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Colt produces first mass-market pistol

Note to readers: Due to an editing error, the Northwest Herald published Joseph Morton’s March 11 “On this day” column on Feb. 25. Today, we publish his Feb. 25 column.

On this day (Feb. 25) in 1836, American firearms manufacturer and industrialist Samuel Colt was granted a U.S. patent for his single-barreled “revolving gun,” which gave him an early monopoly on revolver manufacture.

Colt did not claim to have “invented” the revolver, but did rightly claim, in this patent, to have produced the first practical repeating pistol, which he named the Colt Paterson. Colt’s main contributions to early gun manufacturing were twofold. He was the first American industrialist to use interchangeable parts (i.e., all the parts on every Colt gun were interchangeable), and secondly, he was the first manufacturer to create an assembly line for the most efficient assembling of those interchangeable parts.

As he explained in an 1836 letter to his father, the first worker at the beginning of the assembly line “would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next, who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”

This early “revolving gun,” which interestingly Colt went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate its capabilities to President Andrew Jackson, had a cartridge cylinder that held six bullets and rotated by cocking the hammer. He founded what is today The Colt Manufacturing Co. of Hartford, Conn.

After his first attempt to establish a firearms factory in Paterson, N.J., failed largely because of the U.S. Army’s initial disinterest in issuing what it considered “these new-fangled” sidearms to its officers, Colt, in 1847, finally received an order for 1,000 revolvers from the U.S. military. This lucrative contract made the mass-production of revolvers commercially profitable for the first time.

The money earned in 1847 enabled Colt to finance the building, in 1855, of the world’s largest private armory on the site in Hartford of the present-day Colt firearms factory. During the Civil War, the Colt Hartford factory produced guns used as sidearms by both the Union Army and Confederate Army.

At the time of his death at age 47 in 1862, Samuel Colt had become, largely through the sale of guns, one of the wealthiest Americans, with a net worth of some $15 million. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, and a son, Caldwell Hart Colt.

The Colt Co. continued to prosper, especially with the development in 1873 and sale of the famous “Peacemaker” six-shooter, which became the handgun of choice among cowboys in the post-Civil War western frontier and is still seen in most present-day western TV shows and movies.

Even more famous and widely used than the “Peacemaker” was the Colt 1911 single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated handgun developed for the Colt Company by gunmaker John Moses Browning This 45-caliber pistol quickly became the U.S. military’s standard-issue sidearm through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War (i.e., 1911-1985), with an estimated sale of almost 3 million guns.

In addition to being an early firearms manufacturer, Samuel Colt should be recognized as a pioneer, not only in the use of interchangeable parts and assembly lines, but also in the innovative uses of business advertising, celebrity endorsements, and creative marketing schemes.

However, like many 19th Century entrepreneurs (captains of industry or robber barons?), Samuel Colt’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by his frequent use of unsavory or even illegal methods to promote the sale and distribution of his firearms.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at

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