Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THE PEACEMAKER...The History of the Colt .45 and Samuel Colt's Revolvers

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

"The good people in this world are very far from being satisfied with each other and my arms are the best peacemaker." ~ Samuel Colt (1852)

Ironically, when Samuel Colt said those words almost 160 years ago, the Colt .45 Single Action Army (SAA) revolving cylinder handgun, made famous on the American frontier and the Old West as the Peacemaker, had not yet been invented. Still, he was well on his way to revolutionizing gun manufacturing in the United States.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut on 19 July 1814, Samuel Colt was only 11 years old when he became indentured to a farm in Glastonbury, Connecticut. However, he was also given the opportunity to attend school which challenged his imagination. In particular, one book at school not only fascinated him, but put Samuel Colt on the path toward his destiny. While reading The Compendium of Knowledge, a scientific encyclopedia, young Sam learned about inventors, including Robert Fulton, and gunpowder. But it wasn’t until he went to sea in 1832 that Sam first conceived the revolver. During his first voyage, Sam observed that no matter which way the ship’s wheel was turned, its spokes always came in direct contact with a clutch that could be set to hold it. And so it was that a ship’s wheel inspired Samuel Colt to design a pistol with a revolving cylinder that would contain several bullets yet be fired through a single barrel. By the time that sea voyage ended, he'd carved the prototype for his revolver out of wood.

In 1835, Colt patented his innovative five-shot revolver. A year later, he founded his Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson, New Jersey. Among his first customers was John Coffee Hays of the Texas Rangers, who not only purchased Colt’s revolvers for himself but his men.

[Pictured: Colt Texas Paterson, 40 cal. - 1836. Drawing courtesy of Colt's patent Fire Arms Mfg.,*Colt's Pat. Firearms. Mfg. Co., Hartford.]

[Pictured: 1839 Colt Texas Paterson Revolver, .36 Caliber – A 5-shot, Muzzle loaded revolver. Photo Credit: West Point Military Museum]

Sales for the Colt Texas Paterson were slow, however, and in 1842 the factory closed. During his brief departure from gun design and manufacturing, the visionary Samuel Colt worked on his concept for an underwater explosive that operated by remote control. He also developed the first underwater telegraph cable. But I digress…

In 1847, Samuel Colt returned to gun manufacturing by designing a six-shot revolver. War with Mexico had begun in 1846 and former Texas Ranger and US Army Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker wanted a new, more powerful revolver. He met with Colt and the Model 1847, named the Walker became the largest handgun manufactured by Colt’s company. As Sam Colt remarked, “It would take a Texan to shoot it.”

[Pictured: 1847 Colt Walker]

Approximately 1,000 Walker revolvers were purchased by the United States Army as the weapon of choice to be used during the Mexican War. The Walker became popular with the Texas Rangers and was also used during the Civil War. Weighing over 4 pounds unloaded, the Colt 1847 Walker was a .44 caliber black powder, cap and ball revolver. It had a 9-inch barrel and would remain the most powerful, heaviest handgun in the world until the .357 magnum was manufactured in 1935.

His contract with the government for the Walker allowed Samuel Colt to build a new factory in Hartford, making him the largest private arms manufacturing company in the world. A variety of revolvers were produced, including the Third Model Dragoon.

[Pictured: 1853 Colt Third Model Dragoon Percussion Revolver; Designed and Manufactured by Samuel Colt; Decorated by Gustave Young, engraver; Made in America (Hartford, CT) Steel, brass, gold, and walnut; Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The 1853 Colt Third Model Dragoon (pictured) was donated to The Metropolitan Museum of Art by George and Butonne Repaire in 1995, and is considered one of Colt’s finest guns, and one of a select few featuring gold-inlaid engraving. The gold inlay features a bust of George Washington on the cylinder. The arms of the United States are also featured on the frame. The mate to this particular pistol is housed at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and was a gift to Czar Nicholas I by Samuel Colt. The Metropolitan’s gun was presented by Colt to Sultan Abdulmecid I of Turkey.

Another popular handgun designed by Samuel Colt was the Colt 1851 Navy, a .36 caliber cap and ball revolver. Needless to say, weighing only 42 ounces, it was much lighter than the Walker Colt of 1847 (which had to be carried in a saddle holster). The 1851 Navy could be carried in a belt holster and was owned by such famous figures as Wild Bill Hickok, ‘Doc’ Holliday, and Robert E. Lee.

The Navy reference came about because the cylinder featured a scene from the victory of the 2nd Texas Navy at the Battle of Campeche in 1843. Sam Colt never forgot that Texas had purchased his first Colt Paterson revolver, so he designed the Colt 1851 Navy as a sign of appreciation and remembrance for Texas.

[Pictured: 1851 Colt Navy Revolver]
In 1861, the Colt Model Navy was manufactured. Like its predecessor, the 1861 was a cap and ball, .36 caliber six-shot revolver. However, it featured a ratchet loading lever and round barrel like the .44 caliber Army Model of 1860 but with a shorter barrel – at 7-1/2 inches. With a lighter recoil than the .44 Army 1860, the 1861 Navy was widely used during by the Cavalry during the American Civil War and on the western frontier.

The 1861 Navy used cartridges made of nitrated paper, a pre-measured black powder charge, and either a round lead ball or conical bullet.

[Pictured: 1861 Colt Navy Revolver]

After Sam's sudden illness and death in 1862, his beloved wife, Elizabeth,(then pregnant with their fifth child)took over Colt Manufacturing. Though not technically President, she managed the company (with its 1500 employees) behind the scenes and was, in fact, at the helm when the company’s most popular revolver, the .45 caliber Single Action Army (SAA) Peacemaker was produced in 1873. The new six-shooter was purchased by the US Army and used during the Indian Wars out west. An order for 8,000 revolvers and appendages (one screwdriver per pistol) was contracted at a price of $13.00 each. The revolver used by the Army was .45 caliber with 7-1/2 inch barrels. An inspector’s initials were stamped into the grips, and sometimes the date. Although never sold or marketed as the Peacemaker, the revolver’s preferred nickname became legendary.

[Pictured: Colt .45 Single Action Army (SAA) Revolver -- the Peacemaker - Weight: 2 lb. 5 oz.,Overall Length: 11 inches, Barrel Length: 7.5 inches, Built: 1873 - Photo Courtesy: The West Point Military Museum]

The Colt .45 SAA was also known as the Colt .45, Frontier Six Shooter and Model P. Its quality, reliability and ‘quick-draw’ reputation made it a ‘must have’ for the private citizen – whether they were gunfighters, outlaws, cowboys, miners, farmers, gamblers or, of course, lawmen. Owners of the Peacemaker included Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, Buffalo Bill Cody and Theodore Roosevelt. Even General Patton had a custom-made set of the revolvers with ivory grips.

[Pictured: Gen. George Patton's Colt .45 Silver plated, Single Action Army Revolver with a 4-3/4 inch barrel and Ivory grip. Photo Credit: Gen. Patton Museum, Fort Knox, KY]

Although the 1873 Colt .45 was a six shooter,unless you were going into battle or needed all six bullets, normally only five bullets would be loaded. This allowed the hammer to safely remain down on an empty chamber. Then, if the gun was dropped or the hammer was accidentally bumped, no live round would fire. The hammer had to be cocked back to turn the chamber to fire a live round.

Over time the Peacemaker has become an iconic symbol of the American West. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a western movie without someone drawing a Colt .45 Peacemaker from his holster. Gary Cooper used a Peacemaker in High Noon. Unfortunately, some films were more preoccupied with having the famous firearm featured in their movie than paying attention to historical accuracy. For example, in the opening scene of The Shootist (starring John Wayne), as the year 1871 is flashed across the screen, a handsome pair of Colt .45 six-shooters are shown – despite the fact the revolver would not be manufactured until 1873.

The First Generation .45 SAA was continuously produced by Colt’s Manufacturing Company from 1873 to 1940. In 1956, production resumed with the Second Generation of the .45 SAA; a Third Generation came out in 1976. The Peacemaker is still manufactured today with very minor alterations. Barrel lengths are offered in 4-3/4 inches, 5-1/2 inches, and the original 7-1/2 inches. For the most part, Colt has remained true to the Peacemaker’s heritage. Like the original in 1873, the .45 Colt SAA today remains a single action revolver that cannot be fired unless the hammer is manually cocked.

[Pictured: Nickel-plated, Limited Edition "Modern Masters" Colt Single Action Army Revolver; Photo Credit: Colt Mfg. Co.]

[Pictured: 2011 Nickel-plated Colt Single Action Army Revolver; Photo Credit: Colt Mfg.Co.]

[Pictured: Limited Edition 175th Anniversary Colt .45 SAA Revolver; black powder style frame w/metal surface, polished and finished in Colt Royal Blue, embellished Gold Plating and engraving of Samuel Colt's signature. Photo Credit: Colt Mfg.Co.]

It has been said, and rightfully so, that "Sam Colt's name was synonymous with his revolving-breech pistol, a weapon that was said to have 'won the West'." Ultimately, from Texas Rangers, as well as Confederate and Union Armies of the American Civil War, to the US Calvary and private citizens and pioneers settling the American frontier, Colt's innovative gun designs allowed them to fire a weapon multiple times without reloading. Although it is true that Colt guns killed many innocent people (especially when wielded by outlaws or gunfighters), they also enabled honest, law-abiding citizens to defend themselves, their homes, and their country. I think anyone transported back to a time when individuals faced life-threatening dangers --often alone and on a daily basis -- would understand not just how much Samuel Colt's revolvers were needed but recognize that sometimes the only way to secure peace is to fight for it.

Thanks very much for reading my 'long' post. I hope you enjoyed it! :) ~ AKB


  1. Ashley, I truly had no idea the history of guns and you wrote such an eloquent and interesting history of Samuel Colt and the evolution of the revolver!! Loved it!!!!

  2. Thanks so much, Michelle. History is always interesting to me, which is why I love doing research for my writing. :)

  3. Fantastic information, Ashley. Since my stories are set in the west, it is a great resource for me to get those guns right.

    Definitely worth reading the entire post.

  4. Ashley, I loved this post. Thanks so much for your extensive research. This is just the info I needed.

  5. Thank you, Paisley and Caroline. I'm glad the information will be useful to you both. I fretted the post might be too long or too much information, but wanted to cover the progression of Colt's revolvers.

  6. Ashley,
    Great post. This is a huge help for writing western historical novels. Thanks so much for taking time to include the information.
    There's a difference between revolvers and pistols, and it's important to get it right in our stories.

  7. Ashley, I loved, loved, loved this post! I have always been so fascinated with guns, but my dad wasn't a hunter at all, and I had two sisters, so had to be content with using my dad's pellet gun to shoot tin cans from the top of my roof as a kid. LOL When I worked at the Cowboy Museum here in OKC, they came into receipt of a private collection of guns and built a gallery just for them (part of the deal) the Weisenhoffer (hope I'm spelling that right!) gallery. You could not believe the variety of guns that were in that collection, and from what I heard, it wasn't even the full collection that they bought. But a couple of the guns were engraved by Gustave Young, and they were just so gorgeous, just beautiful! I would just stand and look at that in awe that anyone could have done something so meticulous. Anyhow, thanks again for a wonderful post. I'm going to remember this for future reference. LOL

  8. Great post! I got to shoot a Peacemaker at the Wild Rose Press retreat in Bandera TX last spring. Super fun!

  9. Ashley, I don't write historical western romances but if I did this would be a great post to reference. Lots of gret info, I enjoyed reading it!

  10. Thanks, Jeanmarie. I hope it does prove helpful to writers of western historicals.

  11. Cheryl, I'm so glad you liked my post. I would love to see the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City. Is it a permanent exhibit? I'd also love to see the National Firearm Museum in Fairfax, VA., and may go up that way this summer. They have 15 galleries covering over 6 centuries, including the gun John Alden carried aboard the Mayflower in 1620! And the Robert E. Petersen Exhibit Gallery there is supposed to be amazing. Road trip! Maybe my husband will ride in the car with us this time? Nah!

  12. Tanya, thanks for commenting. And lucky you to fire a Peacemaker for real! Was it an antique or newer model? My husband has a Colt .45 Peacemaker but it is a non-firing replica of the original 1873 model.

  13. Marin, the great thing about the Colt .45 SAA Revolvers is that Colt still makes them, so your contemporary hero could have a newer version of the original 'Peacemaker'.

  14. ASHLEY-Why are weapons sometime so beautiful? I love the photos. For a while, I had a website saved that had pics and descriptions of every kind of historical weapon made. I used it several times.
    Your post was so good and thorough, I am very impressed. Great job.
    I also enjoyed reading about Sam Colt--he was something, wasn't he? Would have made a great hero in a book--maybe he already has been used? Hmmm. Just a thought.

  15. Celia, thank you! I agree -- some weapons are striking to look at. We have two pairs of antique dueling pistols which are amazing. The way they embellished and engraved guns of the past, and some of the Colts is so impressive. As for Samuel Colt being a hero, I agree...but I also think his wife, Elizabeth,is an equally fascinating person. She took over her husband's company in 1862 -- unheard of for a woman -- determined to keep his vision alive and made it prosper to greater heights. As I mentioned in the post, at the time of Colt's death, she was pregnant with their 5th child. Two of her children had already died in infancy. A baby daugther, also sick at home, died just ten days after her husband. Her fifth pregnancy ended in a stillbirth 6 months after she buried Sam and their baby daughter. Only her then 3-year old son lived to adulthood. She was intelligent and a savvy business woman, who guided the company to greater heights. She was still in her 30s, too. A patron of the arts and a great philanthropist. Definitely heroine material.

  16. Fascinating post, Ashley. Thanks for sharing the info and pics, too.

  17. Thank you for such an informative post w/ photos. My father has one of the Colt Peacemakers and we were able to identify it by your post!

  18. George Patton's Colt Model 1873 SAA handles were not made of pearl; they were made of Ivory. A reporter once asked General Patton about his pear-handled revolvers and General Patton answered the reporter by saying:
    "They're Ivory". Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would carry a pearl-handled pistol".

  19. Dear Anonymous -- Thank for your taking the time to comment. I'm happy you found the post helpful. ~ AKB

  20. Sam -- Thank you very much for taking the time to clarify the type grips Gen. Patton had on his Colt .45, and for his quote. They are beautiful, and I prefer ivory over mother-of-pearl, too.

  21. Ashley, thank you so much for this post! I've just started the research for a romance series I'm writing about a cowboy pulled into the path and life of a Lady from Victoria England. Tons of good info. Thank you again!


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