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.
TITLE: COLT: LEGEND & LEGACY
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 Colts dominant trait was just this intense craving
for success. And I am certain it all does trace back to, you
know, his fathers failure, the family being knocked off
the social register, their downward mobility (intense downward
mobility), a- his mothers death, his sisters 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
--John Pearson, 1836
BAD TIMING, BIG EGO
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.
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
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
In 1844, Colt demonstrated for Congress his
invention of an underwater mine that used a telegraphed signal
for harbor defense. Colts 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
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
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 hes
flailing around. He knows surfs up and that theres
an opportunity for him but hes not sure what.