Today in 1836, Hartford inventor Samuel Colt — after being expelled from school, sailing the seas, and touring as a showman demonstrating the unusual effects of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” –received a U.S. patent for the first revolving chamber percussion pistol. This was a dramatically new type of firearm which would revolutionize the settlement of the American West and make Connecticut a world leader in arms manufacturing.
Colt’s revolver had its roots in young Samuel’s inability to stay focused at the boarding school his father had sent him to; he preferred reading scientific encyclopedias and tinkering with his own experiments over tending to his schoolwork, and was consequently expelled. Figuring a life at sea might be more suitable for the restless young man, Samuel’s father found him work aboard the India-bound merchant ship Corvo. There, after studying the turning and locking mechanisms of the ship’s wheel and rudder, Colt was inspired to create a prototype of a pistol with a revolving chamber, which allowed it to fire multiple bullets before reloading.
After his return to the United States, it would take Colt four years to raise the money needed to perfect his pistol prototype. During that time, Colt toured as “Dr. Coult, of New York, London, and Calcutta,” a “practiced chemist,” publicly demonstrating the unusual effects of the gas nitrous oxide. These effects, his advertisements noted, included laughing, dancing, singing, and a “propensity [for] muscular exertion, such as wrestling, boxing, &c.”
Finally, on February 25, 1836, Samuel Colt was awarded his first patent for what became the world’s first practical revolver: a semi-automatic percussion-cap pistol with a revolving chamber that could fire six consecutive bullets without reloading. A few months later, Colt secured a second patent for a similar revolver design; together, his two patents formed the basis for the famous Colt Paterson revolver — the first revolver mass-produced by Colt’s nascent firearms company, which was then based in Paterson, New Jersey. After several years of shaky sales and unstable finances, glowing reviews about Colt’s revolvers from the Mexican-American war front caused a huge spike in demand — enough for Colt to restructure his company and move it to Hartford, Connecticut, where he proceeded to build a massive factory on the banks of the Connecticut river in 1847.
In Hartford, the Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company pioneered revolutionary advances in mass manufacturing. One of Colt’s earliest goals was to ensure his pistols were made with 100 percent interchangeable parts, and his was one of the first factories in the world to implement the idea of an assembly line. The reliability of Colt’s firearms and the speed at which he could produce them landed the company countless U.S. military contracts, making Samuel Colt one of the richest men in the United States at the time of his death in 1862. Colt’s revolvers became an American icon, famously used by the pioneers, cowboys, and prospectors who fueled 19th century America’s westward expansion, and today remain one of the most widely-recognized firearms brands in the world. One of Connecticut’s most famous inventors secured a patent that would change the face of Hartford — and the entire American West — forever, today in Connecticut history.
“Samuel Colt: From Yankee Peddler to American Tycoon,” connecticuthistory.org
“Collections: Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company,” Connecticut State Library
“The Laughing Gas That Won the West,” Historia Albanica