Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt patent and image

A look at the life and contributions of the legendary Samuel Colt.

Sam Colt died young.

But in his 47 years, he forwarded some of the most important changes to the firearms industry and American manufacturing as a whole. Most Americans know the name and rightfully associate Colt with American-made revolvers, handguns that “won the West.” But few truly understand just how impactful this man was, not just to firearms design, American expansion, and warfare, but to manufacturing and marketing as well.

Sam Colt: A Brief Biography

Sam Colt was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1814. He learned the basics of manufacturing while working in his father’s mill, and showed a profound interest in mechanical objects, including his father’s firearms. With a bright mind, he enrolled in college to study navigation at the age of 16 but was later expelled because of youthful pranks.

Instead of learning navigation in the classroom, Colt had the opportunity to learn firsthand when his father let him go on a yearlong sea voyage. This trip would, according to legend, change his life forever.

Colt claimed that his great insight came from observing sailors using a capstan, a rotating device used to pull in sails. The capstan has a lock that prevents it from going in reverse, and this, according to legend, was Colt’s inspiration for a revolving pistol.

There is a glaring problem to this story: somebody already invented revolving pistols.

Who Invented The Revolver?

Roughly 150 years before Colt’s revolver, versions of revolving pistols had been tried. Although, most were unreliable and ineffective. Italian Francesco Antonio Broccu is largely credited as being the actual inventor of the revolver in 1833.

Regardless of the origins, Colt worked on a design and legal protection for his device, securing patents for his revolving-chamber pistol in Europe in 1835 and the U.S. in 1836. He also built his first plant in New Jersey. At just 22 years old, he had a design, a patent, and a plant to build the firearm.

A decade later, Colt worked with Army Captain Samuel H. Walker to build the legendary Colt Walker, which was released in 1947. The U.S. Army ordered 1,000 of these powerful .44 caliber revolvers, giving Colt a steady if limited income.

During the American Civil War, Colt’s firearms became extremely popular. Although Colt died before the end of the war, his design, as well as his manufacturing innovations, would live on throughout the post-war period, westward expansion, and well into the 21st century.

What is Samuel Colt Known For?

Colt Walker Revolver
The Colt Walker Revolver, part of a museum collection today. Image source:

Samuel Colt is best known as the inventor, or at least the most important maker, of the revolver pistol. In fact, he obtained the revolver patent at just 22 years old. However, his most important contributions to the firearms industry, and American manufacturing as a whole, were not weapons or designs, but how weapons were manufactured and assembled.

Mass Production of Firearms

Colt's factory in Connecticut.

Of all the important innovations pushed forward by Samuel Colt, his most important idea, the one that did more to change the United States and the world, is mass production. Colt used steam-powered, belt-driven machines, operated by a line of workers, to create his pistols on a massive scale. The machines would mass-produce components, then a team would assemble the weapons at another location.

Once he had the weapon design in place, he was able to produce weapons and place them on the market faster, more efficiently, and at a lower cost. It was one of the first examples of how manufacturing could be done quickly and efficiently.

The advancement of industrial output, forwarded by Colt, has clear implications for the history of our nation and the world. Some historians place America’s industrial output as the main factor for victory in World War II, so one could argue (although it’s a stretch) that Samuel Colt helped win the war and launch America’s dominance in the twentieth century.

Interchangeable Parts

Related to the assembly line, another of Colt’s important innovations was interchangeable parts. Before Colt, if a component of your firearm broke, you had to go to a gunsmith and have him fashion a new part for your weapon. After Colt, owners could simply get a new part, which is exactly like the original.

This has obvious advantages for weaponry and efficiency. For large-scale armies, having interchangeable parts means soldiers can repair their weaponry faster. For private owners, it means fixing the weapon is easier and possibly more affordable, as long as the new parts are available.

A Reliable Revolving-Cylinder Pistol

Although many consider him the father of the revolving pistol, Sam Colt did not actually invent the design. As we have noted, there were revolving pistols roughly 150 years before Samuel Colt. Some even had a larger firing capacity than Colt’s five-shot and six-shot weapons.

What made Colt’s pistols stand out was their reliability. Thanks to a simple yet effective design, the pistols simply worked. On muddy battlefields, dusty mountain trails, and snowy Midwestern fields, the Colt design could be relied upon to perform the job, making it a staple as America moved westward.

Marketing Firearms

God created men. Colonel Colt made them equal.

It’s hard to decide what Samuel Colt did better: firearms design, manufacturing, or marketing. He was tremendous at all three, and would not have succeeded if one was missing. We shouldn’t overlook his marketing skills and tenacity, as he was one of the first people to use celebrity endorsements, product placement, decorative engraving, and mass advertising to move his firearms.

He also found that a touch of flair could help move goods, and help them sell for higher prices. By engraving revolvers with decorative designs, he could charge a much higher price. He’d get far more than the cost of actually engraving the pistol. He also gifted decorative pistols to famous people like Czar Nicholas of Russia, Sam Houston, and Brigham Young. That enhanced the appeal of his weapons to the general public.

Colt advertisement from the 1950s

Colt had sales representatives, newspaper ads, and magazine layouts. He was, quite frankly, an aggressive, innovative, experimental marketer who took a creative, all-encompassing approach to selling his firearms.

To this day, Colt’s Manufacturing Company is one of the most popular brands in the firearms industry. His legacy lives on in rifles, pistols, and (of course) revolvers used by professionals and private citizens all across the globe.

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