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Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt (1814-1862)
"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

As a direct result of his invention and the marketing and sales success that followed, Sam Colt and his firearms played a rominent 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 long armor 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, traveled 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 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.

Around this time, Sam, an 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 10,000 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 traveling 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. The sales
department also 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 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, Elizabeth, who had promised her husband she would carry out his plans for the future. On a cold February morning two years later, Hartford awoke to the news that Colt’s factory was in flames. At 8:15 that morning, smoke was reported issuing from the attic wing. The flames spread so rapidly that by 9:00 a.m. Colt’s well-known onion dome with its trademark rampant colt fell into the fire with “a tremendous crash.” Although Colt’s workers battled valiantly to save the building, by evening all had been reduced to rubble. Although Sam had never bothered to insure the ruined building, Elizabeth had, and she proceeded to spearhead the reconstruction process. By 1867 the new armory (with firewalls three feet thick) was “ ‘not only an unsurpassed workshop but, also a monument to the memory of the late Colonel Colt and was fully consistent with Elizabeth’s determination to live a life of ‘faithful affection’ and memory.”

Control of the company remained in the hands of Elizabeth and her family until 1901 when Elizabeth, having no direct heirs, (her only suriving son, Caldwell, died in 1894 at the age of 35) sold it to a group of investors.

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