In the world of antique presentation arms, there is no better find than a Colt presentation firearm. Samuel Colt of Hartford, Connecticut not only introduced the world to the first revolving pistol, he reintroduced what it meant to give and to own a specialized work of art. In addition to bringing back the chivalry and status associated with owning a finely engraved presentation firearm, Colt was one of the first to successfully employ the assembly line system in his manufacturing company thanks to his firearms’ interchangeable parts. Colt was also the first to make use of every marketing venue available to him to sell his unique and spectacular revolvers. Thanks to his tenacity, spirit, and drive, Colt had become a household name by the time Samuel Colt died in 1862.
Born during the height of the industrial revolution in 1814, Colt’s genius was in the perfect setting to grow and invent. One of Colt’s earliest possessions was his grandfather’s flintlock pistol and he was fascinated by the mechanics of firearms and gunpowder. His goal was to invent something that had been classified as impossible, and after hearing talk of the impossibility of a firearm that could fire several times without reloading, his goal became to create the impossible firearm. At the age of 16, he got the idea to create a multiple firing weapon from watching the spokes of a ship’s wheel as it spun and from there his design took shape. However, Colt lacked the financial means to produce his invention so he used another part of his genius to make the impossible a reality: his knack for marketing.
When Colt was but 18, he took to the streets and began performing with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. After he learned he could make a living off his demonstrations, he began to conduct lectures concerning the revolutionary idea of his revolver. Colt knew he could sell to the public by including dramatic stories in his lectures and soon became known as a vivid and prized public speaker. Using his talents, he made enough money to return to what he really loved, manufacturing firearms.
Colt used gunsmiths in Baltimore to build his newly designed revolver, one with a rotating cylinder which would come into alignment with a single barrel based on his idea of a pawl engaging the cylinder and holding it in place (one he got from watching the ship’s wheel). He applied for a patent first in Great Britain and then in the United States. In 1836, he was awarded a patent for his revolving-breech loading, folding trigger firearm: the Colt Paterson. With his patent in hand, he established the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey, and practically held a monopoly on revolver manufacturing.
Colt’s manufacturing idea was to make all his firearms with interchangeable parts so that they would be quick and easy to manufacture and maintain. His plan, however, was put on hold due to national economic problems, so Colt returned to what had first made him money: showmanship.
When Colt’s first demonstrations in general stores failed to generate any substantial revenue, he went to the highest office, that of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson endorsed the revolvers, but Colt was unable to earn any sales. Colt’s breakthrough came when Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers acquired some of the first Colt revolvers and experienced their power first-hand. Walker’s 15 man unit used the quick firing and quick loading revolver to defeat a force of 70 Comanche in Texas. Thanks to this victory, Colt received a personal order from Walker, along with a few suggested changes to the Paterson model. Colt made the changes and introduced the Colt Walker, a 6-shot revolver that had enough power to take out a man or horse with a single shot.
Colt collaborated with Eli Whitney Jr., son of the famous Eli Whitney who invented the cotton gin, and originally produced the Walker at Whitney’s factory. With the money from Captain Walker’s large order of weapons to be used in the Mexican-American War, Colt was able to build his own factory capable of assembly line production: Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, CT. There, Colt began to manufacture Colt Dragoon Revolvers in 1848 and the orders came pouring in from both soldiers and civilians. Colt went on to design the Baby Dragoon for civilians and the firearm became a staple of westward expansion. In 1850, General Sam Houston lobbied President James Polk to adopt the Colt revolver, noting that a force of 30 Rangers had been able to keep 500 Mexicans in check with the weapon. Colt went on to create the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver, which became the standard sidearm for U.S. military officers, and soon his biggest problem became keeping up with the high demand!
Colt was a real salesman. Not only did he promote sales to the United States, but he also used his European patents to sell to the feuding nations in Europe. He used his special, finely engraved presentation arms as demonstrative gifts to military officers, heads of states, and presidents of the countries overseas. He even presented Czar Nicholas I with a set of Pocket, Navy, and Dragoon revolvers, all magnificently inlaid with gold and hand polished to perfection. Soon Samuel Colt had a monopoly going in Europe, and it is reported his salesmanship included telling feuding countries that other countries had recently ordered Colt revolvers. Colt also set his prices lower than the competition. Even though Colt used an assembly line with interchangeable parts for producing his firearms, he insisted that each be hand finished and polished.
Samuel Colt’s brilliant legacy lives on today. He is known not only for his use of marketing tools and modernist approach, but also for the way he transformed the revolver. The revolving firearm was transformed from a utilitarian object into a symbol of pride and the American identity. Today, Colt’s Manufacturing Company, LLC continues the tradition with revolvers, Government Model Pistols, and many other models. Presentation firearms companies, like America Remembers, continue to carry on Colt’s tradition of producing finely crafted firearms in limited editions for collectors who desire the prestige that comes with owning a museum-worthy firearm.