Samuel Colt (born Hartford, Connecticut July 19, 1814 – died Hartford, Connecticut January 10, 1862) was an American inventor and industrialist. He was the founder of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company (now known as Colt’s Manufacturing Company), and is widely credited with popularizing the revolver gun. Colt’s innovative contributions to industry have been described by arms historian James E. Serven as “events which shaped the destiny of American Firearms.”
The Early Years
Samuel Colt’s father, Christopher Colt, was a farmer in Connecticut, who moved his family to Hartford when he traded professions and got into business. Colt’s mother, Sarah Caldwell, died when Colt was almost two. He was one of seven siblings, 4 boys and three girls. Two of his sisters died in childhood and the other committed suicide later in life, but his brothers would be a significant part of his professional life. His father remarried when Colt was four and from then on Samuel was raised by his stepmother Olive Sargeant.
Samuel Colt acquired a horse pistol at an early age and his fascination with it led him to his eventual life’s profession.
He was indentured to a farm in Glastonbury at age 11, where he did chores and attended school. At Glastonbury he was influenced by the Compendium of Knowledge, an encyclopedia of scientific nature which he read instead of doing his bible studies. This encyclopedia contained articles on Robert Fulton and gunpowder, both of which provided motivation and ideas to the young boy. Reportedly on trips to the store as part of his chores Samuel overheard the military talk of the success of the double barreled rifle, along with the impossibility of a gun that could shoot five or six times. When reading Compendium of Knowledge “he discovered that Robert Fulton and several other inventors had accomplished things deemed impossible-until they were done” and “decided he would be an inventor and create the ‘impossible’ gun.”
In 1829 Colt began working in his father’s textile plant in Ware, Massachusetts, where he had access to tools, materials and the factory workers’ expertise. Using the ideas and technical knowledge he had acquired earlier from the encyclopedia, Colt built a home-made galvanic gunpowder battery and exploded it in Ware Lake.
In 1832, his father sent him to sea to learn the seaman’s trade. While sailing from Boston on the Corlo, Colt served on a missionary trip to Calcutta in an effort to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. Colt would later say that the concept of the revolver was inspired by his observations of the ship’s wheel during this voyage. He discovered that “regardless of which way the wheel was spun, each spoke always came in direct line with a clutch that could be set to hold it…the revolver was conceived!”
When Colt returned to the United States in 1832, Colt’s father financed the production of two pistols, but would only hire cheap mechanics because he believed the idea to be folly. The guns were of poor quality: one burst upon firing, and the other would not fire at all.
During this same period, Samuel again began working at his father’s factory. He learned about nitrous oxide (laughing gas) from the factory chemist. He soon took a portable lab on the road and earned a living performing laughing gas demonstrations across the United States and Canada. During this time, he also made arrangements to begin building guns using proper gunsmiths from Baltimore. In 1832, at the age of 18, Colt applied for a patent on his revolver and declared that he would “be back soon with a model.”
In 1835 Samuel Colt traveled to England, following in the footsteps of Mr. Elisha Collier (a Bostonian who had patented a revolving flintlock) and secured his first patent (number 6909), despite the reluctance from gun makers and British officials, because no fault could be found with the gun. He then traveled to France to promote his invention, where according to the 2007 issue of “Spirit of The Times,” he learned of the emerging conflict between the United States and France. Colt’s patriotic ambitions were to serve his country, and he steamed for home, however, upon his return he learned of the mediation that England had brokered, and his ambitions to serve his country were foiled before he had a chance of disclosing them. It is thought that it was this incident that brought the manufacture of his firearms to Paterson, New Jersey. Shortly after his arrival home he rushed to Washington and on 25 February 1836 he was granted a patent for a “revolving gun” (later numbered X9430). “This instrument and patent No. 1304, dated August 29, 1839, protected the basic principles of his revolving-breach loading, folding trigger firearm named the Paterson Pistol.”
Colt quickly formed a corporation of New York and New Jersey Capitalists in April 1836. Through the political connections of the subscribers the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Patterson, New Jersey was chartered by NJ legislature on March 5. Colt was given a commission for each gun sold in exchange for his share of patent rights, and stipulated the return of the rights if the company disbanded.
It was this first “practical revolver and the first practical repeating firearm,” made possible by converging percussion technology, that would be the genesis of what would later germinate into an industrial and cultural legacy and a priceless contribution to the development of war technology; that was ironically personified in the naming of one of his later revolving innovations, the Peacemaker.
Colt never claimed to have invented the revolver, as his design was merely a more practical adaption of Elisha H. Collier’s revolving Flintlock, which was patented in England and achieved great popularity there. Fortunately for Colt, he managed to secure his patent nearly two months before the Darling brothers (rival inventors with similar claims).
He did however greatly contribute to interchangeable parts. “Unhappy with high cost of hand made guns, and with the knowledge that some parts of guns were currently being made by machine, Colt wanted all the parts on every colt gun to be interchangeable and made by machine. His goal was the assembly line.” In a letter to his father Samuel Colt wrote, “The first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts…and would affix these and pass them on to the next who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”
Early Problems and Failures
Having trouble convincing the company’s owners to fund this new machinery to make the interchangeable parts, Colt went back on the road. Demonstrating his gun to people in general stores did not work, so with a loan from a cousin he went to Washington and President Andrew Jackson himself. Jackson approved of the gun and wrote Samuel a note saying just that. With that approval he got a bill through Congress for a demonstration for the military, but no appropriation for them to purchase the weapon. A promising order for fifty to seventy-five pistols by South Carolina fell apart when the company did not move fast enough to start the production.
One recurring problem Colt had in selling his revolvers was that “it was not possible to change the provisions of the Militia Act of 1808. Any arms purchased under the Militia Act had to be those in the current service to the United States.” In other words, state militias could not officially allocate funds towards the purchase of weapons not also used by the United States military.
When Martin Van Buren took office, the ensuing economic crash almost ruined the company. The company was saved by the war against the Seminoles in Florida which provided the first sale of the revolvers, both pistols and new revolving muskets. The soldiers in Florida loved the new weapon, but one problem with them did emerge. It so happened that “there was the unusual hammerless design, sixty years ahead of its time…But at the time it lead to difficulty training men to use exposed hammer guns and many curious soldiers took the locks apart. This resulted in breakage of parts, stripped screw heads, and jammed actions.” Colt soon reworked his design to leave the firing hammer exposed.
In late 1843, after problems with the Militia Act and numerous other setbacks, including the loss of payment for the Florida pistols, the Patterson New Jersey plant closed.
The Two Sams
Colt did not stay out of manufacturing long however. Soon after, in trying to once again market his underwater electrical detonators, Samuel Colt met Samuel Morse. They became friends and both tried to lobby for funds from the government. The details on Colt’s waterproof cable become valuable when Morse ran telegraph lines under lakes and rivers, or through bays, and especially when he joined men trying to lay his new telegraph across the Atlantic Ocean.
Getting appropriations from Congress toward the end of 1841 because of tensions with Great Britain, Samuel Colt began to show his underwater mines for the US government. In 1842 he was able to destroy a vessel while in motion to the satisfaction of the navy and the president. Opposition from John Quincy Adams, who personally disliked Colt, scuttled the project.
Colt then concentrated on manufacturing his waterproof telegraph cable, believing the business would boom alongside Morse’s invention. Colt was to be paid $50 per mile for the cable. He began promoting the telegraph companies so he could create a wider market for his cable.
The Return of the revolver
An order for 1,000 revolvers from the U.S. government and Capt. Sam Walker and the Texas Rangers, who had previously acquired some of the first productions of the Colt revolvers, in 1847 in the Mexican-American War made possible the reestablishment of his business. Not having the factory anymore, or a model, Colt hired out the help of Eli Whitney Jr., who was established in the arms business to make his guns. Colt and Capt. Sam Walker drew up a new improved model. Whitney produced the first thousand then another order for a thousand more and Colt took a share of the profits $10 a pistol. He later built the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company factory at Hartford. His revolving-breech pistol became so popular that the word “Colt” was sometimes used as a generic term for the revolver. The gold rush and western expansion made his business boom. He was continually forced to expand the Hartford factory.
Colt received an extension on his patent because he did not collect on it in the early years. He then waited for someone to infringe on it and sued. Samuel won the suit and received royalties on guns the rival company made, forcing the company to discontinue production. With a virtual monopoly, Colt began to sell his pistols abroad to Europe, where demand was high due to tense international relations. By telling each nation that the other was outfitting with Colt’s pistols, Colt was able to get large orders from many countries fearing falling behind.
The Later Years
Colt later purchased a large tract of land beside the Connecticut River, where he built a larger factory (Colt Armory), manor (Armsmear), and workman housing. He established a ten-hour day for employees, installed washing stations in the factory, mandated a 1 hour lunch break, and built the Charter Oak Hall, a club for employees to enjoy with games, newspapers, and discussion rooms. In this way he was a progressive employer concerned with his employees well-being.
Now being completely successful in his professional life Colt wanted to also enjoy his personal one. On June 5, 1856 he married Elizabeth Jarvis, the daughter of the Reverend William Jarvis, who lived just downriver of Hartford.
When Samuel Colt died in 1862 his estate was estimated to be valued at around $15,000,000. This he left to his wife and son, while he turned the factory responsibilities over to his brother-in-law, Richard Jarvis. Colt was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.