January 10: Samuel Colt, Legendary Gun Manufacturer, Dies at 47

 

Today in 1862, gunmaker Samuel Colt died in Hartford. Though he was only 47 years old, Colt died one of the richest men in the United States and left a legacy of manufacturing and innovation that changed the face of Hartford, Connecticut to the Western American frontier and beyond.

Internationally recognized for his formative role in patenting the world’s first practical revolver and revolutionizing the arms industry by creating guns with fully interchangeable parts, few people realize that Colt endured years of failed business ventures before finding success and international acclaim with the Colt Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company.  Colt had originally received a U.S. patent for his “Revolving Gun” in 1836 and soon founded an arms manufacturing venture in Paterson, New Jersey in hopes of mass-producing his patented pistol, but weak sales and a series of financial panics in the late 1830s caused the company to fold in 1843.

Fortuitously for Sam Colt, Captain Samuel Walker of the newly-formed Texas Rangers had used a Colt revolver during the Second Seminole War in Florida, and sought to place a large order of them on behalf of the Rangers, as long as Colt agreed to incorporate a number of improvements.  Colt was happy to do so, and used the profits from the thousand “Walker revolvers” he sold to the Texas Rangers to create a new gun-manufacturing company in 1847, headquartered in Hartford.  Following favorable reports of Colt’s revolvers from the Western frontier, the U.S. Army ordered thousands of revolvers for use in the Mexican-American War, launching the Colt brand to both national and international fame.

In 1855, Colt opened a massive factory complex on the banks of the Connecticut River that, at its height, employed thousands of workers and transformed Hartford into an international manufacturing hub.  Sam Colt’s relentless sales tactics and aggressive defense of his patented firearms designs in court brought him both plenty of profits and plenty of controversy, as he had few qualms about selling weapons to opposing parties in any given conflict — including the American Civil War.

Colt’s death on January 10, 1862, stemming from an infection that was likely linked to gout, was sudden and unexpected, and left the city of Hartford in a state of shock.  One mourner was quoted as saying, “it seemed as if the [city’s] mainspring was broken.”  A few days later, nearly the entire city turned out to pay tribute to the fallen manufacturing titan, with 1,500 Colt workers and scores of military guardsmen and musicians forming a somber parade that wound its way through the spacious grounds of Coltsville (the neighborhood encompassing the Colt factory, Colt’s mansion, and the neighborhoods of factory-built housing for Colt’s employees).  Today, Colt’s firearms-manufacturing legacy lives on, and the Colt factory continues to undergo restoration under the aegis of the National Park Service, as Coltsville National Historical Park.

Further Reading

Ellsworth S. Grant, “Sam Colt’s Funeral: The Day Hartford Stopped,” connecticuthistory.org

The Colt Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” connecticuthistory.org

Coltsville National Historical Park,” U.S. National Park Service