Colt's Manufacturing Company

Colt's Manufacturing Company
Item# 2448

In 1836, Samuel Colt, with the help of his uncle and local businessman, built his first plant in Paterson, N.J., then one of this country's fastest-growing manufacturing centers. Colt soon developed and produced three different revolver models: the pocket, belt, and holster; and two types of long armor rifles: one cocked by a hammer, the other by a finger lever. In all cases, gunpowder and bullets were loaded into a revolving cylinder while the primer was placed into a nipple located on the outside of the cylinder, where it would be struck by the hammer when the trigger was pulled. Despite the generally favorable performance of the product in the hands of early buyers, sales were sluggish. Even though the U.S. government purchased small quantities of the Colt ring-lever rifle and the Colt 1839 carbine, quantities ordered appear never to have exceeded 100. In 1842, the Paterson company, known as the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, closed, auctioned much of its equipment, and entered bankruptcy proceedings. Sam Colt then turned his attention to selling the U.S. government on his ideas for waterproof ammunition, underwater mines for harbor defense, and, in association with the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the telegraph.

In 1845, however, units of the U.S. Dragoon forces and Texas Rangers engaged in fighting the Indians in Texas credited their use of Colt firearms for their great success in defeating Indian forces. U.S. War Department officials reportedly were favorably impressed. As a result, when the Mexican War began in 1846, Capt. Samuel H. Walker, U.S. Army, traveled East, looked up Sam Colt, and collaborated on the design of a new, more powerful revolver.

The U.S. Ordnance Dept. ordered a thousand of the newly designed revolvers, which Sam Colt called the "Walker." Suddenly, Colt was back in the firearms business but without a factory. He turned to Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the famous inventor of the cotton gin, who had a factory in Connecticut. It was there that the order was manufactured and shipped by mid-1847.

In 1851, two significant developments had a major impact on the future of the company. Sam Colt became the first American manufacturer to open a plant in England, thereby solidifying his reputation in international markets. And he began purchasing parcels of property in what was then called the South Meadows, an area of Hartford that fronted on the banks of the Connecticut River. The parcels sold at remarkably low prices because they were often flooded. To address the flooding, Colt privately commissioned a two-mile-long dike. The dike cost twice as much as the 250 acres, but the new plant, operational in 1855, was protected from the river's uncontrolled flow.

Colt’s factory was equipped with the most up-to-date metalworking machinery available and was capable of turning out 5,000 finished handguns during its first year of operation. Knowledgeable of the latest achievements of New England's world-famous machine tool industry, Colt lost no time in specifying interchangeable parts, some 80% of which were turned out on modern precision machinery. Sam Colt is reported to have said, "There is nothing that can't be produced by machine," and his factory's production machinery achieved a remarkably high degree of uniformity for the mid-19th century. Typically, the metal parts of a Colt revolver were designed, molded, machined, fitted, stamped with a serial number, hardened, and assembled.

An unabashed promoter of both his company and the City of Hartford, Colt raised the distinctive onion-shaped dome, topped with a cast-bronze rampant colt, over his factory. That assured that every Hartford resident and visitor who saw the dome would ask about it and learn the Colt success story.

In 1855, Colt incorporated his business in Connecticut as the Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, with an initial issuance of 10,000 shares of stock. Sam Colt retained ownership of 9,996 shares and gave one share to each of four business associates, including E.K. Root, his trusted factory superintendent and an inventor in his own right. By 1856, the company was producing 150 weapons a day; and the reputation of Colt firearms for exceptional accuracy, reliability, workmanship, and design had spread throughout the world.

Business success brought Colt fortune and fame. He became one of the ten wealthiest businessmen in the U.S and was awarded the honorary title of “Colonel” by the Governor of the State of Connecticut in return for political support. Colonel Colt had long enhanced the beauty of his firearms by adding engraving and gold inlay, but as the renown of his firearms spread, he expanded his engraving department. Colt's show guns and presentation pieces, exquisitely engraved and generously inlaid with gold, consistently won prizes at international trade fairs. Many were presented publicly to heads of state, including Czars Nicholas I and Alexander II of Russia, King Frederick VII of Denmark, and King Charles XV of Sweden.

Samuel Colt's health began to fail late in 1860 as the country moved toward Civil War. Prior to the actual declaration of war, Colt continued to ship his product to customers in southern states, but as soon as war was official, Colt supplied only the Union forces. Samuel Colt died on January 10, 1862, at the age of 47, having produced in his lifetime more than 400,000 guns. His estate was reportedly worth $15 million, a fantastic sum for the time.

Following Sam Colt's death, control of the company remained with Mrs. Elizabeth Colt and her family until 1901, when the company was sold to a group of investors. During that 39-year period, a number of significant events and developments impacted the Colt product line.

The Colt Armory and adjacent office structure burned to the ground in 1864, causing the suspension of all but limited military production for almost three years. The factory was rebuilt and, at Mrs. Colt's direction, was constructed to be as fireproof as possible. In 1867, the company began production of Dr. R.J. Gatling's machine gun, a semiautomatic firearm operated by a hand crank that turned a cluster of six to ten barrels while feeding ammunition into the breech. In 1872, Colt began to manufacture its first breech-loaded revolver that used self-contained metallic cartridges. That gun became world-famous as the Single Action Army® Model 1873 and it was designed to use metallic ammunition that contained its own primer. In the years just prior to introduction of the 1873, thousands of percussive Colt revolvers had been converted to use a front-loaded, center-fired cartridge and there was pent-up demand for a gun designed for the new cartridge. The Single Action Army was an immediate sales success. Eventually, it became the stuff of legend as the “Peacemaker”® and "the gun that won the West."

No other U.S. company produced as many fully automatic rifles, best known as machine guns, as did Colt Firearms. In large part, this was due to Colt’s long and profitable relationship with John Moses Browning. As early as 1891, Colt Firearms worked with Browning to produce a gas-operated, air-cooled (later water-cooled) machine gun. That gun was first delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1897 and was destined to play a major role in both the Boxer Rebellion and the Spanish-American War.

The Colt-Browning relationship included not only his machine guns and the well-known Browning automatic rifles (BAR) but also the world-famous Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol. Because of its effective stopping power, the Colt .45 was purchased in large quantity by the Department of the Army and, as the Model 1911A1, became the standard-issue sidearm during both World War I and World War II. Colt delivered approximately 2.5 million Colt .45 pistols to the U.S. government alone and also offered the pistol for sale commercially with tremendous marketing success. During both World Wars and subsequent military actions by the U.S. Armed Forces, Colt was a major producer of sidearms, rifles, machine guns, BARs, and antiaircraft guns for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Following Mrs. Colt’s death, the Colt Firearms Company was sold to outside investors in 1901. From that time until 1955, the company had only eight presidents. The company diversified, producing machinery, printing presses, ticket punches, plastics, and commercial dishwashing machines. With the onset of war, in 1942, Colt more than tripled its workforce to 15,000 employees in three plants. During the final year of the war, Colt production rates were faltering, the company was losing money, and the government was losing confidence in Colt management's ability to keep pace, mostly because of its antiquated machinery and largely inefficient production techniques. Following World War II, the fortunes of the company fluctuated like a roller coaster with sales and earnings almost entirely dependent upon government orders. The company’s name was changed to the Colt’s Manufacturing Company in the late 1940’s.

By 1955, the company was losing money and faced a deficit that was growing each month as orders declined and existing orders were canceled. By September of 1955, Colt’s board decided to seek a merger partner. They found Leopold D. Silberstein and his company, the Penn-Texas Corporation, a new type of holding company called a "conglomerate." Colt Firearms became a wholly owned subsidiary of Silberstein’s holding company, based in New York City. The Silberstein family of diversified companies also included Pratt & Whitney Company of West Hartford, a manufacturer of machine tools. Several years later, in 1959, a group of investors took control of the company, dismissed Mr. Silberstein, and changed the name of the company to Fairbanks Whitney, reflecting its acquisition of the Fairbanks Morse Company of Chicago.

Changes came again in 1964, when the parent company reorganized under the name Colt Industries and the firearms subsidiary became Colt's Inc., Firearms Division. New automatic pistols, the Combat Government Model® and the .380 Government Model®, were introduced in 1984. Colt suffered a serious blow that same year, however, when the U.S. government chose to replace the Colt .45 as the official sidearm for the armed forces. By 1992, Colt firearms was bankrupt. The company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization proceedings in March of that year, and exited bankruptcy protection two years later.

Close Up of Vignettes:

Certificate: Capital Stock, issued in the 1950’s

Printer: American Bank Note Company

Dimensions: 8” (h) x 11 3/4” (w)

State: CT-Connecticut

Subject Matter: Firearms and Weapons

Vignette Topic(s): Animal Featured | Horse Featured | Company Logo Featured | Gun Featured | Multiple Scenes

Condition: Vertical fold lines, punch hole cancels in the signature areas and body, and some toning and edge faults from age.

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