From PBS‘s Who Made America?
THE READY REVOLVER.
A Great Increase in the Carrying of Deadly Weapons in England.
[London, Telegraph. March 26.]
In the official catalogue of the great exhibition of 1851, and in the section devoted to the products and manufactures of the United States of America, appears the following entry:
“821, Colt, Samuel, Hartford, Connecticut, inventor. Specimens of firearms.”
Image from Connecticut History on the Web
Among the arms exhibited by Col. Samuel Colt are specified “the formidable revolving charge pistols,” and to this is added the statement that “the efficiency of a troop of horse armed with these weapons, which discharge six shots without reloading, has been more than tripled.” The testimony of general Harney and of major Thornton, of the United States board of ordinance, is adduced in favor of Col. Colt’s invention. There is nothing new under the sun, and the repeating pistol, equally with the mitrailleuse and the Gatling gun, have all had their precursors in bygone times. A Spanish pistol or musketoon, made about the end of the sixteenth century, could be fired twenty-six times in succession with one supple of ammunition; and in the Museum of Artillery at Paris there are revolving pistols that were manufactured more [than] two hundred years ago. Although these weapons had four, five, or six chambers apiece, they never came into general use in consequence of their unavoidable clumsiness; each chamber having its own hammer and pan, which had to be kept primed.
The ingenious Samuel Colt first directed his attention to the improvement of repeating pistols, by increasing the number of discharges, by arranging several barrels in one cylindrical group round a central spindle, and causing them to revolve by each cocking of the lock sufficient to bring another barrel in contact with the hammer. All the barrels being loaded, the piece could be fired as rapidly as the hammer was raised and the trigger pulled. Still, second thoughts were best in the case of colonel Colt and his revolver. The plan finally adopted by him was to construct a revolving six-chambered breech for the charges, which adapted themselves to a single barrel, in connection with which the chambers were successfully brought by drawing back the hammer to the full catch. Acknowledged as was the e????cy of these weapons, they failed to give entire satisfaction, owing to the necessity of stopping after every discharge to cock the pistol for the next shot; and during the last ten years there has been a continuous emulation among American, English and French manufacturers toward the perfection of the revolver.
Vast varieties of the firearm, truly called “formidable” in the exposition catalogue of ’51, were invented; graduating between the toylike yet murderous Lefaucheux, which can be hidden in a lady’s glove, and the “Texan six-shooter,” sometimes called the “Injun’s Pison,” or “Horsethief’s Settler,” used by the United States cavalry, and almost as large as the old dragoon carbine. It is not undesignedly that we have briefly sketched the history of the revolver, since, within the last few years, this terrible arm of precision has come to play a very important part, not only in military but in civil affairs. Prior to the year 1840 the repeating arms made in the states were complicated and easily deranged; but in 1850 the improvements carried out by Col. Colt had had such successful results that out of the 2082 tested by the ordinance department only one revolver burst; and in this solitary case failure was due not to faultiness of construction, but to an unforeseen imperfection in the quality of metal. It is not surprising that revolvers, which had been used to some extent in the Mexican war, should have grown after the experiments of 1850 into rapid and extensive favor with the government.
Image from Old Picture of the Day. Read more about George W. King at the link.
Experienced American officers were enthusiastic in their eulogies of the new weapon, of which it was observed that “a dragoon armed with a Colt’s repeating pistol would be the most formidable of combatants for the frontier service, and particularly when encounters with savages occur — as they generally do — in prairies, de??les, and mountain gorges, when a few bold men, well skilled in the use of those weapons, could, under such circumstances, encounter and scatter almost any number of Indians.” The revolver has, since these lines were first printed, more than borne out its high reputation. It has done fearfully good service not only against Indian savages, but in deadly combats between white American federals and confederates; between Australians, Prussians and Danes; between Frenchmen and Austrians; between Germans and Frenchmen; between Englishmen and Russians, Hindoos, Chinamen, New Zealanders, Ashantees, Abyssinians, Afghans and Zulus. There is little new to distinguish the American from the English and the continental revolver. The lethal weapon can be produced of every size and bore, and sold at any price, even down to a few shillings. Revolvers are as plentiful as opera glasses. Rarely is the window of a pawnbroker’s shop destitute of a neat assortment of six-shooters; but the far from gratifying result of this plenitude and cheapness of revolvers has been their adaptation to uses certainly not contemplated by Col. Colt and the American government, which first patronized his invention.
Image from The Ellison Collection
The weapon was looked upon as a valuable addition to the soldier’s armory; nothing more. But in a very short time it occurred to civilians of the classes known as “dangerous” that revolvers would be to them very effectual auxiliaries in carrying out their nefarious designs. The midnight burglar, the bank-safe robber, the hotel thief, hastened to provide themselves with Colts. Then their peculiar availability in connection with mass meetings, torchlight processions, stump oratory, and vote by ballot was discovered, and the revolver soon became a recognized factor in American party-politics.
Dueling had, long before colonel Colt’s time, been disagreeably prevalent in the western and southern states; but the development of the revolver gave a new direction and a wide scope to homicide by powder and ball. Persons of a pugnacious temperament no longer challenged their foes to mortal combat. They simply drew a revolver and shot their enemy there and then, a course of procedure which averted all the fuss and delay of naming seconds, measuring distances, dropping handkerchiefs as signals to fire, and so forth. In the old days, again, of single and double-barreled pistols, no great diversion could be derived from the practice of “firing free,” or promiscuously, say among a crowd collected in a bar-room; since before the free-firer could reload his weapon for the next merry shot he would probably be knocked on the head by a cautious bystander. With a revolver the gentleman who fired free was master of the situation so far as his half-dozen shots went. The six-shooter was likewise found to be a great help and consolation to the professional gambler and the habitual loafer and “scalawag.”
Image from Free Republic
Nor was lovely woman slow to perceive the advantages offered by a weapon which could at once be made a means of persuasion and of chastisement. The cowhide had hitherto been the instrument with which the trans-Atlantic fair had most commonly avenged on the tyrant man any wrongs of which she had had cause to complain; but so soon as six-shooters came in, and were constructed of a size convenient to be grasped by the lily land of beauty, the ruder and deceptive sex began to find to their dismay that broken vows might be punished very summarily indeed by a Nemesis taking the form of a revolving pocket pistol and a “pin-fire” cartridge.
We have got the revolver from the Americans; but admirable revolvers are manufactured at Paris, Liege, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Toula — ?? over the continent, in fact; and the ultimate complexion to which the implement has come is that it is a public nuisance. The persons who are most plentifully in possession of revolvers are, as a rule, those who are the least entitled to have such dangerous articles in their possession. The old housebreaker, with his “knuckle-duster” or his life-preserver, or, at the worst, with a pair of rusty “barkers,” or pistols, very apt to miss fire, was objectionable enough; but a revolver securely strapped to the waist is now one of the recognized and systematically adopted tools of the modern burglar. We were wont in former days to boast that, alone among civilized states, we were enabled to maintain a municipal police force armed with no weapons more formidable than a short, tough wooden staff; but the time is rapidly approaching when we shall have to ask ourselves whether our police constables are in a position adequately to protect themselves with their truncheons when attacked, and whether it might not be expedient to arm them, at least when on night duty, with revolvers.
Image from SHAFE
During the Chartist troubles of 1848 the London police were temporarily provided with cutlasses; but a weapon which has to be drawn from its scabbard ere it can be used, and the stroke of which can not be reckoned on with absolute certainty, is obviously inferior to the unerringly, precise pistol, with its repeated discharges.
Unfortunately, it is not alone, the criminal classes who have got hold of revolvers. Multitudes of silly young men all over the country labor under the delusion that there is something bold and plucky in going about with loaded pistols slung in pouches at their waist-bands. In the case of persons who have to traverse lonely roads and lanes at late hours of the night, the possession of a revolver is justifiable enough; but the practice becomes simply preposterous when it is adopted by striplings whose most adventurous journeys are performed on the knife-boards of omnibuses or in the carriages of the Underground railway.
To crown the scandal, mere boys have taken to flaunting revolvers as trophies or playing with them as toys. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of a fatal pistol accident, in which some mischievous urchin, incautiously meddling with the perilous weapon, shoots his brother, or his sister, or a schoolfellow dead. Sooner or later the chancellor of the exchequer may find himself under the painful necessity of adding to the already onerous fiscal burdens of the nation, by establishing a new impost, in the shape of an annual license to possess a revolving pistol. Such a tax, rigorously assessed and stringently levied, would not only benefit her majesty’s exchequer, but would serve to check the vanity, the foolhardiness, and the wanton spirit of mischief which are at present encouraged by the indiscriminate impunity given to all and sundry to provide themselves with weapons capable of being turned either to an injurious or murderous use.
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas) Apr 18, 1879