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Gunmaker To The World
Samuel Colt’s life was brief but eventful. He was an imaginative inventor and an ambitious pitchman whose legacy included scandal and success—and firearms that were revolutionary in more ways than one
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Sam Colt had made his mark in Hartford—and in the world—in less than fourteen years, beginning with his return to his native city to achieve his life’s ambition of having his own gun factory. In the two decades before that he had been a failure at school and in business, but not as an inventor, pitchman, and promoter of himself and his wares.
To many, his brash nature and new-fangled ideas made him seem an outsider—a wild frontiersman rather than a sensible Yankee. Yet Sam’s maternal grandfather, John Cakhvell, had founded the first bank in Hartford, and his own lather was a merchant speculator who had made and lost a fortune in the West Indies trade. Widowed when Sam was only seven—the year the boy took apart his first pistol—Christopher Colt had had to place his children in foster homes. At ten, Sam went to work in his father’s silk mill at Ware, Massachusetts, and later spent less than two years at a private school at Amherst. Sam became interested in chemistry anil electricity, and fashioned a trude underwater mine filled with gunpowder and detonated from shore by an electric current carried through a wire covered with tarred rope. On July 4, 1829, he distributed a handbill proclaiming that “Sam’I Colt will blow a raft sky-high on Ware Pond.” The youngster’s experiment worked too well: the explosion was so great that water doused the villagers’ holiday best. Angrily they ran after the boy, who was shielded by a young machinist whose name was Elisha Root.
Yearning for high adventure, Colt in i 1830 persuaded Iiis lather to let him go to sea. It was arranged for him to work his passage on the brig Corvo , bound for London and Calcutta. “The last time I saw Sam,” a friend wrote to Sam’s father, “he was in tarpaulin [hat], checked shirt, checked trousers, on the fore top-sail yard, loosing the topsail. … He is a manly fellow.”
During this, his sixteenth year, Sam conceived, by observing the action of the ship’s wheel, or possibly the windlass, a practical way for making a mullisbot pistol. Probably from a discarded tackle block, he whittled the first model of a rotating cylinder designed to hold six balls and their charges. The idea was to enable the pawl attached to the hammer of a percussion gun to move as the gun was cocked, thus turning the cylinder mechanically. Ck)It thus became the inventor of what would be ihe definitive part of the first successful revolver. Although he later claimed he had not been aware of the existence of ancient examples of repealing firearms until his second visit to London in 1835, it is likely that he had inspected them in the Tower of London in 1831, when the Corvo docked in the Thames. Moreover, he may have seen the repeating flintlock with a rotating chambered breech invented by Elisha Collier of Boston in 1813 and patented in England in 1818. But since Collier’s gun was cumbersome and the cylinder had to be rotated by hand, Colt cannot be said to have copied its design.
Colt returned to Boston in 1831 with a model of his projected revolver. With money from his father he had two prototypes fabricated, but the first failed to fire and the second exploded. Out of funds, Sam had to scrimp to make his living and to continue the development of his revolver, which he was certain would make him a fortune. At Ware, his exposure to chemistry had introduced him to nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Sam now set himself up as the “celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcutta” and for three years toured Canada and the United States as “a practical chemist,” giving demonstrations for which he charged twenty-five cents admission. Those who inhaled the gas became intoxicated for a few minutes; they would perform ludicrous feats, to the delight of the audience.
In the meantime, Colt had hired John Pearson of Baltimore to make improved models of his revolver, hut he was at his wit’s end trying to keep himself and the constantly grumbling Pearson going. Borrowing a thousand dollars from his father, Colt went to Europe and obtained patents in England and France. In 1836, aided by the U.S. commissioner of patents (a Hartford native named Henry Ellsworth), Colt received U.S. Patent No. 138, on the strength of which he persuaded a conservative cousin, Dudley Seiden, and several other New Yorkers to invest some $200,000 to incorporate the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey. Sam got an option to buy a third of the shares (though he was never able to pay for one of them), a yearly salary of $1,000, and a sizable expense account, of which he took full advantage to promote a five-shot revolver in Washington military and congressional circles. (The five-shooter was more practical to produce than a six-shot model based on Colt’s original design.) At the time, the Army Ordinance Department, facing boldly backward, was satisfied with its single-shot breech-loading musket and Hintlock pistol. A West Point competition rejected Colt’s percussion-type arm as too complicated. Meanwhile, Cousin Dudley was growing impatient with Sam’s lavish dinner parties, lack of sales, and mounting debts. At one point he chastised Coll for his liquor bill: “ I have no belief in undertaking to raise the character of your gun by old Madeira.”