A look at the Life of Samuel Colt
Besides being fun to shoot, guns can also be works of art or marvels of engineering. Understanding the man or men who designed a particular firearm can give one a better appreciation for the firearm in one’s hand. Whether its Peter Paul von Mauser, John Moses Browning, Hiram Maxim, or our subject for today, Samuel Colt, it is incredibly interesting to read the writings of their journals and actions of their lives. Understanding the who, when, where, and why paints a much fuller picture of the “what” – the gun in one’s hand. In this case, that gun is an icon of America: The Colt Revolver.
From the Inside Cover:
In 1831, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a return voyage from Calcutta, a sixteen-year-old boy from Connecticut named Sam Colt was struck by an extraordinary idea. He pulled out a knife and whittled a piece of scrap wood to create a model of what he had in mind. When he was done, the object in his hand resembled a small wooden pistol, but it was a pistol as nobody had seen before. Colt had just solved one of the great technological challenges of the early twentieth century: how to make a gun loaded with multiple bullets that could be fired in a matter of seconds.
Rasenberger, Jim. Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America. Scribner, 2020.
Now, before you flood the comments with “actually”s about multi-shot firearms that existed prior to the Colt revolver, I must remind my readers of a primary goal of an author: know one’s audience. To assuage your worries, Jim Rasenberger successfully walks the tightrope of writing the book to appeal to both firearms novices and experts alike. Those who aren’t gun people will be fascinated at the history of the times, excerpts from the journals and letters of Colt and his contemporaries, and ultimately educated on the inner workings of both the firearms of Colt and the “American System of Manufacturing” that he helped create and pioneer.
Failures Before Success
Colt’s struggles rather than his successes were some of the more interesting facets of the book to me. Already knowing much about the invention of the Colt revolver, I was extremely fascinated to learn more about the early struggles of Colt and his companies, as well as the personal disasters and political headwinds he had to battle against all the way up to just prior to the United States Civil War. Young Samuel Colt even had a phase wherein his primary source of income was as a traveling dealer of hits of Nitrous Oxide, putting on exhibitions where one could take a hit of nitrous, or be witness to the scenes that followed.
As far as disasters go, the early years of Colt’s firearms endeavors read like so many other firearms company failures we read about these days on TFB. Endless delays, debts, and missed production goals. Colt even lost one of his first cash payment for an entire consignment of revolvers when his ship sunk at sea! In the telling of all of these tales, the author takes care to show us Colt’s thoughts on the subject matter by inserting excerpts from Colt’s letters and journals, flavored with mid-19th century misspellings and phraseology.
Factories and Battlefields, Machinery and Marketing
From the hand-tool produced prototypes to Colt’s later New Haven and London Factories, Jim Rasenberger is able to describe the design and production of not only Colt’s revolvers, but the internal parts, tools, machinery, and processes to produce them. Readers are also given a window into the tactics and employment of Colt’s firearms both on the battlefields, streets, and frontier expansions of the mid 19th-century world, both as imagined by their inventor and as discovered and perfected by their end users. The author does an excellent job explaining how Colt’s system of manufacturing helped to educate, shape and drive later industrial concerns, even the mass production of the automobile.
Of interest to readers as well will be the descriptions of Colt’s marketing prowess, honed by years of showmanship and promotion for his various ventures. Samuel Colt made sure to promote his firearms through lobbying, testimonials, newspaper articles, marching bands, personal militias, and even via the commissioning of paintings featuring his revolver. By detailing such endeavors, the author provides a very detailed look at all the angles that made Colt firearms famous.
Revolver is interesting and informative throughout. Jim Rasenberger’s tone and approach to the subject is never preachy and held my interest well. The author also does a great job of staying politically neutral on the subject of firearms as a whole. Though some third party reviews on the back jacket might mention “gun culture”, there is no attempt to paint guns in a negative light. This is one facet that left a bad taste in my mouth from a recent tome regarding the AK47, and Jim Rasenberger makes no such mistake in Revolver.
Though some passages about tertiary characters such as distant family members seemed to go on a bit too long and the book could have benefited from more illustrations of Colt’s revolving rifles and shotguns, the overall narrative revolves around its central subjects, the man and his guns, quite well. An excellent read for one’s non-range days, “Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America” would be a good addition to the library of any firearms or history fan.
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