Colt first got the attention of gun owners and military types with their cap and ball revolvers, and the early days of Colt would be filled with great success and great failure.
For the longest time, inventors tried with varying degrees of success to create a handgun that could fire more than one shot before having to reload. But it only became viable with the invention of the percussion cap around 1820. The small copper cap filled with shock-sensitive explosive eliminated the flint mechanism and the need for priming powder in a flash pan.
Connecticut-born Samuel Colt drew inspiration for a handgun that had a rotating cylinder that used one barrel and was locked in place by the cocking of a hammer. After various hardships, Colt had his first working handgun and set up the Patent Arms Company to produce the new gun. The year was 1836 and the gun was the Paterson Colt.
Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers, was one of the officers that was highly impressed by the Colt weapons, but he wanted a few improvements made to it. In 1846, he collaborated with Samuel Colt to make a new weapon for use with the Rangers. At that time, the Texas Rangers were using a single shot close range pistol made by Aston Johnson which could be put in a holster on the saddle. What Walker wanted was a new handgun that was extremely powerful at close range and could be carried in a saddle holster like the pistol. However, this weapon would have to be a revolver to allow the rider to fire multiple shots without reloading. He persuaded Samuel Colt to increase the caliber of the weapon from .36 to .44 or .45, so that it could not only be used to kill enemies, but also the horses that they were riding on. The newly designed weapon was called the “Walker Colt” in honor of Captain Walker.
The new revolver was designed to fire a .454 inch (11.5 mm.) diameter bullet. The Walker Colt retained the single-action design of the Paterson Colt, along with the hinged loading lever and capping window design of the 1839 model Paterson Colt. Unlike the Paterson Colt though, this weapon could carry six bullets at one time. This meant that the Walker Colt was the original “six-shooter”. Also, this weapon had a fixed trigger and a trigger guard unlike the Paterson colt which had a folding trigger that would drop only when the hammer was cocked and no trigger guard.
The weapon was heavy (2 kg. when empty) for a handgun, as it was meant to be carried in a saddle holster. It was also more powerful than any other handgun then in existence, since it used almost twice the gunpowder charge of any handgun in each of its chambers. Matter of fact, the standard amount of gunpowder used per chamber was 3.9 gm. which was about the same used in some muskets! Despite the fact that it used black-powder for its gunpowder, the Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun in existence between 1847 and the 1935, when the first .357 magnum was introduced. Walker wrote that this gun was “as effective as a rifle at 100 yards and superior to a musket at 200 yards.” In practice, it was more useful at a range of 50-100 yards.
The original order of the Walker Colt models from Texas asked for 1000 of them to be delivered, along with accessories. At this point though, Samuel Colt was without a factory, due to the failure of the earlier Paterson Colt model and the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company being taken over by his creditors. Hence, he subcontracted the actual manufacture of these weapons to Eli Whitney Blake who had a gun factory in Whitneyville, Connecticut. Eli Whitney Blake was the nephew of the senior Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. Eli Whitney Sr. was not only the inventor of the cotton gin, he’d also invented an early milling machine. He was a pioneer in adopting power tools for manufacturing, invented the modern assembly line and promoted the concept of interchangeable parts. His talented nephew, Eli Whitney Blake, helped him build the gun factory at Whitneyville and took over after he’d passed away. Samuel Colt asked Eli Whitney Blake to build him 1100 revolvers, 1000 for the Texas order and 100 to be used for private sale and promotional gifts. The ordered revolvers were shipped out in mid-1847. These original 1100 models are now extremely rare and worth at least $150,000 each, with one going on sale in 2008 for $920,000.
Due to the huge success of the Whitneyville built Walker Colts, the Colt reputation was made and it enabled him to later build his own Colt factory. Sadly, Captain Walker, after whom the weapon was named, was killed in action in October 1847 and legend has it that at the time of his death, he was carrying two Walker Colt models presented to him by Samuel Colt, which had only arrived a few days before. Nevertheless, the huge success of this weapon in the hands of the Texas Rangers was noticed by the United States government and Colt was given an order to deliver more weapons to the United States Mounted Militia (Dragoons), based on the Walker Colt model.
Some of the problems of the early Walker Colt models included a tendency for the cylinders to rupture due to too much gunpowder being loaded into them and also primitive metallurgical techniques of that time. Another problem was an inadequate catch for the loading lever which would cause it to fall out due to the firing recoil and interfere with the action of the weapon. Some of the users of the Walker Colt fixed this loading lever issue by binding the lever to the barrel with a leather band.
The Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver fixed these issues by making a smaller chamber that allowed about 15% less gunpowder (3.25 gm. instead of 3.9 gm.) to reduce the problem of ruptured cylinders. The falling catch problem was solved by redesigning the catch to hold the loading lever even with heavy recoil. The size of the barrel was also reduced from 9 inches to about 7.5 inches to make the weapon slightly lighter and more manageable. Since this weapon was originally ordered for the United States Mounted Militia (known as “Dragoons”), this model was called the Colt Dragoon. This new weapon was a huge success among civilians as well and Colt produced three separate variations of these weapons between 1848 and 1860.
The above image is of a Colt Dragoon third variant model. The three variants can be told apart mainly by the shape of the trigger guard (squared edges in the first two variants and rounded edges in the third variant) and the shape of the cylinder notches (oval in the first variant, rectangular in the other two variants). The third model variant also has some instances with different sights and provisions to attach a shoulder stock.
Other variations included a smaller version called the 1849 Baby Dragoon and the 1851 Pocket Navy and Pocket Police versions. The Baby Dragoon was marketed to civilians and was extremely popular during the California Gold Rush.
Almost 20,000 of these weapons were produced for sale in the United States and an additional 750 were produced for the British market between 1848 and 1860 before the Colt Dragoon was replaced by the Colt Model 1860. Colt Dragoons are still being sought by collectors today and an original model still fetches high prices.
Due to the success of his weapons, Colt managed to build his own factory in 1851 in England, the first American manufacturer to do so. In 1855, he opened a new factory in Hartford Connecticut, which incorporated the latest technologies at that time and was capable of building 5000 handguns in its first year of production. Knowledgeable in the advances in machining technology and interchangeable parts, about 80% of his parts were made by the most up-to-date precision machinery of the mid 19th century. By 1856, the factory was producing 150 weapons a day and the reputation of Colt for accuracy, reliability and workmanship quality had spread throughout the world.
It must be mentioned also that a large part of Colt’s success in machining technology was due to the efforts of an extraordinary individual. Around 1849, when Samuel Colt was building his new factory in Connecticut, he managed to lure away a mechanic by the name of Elisha K. Root from the Collins company, which made axe-heads. Elisha Root already had a name as a mechanic and inventor and was making machines to manufacture axe-heads more efficiently, when Samuel Colt lured him away, by taking the simple route of paying him twice what Collins was paying him at that time, and making his supervisor of Colt’s new factory. Mr. Root set about changing the way that Colt manufactured firearms by building about 400 machines (state-of-the art drop hammers, boring machines, jigs and fixtures etc.) to make interchangeable parts, that made the Colt factory the leading model of efficiency in the world. It was when working at Colt that he invented a new Universal Milling Machine. This milling machine was manufactured for Colt by a subcontractor called the Lincoln Iron Works and later became called the “Lincoln Miller”. About 150,000 of these machines were sold by the 1890s and it became the most common machine tool in America and made the United States the world leader in the design and production of machine tools. Elisha Root also attracted many other star employees to work for Colt. When Samuel Colt died in 1862, Elisha Root took over as the president of the Colt company.
Due to the amount of research into machining technology, the area around the Colt factory became a hot-bed for mechanical innovation (sort of a Silicon Valley of its time). For example, one employee at Colt’s plant was William Mason, who secured 125 patents for machinery that made guns, power looms and steam pumps. Yet another inventor in Colt’s factory was Christopher M. Spencer, who invented the world’s first automatic turret lathe. Another Colt employee was Charles E. Billings, who invented the drop hammer used for metal forgings. Charles Billings also invented the copper commutator, a key piece of technology for electric motors and generators. Two other employees were Francis A. Pratt and Amos Whitney, who improved the Lincoln miller, invented a thread boring machine and later went on to found Pratt & Whitney. Simon Fairman invented the chuck that holds the workpiece on a lathe and his son-in-law, Austin F. Cushman invented the first self-centering chuck called the Cushman Universal Chuck.