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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
His appetite whetted, Colt obtained an order for another thousand Walker guns. He borrowed about $5,000 from his banker cousin Elisha Colt and other Hartford businessmen, leased a factory on Pearl Street, and hired scores of hands. Thus, in the summer of 1847, Colt started his own factory, promising to turn out five thousand guns a year. To a friend in Illinois he wrote a letter that reveals much of the basic Colt:
I am working on my own hook and have sole control and management of my business and intend to keep it as long as I live without being subject to the whims of a pack of dam fools and knaves styling themselves a board of directors … my arms sustain a high reputation among men of brains in Mexico and … now is the time to make money out of them.
Alert to the new methods being used in New England’s machine-tool industry, Colt quickly adapted the system of interchangeable parts to the mass production of guns. Though two other Connecticut gunmakers, Simeon North and Whitney, had been the first to standardize parts, Colt perfected the technique to the point where eighty per cent of his gunmaking was done by machine alone.
Vital to his success was his able staff, especially Elisha Root, whom he had first met at Ware and whom he had now lured away from the Collins Axe Company by offering him the unheard-of salary of $5,000 a year. As Colt’s head superintendent, Root designed and constructed the incomparable Colt armory and installed its equipment. During his tenure, Root invented many ingenious belt-driven machines (some of which are still operative) for turning gun stocks, boring and rifling barrels, and making cartridges.
Root’s quiet, firm, perfectionist leadership made Colt’s factory a training center for a succession of gifted mechanics, some of whom went on to apply his modern methods in their own companies. Charles E. Billings and Christopher M. Spencer started a company (now defunct) for making a variety of hand tools; Spencer invented the Spencer rifle, used in the Civil War, as well as the first screw-making machine. Other armory graduates included Francis A. Pratt and Amos Whitney, who together founded a machine-tool company that today is part of Colt Industries.
While Root managed the factory, Colt functioned as president and salesman extraordinary. Far more than his competitors, he appreciated the necessity of creating demand through aggressive promotion. He paid military officers and others to act as his agents in the West and the South and as his lobbyists in Congress, while Colt himself solicited patronage from state governors. Until the approach of the Civil War, however, government sales were scanty compared to the thousands of revolvers shipped to California during the Gold Rush, or to foreign heads of state. From 1849 on, Colt travelled abroad extensively, wangling introductions to government officials and making them gifts of beautifully engraved weapons.
In May of 1851 Colt exhibited five hundred of his machine-made guns and served free brandy at London’s Crystal Palace Exposition. He even read a paper, “Rotating Chambered-Breech Firearms,” to the Institute of Civil Engineers. Two years later he became the first American manufacturer to open a branch abroad, choosing a location on the Thames for supplying the English government with what he termed “the best peesmakers” in the world. So backward did he find England’s mechanical competence, however, that he was forced to send over both journeymen and machines. Colt was ultimately unable to convince the English of the superiority of machine labor, and the London factory was sold in 1857, but not before it and the main plant in Hartford had between them supplied two hundred thousand pistols for use in the Crimean War.
Colt had been successful in obtaining a seven-year extension of his basic American patent and in crushing attempts at infringement. He had become a millionaire in less than a decade. As a loyal Democrat he had finally won his long-sought commission, becoming a colonel and aide-de-camp to his good friend Governor Thomas Seymour.
As demand and production continued to soar, Colt had to seek larger quarters. By the early fifties his dream was to build the largest private armory anywhere. He turned his attention to two hundred acres of lowlands along the Connecticut River below Hartford, which he planned to reclaim by building a dike nearly two miles long against spring flooding. His dike, with French osiers planted on top to prevent erosion, was finished in two years at a cost of $125,000.
Behind the dike soon rose the brownstone armory, with a blue onion-shaped dome topped by a gold ball and a stallion holding a broken spear in its mouth. A giant 25o-horsepower steam engine, its flywheel thirty feet in diameter, drove four hundred various machines by a labyrinth of shafts and belts. By 1857 Colt was turning out 250 finished guns a day.
The buildings were steam heated and gas lighted. Around them he constructed fifty multiple dwellings, in rows, for his workmen and their families; he had streets laid out and a reservoir built. Colt paid good wages but insisted on maximum effort in return. Said one factory notice, evidently written by Colt himself: EVERY MAN EMPLOYED IN OR ABOUT MY ARMOURY WHETHER BY PIECEWIRK OR BY DAYS WIRK IS EXPECTED TO WIRK TEN HOURS DURING THE RUNING OF THE ENGINE, & NO ONE WHO DOSE NOT CHEARFULLY CONCENT TO DU THIS NEED EXPECT TO BE EMPLOYED BY ME .