The story of Samuel Colt and his invention of the revolver, told by Jim Rasenberger in his biography Revolver, is more than just the tale of an inventor and his invention. This is a story about an incredibly gifted, tenacious eccentric whose invention came at just the right time to influence the direction of our country. It is also the story of the United States coming of age and its relentless expansion westward under the mantra of “Manifest Destiny.”
As a 16-year-old sailor on his first voyage somewhere in the Atlantic, Sam Colt whittled out a wooden model of his idea for a repeating pistol. He may have gotten the idea from the revolving windlass used to haul in the anchor, or possibly but highly unlikely, he could have stolen the idea from seeing one of Elisha Collier’s repeating pistols in Calcutta. Collier invented them in 1813 and sold some to the British army. No matter the inspiration, Colt worked on his idea for decades before raising enough capital to start his company. In his late teens, Colt devised an unusual way to raise funds by traveling all over the United States on steamboats and selling hits of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
Like most entrepreneurs, Colt had to overcome setback after setback before eventually getting his company off the ground. Colt went from being poor to rich to poor and then back to rich. Among the many breaks he received along the way, the greatest was from Texas Ranger Samuel Walker’s belief and advocacy of Colt pistols. A hero and leader of the Texas Rangers, Walker had firsthand experience of Colt’s pistols in warring against the Comanches. Walker worked with Colt to design the Colt Walker — a very powerful black powder pistol that totally changed the dynamics of their fight against the Comanches. Comanches were incredible horsemen who could fire 20 arrows at a full gallop before a frontiersman could get off one shot from his muzzle loader. The Colt Walker six-shooter revolver changed everything by giving the Rangers and anyone else who possessed one the advantage. Soon after, Colt revolvers were the weapon of choice for anyone heading west. A particularly hard sell was the U.S. Army, but after Samuel Walker and his men used them in the Mexican War, the army began implementing them into its force.
Sam Colt was a relentless entrepreneur that personified the United States at that time. Aggressive, rapacious, practical, and a chaser of dreams, Sam Colt and Americans of the day did whatever was necessary to reach their goals no matter the cost or ethics. By today’s standards, much of what took place in the 1840s and ’50s is shocking, but as my high school history teacher used to say, “In those times, might made right” … on both sides of any struggle for power. Sam Colt reflected those times and created a weapon that had a profound effect on the outcome of America’s westward expansion.