Archive for January 4th, 2012

Colt’s Revolvers

January 4, 2012

From the New York Herald.

“There is a romantic side in weapons of war,” said an old army officer the other day. “The origin of our purely American arm, the Colt revolver, furnishes an instance that will illustrate this. It seems perfectly adapted to American frontier conditions. It has given its skillful wielders the victory on many a hard-fought field. And this is why its rise and development should be a part of our country’s military history.

“In the ’30s we were enlarging our national boundaries in the Southwest. We could not consistently develop in any other direction, for the country to the northwest was not very desirable. We were looking for a region that was especially adapted to southern products to be cultivated by slave labor. The South was in the saddle, and meant to remain there if southern blood and valor could accomplish it. The young and thriving republic of Texas was the point toward which the attention of the region south of Mason and Dixon’s line was turned. A handful of daring young Americans had wrested from Mexico a region five times the size of any state in the Union. It was then called the republic of Texas.

“The state of Tennessee was primarily responsible for this daring step. Gen. Sam Houston had gathered together a handful of daring young men full of hot-blooded courage. The blood of the plo??ers that took Tennessee from the most warlike Indian tribe on this continent was in them. For a long time it was an uphill fight. Not only the Mexicans, but the Comanches and Lipans — unequated warriors and daring horsemen — harassed and raided the scattered frontier settlements and towns along the Texas border, until it really appeared as if the entire scheme of the settlement of Texas must go down in blood.

“But the men who started in to do this work were not of the quitting kind. They were of the tory hating, Indian fighting stock that obstacles did not daunt nor danger quell. And they set their teeth hard and swore they would stay. To guard their frontier thoroughly and effectively they organized bands or companies of rangers, under officers who could not only fight Indians and Mexicans, but control and discipline their own men.

“Among these commanders Colonel Hays, better known as ‘Jack’ Hays, was incontestably the ablest. He was a born leader of men, just such men as were peopling that great southwestern frontier. In stature he was about 5 feet 8 inches, and never weighed over 160 pounds. His hair was darkish brown, inclined to be red, and his eyes were of several colors, according to his moods. In his hours of relaxation and among his friends they were of a dark gray with a hue of hazel. In excitement, and especially in a fight, hey were of a color indescribable. They simply seemed to blaze.

“Some time in the late ’30s Colonel Hays was directed by the president of Texas to go to New York and purchase suitable arms to equip his troops. He had then about 150 men, but they were not uniformly armed and lacked equipment suitable for a command. They needed to be equipped alike and with the very best weapons available at that time.

“So, in obedience to his orders, and with a letter of credit on the Texan treasurer, Hays took passage in a schooner bound for New York. He was a month in making the trip, for he started in September, when the gulf is usually stormy and the prevailing winds from the southwest and everywhere else. They were blown into nearly every port from Galveston northward before they got in sight of the island of Manhattan. Colonel Hays went the rounds of the firearms dealers of New York. It was not a difficult undertaking, for there were but four or five of them, but he did not find anything he had not seen before in the way of firearms.

“One day, however, a dealer said: ‘There is a man living over in New Jersey at present who has just invented a pistol which I would like to have you see.’

“‘What is there about it that makes it different from other pistols?’ asked Hays.

“‘Well, for one thing, it shoots six times without reloading.’

“Colonel Hays’ interest was immediately aroused. ‘Indeed, I’d like very much to see it,’ he said.

“‘Very well; then I’ll have him in here with it to-morrow about this time,’ responded the dealer. So the next day about 1 or 2 o’clock the man came in. He was about 30 years old, and chiefly a gun smith by trade, though he did all sorts of work in fine steel. He said he had just concluded an order of sabers for members of the regiment of dragoons just then being raised.

“‘This is my pistol, colonel,’ said he, opening a case and handing the weapon to the Texas colonel. ‘The instant I looked at it I said it was just what I wanted,’ said Hays to his brother, Gen. Harry Hays of New Orleans. There was a 60 foot gallery in the rear of the store for the testing of arms. They took the model pistol, which was about like the Colt’s pocket arm of to-day in size, caliber and weight, and the expert fired all six barrels off in less than a minute. The penetration was good, as was the accuracy.’

“‘Now, I want a pistol of this pattern, but with a long cylinder and eight-inch long barrel, taking a bullet of about 50 grains weight, made as soon as you can make it. I will advance you $?0 on it now to enable you to purchase the material and have the barrels ri??ed. If the pistol shoots as well as I think it will I will talk to you about a contract for 100 of them, and also about a rifle on the same principal.’

“In two weeks the pistol was ready to be tested. It shot very well with sufficient force to kill if it hit a man at from 100 to 150 yards distance. At the same time a rifle was constructed on the same principle. It was about a .44 caliber, with a cylinder that would contain about 80 grains of powder, and carried a round and an oblong bullet. The arm came up to Hays’ expectations in all respects. He took the model to Texas with him and submitted it to his rangers. When it had been thoroughly tested they ordered 100 of the pistols and ?0 of the rifles. The latter was so constructed that when the cylinder was fired it could be slipped out, and another cylinder, all ready loaded, put into the arm in one time and two motions — that is, in 30 seconds.

“Shortly after the troop had been armed with these new weapons they were tried in a sharp fight that settled the question of the superiority over those of their Indian and Mexican antagonists once and for all. About 600 or 700 Mexicans and Comanche and Lipan Indians crossed over into Texas, under the leadership of Canates, a noted ‘raider’ from the other side of the Rio Grande, and with a herd of about 1,000 head of fat beef cattle and perhaps 500 mules, were making their way back to Chihuahua, where Canates had a fine ranch and lived in princely style. He was one of the richest men in Northern Mexico and the ablest soldier in that section.

“The 200 lancers with him charged Hays’ men fearlessly. Hays let them come on until they were within good easy range, and then opened up on them with his 50 rifles. After the first volley Canates thought he had the Americans foul. ‘Meurah los Americanos,’ he shouted, as he dashed at the little band of intrepid fighters commanded by ‘Ned’ Burleson, one of Hays’ most trusted lieutenants. Crash, crash, crash, went the rifles.

“‘Por Dios,’ what sort of a rifle have those devils of Americans?’ they shouted to one another, as leaving the stolen cattle and about one-sixth of their command dead or badly wounded on the ground in the hands of the dreaded Americans, they struck out for the Rio Grande and the other side. Hays had captured a priest, and sent him with others to tell Canates to send an escort and wagons enough to carry away all the wounded that were able to be moved. It was soon reported along the border that las Americans had a dreadful rifle that they used by magic of some sort as long as they wished without reloading.

“Canates offered a great reward for one of these new guns. He was a well-educated man, and realized at once that the Americans had some sort of arm that was not generally known and was vastly superior in rapidity of fire and reloading to any then in use. It was nearly two years, however, before he could get his hands on one of them. Col. Samuel Colt had pledged himself not to furnish his new arm to any but Americans and men who would not suffer if to get into the wrong hands.

“The United States army, particularly the three mounted regiments then in service, the first and second regiments of dragoons and the mounted rifles, were equipped with Colt’s revolving pistols as soon as the ordinance department could be persuaded to adopt them.

“It is a curious feature of our ordinance office that it is always the very last of the military establishments to see any merit in any invention that does not emanate from some member of its corps. That used to be the invariable rule. But it has been a good deal modified in late years, with the invention and adoption of other nations of warlike instruments that were of American invention and plan.

“The renown of the famous American pistol soon spread all over Europe. Russia was the first country to give Colt a big order, and this it did sufficiently to take three years in its completion. when the Crimeah was began the English and the French guard found, to their amazement, that the Russian guard cavalry and some of the picked mounted regiments of the line were armed with a pistol and carbine far excelling that in the hands of the allied armies of England, France and Turkey, and to-day, in spite of multiplicity of inventions, nothing superior has ever been devised.”

The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) Nov 2, 1903

Samuel Colt’s Ready Revolver in London

January 4, 2012

From PBS‘s Who Made America?


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