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COLT REVOLVERS

COLT REVOLVERS. The first practical revolving-cylinder handgun was invented in 1831 by Samuel Colt of Hartford, Connecticut, and patented on February 25, 1836, the year of the Texas Revolution. Texas became a proving ground and nearly the only market for Colt's revolutionary product. Colt provided the struggling republic and frontier state with the increased firepower necessary to defend and advance itself. Colt revolvers were manufactured first in 1837 at Paterson, New Jersey, by the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. Three principal variations of these five-shot Paterson Colt handguns were produced: the .28 caliber Pocket model, the .31 caliber Belt model, and the .36 caliber Holster model. The Republic of Texas ordered 180 of the .36 caliber Holster model revolvers for its navy in August 1839. Numbers of these rather delicate arms were issued to various Texas warships and served well in engagements against Mexico over the next four years. Colt was so pleased by the Texas purchase and with the performance of his product that he engraved the scene of the victorious naval battle fought off Campeche on May 16, 1843, by the Texas Navy on the cylinders of the 1851 Navy, 1860 Army, and 1861 Navy model Colts (in all, nearly 500,000 revolvers).

Many of the Paterson Colts purchased for the Texas Navy were ultimately used by the Texas army and in various quasimilitary expeditions. They are known to have been involved in the Council House Fight at San Antonio, as well as in the Texan–Santa Fe and Mier expeditions.qqv Most significant, however, were those revolvers reissued to units of the Texas Rangersqv. Among these border horsemen the Colt revolver first won its reputation as a weapon ideally suited to mounted combat. Using Paterson Colts purchased in 1843, Col. John Coffee Hays commanded a Ranger contingent in several uneven battles against depredating Comanches. Most notable was the contest in which Hays and fourteen rangers charged and routed nearly eighty Comanche warriors in the battle of Walker's Creek in 1844. Other victories against considerable odds at Nueces Canyon and Enchanted Rock reinforced the report of the Colt revolver's firepower. All of the forthcoming Walker and Dragoon model Colts (some 21,000 revolvers) carried a cylinder scene commemorating the so-called "Hays Big Fight" on the Pedernales. Colt himself came to call the Paterson Holster model revolver the Texas Arm, and present-day collectors generally refer to it as the Texas Model or Texas Paterson.

Although Colt's Paterson enterprise failed in 1842 because of inadequate sales, his early revolvers had won the devotion of frontier Texans, particularly those of the ranger force. Appropriately, it was a former Texas Ranger, Samuel H. Walker, who in conjunction with the demands of the Mexican War, put Colt back in business to stay. In November 1846 Captain Walker, then of the United States Mounted Riflemen, opened negotiations with Colt for the production of 1,000 improved revolvers. Familiar with the shortcomings of the Paterson arm, Walker specified a substantial new design incorporating a fixed trigger with guard and a loading lever beneath the nine-inch barrel. The massive revolver mounted a six-shot cylinder chambered for a .44 caliber conical bullet; the revolver weighed an unprecedented four pounds, nine ounces. Texas Ranger John S. (Rip) Fordqv claimed the new Walker Colt pistol was as powerful as the United States Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifle.

The Walker Colt inaugurated the era of perfected revolver design and manufacture. Colt produced his newly-designed revolvers in Connecticut at the factory of Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the cotton gin inventor. In 1855, in Hartford along the Connecticut River, he completed a new factory and incorporated his business as the Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company (today Colt's Manufacturing Company LLC) and began regular production. By the time of Colt's death on January 10, 1862, a succession of ten improved revolver models had been introduced, and some 468,000 units manufactured. Before the Civil War the most popular of these in Texas was the .36 caliber 1851 Navy model, about which traveler Frederick Law Olmsted observed, "Of the Colt's [Navy] we cannot speak in too high terms. . . . There are probably in Texas about as many revolvers as male adults, and I doubt if there are one hundred in the state of any other make." During the war the few Texas arms manufacturers producing revolvers—Dance Brothersqv, for instance—patterned their limited output on the Colt Dragoon and Navy models.

The Colt revolver remained preeminent among such arms in Texas and throughout the West for the remainder of the nineteenth century. The 1873 Single Action Army model, known as the Peacemaker or simply six-shooter, became the standard sidearm of the postwar military, the Texas Rangers, and the majority of cowboys across the plains. Though restrictions against carrying handguns were applied in Texas during the 1880s, widespread possession declined only slowly.

Windmills, barbed wireqqv fences, and Colt revolvers have been credited with settlement of the Great Plains. The Colt revolver and Texas remain inextricably associated in history, symbolism, and romance. Colt collectors abound in the state.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Colt, "History: The Colt Legend" (http://www.coltsmfg.com/history.aspx), accessed November 3, 2009. T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (New York: Macmillan, 1968). John S. Ford, Rip Ford's Texas, ed. Stephen B. Oates (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963). J. Evetts Haley, The XIT Ranch of Texas and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado (Chicago: Lakeside, 1929; rpts., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953, 1967). Charles Tower Haven and Frank A. Belden, A History of the Colt Revolver (New York: Morrow, 1940). Carroll C. Holloway, Texas Gun Lore (San Antonio: Naylor, 1951). Philip D. Jordan, "The Pistol Packin' Cowboy: From Bullet to Burial," Red River Valley Historical Review 11 (Spring 1975). Noel M. Loomis, Texan-Santa Fe Pioneers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958). Watson Parker, "Armed and Ready: Guns on the Western Frontier," in The American West: Essays in Honor of W. Eugene Hollon, ed. Ronald Lora (University of Toledo, 1980). John E. Parsons, The Peacemaker and Its Rivals: An Account of the Single Action Colt (New York: Morrow, 1950). Ernest Lisle Reedstrom, Bugles, Banners and War Bonnets (Caldwell, Idaho, 1977). James E. Serven, Colt Firearms (Santa Ana, California: Serven, 1954). James E. Serven, Conquering the Frontiers (La Habra, California: Foundation, 1974). Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston: Ginn, 1931). Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). R. L. Wilson, Colt: An American Legend (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985). R. L. Wilson, Colt Heritage: The Official History of Colt Firearms (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950).

Richard C. Rattenbury

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Richard C. Rattenbury, "COLT REVOLVERS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lnc01), accessed December 26, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.