The romance of the American West is built in large part on the idea of lawmen and outlaws riding across the frontier with six-shooters blazing — countless books and movies have glamorized pistol-wielding men in the decades since. Without Samuel Colt’s first major sale to the Texas Rangers on January 4, 1847, however, the legends of Billy the Kid and Jesse James might never have come to pass.
Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, Colt became fascinated with the power of gunpowder as a youth after reading about the explosive black substance and learning of Irish-born American inventor Robert Fulton’s experiments with mechanics in Compendium of Knowledge. Well into his teens, he overheard soldiers lamenting the time it took to reload a rifle and made a vow to himself he would build an “impossible gun” capable of firing several rounds.
Unknowingly, he had already been beaten to the punch. Elisha Collier created a flintlock revolver the year Colt was born, 1814. Tapping the common firing mechanism for rifles of the era, Collier received a patent in England four years later and contracted with John Evans and Son of London to produce a pistol that would fire six bullets in succession. Designed to load a fresh pinch of gunpowder each time the holder pulled back the hammer, the guns were a hit with British soldiers working in India despite being somewhat unreliable.
While working aboard the trade vessel Corvo on a voyage to Kolkata in 1832, Colt saw similar designs for the first time. When he returned to the US, he began experimenting with designs for a pistol with a rotating barrel. By 1835, after wrangling with Baltimore gunsmith John Pearson over the design and producing a spinning chamber recognizable today, he was sailing to England and France to secure patents. (A quirk of law in Britain meant he would be unable to have protection for his idea if he already had a filed his design in the US.)
An improvement on Collier’s original design, the Colt Paterson used percussion caps instead of loose powder to fire the projectile. By creating a pistol with easily-replaced parts, Colt wanted to pair machines stamping out components with craftsmen putting the weapons together. In his mind, if a problem were to arise with a particular revolver, the owner could simply toss out the faulty piece and purchase another. Designated as the sole owner of rights to produce the revolver for a period of 20 years, Colt seemed positioned for success.
Through a combination of challenging economic times and Colt’s spendthrift tendencies, the company failed to take off. Forced to sell his manufacturing plant in Paterson, New Jersey, he turned to other inventions in order to generate funding to relaunch his revolver. He met with moderate success building underwater mines and creating an improvement on the traditional musket cartridge, but could not find interested investors — even as his reputation grew through a partnership with telegraph inventor Samuel Morse.
By the mid-1840s, Colt produced a refinement of his original design in the hopes of attracting capital. No one was willing to take the plunge with him again. He pulled together enough money to have a prototype built, then turned it over to the US War Department (the previous name for the Department of Defense) believing it would earn him a government contract.
On January 4, 1847, Colt received an order from a government agency, but not the one he petitioned. Captain Samuel Walker, a Texas Ranger who used early models of the Colt Paterson in the Seminole Wars in Florida, showed up at Colt’s shop in New York City and asked for 1,000 pistols. Requesting a handful of alterations — a higher caliber, a sixth chamber, faster reload times — Walker provided Colt with the inspiration for the revolver that would make him famous.
Used in the Mexican-American War, the Colt Walkers were soon followed by the Colt Dragoon in 1848, with a longer barrel and even quicker loading. Popular amongst civilians, as well, the sidearm became a favorite as Americans pushed into the wild frontiers west of Missouri and beyond. Four years later, the larger 1851 Navy Revolver would become the standard pistol for military officers.
As imitators sprang up, Colt worked diligently to protect his invention, gaining an extension on his patent and prosecuting anyone he believed violated its terms. At the time of his death in 1862, he was one of the wealthiest men in the US, a decade before his invention’s reputation as the “Peacemaker” would turn the weapons bearing his name into the most sought-after guns in the Old West.
Also On This Day:
1649 – The English Civil War begins when King Charles I sends soldiers into Parliament
1865 – The New York Stock Exchange opens its first permanent headquarters at 10-12 Broad in New York City
1958 – Sputnik 1 returns to Earth, burning up on re-entry after three months in orbit
2010 – Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is opened