Colt always belonged to Texas, anyway

Samuel Walter, the Texas Ranger who did more than anyone else to make the Colt revolver synonymous with Texas and the Wild West, supposedly uttered these last words in 1847 upon receiving his mortal wound near Vera Cruz, during the war with Mexico:  “I am gone, boys.  Never surrender! Never surrender!  Hand me my six-shooter.

He meant, of course, his Colt six-shooter, produced in the Connecticut factory of the extraordinary Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolving firearm mechanism that automatically revolved the cylinder upon the cocking of the hammer, and locked it in place.  This new design permitted the user to fire repeatedly without reloading.   (Previous gunsmiths had used some version of a revolving cylinder as early as the 17th century, and 19th-century Boston inventor Elisha Collier had patented a revolving flintlock firing mechanism for muskets and rifles, but the approach became practical only with Colt's innovation.)

There is a persistent, but apparently completely unfounded, local tradition that Samuel Colt is buried here in our tiny community of Lamar in Aransas County.  Despite his deep connection to Texas, it seems he never came here; his early Texian promoters all traveled to Connecticut to do business with him.  Colt has quite a prominent burial monument in his hometown of Hartford, where he died in 1862 at the age of 48, after revolutionizing gun design and the use of machine tooling and standardization in manufacturing.

Colt was born in 1814 in Hartford, where his father operated a textile plant.  He lost his mother in early childhood to tuberculosis and was apprenticed at the age of 11 (like my own grandfather) to a local farmer.  The formal schooling included in his indenture terms led him to encounter a scientific encyclopedia whose stories about Robert Fulton and gunpowder secured a lifelong grip on his imagination.  By the age of 15, he had returned to his father's plant, where his access to tools permitted him to experiment with explosives and the new technology of electricity.  A brief encounter with boarding school at Amherst in Massachusetts terminated abruptly in the wake of a pyrotechnic incident that evidently amused his classmates more than the school's administration.  (What aspiring young science student hasn't blown up his school at some point?)  So Colt was sent to sea, where he served before the mast on a voyage to Calcutta.  On board, he noticed an interesting ratcheting mechanism in the ship's capstan and amused himself by whittling a wooden prototype of a revolving firearm, including a six-barrel cylinder, locking pin, and hammer.

Upon his return to New England, young Colt patented his idea in 1835 and embarked on a slightly shady series of huckstering enterprises to raise capital for its manufacturing and marketing.  Despite the promising performance of the revolver in Indian combat in Texas and Florida, Colt's first gun factory went bust in 1842.  Fortunately, however, he had the foresight to buy the patent for his revolver design, abandoned as worthless by his contemporaries.

Colt turned for several years to other visionary schemes, including underwater munitions and telegraph cables.  In 1846, however, he was able to return to his beloved revolver, when legendary Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Walker demanded a large shipment of Colts to assist in the new war with Mexico.  Colt had to scramble to start a new factory to fulfill the order.  This time he retained the services of Elisha K. Root, a brilliant mechanic who put the factory on a revolutionary footing of standardization and machine tooling.  Colt quickly became one of the wealthiest men in America, making a name for himself as a prototype for the modern businessman in the fields of mass marketing and product placement.  He died of gout in 1862, shortly after putting together a Union regiment that was to be manned exclusively by men over six feet tall wielding Colt revolvers, in order to quiet talk of his being a Confederate sympathizer.

Though the Colt also brought lasting fame and glory to Captain Walker of the Rangers, he didn't last long with it. He fell in battle shortly after obtaining his shipment.

The Colt's Manufacturing Company went on to produce the Colt .45 or "Peacemaker," the standard service revolver of the U.S. military between 1873 and 1892.  Still in business today, the company has produced more than 30 million pistols, revolvers and rifles.  Which brings us to today's story: in the wake of Connecticut's post-Newtown anti-gun legislation, Texas Governor Rick Perry is trying to lure Mossberg & Sons and Colt's Manufacturing to Texas.  Well, it's where Colt should have been to begin with. If only he'd understood where his true home lay, I'm sure he'd have elected to be buried here in Lamar, where local sentiment already has placed him in honor.

More sources here, here, here, here, here, and here.  There's an enormous literature on the man.  My brief summary above hardly touches on some of the most interesting episodes of his life, such as the love child he passed off as his nephew, and his brother's scandalous suicide on the eve of his conviction for murder.


Grim said...

Ah, yes, the co-father of the Walker Colt. It appears, by the way, in an amusing story told during the movie Unforgiven: it is the pistol that blew up in the guy's hand, "a common failing to that model." :)

I understand it really was. It relied on a heavier bullet (and therefore a heavier charge) than previous revolvers that the Texas Rangers had used, which was an uncertain proposition given the quality of steel available in the 1840s. But it was the forerunner of the great .45 Long Colt, and that most famous of all cowboy guns, the Colt Single Action Army. In its way, really, it was the forerunner of our own big-barrel .44 Magnums and similar heavy double-action combat revolvers. A magnificent piece, even if the first rendition wasn't always wholly reliable.

Texan99 said...

I think one of those articles said an early version weighed 4-1/2 pounds unloaded. Yowza.

Lars Walker said...

For the record, I am not related in any way to Samuel Walker. But I have a replica Walter Colt. Fun to shoot, but the loading lever tends to fall free when you're shooting it.

Grim said...

I've heard that from others, Mr. Walker. But I think that, with modern cold-rolled steel, we've got the exploding cylinder problem licked. :)

Texan99 said...

Why did the early ones explode more than their predecessors? Did they heat up more, because of the rapid re-fire rate? Or was it the revolving cylinder itself that blew up, and that was just a question of its being a new piece of equipment doing a new job, and we had to figure out how to make it light enough to carry but not too light to take the unfamiliar stresses?

Grim said...

More the latter. The metallurgy seems to have been at issue, although it's possible that user error in the strength of the charge was also to blame. In any case, around a third of the initial run suffered a ruptured cylinder during use.

Ymar Sakar said...

Firearms generally rupture either in the charge chamber or the barrel. Both as a result of the way black powder burns too quickly, so explodes faster, producing more spike force, as well as structural weaknesses in steel.

Casting solid state gun barrels wasn't the issue normally. Rifling them and putting a lot of blackpowder charges into them were.

By the industrial age, they should have been able to produce a better and more consistent powder, though not as advanced as modern day ones nor as crude as the old black powder.

Good steel will be able to flex and bend, become over heated with repeated firings. This is much better than exploding steel weapons. Even though it can cause the barrel itself to permanently warp and become dangerous to fire.

All the maintenance and forge crafting skills to utilize swords carried over into gun blue steel. I've heard about some gun cleaning materials being bought for steel swords as well (not stainless though).

Everytime a gun is fired, powder residue and other gunk gets stuck to the inside of the barrel and has to be cleaned out. Every time you cut something with a sword, junk, debris, fluids, and other corrosive material sticks to the blade.

In some sense, this is a natural and right connection to the historical past. In other ways, it is mighty inconvenient and can be resolved with technology. I wonder if it really should be though.

Regardless, I like and appreciate modern steel forging processes, for it has provided a very ancient tool for me in a very modern setting.