Sunday, February 25, 2018

Samuel Colt Patents a Superior Killing Machine

Samuel Colt as a very successful businessman and manufacturer in 1855 from a photo by Mathew Brady,  A long struggle finally paid off.

The headlines have made us all obsess about guns this week.  The tired old getting-nowhere stalemate over firearms, the Second Amendment, and the seemingly never-ending chain of senseless horror in our country.  This time the incredible bravery and moral clarity of the teen age survivors of the Parkland, Florida slaughter and a national uprising youth may finally have moved the needle.  But the entrenched purveyors of death, their mouth pieces and minions are digging in and doubling down, stirring up their obsessed base and smearing and threatening the Davids arrayed against their Goliath.
Perhaps a look backward at the man, the invention, and the revolutionary industrial process that made the muzzle loading, single shot muskets and pistols that the Founders understood when they offered that amendment for a well regulated militia. 

Colt's breakthrough 1835 patent for his revolver.  Many more patents would follow.

On February 25, 1835 Samuel Colt, a twenty-two year old Connecticut Yankee tinkerer was granted a patent for a revolving gun.  The patent was actually Colt’s second.  At the age of just 18 he had applied for a patent on an earlier, cruder version.  But this time, young Colt was ready to go into business producing the Patterson Pistol at a plant in Patterson, New Jersey.

The son of a farmer turned textile manufacturer, Colt was apprenticed to a farmer at age 11 and began studying the inventions of Robert Fulton and others.  He decided then and there that he, too, would become an inventor.  Overhearing a conversation between soldiers wishing for arms that could fire multiple times, he determined to make the creation of just such a weapon his own personal mission.

At age 16 his father sent him to sea.  On his first voyage he observed that the ship’s wheel could spin freely but be stopped by a clutch which could be applied to a spoke.  He understood the same principle could be applied to revolving barrels of a gun.  He began to carve a model out of wood on his way home. 

With an insufficient loan from his father, Colt had two pistols constructed by incompetent craftsmen.  One blew up on testing.  The other failed to fire at all. After taking to the road demonstrating laughing gas (nitrous oxide) to raise money to have prototypes made by a skilled gunsmith, he applied for his first patent in 1832.                                                                                                                                                                           
In 1835 Colt traveled to England and Europe to try to to drum up customers from the armies of various countries.  He observed an earlier revolving barreled weapon, a flintlock pistol and incorporated elements of that design into his gun, for which the British reluctantly issued their own patent.

Back home Colt submitted his new design to the Patent Office.  Armed with the paper, he established the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company to begin production.  While not the first revolver, his was the first to apply the improvement of the percussion cap to a multiple-shot weapon.

Another innovation was in the manufacturing process itself.  Previously each gun was substantially built in all of its components by hand by a craftsman.  Colt determined to have uniform parts manufactured by machine that could be assembled by semi-skilled factory operatives instead of gunsmiths.  This was the first use of interchangeable parts, which in itself became revolutionary.  Using this method, the cost per pistol plummeted.

Despite these advantages, Colt had a hard time selling his new gun.  There was not enough of a market in sales to individuals to sustain production.  Although he got an endorsement from President Andrew Jackson, Congress only passed a resolution asking the War Department to allow him to demonstrate the weapon.  Without an appropriation, however, the Army could not order any.  The South Carolina Militia expressed interest, but Federal law forbad state militias that were not also in Federal service from acquiring the guns.  Lack of sales and a financial Panic almost doomed the fledgling company.
Colt's 1837 .36 caliber, five shot Patterson Holster Pistol was similar to those ordered by the Army for use in the Florida Seminole Wars. Note the guardless trigger that only dropped down when the hammer was cocked and which perplexed some troopers.

The Seminole War finally spurred the Army to make a sizable order of both pistols and a revolving barrel musket.  The weapons were both popular in the field with soldiers, but the multiple moving parts tended to jam.  Some soldiers could not get used to a “hidden hammerfeature of the pistols and kept disassembling the gun to figure out how it worked.  Then the Army reneged on full payments for the weapons.  By 1843 Colt had to close his factory.

He turned to another project, underwater mines, and the water-proof cable necessary to set them off.  The cable was just what Samuel F. Morse needed to encourage stringing of lines for his new telegraph.  Not only would the cable allow connections under rivers and streams, but it would be essential for the planned Atlantic Cable, 

Colt concentrated on his cable business until he was contacted by Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers.  Walker had been impressed by the Seminole War pistols.  Now he wanted to order a thousand heavier and improved versions for use in the Mexican War and against the Comanche and other Texas tribes.  Walker helped Colt create a workable prototype.  Colt contracted a machine shop operated by Eli Whitney Blake to produce the guns.  When Walker ordered 1000 more, Colt took his $10 per gun profits, incorporated the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company and established a factory near his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.

Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Walker and the Colt .45 revolver he ordered.  The guns were so succesful they launched Colt's second company.

The use by the Rangers of the guns, the rapid expansion of western settlement, the California Gold Rush, and conflicts with Native Americans all contributed to brisk sales and the need to constantly expand his manufacturing facilities.  Colt added more guns to his line, including lighter, smaller caliber weapons that could be concealed in a pocket.  The introduction of those guns led to a wave of new violent crime in the cities—and for more demand for guns as “protection” by law abiding citizens and fledgling police forces.  

Smaller weapons like this 1845 Pocket Revolver--the Saturday Night Specials of their day, lead to a spike in urban crime and violence and encouraged the formation of armed police forces. 

Colt was soon a very rich man.  He ran his empire as a benevolent father.  He reduced the work day to 10 hours for his employees with a full hour for lunch.  He built washing stations in his plants for his workers and a community recreation facility with a reading room.  He became the richest man in Connecticut, and one of the richest in the country.

The Civil War proved another boom for the company.  Colt raised his own regiment which was to be armed with his new Colt Revolving Rifle.  But for whatever reason, the Regiment was never called into service and Colt was discharged from the service by the end of 1861.  

A humming factory--Colt's New Haven Armory.
Within a few months, Sam Colt died at the age of 58 in 1861.  He left an estate of a then staggering $15 million, all earned in little more than a decade.  His company survives today as Colt’s Manufacturing Company, a privately held company and small arms supplier to the Defense Department.
Ironically, gun worshiping National Rifle Association (NRA) members nearly destroyed the private domestic market for Colt guns when in 1994 then CEO Ron Stewart announced that he backed gun registration and requirements for fire arms training.  Not only was there an effective boycott of new purchases, but gun owners were encouraged to dump their Colt weapons on the used market at prices well below what the company could sell new arms.  Although Stewart was removed, the damage was done, and Colt has never regained favor among the gun crazed. 
Colt has lost its last major defense contract for the M4 Carbine shown here with a banana clip.  It also lost a fight to trade-mark the military designation  M4 and competitors like Bushmasteer have cashed in with knock offs for the civilian market. The carbine is is a shorter barreled version of a civilian AR-15, the weapon of choice in many mass shootings.  The press rarely differentiates between the two versions and labels both AR-15.  Both have been used in mass shootings.
They may have even caused political interference with the company’s military contracts.  For a while it had only one important defense contract, to produce M4 Carbines, but the company lost the contract in 2013. That forced the parent company, Colt Defense, LLC to file Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 2015.  A year later a Federal Judge approved a restructuring plan, but its future or ability to prevent being swallowed by larger publicly held corporations is doubtful. 

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