Book Review: “Revolver,” by Jim Rasenberger

Published by Scribner, 436 pp.  $39.99

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

12570 Mike Kennedy

On July 25, 1814, British and American troops clashed at Lundy’s Lane, a confrontation that was destined to be one of the bloodiest battles of the War of 1812. By the time fighting ended close to midnight, neither side had gained a decisive advantage, but the two opposing forces had suffered over 1,700 casualties killed, wounded, or missing. It would not be until the Battle of New Orleans six months later that a similarly costly engagement would take place, and the cruel irony of that particular encounter was that it would come less than two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war.

The soldiers who squared off at Lundy’s Lane fought each other with muskets that in one critical respect had not changed since the time firearms had first become widely used for military purposes nearly 400 years earlier. Though the technology associated with firing mechanisms had evolved progressively through innovations such as the matchlock, wheellock, snaplock, and flintlock, the weapons themselves were individually handmade by craftsmen, and each had to be manually reloaded every time after they were fired. It was a cumbersome, time consuming process, and even the most experienced and best-drilled soldier would be hard pressed to load and fire more than two or three aimed rounds per minute.

Not surprisingly, battle tactics were developed to reflect this limitation, and wars of the era were fought mainly by large groups of opposing men who discharged massed volleys of fire at each other, usually with a distance of no more than 40 or 50 yards separating the two sides. This was a methodology that may have lent itself well to the open battlefields of Europe, but it was woefully inadequate in environments like the American West, where marauding natives mounted on horseback could use their bows and arrows to pick off hapless soldiers almost at will.

No one knew it at the time, but less than a week before the battle at Lundy’s Lane, a baby boy was born who less than 30 years later would perfect a new type of firearm that would revolutionize warfare. In Revolver, author Jim Rasenberger recounts the story of Samuel Colt, who over a lifetime that lasted less than 50 years would develop new processes that served as the forerunners of modern manufacturing, demonstrate a remarkable flair for salesmanship and dealmaking, gain and lose several fortunes, and eventually build a company that continues to this day. Perhaps most significantly, the new firearm that he invented would eventually be produced in countless variations and many millions of numbers, and would have a major impact on the subsequent course of American and world history.

Sam Colt was born to a well-to-do family in Hartford, Connecticut. Like many American businessmen of the era, Colt’s father Christopher had his ups and downs, and eventually settled in to a job as manager of a New England textile mill. At the age of 15, Sam apprenticed in his father’s mill, and this would be the environment where he would first begin to acquire a appreciation for the intricacies of machinery and the processes involved in manufacturing. Sent by his parents to a prestigious boarding school, Sam’s scholastic career came to a rather ignominious ending when he and some of his friends fired off a canon in an ill-advised attempt to celebrate the Fourth of July. Believing that his son would benefit from some shipboard discipline, the elder Colt found a berth for Sam aboard the Corvo, a wooden sailing ship transporting a load of missionaries to India.

It was during the year he spent at sea that the 16 year-old Colt first began to fantasize about creating the “impossible gun” that could be fired multiple times without the need to reload. Previous inventors had experimented with the “pepperbox” design that involved a system of revolving barrels, each loaded with its own round. Firearms using this design had enjoyed a certain degree of popularity, but they were heavy and exceedingly difficult to aim accurately. While aboard the Corvo Colt became enamored of the ship’s capstan, and began carving a wooden model that envisioned a firearm that had only one barrel, but used a revolving cylinder to feed the ammunition through it.  By the time he returned home, he had the basic design clearly in mind, and he would spend most of the next five years raising money to finance its production, and working to secure a patent for his new invention.

Eventually, Colt developed both a rifle and a pistol version of his new repeating arm, and his hope was that the U.S. Army would become a major customer for the weapons. In trials conducted at West Point during the summer of 1837, the guns performed reasonably well, and the members of the Army’s Ordnance Board commented favourably on their potential value in special situations. In assessing the usefulness of Colt’s inventions for more conventional duty, however, the Board was much less laudatory. Owing to their seemingly complex design, the potential for misfire, and the perceived difficulties in training soldiers to effectively handle the new weapons, the Board concluded that  Colt’s repeating arms were “entirely unsuited to the general purposes of the service.”

Notwithstanding this setback, fate intervened in early 1838 when Colt received a letter from Lieutenant Colonel William S. Harney, commanding officer of the Army’s Second Dragoons, who were deep in the thick of fighting the Seminole Indians in the jungle-like conditions of the Florida everglades. Harney had heard about Colt’s newfangled firearms from fellow West Pointers who had seen how they performed during the trials of the previous summer, and had concluded that they were just what his men needed to gain the upper hand over the tenacious and wily Seminoles. Harney had persuaded his superior, General Thomas Jesup, to authorize the purchase of several dozen of Colt’s repeating rifles, at a cost to Uncle Sam of the not inconsiderable sum of $6,250. The purchase, modest as it was, provided Colt with a financial lifeline that allowed him to continue his efforts to promote his new creation.

Colt spent much of the next ten years struggling to keep his fledgling enterprise afloat, while at the same time generating cash flow from various side hustles that involved selling products as diverse as underwater mines and tinfoil cartridges. Fate intervened once again in 1846, when the United States and Mexico went to war over the American annexation of Texas the previous year. By that time, Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers had acquired some of the Colt revolvers that had been previously used against the Seminoles, and he was suitably impressed when just fifteen of his men were able to use the pistols to defeat a much larger force of 70 Comanches.

In January 1847, Walker met with Colt to place an order for 1,000 revolvers, requesting changes to the design that would prove critically important for the weapon’s future marketability. Specifically, the number of rounds was increased from five to six – hence the ubiquitous “six shooter” – and the gun was chambered to fire a powerful .44 calibre ball that was capable of killing a horse with one shot.  Not long thereafter, Colt received an order for a second batch of 1,000 of his revolvers, and with the proceeds of the two sales, he was able to build a factory in Harford.

1851 Colt Navy Revolver, one of the first commercially successful models

The war with Mexico would end in early 1848, but just a few months later, luck would continue to shine on Colt and his enterprise. In the summer of that year, word reached the east coast of the United States that gold had been discovered in the newly acquired territory of California. It was news that ignited a massive rush to the new territory by prospective fortune seekers, and over the next several years more than 300,000 settlers made their way westwards in hopes of striking it rich. Most chose to travel overland, as the west coast could be reached more quickly, and the cost was far less than that associated with taking passage aboard a sailing ship that had to round Cape Horn in order to eventually make it to California.

Reaching the Promised Land was no easy task; it required a journey of three months through wilderness fraught with all manner of potentially lethal hazards, not the least of which were hostile native tribes and roving gangs of cutthroat desperados. An indispensible implement for making the trip was a Colt firearm that could provide the bearer with some modicum of protection from the ever-present threat of violence. Not surprisingly, demand for Colt’s repeating firearms soared, and so too did the prices they could command, especially on the frontier. By 1850, a Colt revolver would set the purchaser back $38 in New York City; in California, the exact same handgun could easily fetch $200. To put this number in some context, the equivalent value in 2021 dollars would be over $6,000.

As the 1850’s dawned, the successes that he had achieved in his home country prompted Colt to turn his attention to the international market. An excellent opportunity to showcase his wares presented itself in 1851, when he was invited to display his creations at the “Chrystal Palace” that had been built in London for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The exhibition had been opened on May 1 of that year by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, and Colt arrived by ship in August with examples of his guns. The wondrous repeating weapons quickly enraptured the British public, and no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington, who by that time was an elderly man past 80, reportedly visited several times to see them.

Most valuable of all to Colt, however, was the attention showered on his firearms by the British press. Newspapers of the day regaled their readers with heavily embellished tales of the exploits of heroic American frontiersmen wielding their Colts, and urged the British government to acquire the revolvers for use in the colonial outposts of the rapidly expanding Empire. Colt, of course, did everything he could to encourage and benefit from this publicity. The crowning moment of his visit to Great Britain came in November, when he became the first American ever invited to address the prestigious Institute of Civil Engineers in London. In his remarks to the august body, Colt pointed to his repeating firearms as evidence that he had accomplished what no one else had ever managed to do, and was equally quick to extol the merits of the “American System” of manufacturing that he used to mass produce his guns.

As a result of the success of his visit to Britain, Colt decided to build a factory in London, which opened for business in January 1853. At first, securing orders from the British military proved to be a tough sell, but once again fate intervened with the beginning of the Crimean War in October of that year. A few months later, the Royal Navy ordered four thousand revolvers for its Baltic Fleet, and demand soared after the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854, the scene of the ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade”. In the wake of the debacle, the Fleet Street newspapers howled for more revolvers for the troops, and by the end of 1854, Colt had sold more than 15,000 pistols to the British Government.

At the same time, however, Colt was also using the newfound celebrity of his firearms to make surreptitious overtures to other prospective customers, one of who was Czar Nicholas I of Russia. In November 1854, barely weeks after the fiasco at Balaclava, Colt and an associate visited St. Petersburg, where they were received at the Winter Palace by the Czar. Upon his return to London, Colt publicly denied that he had visited the Czar for the purpose of soliciting new business. In reality, he had returned to Britain with an order from the Russians for 5,000 of his revolvers.

Doing business with the Czar proved to be an ill-considered decision that would end in disaster for Colt, and eventually lead to shutdown of his operations in Britain. The revolvers meant for the Russians were manufactured in Colt’s Hartford facility, and the first three thousand were placed aboard ship in New York in June 1855, where they would be shipped to Antwerp. The plan was then to transport the weapons overland to Russia; to pass safely through Prussia, they would be concealed in bales of cotton. Things quickly flew off the rails when a vigilant customs inspector discovered the firearms, and promptly confiscated the entire clandestine shipment. The British were outraged, and within two years Colt had exited the land of John Bull, never to return.

Costly and embarrassing as it was at the time, Colt’s European misadventure would soon prove to be a comparatively minor setback. As the 1850’s continued, his factory in Hartford was kept humming by growing demand fueled by a combination of American expansion westwards and rising tensions between the Northern states and their neighbors to the South. To capitalize on the opportunities presented by a burgeoning market for firearms, Colt formed a new corporation, raised money, and built a new armory consisting of three large, interconnected buildings. Opened in 1855, “Coltsville”, as the new installation was known, was a state-of-the-art facility with over 400 machines, and one that allowed small arms to be produced in a sequential process using interchangeable parts. It was the forerunner of the modern assembly line, and at the time, represented a remarkable leap forward in manufacturing. As subsequent events would demonstrate, in many ways Coltsville was the precursor of the astonishing industrial revolution that would unfold throughout America during the latter half of the 19th century.

Sadly, Colt himself would not live much longer to enjoy the fruits of his labour. He died in January 1862 at just 47 years of age, relatively young by the standards of the era. At the time of his passing, his company employed some 3,000 men, had produced an estimated 400,000 of his revolvers, and Colt himself had amassed a personal fortune that in modern terms would be the equivalent of nearly $400 million. Today, the company he founded in 1855 continues its  operations from its headquarters in Hartford, and over the years has produced millions of copies of some of the world’s most widely-used military small arms, notable among them the 1911 semiautomatic pistol, the M 16 rifle, and the M 4 carbine.

Nearly 160 years have now passed since Samuel Colt departed this earth, but his lasting legacy remains that of an innovative firearm that has been produced in countless millions of copies, and that still continues to be used today. We will never know how many lives have been taken by Colt’s creations, or how many lives his revolvers may otherwise have saved. But Revolver is much more than just a story of a tinkerer and the gun he perfected. It is a fascinating tale of entrepreneurship skillfully woven into the tapestry that forms the backdrop of political and economic history against which the story takes place. As Rasenberger shows, Sam Colt was a fascinating and in some ways deeply flawed individual: a swashbuckling and visionary innovator; and at the same time, a shameless and opportunistic self-promoter who relied upon a combination of chutzpah and guile to serve his own ends. But there can be no denying that the weapons he created were genuine game changers in the art of warfare, and played an important role in defining the American identity.

For those who are looking for some entertaining summer reading, Revolver is a book that nicely fits the bill. Within these pages, author Jim Rasenberger has done a masterful job of recounting a little-known but nonetheless important life story in a way that is compelling, readable, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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