Celebrating the 200th Birthday of Gunmaker Samuel Colt

By Mark Yost

The Wall Street Journal

Springfield, Mo.

Not only the 100th anniversary of World War I but the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812’s Battle of Baltimore—which produced the “Star Spangled Banner”—and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles to capture Richmond and Atlanta are being remembered this year. But one anniversary has (not surprisingly) gone mostly unnoticed by the mainstream media: the 200th birthday, in July, of gunmaker Samuel Colt.

One of the Colt 1911s used in the 1907-11 trials.

One of the Colt 1911s used in the 1907-11 trials.

Colt’s innovative early revolving pistols and John Browning’s semiautomatic Colt M1911—the official sidearm of the U.S. military for seven decades and still considered one of the best handguns in the world—played important roles in U.S. history. And one of the best collections of Colt revolvers and M1911s is at the National Rifle Association’s National Sporting Arms Museum in the Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store here.

This museum, opened just a year ago, was a perfect marriage. The NRA had too many pieces and not enough display space at its national headquarters in Fairfax, Va.; Bass Pro Shops founder John L. Morris is a respected firearms collector who wanted a high-caliber way to draw more people to his store.

Even without the Colt collection, the museum would still be a lure given its nearly 1,000 pistols, rifles and shotguns dating from the 1600s to today. The walls of glass cases tell the story of firearms in America—the collection of rifles alone including such highlights as the Kentucky rifle, Lewis & Clark’s revolutionary air rifle, and the 1903 Springfield championed by President Theodore Roosevelt after he found his Rough Riders outgunned in Cuba.

Roosevelt and his son Teddy Jr. play a prominent role here. On display is the father’s c.1910 Frederick Adolph double rifle in .450-500, used for big-game hunting, as well as the Browning Model 1900 .32 semiautomatic pistol he kept on his nightstand in the White House. A panel nearby tells visitors that he also used the gun to teach his grandchildren to shoot from the balcony at the family’s Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Also here is a painting of Teddy Jr. killing a panda in the Himalayas, which he brought back to researchers at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Ike's favorite shotgun.

Ike’s favorite shotgun.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s Winchester Model 21 shotgun is at the museum, too, his name and five stars inlaid in gold. In the Hollywood display cases, there are guns used by James Garner in the television version of “Maverick” and by Mel Gibson in the film; several of John Wayne’s guns, including his Springfield Model 1873 .45-70 from John Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949); and the Uberti Model 1847 reproduction used first by Kim Darby in “True Grit” (1969) and then by Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976).

The museum is also home to the guns and artwork of the Remington Arms Co. factory collection, the National Trap Shooting Hall of Fame and an impressive collection of Old West guns from Jesse James, Annie Oakley and others.

But the reason to come here this year is to celebrate Colt, and the museum certainly does that, displaying his guns just inside the entrance in chronological order and putting them in historical context. In the 1830s, when Colt began designed and manufacturing, most pistols were single shot. Colt’s Patterson was unique in that it was a revolving cylinder around one barrel, versus the more common pepperbox shooters in which the multiple barrels in one housing rotated with each pull of the trigger. Despite its revolutionary design, the .36-caliber, five-shot pistol never caught on with the public or the Army, which found the Patterson, N.J.-made guns fragile and the charge weak, according to NRA curator Jim Supica, who walked me through the exhibit. Colt went broke and the story might have ended there if not for Capt. Samuel H. Walker of the Texas Rangers, who came to Colt and suggested design changes and a higher caliber. The .44 Colt Walker, the most powerful handgun until the .357 of the 1930s, put the gunmaker back in business, and his manufacturing was improved by Elisha K. Root, who took over Colt’s new factory in Hartford, Conn.

The Colt Model 1873.

The Colt Model 1873.

Colt continued to improve on his design until his death in 1862, ensuring the company’s continued success through the turn of the 20th century. For instance, the Walker cylinders were known to crack because of too much gunpowder and the poor metallurgy of the day. Colt’s Dragoon series, with shorter chambers and a lighter load, fixed that problem. By the start of the Civil War, Colt’s factory, the largest in the world, employed 1,000 people and turned out 150 revolvers a day. And while Smith & Wesson is credited with making cartridge rounds popular, Colt quickly adopted the technology.

Among the famous Colts on display here are the 1851 Navy in .36 caliber carried by Commodore Perry when he opened Japan to the West; the 1860 Army model in .44 caliber favored by Union officers (Colt ended his contracts with Southern states in 1861); and, of course, the Colt single-action Model 1873, the classic handgun of the Old West.

Fast forward to 1900. The military sidearm of the day was the .38-caliber Long Colt, which proved ineffective at stopping Moro tribesmen in the Philippines. Trials for a replacement began in 1900 and lasted until 1911. The U.S. Cavalry first tested 1,000 Lugers in 7.65mm to prove the efficacy of semiautomatic pistols. By 1907, the field was whittled down to just three guns, all .45s: Savage, Colt and only two or three Lugers ever made in that caliber. Luger ultimately dropped out, figuring the fix was in for a U.S. manufacturer. Between the remaining two, the John Browning-designed Colt won hands down. Government testers fired 6,000 rounds through both guns; the Savage experienced 37 jams, while the Colt had none.

The museum has both the Savage serial No. 4 and Colt serial No. 134 pistols used in the 1907 trials, as well as one of the 1,000 Luger 7.65mm tested in 1900. These guns alone are enough to draw visitors to the museum to remember the man of whom it was said, “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.”

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

2 Responses to Celebrating the 200th Birthday of Gunmaker Samuel Colt

  1. Bob Swartz says:

    I enjoyed the article right up to the point that you skipped Texas Ranger John (Jack) Coffee Hays and went directly to Walker.

    It was Hays, the “First Ranger,” who proved the efficacy of the Paterson in 1844. In The Big Fight at Walker’s Creek, Hays and 15 Rangers whipped a war party of 81 Comanches.

    After that, the Rangers wanted Colt’s, which is how Walker got into the mix during the Mexican War.

    Bob Swartz

  2. Leonard Zax says:

    Paterson has just one t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: