19. September 2013 · Comments Off on The Tireless Mr. Colt · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , ,

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814, Samuel “Sam” Colt was an innovator and inventor, single-minded, energetic to the point of hyperactivity, and the very epitome of a self-made man – of which there were a great many in 19th century America. At the age of seven years, his mother died. She was the daughter of a fairly well-to-do family; his father was a farmer turned minor industrialist, having gone into the business of manufacturing textiles with the aid of his in-laws. When Sam was eleven, his father went bankrupt. While the senior Colt attempted to regain his economic footing, Sam and his five brothers and sisters were farmed out to relatives and neighbors. Sam was apprenticed to a farmer, with the understanding that he attended school regularly. Which Sam Colt did, but likely did not learn anything beyond what he was really interested in – his handwriting was lamentable and his spelling a matter best left unmentioned. But he read widely and voraciously; his favorite was a then-popular scientific encyclopedia called the Compendium of Knowledge, and sometime in his early teens he resolved to be an inventor. At fifteen, he left school and went to work in his father’s mill, a splendid venue for tinkering – and indulging in a taste for showing off. On July 4th, 1829, he gained a degree of local notoriety by blowing up a raft in a local shallow pond, detonating a large quantity of gunpowder with a galvanic cell which he had built himself. He had advertised the event beforehand, by having handbills printed and distributed – so there was a substantial crowd gathered for the show. But the raft with the battery and gunpowder on it had drifted from position – and the resulting mighty blast showered the crowd with mud.

A year after that disastrous demonstration, Sam’s father encouraged him to apprentice as a seaman on a trading ship, the Corvo, out of Boston and bound on a round-the-world venture to Calcutta, London and back to Boston. One might very well conclude that Sam was even more of a handful as a teenager than he had been as a child; doubtless Sam’s father hoped that a long sea voyage and the chance to see the world (and a lot of ocean) would be the making of him professionally. Which it did turn out to be, but in an unexpected way.

Years later, Sam insisted that his inspiration for a revolving pistol – a device which combined his taste for mechanical tinkering and gunpowder – came from watching the Corvo’s helmsman at the wheel. The device he envisioned was a revolving cylinder with a clutch permitting it to advance a precise distance and then lock into place. It was not an entirely new concept, but a refinement of an earlier design for a repeating flintlock pistol, which was in wide use by the British Army in India. On the return voyage, Sam whittled out a wooden model of a pistol with a revolving chamber, and on arrival home talked his somewhat indulgent father into underwriting some of the costs of a working prototype of both a pistol and a rifle. Unfortunately, when it came to actually firing them, the rifle prototype worked well, the pistol did not. The senior Colt refused to pour good money after bad, and so Sam Colt hit the road as a traveling lecturer, calling himself an expert chemist and demonstrating the amusing properties of nitrous oxide – or laughing gas to paying audiences throughout the eastern United States and Canada. He spent three years at it. Not only did his tours fund his next working prototypes and patents for them – and the groundwork for a facility to manufacture them, the lecture circuit also afforded him entrance into scientific circles as they existed at the time, and polished his skills at showmanship. For Sam Colt thought big and his interests were wide-ranging. He was already fascinated by Eli Whitney’s concept of using mass-produced and interchangeable parts. This was an ideal much-sought after, since it would make it easy and inexpensive to quickly assemble and modify large quantities. It was not quite so easy, as it necessitated inventing the tools and processes need to produce the end product, and train skilled workers to do it. By 1836, Sam Colt’s factory in Paterson, New Jersey was producing the first iteration of his patent revolving pistol – known ever after as the Colt Paterson, which could reliably fire five lead bullets in quick time. Eventually about 3,000 of them were produced at the Paterson factory. It was mechanically quite advanced for the time, but also fragile, complicated to load and required frequent and careful maintenance and cleaning.

But for all that Colt lobbied in Washington for his wonderful repeating pistol, the Army’s Board of Ordinance was reluctant in the extreme to consider an untried weapon of unproven reliability. Still, enough of them trickled out into various fields – to the Army, fighting the Seminole Indians in Florida, to a handful of civilians doing business in the Far West, and to the tiny navy of the independent Republic of Texas. But the Paterson factory never performed to expectations, payments for weapons delivered was delayed … and Sam Colt’s restless attentions were diverted. The Paterson factory closed by 1845, the tools and machinery sold off. Now he was working closely with fellow inventor and visionary Samuel FB Morse, on a waterproof telegraph cable, waterproof cartridges for every sort of weapon, and a workable anti-ship mine, likely on the theory that the more irons he had in the fire, the better the odds that at least one would work out.

And when least expected, one of Mr. Colt’s inventions did work out. The five-shot patent revolving pistols – with all their weaknesses – were supremely good for one thing; fighting at close range from horseback by the irregular cavalry organization which eventually morphed into the famed Texas Rangers. One of their biggest fans was another Samuel – Ranger captain Samuel Walker. Shortly after the beginning of the war between Mexico and the United States, which was kicked off when Texas was formally annexed by the U.S. – Samuel Walker traveled east, looking to purchase more of the handy revolvers from Colt. Curiously, the two Sams hit it off. Samuel Walker had ideas about improving the Paterson for field service, Sam Colt being the restless tinkerer that he was, leapt at the chance to improve his patent revolver … especially as there was a potential contract for three thousand of them in the offing.

That Sam Colt had no factory to produce them in was a minor bagatelle … and not a circumstance which would keep him back for very long. Not when he had a chance to get back into the game in a big way.

(To be continued.)