Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A True American Icon - Sam Colt

They say that "God made all men, but Sam Colt made them equal."

To start at the beginning, Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of a farmer who had moved his family to Hartford. 

Sam's mother, Sarah Colt Caldwell, died before Samuel was seven years old. Christopher Colt remarried two years later to Olive Sergeant.

The Colt family was a large family which included eight siblings - five boys and three girls in all. Two of the sisters died in childhood and the other, Sarah Ann, committed suicide later in life, but it's said that Sam's brothers were a huge part of his professional life.

In 1841, his brother John Colt killed a creditor with a hatchet.  The New York City jury found him guilty of the murder, but John committed suicide on the day of execution.

Sam's father "hired out" Sam as an indentured servant on a farm in Glastonbury at the age of 11. There Sam  did labor's work, but he also had the opportunity to attend school.  It was there at Glastonbury that he was also introduced to the "Compendium of Knowledge." 

 It was a scientific encyclopedia of the time. The encyclopedia contained articles that fascinated him.

His attention was drawn to reading about Robert Fulton and gunpowder. Of course, Robert Fulton was an American Engineer and Inventor who developed the first commercially successful Steamboat.

In fact, in 1800, Robert Fulton was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to design the Nautilus which was the first practical Submarine in history in history.

So with an attraction to mechanical engineering and gunpowder, Sam Colt found that both provided him with all sorts of motivation and ideas. Motivation and idea that would influence him throughout his life.

It is said that while Sam read about Fulton that, "he discovered that Robert Fulton and several other inventors had accomplished things deemed impossible — until they were done." The thought motivated him.

Later, after hearing soldiers talk about the success of double barreled rifles and the impossibility of a reliable gun that could shoot five or six times, a young Sam Colt "decided he would be an inventor and create the 'impossible' gun".

In 1829, Sam Colt began working in his father's textile plant in Ware, Massachusetts. There he had access to tools and materials, and also something that he learn to prize - craftsmanship and expertise.

In 1830, his father sent him to sea to learn to be a Sailor. The Seaman's trade was tough and it would help discipline the teenager who was know as a bit of a prankster. 

Being a hard worker and willing to tackle tasks put in front of him, Sam took to the sea aboard the Corvo, a ship that embarked on a nearly yearlong voyage in 1830.

Aboard the Corvo, Colt became fascinated with the ship's wheel, particularly the way it could alternately spin or be locked in a fixed position through the use of a clutch.

He translated this controlled rotation to firearms and a means whereby a single-shot pistol could be adapted to fire multiple rounds in quick succession.

Later, Sam Colt credited his inspiration for the whole concept of the revolver to his observations of the ship's wheel during his first 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, and that's how the revolver was conceived!"

During that voyage, Colt made a wooden model of a pepper-box revolver.  He carved his six-barrel cylinder, locking pin and hammer all out of wood. 

Although this prototype for a pistol featured multiple rotating barrels, in later versions Colt would opt instead for a rotating cylinder containing multiple bullet chambers to reduce the gun's weight and bulk.

Then when Sam returned to the United States in 1832, he went back to work for his father, who financed the production of two guns, a rifle and a pistol.

The guns turned out to be of poor quality because Christopher Colt believed the idea to be foolish and only hired poor craftsmen. The first completed pistol exploded when it was fired, but the first rifle performed well.

Later, Sam learned about something called Nitrous Oxide. Yes, he learned about laughing gas from the factory chemist.

With that knowledge Sam took a portable lab on the road and earned a living performing laughing gas demonstrations across the United States and Canada billing himself as “the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta."

According to Colt historian, Robert Lawrence Wilson, the "Dr Coult lectures launched Colt's celebrated career as a pioneer Madison Avenue-style pitchman."

His public speaking skills were so convincing and efficient that these skills were pressed into service to cure an apparent cholera epidemic on board a riverboat. Imagine that! Now that's putting what you know to use!

It was during this time that he made arrangements to begin building guns using proper gunsmiths from Baltimore, Maryland. Then 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 American Inventor Elisha Collier, who had patented a revolving flintlock in England. And yes, the English officials issued the patent after no fault could be found with the gun.  It was Sam's first patent, British Patent Number 6909.

Interestly, Colt never claimed to have invented the revolver, as his design was merely a more practical adaption of Collier's revolving flintlock, which was patented in England

Samuel Colt received a British patent on his improved design for a revolver in 1835, and right after that he received two U.S. patents in 1836, one in February (U.S.Patent 9430X) and the other in August (U.S.Patent 1304).

The year 1836 was the same year that he found his first corporation for arms manufacturing. He called his new company the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey, Colt's Patent. 

But success was not his to be had, because of production and quality problem his company closed in 1842.

Between 1842 and 1848, Samuel Colt collaborated with the Whitney armory of Whitneyville, Connecticut, which was run by the family of Eli Whitney of Cotton Gin frame.  Eli Whitney Jr (born 1820), the son of the Cotton Gin developer patriarch, was the head of the family armory and a successful arms maker and innovator of the era. 

Sam Colt used a combination of renting the Whitney firm's facilities and subcontracting parts to the firm to continue his pursuit to produce revolvers.

In 1847, Captain Samuel Walker and the Texas Rangers, who had acquired some of the first Colt revolvers produced during the Seminole War, ordered an additional 1,000 revolvers to use in the Mexican-American War.

The large order allowed Colt to re-establish his firearm business. Because he no longer owned a firearm factory, or even had a model of a firearm, Colt hired Eli Whitney Blake, who was already established in the arms business to make his guns.

Sam Colt and Captain Walker drew up a new improved model from which Whitney produced the first thousand-piece order known as the Colt Walker. The company then received an order for a thousand more. Colt took a share of the profits at $10 per pistol for both orders.

During the Mexican–American War, 1846–1848, Colt's revolvers found favorability with the Texans and thus was the fuel to start Colt manufacturing revolvers.

In 1848, Sam Colt was able to start up a whole new corporation of his own. He founded the Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut.  

The 1850s were a decade of phenomenal success for Colt.  He was one of the early influential companies in the race to widely commercialize the total use of interchangeable parts throughout a product. One reasons for his success was that he brought in German gunsmiths and craftsmen to ensure top of the line workmanship.

At London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, Colt demonstrated his product to an amazed crowd.  Ten Colts were disassembled and then reassembled using different parts from different guns.  Then they were shown to function completely reliably. 

It was a time of tension in Europe and though the U.S. wasn't directly involved in the Crimean War (1854-1856), Colt weapons were used by both sides.  Fact is that with a virtual monopoly on reliable well produced firearms, Sam Colt sold his pistols in Europe where demand was high due to tense international relations.

It's said that by telling each nation that the others were buying Colt's pistols, that he was able to get large orders from many nations who feared falling behind in the arms race at the time. 

In 1855, Colt unveiled his new state-of-the-art armories in Hartford, Connecticut, and London, England.  The new armories were fitted with the latest machine tools, some of which were Colt’s own design. 

Much of the machinery was actually built by Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney who would later create their own enterprise which would become world known.

His London factory had its problems.  Colt's presence in the British gun market caused years of resentment and lawsuits between Colt and the other gun makers. 

The problem was that the British believed that guns needed to be made by hand, and subsequently they hated the whole concept of the new American system of manufacturing and industrialization. 

Many British gun makers went so far as to question the validity of Colt's original British patent. 

They viewed Colt as a sort of showman and pirate. And yes, it actually took many years and the involvement of the British government to satisfy the British gun makers. 

In 1855, Sam Colt bought a large piece of land beside the Connecticut River where he built a larger factory.  He called it the Colt Armory.  Then in 1856, he built a manor that he called Armsmear as a place for employee housing if it was needed.

In many many ways, Sam Colt was ahead of his time. 

He established a ten-hour work day for his employees.  He installed washing stations in the factory, and he mandated a one-hour lunch break.  He even built the Charter Oak Hall which was a club where employees could enjoy games, newspapers, and there was discussion rooms available.

On June 5th, 1856, Samuel Colt married Elizabeth Jarvis.  They had one son together. 

In 1860, Colt produced a new revolver model for the United States Army.  This Colt Army Model 1860 appeared just in time for the Civil War. 

At  the outbreak of the Civil War, Samuel Colt was commissioned a Colonel by the State of Connecticut in the 1st Regiment Colts Revolving Rifles.  All of the troops were issued the Colt revolving rifle, but that unit did not see action during the war. 

Samuel Colt died in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1862. He was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. He left a wife a son, and an incredible legacy.

At the time of his death, Colt's estate, which he left to his wife and son, was estimated to be valued at around $15,000,000 - I've read where that's about $420 million by today's standards.

Before Sam Colt's revolving cylinder, it was said, "a shooter could only obtain a flintlock pistol with one or two barrels." The Colt revolver signaled a revolution in ballistic weaponry, transforming the tedious reloading process and low rate of fire.

Some folks have read my articles on James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, Wyatt Earp and others, and have asked if there were any so-called Icons of the Old West who I actually liked?

Well, there are a lot of real Heroes of the day that I truly admire. Sam Colt is one of them.

Sam Colt was no Dime Novel Hero and he might have never come West - but all in all his American ideals of hard work and perseverance made him a man to be admired.

Sam Colt's legacy lives on as the company bearing his name continues to sell Colt revolvers today. And yes, we are a better nation for his being an American.

Story by Tom Correa

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