Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter that Changed America

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Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter that Changed America
circa 1835: The original Colt revolver, as patented by Colonel Samuel Colt. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Kathy Megyeri

“God created men equal. Colonel Sam Colt made them equal.” 

How could I have ever been educated in an American high school and not studied the profound effects of this amazing American who so impacted this nation’s history? This phenomenally well-researched biography was written by Jim Rasenberger, who also wrote “Brilliant Disaster”, one of the best non-fiction books of 2011 about America’s doomed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and “High Steel: Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline in New York”. 

In “Revolver“, Rasenberger examines the life and times of Samuel Colt who packed many lifetimes into his short 47 years. With the showmanship of P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill, with his intense lobbying efforts to get the military to purchase his weapons, with the foresight to meet the needs of gold miners and settlers rushing West, and with the self-promotion sales skills using publicity, product sampling and public relations, this book should be required reading in business schools today.   

Jim Rasenberger's book about Sam Colt is a perfect gift for any guy in your life this holiday season.
Jim Rasenberger’s book about Sam Colt is a perfect gift for any guy in your life this holiday season.

Even in his youth, Samuel Colt was inventive. He focused on batteries, underwater mines and waterproof cables. Prior to Colt, guns fired one bullet at a time and then had to be reloaded. After hearing soldiers talk of the possible success of a double-barreled rifle and gun that could shoot without reloading, Colt wanted to create such a weapon by designing a single fixed barrel with a rotating cylinder.

He finally made the mass production of revolvers economically viable in 1835. His was the first practical repeating firearm and thus he contributed to war technology with his “Peacemaker.” His weapon was first used in the War against the Seminoles, but when the Texas Rangers ordered 1,000 revolvers during America’s War with Mexico, Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company made him the most famous and the wealthiest man in the U.S. worth $15 million at the time of his death in 1862. 

But it was his sophisticated manufacturing with the use of interchangeable parts that helped him to become one of the first industrialists to use assembly line production. He featured art by painter George Catlin in his advertisements and used celebrity endorsements from stars like Sam Houston and testimony from individual soldiers to attest to the weapons’ accuracy and effectiveness.

He had custom made revolvers engraved and assembled with pearl grips to present to world leaders as he traveled abroad. These gifts would help secure foreign patents as well. Thus, he was a pioneer in advertising, product placement and mass marketing, and was so successful that his name became a household word. 

Image of Sam Colt from Biography.com
Image of Sam Colt from Biography.com

His inventive skills weren’t limited: he even teamed with Samuel Morse to run telegraph lines underwater, he invented tinfoil cartridges for the Army and he hired Eli Whitney Blake to help him make the first revolving-breech pistols that used seven and a half inch barrels for accuracy, shorter chambers and a better loading level which helped market these sidearms to civilians so one could fire six times without reloading.  

He advertised in newspapers, hired authors to write stories in magazines and travel guides and paid one magazine to fill 29 pages with illustrations and stories of his factory in Hartford, Connecticut. He reprinted stories that mentioned his weapons and gave editors free revolvers. He introduced the phrase “new and improved” to the advertising world, trademarked his signature and sold to both the North and the South during the Civil War.

He was commissioned as a colonel by the state of Connecticut, produced 400,000 revolvers with each barrel stamped with his name and thus demonstrated the commercial value of trademark and name recognition. His weapons were so sought after that in the East, one could be purchased for $25 but in the West, each sold for $500. At the time of his death from gout, his estate was valued at $384,000,000 in 2019 dollars. 

Barbara Tucker, professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University, said that Colt’s marketing techniques transformed the firearm from a utilitarian object to a symbol of American identity. “His revolvers became associated with patriotism, individualism and technical supremacy.” But perhaps his real legacy, Tucker says, was that, “his fortune trained toolmakers and machinists for years to come although historians hold him responsible for the Industrial Revolution in the East and Manifest Destiny in the West.” 

But Colt also at times faced bankruptcy, drank, womanized, smuggled guns to Russia, bribed politicians, emasculated his competitors and committed fraud.  He was such a huckster that he even sold hits of laughing gas to the public in order to finance his gun factory. Still, he embodied America’s ambition, color, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and wealth at the same time. He personifies America’s gun culture and even to this day he’s known as the “Revolver Man.” 

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