Prologue PROLOGUE A Taste for Distasteful Truths I
In 1831, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a ship called the Corvo
, a sixteen-year-old American boy named Sam Colt was struck by an extraordinary idea. Exactly where he got the idea remains an open question.
The common story is that he was inspired by observations he made aboard the Corvo
, either of the ship’s wheel or, more likely, its windlass, the barrel-shaped crank that sailors turned to hoist the anchor. Others have suggested that he stole the idea from an inventor whose work he’d seen while abroad in India. Either version is plausible: Colt was certainly brazen enough to steal, but he was also ingenious enough to come up with a brilliant creation on his own. It’s also possible that the entire episode never happened and Colt made it up. He was capable of that, too.
In any event—as the story goes—Colt found a quiet moment on a glassy sea and pulled out the small knife a family friend had given him before the start of his voyage. He whittled at a few pieces of scrap wood to create a model of what he had in mind. When he was done, the thing in his hand resembled a small wooden pistol—a child’s toy—except that Colt’s creation, with its fist-shaped bulge above the trigger, would have appeared ridiculous to people who knew what a pistol looked like in 1831. He had carved an object that would expand the notion of how a gun was supposed to operate. In doing so, he had solved, or at least started to solve, one of the great technological challenges of the early nineteenth century: how to make a gun shoot multiple bullets without reloading.
For more than two decades after he returned home from Calcutta, Sam Colt would strive to perfect and market his “revolving gun” and wait for the world to catch up to his idea. In the meantime, he lived in perpetual motion—“
centrifugal chaos,” one biographer has called it. At seventeen, he began touring the country as a traveling showman, selling hits of nitrous oxide to audiences in dire need of amusement. (The country was suffering a cholera epidemic at the time.) At eighteen, he went up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in a steamboat, and, at nineteen, down the Erie Canal on a canalboat. He was rich by the time he was twenty-one, poor at thirty-one, then rich again at forty-one. He may have had a secret marriage and almost certainly had a son he pretended was his nephew. His brother John committed an infamous murder that could have been lifted straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story—though in fact it went the other way; Poe lifted a story from it
—and while John was waiting to be hanged in New York City, Sam invented a method of blowing up ships in the harbor with underwater electrified cables. In 1849, he visited the palace of St. Cloud near Paris and the Dolmabahçe Palace in Constantinople. In 1851, he went to the Crystal Palace in London (not really a palace, but enchanting nonetheless), and in 1854 to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. In 1855, he built his own palace, Armsmear, on a hill above his personal empire, called Coltsville, in Connecticut. Coltsville included homes for workers, churches, a music hall and library, schools, a dairy farm, a deer park, greenhouses fragrant with flowers and fruits in all seasons, a beer garden (for German employees), and, at the center of it all, the most advanced factory in the world. While Colt did not single-handedly develop the so-called American System of mass production—using machines to make uniform and interchangeable parts—he was a pioneer of the technological revolution of the 1850s that had nearly as much impact on the world as the American political revolution of the 1770s.
The life of Sam Colt is a tale that embraces many events and facets of American history in the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. But it is also—trigger warning—the story of a gun.
The broad thesis of this book is that we cannot make sense of the United States in the nineteenth century, or the twenty-first for that matter, without taking into account Colt and his revolver. Combined in the flesh of the one and the steel of the other were the forces that shaped what the country became: an industrial powerhouse rising in the east, a violent frontier expanding to the west. In no American object did these two forces of economic and demographic change converge as dynamically and completely as in Colt’s revolver. Compared to other great innovations of the era, such as Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber, and Samuel Morse’s telegraph—in which Colt played a small but significant part—Colt’s gun, a few pounds in the hand, was a featherweight. But it did as much as, if not more than, those others to make the world that was coming.
Before we can understand the significance of Colt’s revolvers, we need to know what guns were before he came along. The first firearms, in the thirteenth century, were simple barrels or tubes of metal (though the Chinese may have used bamboo) filled with combustible powder and a projectile. When the powder was lit, it exploded in a high-pressure burst of gases—nitrogen and carbon dioxide—that forced the projectile out of the barrel and into flight. Besides perfecting the recipe for gunpowder, the earliest gun innovators focused on barrels and stocks, making guns safer and easier to hold and aim. They then turned their attention to the mechanism, called the lock, which ignited the gunpowder. Originally, a shooter simply held a burning ember to a hole near the back of the barrel. The so-called matchlock
added a serpentine, or finger lever, that lowered a burning wick to the powder. That lever evolved into a trigger, and the firing mechanism evolved into the wheel lock
and the more enduring flintlock
, both of which created sparks from friction and dispensed with the inconvenience of keeping a lit match on hand. In 1807, seven years before Colt’s birth, a Scottish clergyman named Alexander John Forsyth devised an important improvement called the caplock
or percussion lock
: a small self-enclosed capsule or “pill” of mercury fulminate ignited when sharply hit by the spring-loaded hammer of the gun.
Attempts to increase “celerity of fire,” the rate at which projectiles could be discharged from a gun, went back nearly as far as guns themselves. A number of methods had been tried. One obvious solution was to add barrels to the gun—two barrels, four barrels, even six or more, bundled in a sheaf, laid side by side like organ pipes, or fanned out like the toes of a duck. Leonardo da Vinci conceived (though does not seem to have ever built) a giant duck-footed gun with ten splayed barrels. In 1718, James Puckle took a significant leap when he invented a large gun on a tripod with a single barrel and a revolving centerpiece with numerous chambers, but Puckle’s gun never advanced beyond the prototype stage. Other attempts to use revolving cylinders had been made over the years. Colt later swore that he knew of none of them until after he invented his own. He may have been lying, as many of his rivals suggested, but his claim is not implausible. All these earlier guns were ultimately discarded and forgotten. They were too unwieldy, too heavy, too complicated, too impractical.
In short, while firearms were easier to use and more dependable at the start of the nineteenth century, the guns of 1830 were essentially what they had been in 1430: single metal tubes or barrels stuffed with combustible powder and projectiles. After every shot, the shooter had to carry out a minimum of three steps: pour powder into the barrel; add a projectile (cannonball, lead ball, or later bullet); then ignite the gunpowder and send the projectile on its way. Even the best rifles in the most experienced of hands required at least twenty seconds, and more likely thirty, to load between shots.
Such guns were most effective when deployed by vast armies—think Frederick the Great and his highly trained, flintlock-armed Prussians—in which hundreds or thousands of men, organized in ranks, loading and shooting in synchronized volleys, created a multishot or machine-gun effect. Of course, the critical element in this machine was the men who were its cogs. As long as guns were primarily used by armies on battlefields, and as long as living men could be supplied to replace the dead and wounded, the advantage went to whoever possessed more guns.
Which brings us back to the significance of Colt’s gun. One place where single-shot firearms were not
effective was in the American west before the Civil War. Western pioneers were usually small in number, facing unfamiliar terrain and Native Americans who resented their presence. When Indian warriors swept across the grasslands on horseback, firing arrows at a rate of one every two or three seconds, even the best-armed Americans—military personnel with Kentucky rifles—were sitting ducks. Not only did their rifles have to be reloaded after every shot; they had to be fired from the dismount, on the ground. An Indian warrior could get off as many as twenty arrows for every bullet, all the while galloping at thirty miles per hour toward the pinned and doomed rifleman.
Colt’s revolvers and repeating rifles (which used similar technology) were to become the weapons of choice in engagements with Indians. They were brandished against the Comanche in Texas, the Apache in Arizona, the Cheyenne in Kansas, the Sioux of the Northern Plains, the Nez Perce in the Pacific Northwest, and nearly every other tribe west of the Missouri River. Colts also played a small but important role in the Mexican War in the late 1840s—the war put Colt on the path to riches—and accompanied gold rushers to California in 1849, becoming as indispensable to western sojourners and settlers as shovels, picks, and boots. Next to a Bible, a Colt revolver was the best travel insurance available. As such, it emboldened Americans contemplating a western journey. The west would have been settled sooner or later, but how
it was settled and when
it was settled owed a great deal to Colt’s gun.
A sense of what the revolver meant in the antebellum west can be gleaned from an article published in a newspaper in Independence, Missouri, in the summer of 1850, describing the guard that would accompany a wagon train delivering passengers and mail to California:
Each man has at his side, strapped up in the stage, one of Colt’s revolving rifles; in a holster, below, one of Colt’s long revolving pistols, and in his belt a small Colt revolver, besides a hunting knife—so that these eight men are prepared in case of attack to discharge one hundred and thirty six shots without stopping to reload! This is equal to a small army, armed as in olden times, and from the courageous appearance of this escort, prepared as they are, either for offence or the defensive warfare with the savages, we have no apprehension for the safety of the mails.
To contemporary ears, talk of warfare with “savages” sounds more like genocide and imperialism than triumph, but in the age of Manifest Destiny—a term coined in 1845, a year after the Texas Rangers first fired their Colts at the Comanche—Americans embraced it as moral rhetoric supporting the noble cause of westward expansion. During Colt’s forty-seven years of life, the country grew in territory by 1.3 million square miles and from fewer than 10 million to more than 30 million inhabitants. This growth brought out many of America’s finest qualities and some of its most compelling history, but it came at a moral price. Born as a puritanical theocracy in the seventeenth century, then born again as an Enlightenment-era republic in the eighteenth, the United States emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century as a nation still nominally defined by religious and political ideals but animated by purely practical pursuits. The Age of Enlightenment became the Age of Expediency. “
I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, the same year Sam Colt, at age twenty-one, began seeking patents for his new gun.
During this period the program to remove Native Americans from their lands became official US government policy, slavery became more entrenched, and America forcibly took from Mexico half a million square miles of that nation’s territory, in large part to provide more land for slave plantations. The government became more ethically compromised, as patronage under President Jackson evolved into flagrant corruption under President Buchanan, and more politically divided. Americans became more pious but also more violent, and more modern but less civil. Colt and his revolver were deeply connected to all of these developments in ways both real and symbolic. In addition to telling the story of the man and the gun, then, this book will aim to shed light on the nation as it was in those dark ages of American history. The picture that emerges is not entirely pretty, and before wading in, we might do well to heed the advice of the writer Ambrose Bierce, who fought at the Battle of Shiloh in early April of 1862 and watched twenty-four thousand men fall in forty-eight hours: “
Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths.”
Sam Colt adored the America of his time, and he embodied it. He was big, brash, voracious, imaginative, and possessed of preternatural drive and energy. He was a classic disruptor—the ur-disruptor—who not only invented a world-changing product but produced it and sold it in world-changing ways, and he became the prototype for hundreds of such disruptors to come, from Thomas Edison to Henry Ford, from Thomas Watson to Steve Jobs. Friends admired him for his generosity, his warmth, and his boldness; adversaries reviled him for his dishonesty and rapaciousness. He possessed all of these qualities, and above all, he was relentless—as relentless in his way as Ahab, the whaling-ship captain who arrived off the pen of Herman Melville at the very moment Sam Colt stepped onto the world stage. But while Ahab pursued one big whale, Colt had many fish to fry.
Because he was a man with his own distasteful truths, and heirs willing to hide them, Colt left behind rabbit holes—ellipses, traps—for his future biographers. The missing pages of a journal, for instance, that he kept when he was eighteen and that might have shed light on his experience aboard a slave ship to New Orleans. Or the letters of women with whom he shared his bed, which have mostly, though not entirely, been culled from his archives. One of his brothers once accused Colt of having “a wife in every port,” but the exact nature of his amorous relations is mostly a matter of conjecture.
The problem has not been helped by several Colt biographies that blend verifiable fact with outright fiction, making little attempt to distinguish which is which. The best work on Colt has come from art monographs of his pistols (especially from curators at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, owners of a large collection of Colt firearms and other Colt artifacts) and several noteworthy articles and books by gun experts and scholars of American industry and western history. Colt gun collectors have added valuable information to the record, though it tends to skew to the interests of people who collect guns. With these exceptions, Colt has not been treated seriously by historians or biographers. We tend to be more comfortable in the company of historical figures who pulled the triggers (soldiers, desperadoes, psychopaths) than those who made the guns, perhaps because the business of manufacturing and selling weapons seems less compelling, and more clinical, than the business of using them. I hope Sam Colt’s life will, if nothing else, defy that expectation.
Putting aside said rabbit holes, the most significant questions raised by Colt and his guns are as alive now as they were during his life—even more so, because not even Colt could have guessed how sophisticated and lethal multishot firearms would become. How such guns matter to us as a country today is a question so vital and polarizing that it may be difficult to address events from two centuries ago without inciting strong and reflexive responses. But I hope not impossible. The past is the one place in American life where we can lower our weapons and consider our common heritage, much as Union and Confederate troops did one evening in Stones River, Tennessee, in late December of 1862, on the eve of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, when both sides put down their muskets and revolvers and joined across the battlefield in singing “Home, Sweet Home.”
The composer of that famous song, John Howard Payne, was a friend of Colt’s, and we will meet him in these pages, along with many other interesting folk. For the moment, I will simply add that what follows is a work of fact, for better and for worse, with no agenda other than to honestly tell what happened to Sam Colt, his gun, and America in the years 1814 to 1862.