On August 23rd, I participated in a web panel, “Winning the West – The Revolver,” for the National Association of Scholars (NAS) as a part of their American Innovation Series. The format for the hour and a half long discussion consisted of two panelists – the author of the book, Gun Barons: The Weapons that Transformed American and the Men who Invented Them, John Bainbridge, Jr., and me – as well as a moderator from the NAS, Scott Turner.
For the first half hour, Bainbridge and I took turns providing a brief glimpse into the history of Colt and the revolver in order to set up a Q&A for the remainder of the time with attendees, during which we covered a range of inquiries from technical questions on the evolution of technology to how to best shoot a rattlesnake. To be honest, that last one became more of a side discussion amongst the commenters. In general, it was quite enjoyable to engage with a captive audience and be able to answer questions in real time.
I am so grateful to the NAS for asking me to be a part of this webinar, especially considering I jokingly criticized the panel’s name by putting it into the context of the popular expression “Gun that Won the West” which was a marketing campaign from Winchester in 1919. Despite that, their grace allowed me the freedom to speak my mind on the topic because when it comes to the topic of Samuel Colt, I have some thoughts.
While I do not devalue or wish to denigrate Colt’s contributions to the development of firearms as well as assembly line procedures and interchangeable parts that reached far beyond gun manufacturing, I think focusing on one man or one idea is limiting to the broader discussion. And there’s a lot to be said about the impact of marketing and memory when it comes to those figures we lionize in history. For example, even people who know virtually nothing about firearms have probably heard some variation on the phrase, “God made man; Sam Colt made them equal.” The proliferation of his identity is so powerful, we almost forget that while he managed to successfully improve upon the revolver concept, he died in 1862 – a decade before the Colt revolver that is most often associated with his name, the Colt Single Action Army revolver, was developed by firearms designers William Mason and Charles Brinkhoff Richards. Before that, Sam Colt spent so much time struggling to keep the business afloat and hiring patent attorneys to defend his grasp on the revolver market that he let a crucial patent from a former employee, Rollin White, slip through his hands and into the trigger fingers of Smith & Wesson. A patent that would set that company decades ahead of Colt in some respects.
In my talk, I mentioned that it’s important to separate the man, Samuel Colt, from the brand Colt, because the man wasn’t around for most of it, but upon reflection, acknowledging the difference may make your language on the topic more precise but existentially is not possible. But how did he come to be so idolized?
Samuel Colt wasn’t a likeable guy; I think he may have even agreed with that assertion. His wife though, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, was another story; a story neglected often in the history books. In many respects, she can be credited with the fact that when people even today say Colt, they think of Sam. After his passing, she was a leader in the company but also, actively worked to ensure his late husband’s legacy in many forms including statues throughout Coltsville and Hartford, and most interestingly, his likeness featured in biblical stain glass window scenes in a church she had built for the workers.
Colt – the brand, the man, the woman, you name it – is obviously important to history. I know this post may make you think I think otherwise, but I don’t. I just think the histories of Colt’s accomplishments have been written and told by historians, collectors, researchers, and educators greater than I, so I like to take my time thinking about those forgotten in the narratives. When I started my career, I served as an on-camera expert in an episode of National Geographic’s American Genius series, entitled “Colt vs Wesson.” During my interview, I asked if we were going to introduce the story of Rollin White and his pivotal role in the history of the revolver, and they politely told me they did not have time in the segment to introduce another character to the story. While I understand the logistics of it and don’t fault them, the idea of erasing someone because it’s too messy has stuck with me throughout my entire career and why when I get the chance to talk about a famous man, I often talk about those that helped him along the way.