History of the Colt Revolver

Samuel Colt invented the first revolver aptly named the Colt revolver.

A Colt Navy Squareback
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The U.S. inventor and industrialist Samuel Colt (1814–1862) is generally credited with the invention of the first revolver, a firearm named after its inventor "Colt," and after its revolving cylinder "revolver." On Feb. 25, 1836, Colt was granted a U.S. patent for the Colt revolver, which was equipped with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets and an innovative cocking device.

The Colt was not the first revolver, but it was the first cartridge revolver to be officially adopted by the U.S. Army, and it kept its monopoly until the single action system was superseded.

The Percussion Cap

The rifle was the first firearm adopted into the American military during the Revolutionary War, thought to have been invented in the 15th century by Gaspard Zöllner or Zeller of Nuremberg, Germany. It was Zollner who first cut spiral grooves in the barrels of guns. The rifle was perfected by unnamed Pennsylvanian gunsmiths, who incorporated several modifications based on the suggestions of the pioneers. The hand-held revolver could not have been developed until a stable firing mechanism had been invented, a process which was developed for the rifle first.

Early rifles were made as needed by frontiersmen. The rifles were fired using a match lock, in which a lighted match—or a fairly clumsy set of mechanics involving a burning fuse—was applied to a small pan of explosive powder. A wheel lock rotated a flint to strike steel and create sparks to light the powder. A flint lock—a three-part mechanism which included a hammer holding the flint, a frizzen or steel, and the pan of powder—was the next development. These essential details of the American rifle were perfected before 1740, and as colonial expansion headed westward, the rifle makers moved with them.

About 1820, the percussion-cap—an open-ended cylinder of copper or brass holding a small amount of explosive material that is ignited by a hammer released by the trigger—was invented, a technology that made the frontier rifle makers obsolete.

Colt and His Revolver

The earliest flintlock hand-held pistols which were in use by when Samuel Colt became interested had one or two barrels. Elisha Collier (1788–1856) invented a self-priming revolver in 1818, and Colt always credited Cook as a precursor. Colt's early life included a variety of jobs, one of which was as a sailor, and on a voyage to Calcutta, he invented a hand-held firearm which featured a six-chambered revolving barrel loaded with percussion caps. He improved his original form with a rotating breech.

When he returned from his voyage in 1832, he began building guns using gunsmiths and continued to refine the technology. In 1836, with a patent in hand protecting his monopoly until 1857, he began manufacturing under the name of the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, with foundries in Hartford, Connecticut and London, England.

Smith and Wesson

Colt was a bit of a patent troll to an extent, and he sued or harassed scores of imitators who copied his work. That didn't stop various gun makers from further inventions. U.S. gun makers Horace Smith (1808–1893) and Daniel Wesson (1825–1906) formed their second partnership (as Smith and Wesson) in 1856 to develop and manufacture a revolver chambered for self-contained metallic cartridges.

During this development period, while researching existing patents, they discovered that Rollin White (1817–1892), a gunsmith associated with Colt, had patented a bored -through cylinder for a paper cartridge in 1855. White had brought his idea to Colt who dismissed the idea out of hand. But a licensing agreement was arranged between Smith and Wesson and White.

White's patent covered a revolver cylinder bored end to end, a highly popular improvement that was not added to Colt's revolvers, which used cap-and-ball technology, until the Smith & Wesson patent expired around 1869. Other gun makers were not so particular, and Smith & Wesson found themselves also in an endless round of litigation surrounding copyright infringement. Eventually, several US makers were required to mark "Made for S&W" or words to that effect on their revolvers.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Depew, Chauncey Mitchell. "Firearms." One Hundred Years of American Commerce. Ed. Depew, Chauncey Mitchell. New York: D. O. Haynes, 1895. 665.
  • Parsons, John E. "The Peacemaker and Its Rivals: An Account of the Single Action Colt." New York: Skyhorse Publications, 2014.
  • Kendall, Arthur Isaac. "Rifle Making in the Great Smokies." The Regional Review 6.1&2 (1941).