Today in history: First Military Revolver Contract

An 1847 "Walker" Colt -- probably a replica.

An 1847 “Walker” Colt — either a photorealistic illustration or, if a photograph, a replica, judging from its condition.

On Jaunary 4, 1847, the US signed a contract to buy revolvers from Colt’s Patent Firearms Company. Just in time for the Mexican War, where the rapid-firing Colt — the “assault weapon” of its era — would win its spurs in time to be the go-to cavalry weapon of the Civil War.

As you might expect from academic historians today, the story’s somewhat screwed up (the gang at History.com probably couldn’t find the oppressed race, Marxian class, or abnormal sex angle they need to sustain their interest these days). But we do owe them for bringing it to our attention.

Samuel Colt rescues the future of his faltering gun company by winning a contract to provide the U.S. government with 1,000 of his .44 caliber revolvers.

Before Colt began mass-producing his popular revolvers in 1847, handguns had not played a significant role in the history of either the American West or the nation as a whole…. When choosing a practical weapon for self-defense and close-quarter fighting, most Americans preferred knives, and western pioneers especially favored the deadly and versatile Bowie knife.

That began to change when Samuel Colt patented his percussion-repeating revolver in 1836. The heart of Colt’s invention was a mechanism that combined a single rifled barrel with a revolving chamber that held five or six shots. When the weapon was cocked for firing, the chamber revolved automatically to bring the next shot into line with the barrel.

via Colt sells his first revolvers to the U.S. government — History.com This Day in History — 1/4/1847.

The elegant Paterson revolver was the antecedent and ancestor of the 1847 Walker -- and all revolvers since.

The elegant Paterson revolver was the antecedent and ancestor of the 1847 Walker — and all revolvers since.

The 1836 Colt “Paterson” revolver was recognizably a revolver as they still exist today, although there were many improvements ahead. By 1847, the Colt revolver had had many of those improvements and was nearly as advanced as it would get in the percussion, muzzle-loading era.

The site goes on to say some remarkably odd things, including the suggestion that the Government’s purchase of revolvers both was necessary for Colt’s survival, and constituted a subsidy to the company.

A well-timed contract might have been vital occasionally, but Americans of the day presented a strong demand for better guns. Winchester came to prominence without ever being taken seriously by the US military, which didn’t adopt a good magazine weapon until the 20th Century. (We don’t think the Krag was good; it was already obsolete at adoption… and the Lee wasn’t generally adopted), which illustrates that you could make money selling guns to the public. Certainly, Colt might still have survived without US orders, and the deeply discounted military orders were hardly a subsidy. A subsidy is when the government buys things that can NOT clear on the open market, like Chevy Volts.

The 1847 Colt was the legendary Walker, which was not only the most powerful handgun in the world when it was made, but would stay so for eighty or ninety years (cartridge handguns finally had more energy when Smith & Wesson shipped the .357 Magnum, a few years before Smith’s own .44 Mag took that crown. Now Smith makes a .500, just the thing if you deal with a lot of “punks”).  The genesis of the Walker, and the disparate outcomes for Col. Walker and Col. Colt (one got rich, one got killed), are revealed in this fine article (.pdf) at the National Firearms Museum web site. The museum is home to Colonel Walker’s own Walkers (another .pdf), with which he was armed in only one battle — an American victory, but at the cost of his life. Survivors of the 1000 guns made under this contract are rare and valuable today — auction prices have reached $1 million.