Sam Colt that we continue to carry on the tradition of producing quality firearms.