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Samuel Colt and the Birth of the Revolver

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 13, 2022 3:03 am

Samuel Colt and the Birth of the Revolver

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 13, 2022 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Phil Anschutz writes in Out Where The West Begins: “Samuel Colt’s life was the American story written in capital letters.” Here to tell the story is Ashley Hlebinsky, the former co-host of Discovery Channel’s “Master of Arms,” the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum, and president of The Gun Code, LLC.

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Here's Ashley. There's a famous quote that, well, there's lots of variations on this quote, but basically that God made man and Sam Colt made them equal. I'm not 100% sure if that quote actually happened, but it certainly exemplifies the legend that is Samuel Colt. But the story behind Sam Colt is that he was the first person to make a commercially successful revolver. And you're not familiar with a revolver.

It kind of describes itself when you think about the technology. So you have a pistol or a rifle. He actually made some shotguns. And you've got this cylinder that would rotate.

It would revolve. And you had ultimately five or six rounds. His guns varied early on. And you would load each round into the gun.

And then you would cock the hammer and allowing the cylinder to rotate in order to fire the next round, which is a pretty revolutionary concept in firearms design. Because prior to really the industrial period in the United States and overseas, guns were individually made or produced in an armory. And so those guns were typically single shot. It's important to note that repeaters have been around since at least the 1400s. But they were popular more in the civilian market than they were in the military.

They didn't really have a military purpose. And part of that's because the government's a little slow to adopt new things. But it really becomes both a civilian and military firearm around the time of Sam Colt. Now, he wasn't the first person to make a revolver.

And that's important to note. He was one of the first people where you didn't have to advance the cylinder yourself. But there were revolving mechanisms as far back as the 1500s. And so he did get inspiration from those things, although he might deny that he got inspiration from those things. But it'd be kind of hard to believe that he had never seen this firearm that was produced and people didn't know about it.

But he did create one that is now so famous and so synonymous with his name, it's easy to just associate him with the first. He starts off his life, though, being a little mischievous. And so he has to get really serious really quickly because his father's kind of fed up with his with his lifestyle. And he starts at the Amherst Academy in Massachusetts for school.

But he's expelled from the school. And so he was sent out to sea on the Corvo. And he did that for many years around 1830. And on that ship, as Colt would recount, he would become fascinated with the ship's wheel and the way that the wheel rotated. And there's also a story that he like kind of whittled a wooden gun. And so he really started to try to create what would become one of the most iconic firearms in American history and international history.

Initially, though, he has to go over to England to get his revolver noticed. And the first patent that he takes out is in 1835. But in the United States, he does take out a patent, two patents, actually, in 1836, one in February and one in April. There was a patent process in the United States that dates to the 1790s, but it was kind of a hot mess. And so there wasn't really this kind of full movement to patent your invention until this time period. There was a standardization that was the Patent Act of 1836.

And so after 1836, you see all kinds of patents and people suing each other and trying to make things. And Colt really gets in on the ground floor in the United States with his, at the time, five shot revolver. And while we associate him with a handgun, that initial patent was actually for a rifle as well. And so he would make both. He loved his rifle.

Nobody else did, but he loved his rifle. And so he would make several different designs off of that revolving mechanism. And so he starts to make what is ultimately called the Patterson revolver is the one that's associated with his first real product. And that's because of his factory that he put into place in Patterson, New Jersey. And that was ultimately funded mostly by his family. And it's ultimately a business failure for him. He really struggled in business.

I mean, his company went bankrupt a lot. But the one thing that he was was a salesman. And there are stories of him basically hawking his own firearms on the battlefield to try to get people to purchase his firearms.

So what he maybe lacked in complete business management prowess, he made up for in making people excited for his product. One of the more iconic revolvers that came after the Patterson and all the different variations of the Patterson was the Walker revolver. And it was ultimately designed in concert with a Texas Ranger named Samuel Walker. And it was used by them on the battlefield in Texas. And it was a big gun.

Heavy caliber kind of had some issues. You see the incorporation of what's called a loading lever. So it actually swings down and helps to load the gun to pack it in. Unfortunately, if you fired one like I have, the loading lever didn't have any type of catch. So it would often fall down and get stuck in the cylinder and you'd have to push it back up and then fire it again. But still revolutionary for its time. But it was one of those things that I mean, I can't even imagine being on the battlefield and not being familiar with a revolver and expecting a single shot gun. And then, you know, coming coming at the barrel of a repeating firearm that doesn't have to be reloaded every time.

So it's one of those things that is progressive and also incites a lot of fear into people who are on the receiving end of it. The really interesting thing about this patent that is a smart move for Colt is that he owned the legal right to make this type of technology. So he basically, even though he couldn't really get his stuff together, always in his business side, he had the market. Other people could not make that gun in that configuration. And he actually was able to get the patent extended so it didn't expire until the 1850s.

So you have the market for 20 years. But there were people waiting in the wings and Colt did make some missteps. And one of those missteps was that he had a guy named Roland White who worked for him, who developed this kind of ingenious piece of technology where instead of having to awkwardly load the revolver from the front of the cylinder, he actually made it. So it was called a board through cylinder so you actually could load it from the back of the gun, which was really impressive for that time, increased the speed of everything. And he brought it to Colt and he was like, look at this thing that I've got. And Colt was like, no, we're good.

Thank you. And Roland White would, I always say it goes across the street to Smith & Wesson, but that's not really accurate. But he basically goes to Smith & Wesson, who would become one of the other iconic names associated with the revolver early on in history. And he has his own very complicated history with Smith & Wesson.

He takes this design. It's what Smith & Wesson is known for. Unfortunately, he didn't make a great deal with them as a war broke out where he had to basically legally defend his patent. But when the war breaks out and everyone has to make as many firearms as possible, there's a lot of patent infringement. And he very much gets hit hard with that since Smith & Wesson was smart enough to make the deal.

We don't have to talk about Roland White. Colt messed up and Smith & Wesson was smart. So as soon as Colt's patent expired in, I believe, 1857, Smith & Wesson popped up quickly. And you've been listening to Ashley Lebinski tell the story of Samuel Colt. And it's a story about so much from manufacturing to sales itself and salesmanship.

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Let's return to the story of Sam Colt with our storyteller, Ashley Lebinski. So now you've got some competition in the market for Colt. You've got Colt, you've got Smith & Wesson, you've got Remington. All names are still pretty well known today for firearms and in some way, some configuration are still around. And so everyone kind of gets into the kind of mass production of firearms for the American Civil War which starts in 1861. So that's, you know, five years after you start getting more revolvers on the market. And handguns become a lot more efficient on the battlefield. Prior to that, you know, officers carried them but in the Civil War, you had officers carrying handguns but then you also had soldiers purchasing firearms including Colts.

Prices were relatively reasonable, I guess, for the time. So you would have soldiers, individuals that would buy the gun if they were not issued anything. And so it becomes kind of a change in the way that we perceive technology on the battlefield which is interesting because there's a lot of repeating technology in rifle form that is available during the Civil War but it's not adopted as readily and as passionately as people adopted the revolver. Samuel Colt was not always known for being easy to get along with. And while he was a great salesman and a great inventor, he had some missteps towards the end of his life. And one of the biggest issues and one of the controversies that surrounded his life was that leading up to the American Civil War, he had clients down in the South that he continued to sell to as tensions were brewing between the Union and the Confederacy. And he did claim that the second the war broke out or they knew what was happening that there were going to be no guns going down there but the damage was already done.

Whatever his logic and reason were for continuing to supply firearms to the South leading up to the war, it really did so much damage to his personal reputation. And while he did ultimately get a regiment, a unit, during the Civil War, and hopefully he was hoping that would help everything, they did call him Colonel Sam Colt so he got that title before he died in 1862 of rheumatism. So the fascinating part of the story is that a lot of the guns that we associate quote unquote with Colt, you know, the Colt single action, the Western Colts, he had nothing to do with.

And a lot of people still associate his name with designs that happened a decade after he died. And it's kind of all held together by his widow, who is, in my opinion, responsible for the Colt legacy continuing on. Her name was Elizabeth Jarvis Colt. She was born to a socialite family in Hartford, Connecticut, where the factory would end up. And she very quickly overnight becomes the major shareholder of Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company.

And one of the things that also she's really passionate about is her father's an Episcopal minister, so she will stay very close to the church and charity for the rest of her life. She was one of the richest women in America at the time. She inherited millions of dollars and the controlling interest in Colt.

Her brother actually ran the company for a little bit after another designer who had taken over the company, Alicia K. Root, died. And she had a tragic story as well. So she lost her husband, but she also lost initially two children to infancy. She was pregnant when Colt died, and I believe she lost one other child.

So her only surviving child was someone named Caldwell Colt. And so she was kind of marred by all of that tragedy, but she was so well liked by the community that she was known as the First Lady of Hartford. And that was because of her creation of gardens, her love of the workers in the Colt factory, and her kind of chutzpah for the fact that Confederate sympathizers burned down the factory in 1864. And she rebuilt, and she recreated this onion dome that was iconic and associated with the factory, and she always took care of the workers that they had. The Colt manufacturing facility actually housed a lot of their workers. They had sports teams for them.

They had music performances. They had educational opportunities for the families that worked for the Colt factory. And she continued to really cultivate that environment. And one of the things that she did, which was probably more or less successful, was she created a church on site of kind of the entire town, Coltsville, as it's called. And one of her hopes was that executives and workers alike could go and worship. And it's fascinating architecture.

You can go look at it today. It incorporates so many facets of technology, you know, revolving cylinders built into the architecture, tools. I mean, everywhere there's something related to firearms. And of course, she had to immortalize her husband in many, many different ways. She had statues erected where he's, you know, whittling the wood model of his Colt. And she also included a beautiful stained glass pane in the church where she casually incorporated Sam Colt into a biblical legend. So she wanted to not only run a successful company and take care of people in Hartford, she also immortalized his lifetime. And to some extent, you hear stories about Sam Colt, and they're not in a very favorable light. He was difficult to get along with and he struggled sometimes as a businessman. And so when you hear Colt today, you don't always hear that story. And I think Elizabeth played a very big role in kind of rebranding him after his passing and creating all of these things where his statue surrounded by community prosperity.

And it changed a little bit of the way that the company was perceived. Now, she died in 1905, so she outlived her husband significantly. But Colt really was getting started at that point. And so her legacy kind of still stands with all of the gardens. She actually took her property, Armsmere, the house that she and Colt had lived in, built together, and she turned it into a home for the widows of Episcopal ministers.

So she kind of comes full circle with all of that, taking care of people in the community. But there are also some iconic developments that happened that put Colt on the map in terms of design and functionality and the future of the company. And this is done by several designers that work for the factory whose names are lesser known. And that would be the designers of the Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army, which has been seen in pretty much every Western film ever made. And then also they were on the forefront of automatic technology. Automatic technology very loosely is that you have a gun where you press the trigger and it continuously fires until you either release the trigger, you run out of ammunition, which happened most of the time, or the fire malfunctioned. And they worked with a very well-known designer named John Moses Browning early on to create what's called the Colt Model 1895. So believe that you have machine guns in 1895 that are being used at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. And then he also works with Browning to create a semi-automatic pistol. Semi-automatic technology means every time you press the trigger, it fires one round, but it automatically rechambers a round so you can fire another one.

And the gun that's most associated with that, although there were various versions before this, is the Colt Model 1911, which is still very, very popular today. So you've got a man with an idea. You've got a troublemaker with an idea.

You've got a personality with an idea. And he takes that and he, while not always successful, surrounds himself with people that do also know what they're doing. And I guess to some extent, he surrounds himself with the right woman because she was able to really be the face of the company and run the company with her brother for a little bit and basically build up this entire reputation for her husband. It's kind of sad that we don't always hear her name because you've got a woman that's now inheriting a major manufacturing facility after her husband's death and rebuilds when she needs to rebuild and does so much for a community. And because of her generosity, because of her charity, I think we remember Sam Colt in a different light and she's ultimately responsible for how we perceive all of that today for good, bad and indifferent, I guess.

And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Ashley Lebinski, the former co-host of the Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum and president of the Gun Code. And she was so right. He was a troublemaker and a person with an idea, she said of Samuel Colt. And he surrounded himself with the right people and in the end, the right woman. And after his premature death in 1862, his bride Elizabeth would live another few decades and set the company right and set up Colt for even greater success and recognition.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-13 07:49:21 / 2022-12-13 07:58:51 / 10

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