March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
The pistol on the facing page is a fancy version of the Colt 1860 Army model revolver. Standard issue to Union troops in the Civil War, prized by the Confederate troops lucky enough to capture it, it was also the crowning achievement in the life of the arms manufacturer Samuel Colt.
Colt had a certain eccentric genius for self-promotion, so it seems quite possible that the popular story about his invention of the Colt revolver was itself an invention. The story goes that in 1831 Colt, a seventeen-year-old seaman returning from Calcutta to London, observed the spokes of the ship’s wheel line up with a fixed point on a compass. The idea then came to Colt for a modern, efficient gun in which the cylinder would revolve and automatically lock in place by the simple action of cocking the hammer. It was the first practical design for a weapon one could fire repeatedly up to six times without pausing to reload. Colt took out a British patent on the idea in 1835 and an American patent the following year. In 1836 he also set up the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company at Paterson, New Jersey.
His years in Paterson were unsuccessful, however. Military officers worried that the Colt mechanism was too complicated for troops to maintain. The company went under in 1842 but was revived in 1847, when the Army needed guns for the Mexican War. On completion of a federal contract for one thousand pistols Colt was able to open a new factory in Hartford, Connecticut, where his business expanded steadily for some years. By the late 1850s Colt saw war coming and saw, too, the opportunities it would provide. Production was stepped up drastically. “Run the armory night and day with double sets of hands until we get 5,000 or 10,000 ahead of each kind [of weapon],” he wrote from Havana in February 1860. “We cannot have too many on hand to meet the exigencies of the time… . Make hay while the sun shines… .”
But Colt knew that Colt pistol models of the 1850s were unsuitable for wartime use. The Dragoon was too heavy and the 1851 .36-caliber Navy model too light. The compromise was the Army model of 1860, the most sophisticated Colt revolver manufactured up to that time. At eight inches its barrel was slightly longer than that of the Dragoon; this allowed for greater accuracy. At two pounds ten ounces it was also a third lighter than the Dragoon. (Colt made a big splash in promoting the “Silver Spring Steel” process used in the gun’s manufacture, providing endless details to an eager press.) The military particularly liked the pistol’s attachable shoulder stock. The 1860 had one major drawback: Each chamber of the cylinder had to be loaded with powder and individually capped because brass shells were held to be too expensive for issue to the troops. Soldiers heading into battle would often load several cylinders ahead of time, snapping a fresh one into place when the old one was exhausted.
Still, the Union army welcomed Colt’s new model. After ballistics testing an 1860 Army trial board pronounced itself “satisfied that the New Model Revolver … will make the most superior cavalry arm we have ever had, and … recommend the adoption of this New Model, and its issue to all the mounted troops.” It was also issued to all officers and some artillerymen. Between January 1861 and November 1863 the War Department would buy more than 107,000 Colt Army models. The Confederacy, its troops outfitted with heavier pistols like the French LeMat, jumped at the chance to bootleg imitation Colts at arsenals in Richmond, Fayetteville, and Memphis.
The 1860 .44-caliber Colt was a great success. As a weapons design it was beautifully proportioned and well balanced. Sought after today by collectors, an 1860 may bring anywhere from six hundred to two thousand dollars. (So-called civilian models, without the screws on the frame that allowed for the attachment of the shoulder stock, are relatively rare and command prices in the higher range.)
At $13.75 apiece in 1860s dollars, the Army model wasn’t cheap, but Colt’s extensive government contracts were able to keep other American armorers out of the field—for a time. By 1863 Remington was able to put essentially the same gun into the marketplace for about $10, and a number of Colt’s contracts went over to the competition. Colt’s fortune was already made. His personal income for 1860 and 1861 was more than one million dollars a year. He died in 1862 a hugely wealthy man for his time, with an estate estimated at fifteen million dollars. That he made much of that money in what might today be called wartime price gouging has largely been forgotten. His accomplishments in design and manufacturing are what’s remembered; and so, too, is something beyond his impressive industrial achievement. Samuel Colt’s pistol followed the frontier and in time became so thoroughly associated with it that it is perhaps the single most potent icon of the American West.