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SimonPure Portal

Colt: Legend & Legacy

Produced, Written & Directed by Kenneth A. Simon

Broadcast Premiere: 1997, CPTV


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NARRATOR: It was called the Peacemaker … the Equalizer …the Gun that Won the West.

Colt! … The name is legendary … the gun an historic American icon.

The Colt revolver helped tame frontiers,  win wars and spark a revolution in American manufacturing.

In the mid-19th century the Colt had no equal either as status symbol or weapon ... and everyone in the mid 1800s knew of the man behind the gun -- The revolver king, Samuel Colt, America’s first industrial tycoon.


NARRATOR: The Colt empire was built on a foundation of guns, art, religion, and personal mythology. Sam Colt was complex and flamboyant -- a self-proclaimed genius whose real accomplishments were matched by relentless self-promotion and repeated self-invention. His faithful wife Elizabeth proved herself to be no less extraordinary, and in the end made Sam Colt’s legend bigger than ever, and his empire her own.

KAREN BLANCHFIELD (Curator, Wadsworth Atheneum): He was forging ahead on paths that had never been walked before and all of the robber barons to follow would walk in Colt's footsteps.

"If I can’t be first, I won’t be second in anything."
--Sam Colt, 1844


NARRATOR: Sam Colt was born in Hartford in 1814.

BILL HOSLEY (Author, "Colt"):  I think Colt’s dominant trait was just this intense craving for success. And I am certain it all does trace back to, you know, his father’s failure, the family being knocked off the social register, their downward mobility (intense downward mobility), a- his mother’s death, his sister’s suicide. Just wave after wave of personal human tragedy to a young boy who had grown up in privilege in Hartford and then at the age of 7, between the age of 7 and 14, watched it all collapse.

BLANCHFIELD: Colt was raised very modestly. His mother died when he was young. His father was an agent for a woolen textile mill. We get the feeling from family correspondence that he was not the best student but he was very ambitious and he and his father decided that the best thing for him would be to see some of the world and he was outfitted to be a sailor on a ship, that sailed around the world. While he was on this journey he conceived the idea for the repeating revolving mechanism.

DEAN NELSON (Administrator, Museum of CT History): And when he returned from a one year apprenticeship aboard ship He had worked up very crude carved wooden elements of a revolving firearm. He was able to talk his father into funding some prototypes by the gunsmith: Anson Chase in Hartford in 1832.

NARRATOR: Colt was a complex man who learned self-promotion at an early age. From 1832 to 1836, Colt traveled throughout America as Doctor Coult, C-O-U-L-T, giving demonstrations of the newly discovered nitrous oxide – laughing gas.

NELSON: He was setting up in local lyceums and museums and lecture halls and town halls of the period and was attempting to earn a livelihood from that. You can imagine that as master of ceremonies and the choreographer of that, a tremendous amount of showmanship came into play.

And in 1834 he ends up in Baltimore where he executes a contract with John Pearson who's a local gunsmith: and Pearson works exclusively for him under contract for about a two-year period working up the various models that lead to his formal application to the U. S. Patent Office.

BLANCHFIELD: The laughing gas money allowed him to pay the gunsmith: to produce the first prototype Colt revolvers. It was a passable way to make a living; he wasn't very successful. In fact, his gunsmith, John Pearson, was constantly reminding him that he needed to be paid.

"I worked night and day almost, so I would not disappoint you and what have I got for it---why vexation and trouble...The manner you are using us is too bad...Come up with some money. ... In a devil of all ill humor and not without cause."
--John Pearson, 1836


NARRATOR: With his patent in hand, and with the help of wealthy New Jersey relatives, Sam Colt opened the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in 1836 in Paterson, New Jersey. He was 23 years old.

NELSON: His principal role was as a salesman for his patent firearms and the sales were terrible. Sam was working every angle in connection that he could to try to secure government contracts, influencing Congressmen. His cousin and - and sort of economic overseer, Dudley Seldon, was very angry with Colt for trying to sell guns through Old Madeira, basically wining and dining influential folks that had influence either with the War Department or Congress,

"You use money as if it were drawn from an inexhaustible mine."
--Dudley Selden, 1836

NARRATOR: In 1842, after six years and a production run of 5,000 pistols and rifles, the company declared bankruptcy, and liquidated its assets.

Sam Colt, 1840s

HOSLEY: Colt had failed New Jersey for two reasons: first is that he was a chaotic presence in the midst of this small, struggling start-up business. He had ego the size of Texas, but he didn’t understand the- the nature of the challenge he was embarking on. But also - the timing was wrong. They launched the company within months of a collapse, you know, the great bank riots and panic of 1837 -- it was like a huge recession – and just a bad time in the economic cycle of the country. It was also during the period when there were no wars that the country was involved with.

NARRATOR: Colt spent 1841 to 1846 in New York City, where he maintained a studio at New York University. He continued to unsuccessfully hustle for a government firearms contract as he pursued, with little success, other inventions and enterprises.

In 1844, Colt demonstrated for Congress his invention of an underwater mine that used a telegraphed signal for harbor defense. Colt’s showmanship prevailed as he blew up a 500-ton schooner on the Potomac River to the delight of the thousands who attended. But to his great disappointment, Colt was once again unsuccessful in securing a U.S. government contract.

Early Colt Paterson revolver

During his six years in New York, Colt would regularly receive discouraging field reports on his Paterson  guns. Users complained that the guns were too complicated, too easily fouled up, too heavy and potentially lethal to the shooter.

Undaunted, Colt regularly solicited testimonials from Colt gun users, as he kept up a steady stream of correspondence with military officers and others who he thought might help him..

But fame and success were still elusive. Then, after 30-years of peace, the Mexican War broke out in 1846.

HOSLEY: Sam Colt was in 1846 poor as a church mouse and he knew the Mexican War had started and he’s flailing around. He knows surf’s up and that there’s an opportunity for him but he’s not sure what.

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