Colt weapon company

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The Colt weapon company was created by one of the most famous military inventors of history, Samuel Colt. The company has sold over 30 million firearms since Sam Colt, then in his early twenties, patented his revolver design in 1836. Colt's patent was for a firearm with a revolving cylinder which contained 5 or 6 rounds, a huge advance as contemporary weapons were single or double barrelled flintlock pistols. It is thought that the idea for the weapon occurred to Colt when he was a serving seaman, the revolving cylinder concept inspired by the capstan mechanism on sailing ships. The idea was revolutionary but despite this many people first saw the idea as a novelty and contined to use traditional weapons.

In 1836 Sam Colt built his first factory in Paterson, N.J with the help of his uncle who was a successful businessman, the 22 year Sam Colt being the firm’s main salesman. Colt soon developed a range of weapons with revolver types and two versions of the Longarmor Rifle, one hammer cocked and the second by finger lever, all weapons used the revolving cylinder system Colt invented. The weapons were slow to catch on despite good performance; most people preferring old more established designs, the US government did buy a small order of Colt carbines in 1839.

It was not enough and in 1842 the company, known as the Patent Arms Manufacturing Co, went bankrupt and sold off its equipment. Colt now focused on selling waterproof ammunition and his design for underwater mines, as well as involvement with the inventor Samuel Morse and his invention the Telegraph. Colt’s luck was about to change, in 1845 US troops, including the Texas rangers, put great store in the colt weapons they used to battle native Indian forces. The US War department took an interest and when the Mexican War broke out in 1846, they sent Capt S H Walker to see Colt and work on the design of a new revolver. The US Ordnance department ordered 1,000 of these weapons which Colt called “Walker” after the Captain. Colt had no factory so he used the factory of Eli Whitney Jr in Connecticut completing the order by 1847. Colt’s business now went from strength to strength and in 1851 he opened a factory in England, the first American arms manufacturer to do so and started to build an international reputation. Also at this time he began buying areas of flood prone land very cheaply in Hartford Connecticut, building his new factory there in 1855. This factory used precision machinery and designs used 80% interchangeable parts, a remarkable achievement and a huge step towards modern weapon manufacturing techniques. Colt is comparable to Henry Ford in his vision of modern manufacturing.

Colt was also an exceptional salesman and self promoter. His small force of travelling salesmen, known as agents, backed up by a team of wholesalers managed to sell huge amounts of firearms. Colt is recognised as a real pioneer in the use of marketing, using techniques that were to become standard such as sales promotion, product sampling, adverts and skilled public relations. In 1856 the company was producing 150 weapons a day and Sam Colt was ranked among the ten richest businessmen in the US. As the US headed towards Civil War, Colt's health was failing and he died at the age of 47 on 10th January 1862. At that point his company had produced more than 400,000 weapons and his estate was worth a staggering $15 million (equal to about $300 million by modern standards).

The company passed to his widow and family and remained under family control until 1901 when it was bought by a group of investors. In 1867 the company began to manufacture another ground breaking weapon, Dr R.J Gatling’s machine gun, which used a hand operated system to turn a cluster of six to ten barrels to feed the breech mechanism. Colt's weapons proved very popular during the American Civil War and one slogan stated “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them Equal”. In 1872 Colt began to design a breech loaded revolver which was to become the famous Single Action Army Model 1873, using metallic ammunition containing its own primer, another step forward. This weapon was a tremendous success and is often referred to as ‘The gun that won the West’. Although Colt was not without its rivals no other US firm produced as many fully automatic weapons and in 1891 Colt firearms, together with John Browning, produced a gas operated, air cooled machine gun which was in service with the US Navy from 1897. This weapon was to see service with US forces during the Boxer Rebellion and the Spanish-American war. This was the start of a long and successful partnership with Browning in the area of machine guns and the famous Browning automatic Rifles (BAR) and the Colt.45 semiautomatic pistol. This pistol had superb stopping power and as the 1911A1 became the standard US army sidearm. 2.5 million were delivered to the US government alone during World War I and World War II, a testimony to the superb design that the weapon was still a leading firearm more than 30 years after it was first designed. Despite this and attempts at diversifying its products Colt was heavily dependant on government orders and its financial health was very unstable towards the end of World War II and the post war period. For example its earnings increased during the Korean War but dropped dangerously low immediately afterwards.

In 1960 Colt produced what was to become another legendary weapon, the AR-15 rifle which was developed into a fully automatic version the famous M-16. This was to become the standard US military weapon and the Vietnam War meant large orders for the weapon. The M16 was developed by Eugene Stoner at Armalite and has been used by the armed forces of many countries in conflicts throughout the world; its most modern incarnation is the M16A4. Colt rifles are used in 15 NATO countries and 90 countries world wide with over 8 million systems having been sold world wide representing 90% of all 5.56mm weapons in service in the world.

Colts fortunes were still prone to flux and in 1984 the US government decided to replace the Colt .45 as the official side arm for its armed forces (after a truly remarkable length of service). In 1988 Colt lost the contract to produce M-16 rifles and lean years followed. The introduction of the M4 carbine in 1993, of which over 25,000 have been supplied to US Army and special forces, helped Colt emerge from bankruptcy. In 1997 Colt regained the lucrative M-16 contract with the US government and Colt remains the main small arms supplier to the US military at least until the start of next decade. Colt has also been one of the leading developers of ‘Smart gun’ technology where the concept is to design a weapon which recognises its owner and only lets that person discharge the weapon. The technology behind this is still in its infancy but Colt has proven to be the market leader in small arms development throughout its long history. The project did result in some backlash against Colt by the US pro gun lobby. Samuel Colt’s company is one of the most important arms manufacturers in history combining (at least in its early days)  technological innovation with business acumen, as a company it has produced some of the most famous small arms the world has ever seen and some argue that Colt's inventions have truly changed history.

Cold Single Action: From Patersons to Peacemakers, Dennis Adler. A well illustrated and easy to read book which details all the early Colt pistols with stories attached about each weapon. A good book for gun enthusiasts and those interested in this period of US history and the ‘Gun that won the West’ cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T (16 November 2007),Colt, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_colt.html

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