Today in 1862, gunmaker Samuel Colt died in Hartford. Though he was just 47 years old, Colt died one of the richest men in the United States. He also left a legacy of manufacturing and innovation that changed the face of Hartford, and whose impact was felt from Connecticut to the Western American frontier and beyond.
While Sam Colt was internationally recognized for his formative role in patenting the world’s first practical revolver and for revolutionizing the arms industry by creating guns with fully interchangeable parts, few people realize that he endured years of failed business ventures before finding success with the Colt Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt had originally received a U.S. patent for his “Revolving Gun” in 1836, which led him to found an arms manufacturing venture in Paterson, New Jersey to mass-produce his patented pistol. Weak sales and a series of financial panics in the late 1830s, however, 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 offered to place a large order of them on behalf of the Rangers, as long as Colt agreed to incorporate a number of improvements. Colt jumped at the chance, and used the profits from the 1000 “Walker revolvers” he sold the Texas Rangers to create a new gun-manufacturing company in 1847, this time headquartered in Hartford. After getting favorable reports of Colt’s pistols from the Western frontier, the U.S. Army ordered thousands of the 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 helped transform Hartford into an international manufacturing hub. Colt’s relentless sales tactics and aggressive defense of his patented firearms designs in court brought him plenty of profits and plenty of controversy, as he had few qualms about selling weapons to opposing parties in any conflict — including the American Civil War.
Colt’s death on January 10, 1862, from an infection that was likely linked to gout, was sudden and unexpected. It 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 titan. Fifteen hundred Colt workers and scores of military guardsmen and musicians formed 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 constructed for Colt’s employees. Today, Colt’s legacy lives on, and the Colt factory continues to undergo restoration under the aegis of the National Park Service as Coltsville National Historical Park.
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