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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
Apparently the boy did not like book learning any better than Sam himself, so Colt brought him back to America and placed him in a private school. He loaned Caroline $1,000 to enable her husband, who had been disinherited, to enter business. The money was soon dissipated, and Caroline feared debtor’s prison. Sam came to the rescue again, making the Baron his agent in Belgium. But Von Oppen and Caroline drifted apart, and she was lonely without her child. She appealed to Sam to bring her back to America—and there the curtain drops: the beautiful, tormented Caroline Henshaw Colt Von Oppen vanished from Samuel Colt’s life just as he reached the pinnacle of success. She never appeared again, except in a portrait that hung beside one of John Colt at Armsmear, and in the persistent stories (Hartford residents have never let them die) about her true relationship to Samuel Colt.
Even before the demise of the Paterson company in 1842, Colt had been working on two other inventions. In the late thirties he began developing a waterproof cartridge out of tin foil, and he also returned to his experiments with underwater batteries. About the latter he wrote to President John Tyler in 1841:
Discoveries since Fulton’s time combined with an invention original with myself, enable me to effect instant destruction of either Ships or Steamers … on their entering a harbour.
The Navy granted him $6,000 for a test. Using copper wire insulated with layers of waxed and tarred twine, he made four successful demonstrations, one of which blew up a sixty-ton schooner on the Potomac before a host of congressmen. But neither the military nor Congress took to the idea, which John Quincy Adams branded an “unChristian contraption,” and Colt’s Submarine Battery Company never surfaced.
The waterproof cartridges had a better reception, including an endorsement by Winfield Scott, General in Chief of the Army. In 1845 Congress spent one quarter of its $200,000 state militia appropriation on Colt’s ammunition.
Meanwhile, Colt had become acquainted with Professor Samuel F. B. Morse and his electro-magnetic telegraph. The two inventors hit it off from the start. If Colt’s cable could carry an electrical impulse under water to trigger an explosive charge, then it probably could carry telegraphic messages across lakes and rivers. Colt supplied Morse with batteries and wire and won a contract for laying forty miles of wire from Washington to Baltimore. In May of 1846, the same month in which war was declared on Mexico, the New York and Offing Magnetic Telegraph Association was incorporated by Colt and a new set of investors, with the rights to construct a telegraph line from New York City to Long Island and New Jersey. But again the operation was mismanaged, partly because of Colt’s negligence, and at thirty-two he once more found himself as “poor as a churchmouse.” Desperate, he sought—in vain—a captaincy in a new rifle regiment.
Although Colt was not destined to fight in the Mexican War, his guns were. For the five-shot Paterson pistol, having won acceptance against the Seminoles in Florida, had gained further renown in the hands of the Texas Rangers in the early forties. (The sixshot Colt .45, or “Peacemaker,” the gun that supposedly won the West, did not appear until the early 1870’s.) In the summer of 1844, for instance, Captain John C. Hays and fifteen rangers engaged some eighty Comanches in open combat along the Pedernales River and with Colt guns killed or wounded half of them. Altogether, 2,700 Paterson guns, mostly .34 and .36 caliber, were made for the frontiersmen in pocket, belt, and holster sizes. At the close of 1846, without money or machines but still possessed of his patent rights, Colt approached Ranger Captain Samuel H. Walker about buying “improved” arms for his men, who had been mustered into the United States Army. A veteran Indian fighter, Walker needed little encouragement. He wrote Colt:
Without your pistols we would not have had the confidence to have undertaken such daring adventures. … With improvements I think they can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the World for light mounted troops. … The people throughout Texas are anxious to procure your pistols.
That was certainly the case with General Zachary Taylor, commanding troops in Texas in the autumn of 1846. Taylor wanted one thousand Colts within three months, but Colt lacked even a model with which to start manufacturing again. That did not overly distress Colt, because Captain Walker wanted a simpler yet heavier gun—.44 caliber—that would fire six shots. So Colt designed the so-called WTalker gun.
Armed with a $25,000 government order, Sam persuaded Eli Whitney, Jr., the Connecticut contractor for Army muskets, to make the thousand revolvers. They were ready six months later. A pair of guns for Walker, who had hounded Colt for delivery, arrived in Mexico only four days before he was killed in action. To General Sam Houston, who had praised the guns’ superiority, Colt wrote:
I am truly pleased to lern … that your influance unasked for by a poor devil of an inventor has from your own sense of right been employed to du away the prejudice heretofore existing among men who have the power to promote or crush at pleasure all improvements in Fire arms for military purposes.