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History of the Colt
“Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” This post-Civil War slogan would have been music to Sam Colt’s ears had he lived long enough to hear it.
Yet, even before his death at the age of 47, he knew that his invention of a weapon capable of firing without reloading was a tremendous success throughout the world. Some 19th-century historians have gone so far as to say that Sam Colt’s invention altered the course of history. But when all was said and done, no man could deny that Sam Colt had achieved a level of both fame and fortune known to few other inventors.
As a direct result of his invention and the marketing and sales success that followed, Sam Colt and his firearms played a prominent role in the history of a developing America. So popular was the Colt revolver during the latter half of the 1800s that it was perhaps the best-known firearm not only in this country but also in Canada, Mexico, and many European countries. To this day, the name Colt suggests firearms to most Americans.
Sam Colt’s success story began with the issuance of a U.S. patent in 1836 for the Colt firearm equipped with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets. Colt’s revolver provided its user with greatly increased firepower. Prior to his invention, only one- and two-barrel flintlock pistols were available. In the 163 years that have followed, more than 30 million revolvers, pistols, and rifles bearing the Colt name have been produced, almost all of them in plants located in the Hartford, Connecticut, area.
The Colt revolving-cylinder concept is said to have occurred to Sam Colt while serving as a seaman aboard the sailing ship Corvo;. There he observed a similar principle in the workings of the ship’s capstan. During his leisure hours, Sam carved a wooden representation of his idea. The principle was remarkable in its simplicity and its applicability to both longarms and sidearms. Nevertheless, Colt’s idea was not an instant success. At the outset, many people preferred the traditional flintlock musket or pistol to such a novel weapon.
In 1836, Colt built his first plant in Paterson, N.J., then one of this country’s fastest-growing manufacturing centers. Sam Colt’s uncle, a successful local businessman, was willing to help young Sam form the company. At age 22, Sam Colt was the firm’s chief salesman and new-business promoter.
He soon developed and produced three different revolver models: the pocket, belt, and holster; and two types of longarmor rifle: one cocked by a hammer, the other by a finger lever. In all cases, gunpowder and bullets were loaded into a revolving cylinder while the primer was placed into a nipple located on the outside of the cylinder, where it would be struck by the hammer when the trigger was pulled.
Despite the generally favorable performance of the product in the hands of early buyers, sales were sluggish. Even though the U.S. government purchased small quantities of the Colt ring-lever rifle and the Colt 1839 carbine, quantities ordered appear never to have exceeded 100.
In 1842, the Paterson company, known as the Patent Arms Manufacturing Co., closed; auctioned much of its equipment; and began bankruptcy proceedings. Sam Colt then turned his attention to selling the U.S. government on his ideas for waterproof ammunition; underwater mines for harbor defense; and, in association with the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the telegraph.
During 1845, certain units of the U.S. Dragoon forces and Texas Rangers engaged in fighting the Indians in Texas credited their use of Colt firearms for their great success in defeating Indian forces. U.S. War Department officials reportedly were favorably impressed. When the Mexican War began in 1846, Capt. Samuel H. Walker, U.S. Army, Free Travel Infoed East, looked up Sam Colt, and collaborated on the design of a new, more powerful revolver.
Within a week, the U.S. Ordnance Dept. ordered a thousand of the newly designed revolvers, which Sam Colt called the “Walker.” Suddenly, Colt was back in the firearms business but without a factory. He turned to Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the famous inventor of the cotton gin, who had a factory in Connecticut where the order was completed and shipped by mid-1847.
In 1851, two significant developments had a major effect on the future of the business. Sam Colt became the first American manufacturer to open a plant in England, thereby solidifying his reputation in international markets. And he began purchasing parcels of property in what was then called the South Meadows, an area of Hartford that fronted on the banks of the Connecticut River. The parcels, because they were often flooded, sold at remarkably low prices. A two-mile-long dike actually cost twice as much as the 250 acres; but the new plant, operational in 1855, was protected from the river’s uncontrolled flow.
The factory was equipped with the most up-to-date metalworking machinery available and was capable of turning out 5,000 finished handguns during its first year of operation. Knowledgeable of the latest achievements of New England’s world-famous machine-tool industry, Colt lost no time in specifying interchangeable parts, some 80% of which were turned out on precision machinery. Sam Colt is reported to have said, “there is nothing that can’t be produced by machine,” and his factory’s production machinery achieved a remarkably high degree of uniformity for the mid-19th century. Typically, the metal parts of a Colt revolver were designed, molded, machined, fitted, stamped with a serial number, hardened, and assembled.
At about this time, Mr. Colt, Hartford’s unabashed sales promoter, raised the distinctive onion-shaped dome, topped with a cast-bronze rampant colt, over his factory, thereby assuring that every Hartford resident and visitor who saw the dome would ask about it and hear the Colt success story.
The firm was incorporated in 1855 in Connecticut as the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Mfg. Co., with an initial issuance of 14,000 shares of stock. Sam Colt retained ownership of 9,996 shares and gave one share to each of our business associates, including E.K. Root, his trusted factory superintendent and an inventor in his own right. By 1856, the company was producing 150 weapons a day; and the product’s reputation for exceptional quality, workmanship, and design had spread around the world, making Colonel Colt one of the ten wealthiest businessmen in the U.S. The honorary title was awarded by the Governor of the State of Connecticut for political support.
As demand for his firearms grew, Sam Colt, who had long favored the use of engraving and gold inlay on his firearms, expanded his engraving department. Colt’s show guns and presentation pieces, exquisitely engraved and generously inlaid with gold, consistently won prizes at international trade fairs. Many were presented publicly to heads of state, including Czars Nicholas I and Alexander II of Russia, King Frederick VII of Denmark, and King Charles XV of Sweden.
Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company sold its product line through a small force of Free Travel Infoing salesmen, known as agents, and between 15 and 20 jobbers who were actually wholesalers selling large quantities to individual retail outlets. In addition, the company maintained sales offices in both New York City and London, England. In addition, the sales department would accept direct orders at the plant, providing they were from someone who was either rich and famous, a friend of the Colt family, or ordering a large quantity of weapons.
Sam Colt was later recognized as one of the earliest American manufacturers to realize fully the potential of an effective marketing program that included sales promotion, publicity, product sampling, advertising, and public relations. His success made him perhaps the richest man in Connecticut and a pillar of the Hartford community. When Sam Colt built his home, Armsmear, an ornate mansion replete with greenhouses and formal gardens on the western edge of his armory property, it was deemed fitting that it should be one of New England’s grandest residences. Today, Armsmear is an Episcopal home for the elderly.
Samuel Colt’s health began to fail late in 1860 as the country moved toward Civil War. Prior to the actual declaration of war, Colt continued to ship his product to customers in southern states; but as soon as war was official, Colt supplied only the Union forces. The Armory was running at full capacity by year-end 1861, with more than 1,000 employees and an annual earnings level of about $250,000. Samuel Colt died January 10,1862, at the age of 47, having produced in his lifetime more than 400,000 weapons. His estate was reportedly worth $15 million, an enormous sum for the time and tantamount to more than $300 million today.
Following Sam Colt’s death,control of the company remained in the hands of his widow and her family until 1901, when the company was sold to a group of investors. During that 39-year period, a number of significant events and developments impacted the Colt product line.
In 1864, the Colt factory and adjacent office structure burned to the ground, suspending all but certain military production for almost three years. The factory was rebuilt and, according to Mrs. Colt’s instructions, was constructed to be as fireproof as possible. In 1867, the company began producing Dr. R.J. Gatling’s machine gun, a semiautomatic using a hand-operated crank to turn a cluster of six to ten barrels while feeding ammunition into the breech.
In 1872, Colt began the manufacture of its first breech-loaded revolver using self-contained metallic cartridges. That was the world-famous Single Action Army Model 1873 designed to use metallic ammunition that contained its own primer. In the years just prior to this, thousands of percussive Colts were converted to use a front-loaded, center-fired cartridge.
The Single Action Army was an immediate sales success and became widely known as “the gun that won the West.”
Prior to 1941, Colt produced more than 350,000 Single Action Army models of varying caliber; but almost 40,000 of the .45 caliber model were ordered by the U.S. government.
During the 1880s, Colt produced a full line of weapons ranging in size from concealable derringers to hammerless shotguns. The line encompassed a large number of double action revolvers in various caliber, slide and pump action rifles, and the first revolvers with swing-out cylinders for easier loading.
Colt Firearms had no single competitor. Smith & Wesson offered the greatest competition for the Colt line of sidearms. Where rifles and shotguns were concerned, Remington and Winchester were the strongest competitors. No other U.S. company produced as many fully automatic rifles, perhaps best known as machine guns. As early as 1891, Colt Firearms worked with John Browning in the production of his gas-operated, air-cooled (later water-cooled) machine gun, first delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1897 and destined to playa major role in both the Boxer Rebellion and the Spanish-American War.
Colt Firearms had a long and profitable relationship with John Browning, which included his machine guns and the well-known Browning automatic rifles (BAR) as well as the world-famous Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol. Because of its effective stopping power, the Colt .45 was purchased in large quantity by the Department of the Army and, as the Model 1911A1, was the standard-issue sidearm during both World War I and World War II. Colt delivered approximately 2.5 million Colt .45 pistols to the U.S. government alone and also offered the pistol for sale commercially with tremendous marketing success.
During both World Wars and subsequent military actions by the U.S. Armed Forces, Colt was a major producer of sidearms, rifles, machine guns, BARs, and antiaircraft guns for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Following the sale of the Colt Firearms Company to outside investors in 1901, only eight company presidents held office until 1955, when the company was purchased by the Penn-Texas Corporation, one of the nation’s first conglomerates. During those 54 years, Colt Firearms faced and successfully dealt with the usual problems that faced weapons manufacturers: the need to rapidly increase its levels of employment and production during wartime, the need to sharply reduce both when the war was over, and the need to diversify to other products. Colt was generally profitable for its shareholders and continued to pay a dividend each year, even at the height of the Great Depression when earnings were near zero.
Product diversification took the form of machinery, printing presses, ticket punches, plastics, and commercial dishwashing machines.
In 1942, Colt more than tripled its workforce to 15,000 employees in three plants. During the final year of the war, Colt production rates were faltering, the company was losing money, and the government was losing confidence in Colt management’s ability to keep pace, mostly because of its antiquated machinery and largely inefficient production techniques. Following World War II, the fortunes of the company fluctuated like a roller coaster with sales and earnings almost entirely dependent upon government orders. These increased sharply during the Korean conflict and dropped precipitously after the Korean truce was signed in 1952.
By 1955, the company was losing money and faced a deficit that was growing each month as orders declined and existing orders were canceled. By September of 1955, Colt management decided it would seek a suitor interested in a merger. That suitor was Leopold D. Silberstein, and his company was the Penn-Texas Corporation, a new type of holding company called a “conglomerate.”
Colt Firearms became a wholly owned subsidiary of the holding company, based in New York City, and joined the Silberstein family of diversified companies, which also included Pratt and Whitney Company of West Hartford. A group of investors took control of the company in 1959, dismissed Mr. Silberstein, and changed the name of the company to Fairbanks Whitney, reflecting its acquisition of the Fairbanks Morse Company of Chicago.
In 1960, another milestone in the history of Colt began with the introduction of the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, followed by the M16 military full-automatic version. Involvement of the United States in Vietnam again put heavy demands on Colt to supply arms for the troops. Shortly following on the commercial side of the business was the introduction of the Colt commemorative line of firearms.
Changes came again in 1964, when the parent company reorganized under the name Colt Industries and the firearms subsidiary became Colt’s Inc., Firearms Division. Through the 70s Colt’s continued in a positive vein with the introduction of its Sharps Rifle, Sauer Rifle, and Blackpowder Reproductions. Colt management also responded to an increasing demand for engraved firearms by expanding Colt’s staff of engravers. In 1976 the successful sale of the Colt National Sporting Goods Foundation auction firearm encouraged Colt management to officially form the Colt Custom Gun Shop. (Picture of NSGW Revolver-Photograph provided) Through the late 70s and early 80s Colt continued to expand its black-powder line to include, among others, the famed Walker and the 1860 Army revolver.
The Combat Government Model and the .380 Government Model automatic pistols were introduced in 1984. That same year Colt suffered a blow as the U.S. government chose to replace the Colt .45 as the official sidearm for the armed forces.
1986 proved to be an eventful year. The company celebrated its 150th anniversary with a line of commemorative firearms, which included the Single Action Army Sampler Edition, with engraving of four historical patterns representative of famous Colt engravers, and an engraved Single Action Army Exhibition model which was sold at auction for $150,000. Another significant event was the strike by the UAW, which began on January 25 and would continue for four years.
In 1988 Colt suffered a disastrous blow: the loss of the government contract for M-16 rifles.
An agreement to sell Colt Firearms Division to C.F. Holdings Corp. was announced in 1989, and in 1990 the company was sold to a coalition of private investors, the State of Connecticut, and the union employees (renamed Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Inc.). The sale brought to an end the four-year strike by the UAW. New to the product line were the Double Eagle double-action pistol, the Colt Anaconda .44 Magnum double-action revolver, and the redesigned Sporter Rifle.
Colt entered into Chapter 11 in 1992 and litigation commenced between Colt’s Manufacturing Co., Inc., and C. F. Intellectual Properties.
The new Colt .22 Automatic was introduced in 1993, along with the M4 rifle.
1994 was an eventful year for the Colt Company. In May the closing of the Hartford Armory and the relocation of the entire company to their West Hartford facility was completed. Additionally, Colt was awarded a sole source contract to supply nearly 19,000 of the new M-4 carbines to the U.S. Army and to joint Special Forces personnel. In September, a new group of investors purchased the company and Colt emerged from bankruptcy.
Colt unveiled “The Last Gun” in 1995 which is the last Single Action Army produced in the Hartford Armory. It is elaborately engraved and embellished with historical gold inlays representative of the Colt family and company lineage. Also added to the commercial product line was the new Colt .22 Target pistol, the Colt Match Target rifle and Colt .38 SF-VI revolver. The new Colt .22 Target pistol was named “Handgun of the Year” by the Shooting Industry Academy of Excellence. On the military side of the business, Colt won another contract to produce in excess of 16,000 M-4 carbines.
Still a leader in the industry Colt begins work with the National Institute of Justice on the development of “Smart Gun” technology (a firearm that fires only when its owner pulls the trigger). In 1996 Colt also broke new ground on another front and teamed up with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. In commemoration of the event, a decorative Single Action Army revolver, “The Legend” was introduced to the market.
1996 brings to Colt a new Government contact for 6,000 M-4 carbines. New introductions to the Colt commercial product line include the Pony Double Action pistol, 3″ Defender carry pistol, and the DS II revolver. Introduced under the Custom Shop umbrella were the Python Elite revolver and the Gold Cup Trophy pistol.
1997 proves to be an eventful year for Colt. Especially noteworthy is the return to Colt of the U.S. Government contract for procurement of M-16 rifles in excess of 32,000 units. Complimenting this is a contract for updating 88,000 M-16A1 rifles to the A2 configuration for the U.S. Air Force. Additionally Colt acquires Saco Defense which is a Maine based company specializing in automatic weapons for the military.
A revitalized Colt embraces the year 1999 with a backlog of military rifle/carbine orders amounting to approximately 59,000 units. This includes orders for exclusive production of the M-4 carbine extending through the year 2010. On the commercial side, a new acquisition of Ultra Light Arms, Inc. puts Colt back in the sporting rifle business. The Colt Cowboy revolver and Pocket Nine pistol are also added to the product line. With the completion of a pair of highly engraved and gold inlaid Dragoon revolvers, the Colt Custom Shop proves once again that it is the leader in the industry. This pair rivals the famous presentation Dragoon that was gifted to the Sultan of Turkey by Samuel Colt (c.1854) which is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.