February 9, 2007

Colt

And the man behind the brand is...
Samuel Colt

It was not unusual for boys in frontier America in the 19th century to be entranced with firearms; Samuel Colt happened to be more precocious than most. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 Colt was discovered at the age of seven dismantling and assembling a gun. At 15 he was excused from Amherst Academy in Massachusetts when a Fourth of July demonstration of an underwater mine he built went awry and inundated invited guests with muck rather than destroying a raft.

Colt returned to Ware, Massachusetts to toil in his father’s silk mill but he soon talked his way onto a merchant ship, working as a hand, bound for India. By the time he returned home a year later the 16-year old Colt had fashioned a white-pine model of a multi-barreled, repeating pistol. He handed his wooden gun to a Hartford gunsmith named Anson Chase whom he hired to create a handgun capable of firing several bullets in succession - the dream of gunmakers for over 200 years.

Colt raised money for his venture by travelling the country side giving demonstrations of nitrous oxide, calling himself “the celebrated Dr. S. Coult of London and Calcutta.” The most famous six-shooter in history was financed by laughing gas. Chase was hired to build one pistol and one rifle. The first pistol exploded; the second wouldn’t fire at all. Colt fine-tuned his design and by 1836 had secured French, English and American patents. He was 22.

Colt and several investors went into business in Paterson, New Jersey as the Patent Arms Manufacturing Co. making rifles, carbines, shotguns and muskets.
As chief salesman Colt won a demonstration for a repeating musket for the U.S. Army but won no converts. Undaunted he left for Florida, the site of the only ongoing United States military action in 1837 as army troops battled the Seminole Indians. The men in the field proved more receptive to Colt’s rifles than the brass back in Washington. Although he sold several hundred weapons over the next few years Colt was never able to land a contract with the United States Army and the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company went bankrupt in 1842.

Colt drifted back into underwater mines. In 1843 he laid the first submarine cable connecting Coney Island and Manhattan. The following year the entire Congress adjourned to watch Colt blow up a 500-ton ship. But his missionary work in Florida for his repeating firearms was about to pay dividends. When General Zachary Taylor headed west to lead the United States Army against Mexico in 1846 he ordered 1,000 repeating pistols from Colt. He had become converted while serving in the Seminole wars in Florida.

Colt, no longer owning a factory, was forced to subcontract the work out.
In fact, he had no inventory left from his earlier venture and owned no models of his revolver. He redesigned a new pistol from memory, adding a sixth barrel on the suggestion of American war hero Captain Samuel Walker, a friend and believer in Colt’s revolver. The new .44 calibre revolvers were known as Walker Colts but the captain lanced in the Battle of Juamantla shortly after the start of the war and his name disappeared from the gun.

Colt supervised the manufacture of each of his pistols and eventually moved into his own sprawling factory on the banks of the Connecticut River in Hartford. The brick armory was designed in the shape of an “H” and was topped by a stunning blue dome, encrusted with gold stars. By 1851 he had supplied the United States Army with 6,000 revolvers. That year he also won a patent lawsuit that ensured no other company could make repeating firearms based on his designs. When Colt traveled to London to display his revolvers at the great Crystal Palace Exhibition he opened an armory in London, the first American manufacturer to do so.

In 1855 Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company was incorporated with 10,000 shares of stock with a par value of $100 each. Colt owned 9,996 of the shares. He lived highly, at one time buying $5000 worth of Havana cigars to bring back with him from Cuba. He built the monarchial Armstear, one of the most spectacular private estates in America but his maniacal work pace left him little time to enjoy it.

Colt was typically up at five, checking on the farm and his brick works.
After breakfast he was in the armory overseeing every aspect of his 1500-man operation. When the Civil War began Colt was running the largest private armory in the world. Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Co. would turn out nearly 400,000 revolvers for the Union Army from 1861 to 1865 but Samuel Colt did not live to see the impact of his invention on America. He died suddenly of a massive stroke in January of 1862. He was only 48, and with a personal estate valued at $15,000,000 he was one of the wealthiest men ever to live in the United States to that time.

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