The History of Colt

posted on January 17, 2017
Above: The original Colt Single Action Army has been offered in more than 30 different calibers and various barrel lengths. Its overall appearance has remained consistent since 1873. Pictured here is the 175th Anniversary edition, released in 2011.

From the 1847 Colt Walker, the iconic 1873 Single Action Army, the John Browning-designed Model 1900 pistol and several military and law enforcement rifles used today, the name Colt has been synonymous with the American West, Peacemaker and standard U.S. military-issue firearms.

Sam Colt, AKA Mr. Revolver

1847 Colt Walker Reproduction.
Samuel Colt: 1814-1862. One of eight children born in Hartford, CT, Colt was indentured to a farm in Glastonbury at age 11. With the help of his father, he signed on as a sailor and went to sea at age 15 where it is said that he first envisioned a revolving pistol cylinder after observing the operation of a ship’s wheel. After hearing conversations about the impossibility of a gun that could shoot five or six times, Colt pursued a life as an inventor, vowing to create a gun capable of firing without reloading. Colt’s 47-years were shaped by the Spanish-American War, the U.S. expansion into Western Territories, the Alamo and the American Civil War. His patents joined the ranks of Charles Babbage’s mechanical calculator (1935), Samuel Morse’s telegraph (1837), Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber (1839) and Elias Howe’s sewing machine (1845). The Single Action Army “Peacemaker” became one of history’s most significant inventions—the gun that helped “Win the West.” In more recent times, Colt firearms have been carried by U.S. servicemen in campaigns from Viet Nam to the Middle East. In 2006, Samuel Colt was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The patent that started it all

The Colt legacy began with the 1836 U.S. patent for a handgun with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets, thus eclipsing the one- and two-barrel flintlock pistols of the day. Since that landmark patent, more than 30 million revolvers, pistols, and rifles bearing the Colt name have been produced.

With the 1836 patent, the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company was founded, leading to several popular pistols including the black powder Colt Walker. Restricted by the 1855 Rollin White patent, and not wanting to pay royalties to Smith & Wesson, Colt would not begin development of bored-through revolver cylinders for metallic cartridges until 1869.

Opportunity knocks

Turnbull restoration of a Colt Model 1911, issued in 1913.
The first Colt Single Action Army revolvers were chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge in time for the 1872 government trials. After the Colt revolver won the trials, the government changed the specification to a .45 caliber cartridge. By the end of 1874, 12,500 Colt Single Action Army revolvers chambered for the .45 Long Colt cartridge had entered military service, with thousands more sold to the civilian market. The original “Colt .45” black powder load propelled a 255-grain bullet at 810 fps and served as the official U.S. military handgun cartridge for 19 years.


Colt was survived by his wife Elizabeth, who continued to run the family-owned company until she sold it at age 75. She died four years later in 1905. Soon afterwards, the Colt Company’s relationship with John Moses Browning led to the well-known Browning automatic rifle (BAR) and the world-famous Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol. Because of its effective stopping power, the Colt .45 was purchased in large quantities by the Department of the Army and, as the Model 1911A1, became the standard-issue sidearm during both World War I and World War II. The Colt Company delivered approximately 2.5 million Colt .45 pistols to the U.S. government alone, in addition to its commercial sales.

General Patton with his ivory-handled Colt Peacemaker.
By 1955, the company was losing money as orders declined in the post-Korean War era. Colt Firearms became a wholly owned subsidiary of a conglomerate—the Penn-Texas Company, controlled by the Silberstein holding company. In 1959, a group of investors took control of the company, dismissed Mr. Silberstein, and changed the name of the company to Fairbanks Whitney. The next year, Colt introduced the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, based on a design by Eugene Stoner, followed shortly by the military M16, full-automatic version. The parent company reorganized in 1964 under the name Colt Industries. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Colt Firearms Division continued to expand its black-powder line to include, among others, reproductions of the famed Walker and the 1860 Army revolvers.

Colt sales fell dramatically in 1984 when the U.S. government replaced the Colt .45 with the Beretta M9 as the official sidearm for the armed forces. With the loss of the government contract for M16 rifles four years later, the Colt Firearms Division was sold once again. By 1992, Colt filed Chapter 11 reorganization proceedings. In 1994, while still in Chapter 11, the company was awarded a contract to supply nearly 19,000 of its new M4 carbines to the U.S. Army, leading to the company’s purchase by a new group of investors, and emergence from bankruptcy.

Colt today

Colt’s military business gained momentum with a contract for 16,000 additional M4 carbines in 1996. In 1998, the U.S. Government ordered 32,000 M16 rifles from Colt—the first such order in 10 years. Following a contract to upgrade 88,000 U.S. Air Force M16A1 rifles to the A2 variant, Colt negotiated an agreement with the U.S. Government as the sole supplier of the M4 carbine, which it did until 2013.
Civilian version of the Magpul/Colt M4 5.56mm Carbine with 16.1-inch barrel and 30-round magazine. The military version was built with a 14-inch barrel.
By 1999, Colt’s production line for military rifles and carbines was backordered. That same year, retired U.S. Marine Lt. General William M. Keys took over the reins as President and Chief Executive Officer. General Keys led the company through litigation from dozens of municipalities around the country who had brought lawsuits against Colt and other leading handgun manufacturers, distributors and dealers. Keys also reoriented the business back toward military and law enforcement customers. Those efforts culminated in the 2002-03 spin-off of Colt’s military and law enforcement rifle business to Colt Defense, and the establishment of the Colt M4 carbine as the standard-issue combat rifle of the U.S. Army and Marines.

In 2008, Colt brought back seven new models including the Frontier Six Shooter and Sheriff’s & Storekeeper’s models for collectors. For 2009, another six releases included the reintroduced competition model 10mm Delta Elite. Colt released the 175th Anniversary Army Single and Commemorative Model 1911 in 2011.

Samuel Colt, aka Mr. Revolver.
In 2016, Colt debuted its first production mid-length gas system carbine, the Colt Combat Unit 5.56 x 45mm-cal. carbine, which includes many of the features of the Colt M4 platform. Additionally, in 2016 the company released the Colt Competition Pistol, with features specifically designed for competitive shooters such as an undercut trigger guard and National Match barrel. The lineup includes models in stainless steel. “When we took a look at what folks wanted from a race ready pistol for USPSA and IDPA matches, we found an opportunity for a model between our blued Competition Pistol and our iconic Gold Cup,” said Justin Baldini, director of Product Marketing for Colt. “This was an easy win. As an upgrade, the stainless Competition Pistol offers all the features you love about the blued model, only with that really appealing brilliance of a stainless steel slide and frame.”

In January 2017, Colt announced its first line of integral-mount weapon lighting and handheld tactical lighting systems. The product line includes four tactical flashlights and four weaponlight systems, featuring up to 1200 lumens of illumination.

In a world of 
production deadlines and questionable quality, Colt has managed to maintain its high standards. While some companies have shied away from custom production, Colt’s custom shop continues to provide time-consuming, hand-built works of art for collectors, nostalgic enthusiasts and historians. A strong supporter of such events as the NRA Bianchi Cup National Action Pistol Championship, Single Action Shooting Society and Cowboy Mounted Shooting Sports—Colt walks-the-walk in its support of the shooting sports industry.


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