Riches of Clare: Colt Connection

Clare Champion, Friday, June 20, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Tomás Mac Conmara writes about a famous firearms manufacturer.

Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal”.

This post US Civil War slogan, which reads like a line from an old Hollywood Western, would have been music to Sam Colt’s ears had he lived long enough to hear it. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814, Samuel Colt was a famous firearms manufacturer who was fascinated by guns from an early age, and is credited with having invented the first revolver. It is said that he got the idea for his first revolver while serving as a seaman aboard the sailing ship - the Corvo - in the early 1830s.

After the issuance of a US patent and help from a wealthy uncle, in 1836, 22-year-old Sam Colt built his first manufacturing plant in Patterson, New Jersey.
In the 167 years that have followed, more than 30 million revolvers, pistols, and rifles bearing the name Colt have been produced. These firearms would play a prominent role in the historical development of the United States of America, a country where the right to possess arms is enshrined in the constitution.

Colt’s first firearm, equipped with a revolving cylinder that contained 5 or 6 bullets, was remarkably simple in its principle. Its applicability extended to both longarms and shortarms and should have seemed irresistible to the US military when they first appeared. However, early purchases were sluggish and after just three years Colt was forced to close his firm and file for bankruptcy. Sam Colt then turned his attention to developing his ideas for waterproof ammunition, underwater mines for harbour defence and, in association with the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the telegraph.

It is interesting to note that at approximately the same time, but almost three thousand miles away, Ennisman Tom Steele was also working in the innovative field of underwater electronics. Although both these men are remembered for different reasons today, they both made considerable contributions in this field.

In 1845 US Dragoon forces and Texas Rangers engaged in fighting with Indians in Texas and credited their defeat of the Indians to the use of Colt firearms. The following year saw the outbreak of the Mexican War and immediately Captain Samuel H. Walker of the US Army travelled East in a bid to convince Sam Colt to return to the Arms industry. Within a week the US Ordnance Department ordered a thousand newly designed revolvers which Colt called the Walker.

The second time round, Colt firearms grew from strength to strength. Initially orders came in from the U.S. military, but as the Colt name grew, so did his consumer market. Colt solidified his reputation in international markets when he opened a plant in England in 1852. He also purchased parcels of property around Hartford on the banks of the Connecticut River. By 1856, with his company producing 150 weapons a day, Sam Colt was one of the ten wealthiest men in the US.

Synonymous with Colt products is the engraving on each of his weapons. He expanded his engraving department and it was responsible for producing many prize winning show guns. Many were presented to heads of state including Alexander II of Russia and King Charles XV of Sweden.

In 1860, the threat of Civil War was looming and Colt’s health began to fail. Prior to the actual declaration of war, Colt had supplied his product to customers in the Confederate south, but as soon as war was official, he supplied only Union forces. With the Civil War raging across America, the company reached unprecedented levels of production in late 1861, with over one thousand employees and an annual turnover of $250,000.

Samuel Colt died on 10 January, 1862, at the age of 47, leaving behind an estate worth $15 million and a legacy that would grow with the US as it rapidly became one of the worlds most powerful countries.

The revolver pictured here is a Colt .455 New Service Model, on display at Clare Museum. First introduced in 1898, it was a large pistol that fired a heavy bullet intended to stop an enemy quickly. This model was initially used by Royal Canadian Dragoons in South Africa during the Boer War and was employed widely in World War I. The Colt .455 was one of many types of firearms sent from the US into the hands of insurgent Irish men during the 1916-1923 period. Many came from Clan Na Gael, a sister organisation to the IRB, and this is the probable origin of the example at the museum.

The name Colt is as synonymous with firearms now as it was in more than a century ago. Indeed, the US Government has ordered the exclusive production of the Colt M-4 carbine extending through to the year 2010.

View Colt .455 Revolver

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