Colt Patents the Revolver

Samuel Colt’s invention of the revolver made repeating firearms practical for the first time. Colt guns, first used in North American frontier warfare, gave western settlers more firepower than the bow and arrow. Colt’s designs also lent themselves to mass production by machine using interchangeable parts. His development of assembly-line manufacture became a model for the Industrial Revolution.

Summary of Event

As a young man, Samuel Colt was interested in mechanical devices, explosives Explosives;and firearms[Firearms] , and firearms. He performed many informal experiments with black powder and the single-shot weapons of his time. At that point in the history of arms design, there existed no practical means of building a repeating firearm (a firearm that could load automatically, without the aid of the shooter). Although several designs were tested, none had surmounted the problem of having to load the gun from the muzzle, nor could existing models ignite the powder charge without setting off adjoining charges or an entire powder reservoir. For example, a gun with a separate barrel for each charge becomes impractically heavy as the number of barrels is increased. Weapons;revolvers
Colt revolver
Colt, Samuel
Industrial Revolution;and assembly-line production[Assembly line production]
[kw]Colt Patents the Revolver (Feb. 25, 1836)
[kw]Patents the Revolver, Colt (Feb. 25, 1836)
[kw]Revolver, Colt Patents the (Feb. 25, 1836)
Colt revolver
Colt, Samuel
Industrial Revolution;and assembly-line production[Assembly line production]
[g]United States;Feb. 25, 1836: Colt Patents the Revolver[1970]
[c]Inventions;Feb. 25, 1836: Colt Patents the Revolver[1970]
[c]Manufacturing;Feb. 25, 1836: Colt Patents the Revolver[1970]
Chase, Anson
Walker, Samuel

Colt’s invention, the revolving cylinder, became practical with the invention of the percussion cap in 1814. Percussion caps freed designers from having to provide a priming charge in a pan at the rear of a gun’s barrel. Colt realized that by partitioning the rear face of the cylinder he could protect adjoining charges from firing prematurely. At the front of Colt’s cylinder the use of a ball or bullet slightly larger than the diameter of the charge hole sealed off the front of adjoining charges. The oversized projectile could be seated by a lever or rammer mounted beneath the barrel of the weapon.

The most innovative feature of Colt’s design was the use of a pawl and locking bolt to rotate the cylinder and lock it into position as the hammer of the arm is brought to full cock. Legend has it that Colt modeled the pawl on the lever used on shipboard capstans to prevent them from rotating backward. What is certain is that Colt carved the first design for his revolver of wood while serving on the crew of a sailing vessel. He was sixteen years old.

Samuel Colt.

(Library of Congress)

Upon returning from his voyage, Colt began the long struggle to promote his invention and to have prototypes built. The next five years saw continued development. He raised money by engaging in a public lecture tour in which he demonstrated the use of laughing gas (nitrous oxide). He eventually obtained sufficient funds to commission the construction of more revolvers. The first complete working models were handmade by Anson Chase Chase, Anson , a Hartford gunsmith, in 1832. At this point, Colt applied for an American patent on his design. In 1835 he gave up his lecture circuit and traveled to Europe to obtain British and French patents.

An American patent was finally awarded to Colt on February 25, 1836. Colt’s patent application claimed three innovations: the rotation of the cylinder by means of cocking the hammer, the locking of the cylinder in position as the hammer reached full cock, and the partitions on the rear of the cylinder, which prevented premature firing of the chambers not aligned with the barrel.

After obtaining his patents, Colt sold stock in a company to which he licensed his patents and began manufacture at a plant in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1836. This enterprise, the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company New Jersey;Patent Arms Manufacturing Company , went bankrupt in 1841 and was closed the following year. Except for strong sales to the Texas Rangers, Colt was unable to interest the government in his invention. Military officials felt that his design was too complex.

For the next few years Colt pursued other projects, including electrically fired underwater mines. Interest in his revolvers was revived by the coming war with Mexico in 1846. A young Texas Ranger, Captain Samuel H. Walker Walker, Samuel , corresponded with Colt about the design for a suitable pistol for the frontier. The result was the famous Walker Colt, which was marketed to the Texas Rangers. The Walker Colt gave the shooter greater firepower because he could carry additional loaded cylinders that could be exchanged quickly. This weapon’s superiority led to Colt’s fortune.

Eventually, Colt had sufficient orders to justify the construction of a new factory in Hartford, Connecticut. His company prospered during the U.S. Civil War. The demand for Colt’s guns was so great that he had to employ more than fifteen hundred workers. His great manufacturing innovation was the use of power machinery to produce interchangeable parts what later came to be called an “assembly line.” Colt and his engineers devised lathes and milling machines that allowed production to go forward with almost none of the hand filing and fitting that had previously characterized the manufacture of firearms. His factory became the model for mass production during the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Under his 1836 patent he had a near monopoly on the development of repeating firearms until the invention of self-contained cartridges. However, his revolver design proved to be just as suitable for cartridge firearms as for muzzle-loaders. The gap between the front of the cylinder and the barrel proper turned out to have only a very small effect on the velocity of the bullet. The company’s single-action Army revolver of 1873 the “peacemaker” became the world’s standard for handguns until the twentieth century. Colt died before he could see this development.


Samuel Colt’s patent had both military and industrial significance. Militarily, the repeating firearm was a major step forward, particularly in the realm of frontier warfare. A skilled warrior armed with a bow and arrow could shoot about twenty times per minute. A soldier armed with a smoothbore musket could load and fire two aimed shots per minute three in some armies. Until the Civil War, a rifleman, whose bullets had to be forced down through the rifling in a barrel, might be able to fire three shots in two minutes or so. In European armies the slowness of musketry was less of a disadvantage than on the North American frontier because soldiers were trained to fight in ranks while one rank was firing, another was reloading. These tactics, however, did not work well in frontier warfare.

In engagements between Native American tribes and soldiers or settlers, the Native Americans could draw the fire of their adversaries and then charge to close quarters before weapons could be reloaded. Colt’s weapons curtailed the use of this tactic.

Larger scale warfare was affected, too. By the middle years of the Civil War most cavalry units abandoned the sabers or pikes with which cavalry had traditionally armed in favor of revolving pistols. By the end of the Civil War cavalry were fighting afoot using repeating cartridge rifles. Although these were not Colt designs, the success of Colt’s repeating arms had fostered many additional technical developments as inventors sought to find suitable mechanisms for repeating cartridge arms.

Colt’s manufacturing techniques proved to be important as well. Before Colt went into production, guns were made by hand by skilled craftsmen. Parts particularly the all-important parts of the locks were normally filed to shape and then hand-fitted to the other parts of the gun. Colt’s factory changed this method. Colt had gun parts machined on mills and lathes run by water and steam power. This machinery allowed less skilled workers to produce parts that were so closely made to tolerances that they were interchangeable from gun to gun. The output of Colt’s factories was uniformly excellent, perhaps in part because his employment model was progressive. Although his workers were paid piecework rates, the rates themselves were generous by the standards of Colt’s time. His employees were among the best paid in New England.

Further Reading

  • Boorman, Dean K. The History of Colt Firearms. New York: Lyons Press, 2001. Boorman describes how Colt improved upon earlier designs for revolvers and set up factories that revolutionized gun manufacturing. Includes photos of firearms and gun-making artifacts and copies of designers’ drawings.
  • Grant, Ellsworth S. The Colt Armory: A History of Colt’s Manufacturing Company. Lincoln, R.I.: Mowbray, 1995. A history of Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Haven, Charles T., and Frank A. Belden. A History of the Colt Revolver. New York: Bonanza Books, 1978. A detailed examination of the early Colt models and their variants. Includes many fine illustrations.
  • Hosley, William N. Colt: The Making of an American Legend. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. A useful biographical study of Samuel Colt.
  • Keating, Bern. The Flamboyant Mr. Colt and His Deadly Six-Shooter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. An informal biography. Despite its adulatory tone this work contains many useful biographical details, particularly regarding Colt’s family.
  • Kinard, Jeff. Pistols: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. An illustrated history of pistols, with a chapter on the metallic cartridge and the revolver. Includes a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Reif, Rita. “The Man Behind the Guns That Won the West.” The New York Times, December 1, 1996, p. H45. Provides biographical information about Colt and his role in the Industrial Revolution. Includes comments by Colt biographer William Hosley.

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