Day 29: Colt’s Revolving Rifle & Numerous Other Ways To Die

originally published January 29, 2012

Around 1838, the Colt Manufacturing Company came up with a brilliant design: they blended a rifle with a six-shooter pistol, creating the world’s first six-shooter revolving rifle. It was like when chocolate met peanut butter, when Caesar salad met croutons, when Hall chanced upon the sweet mustache of Oates.

The Pony Express made use of these guns, safely delivering the mail to ponies all over the southern US. (it was a big deal back then to send a letter to a pony, I guess. This was before the Internet.) The US government purchased 765 of these beauties and sent most of them to various locations in the south. Not the most strategic move for the late 1850s, as the majority of the weapons wound up being used by the Confederacy against that same government during the Civil War.

Fortunately, this would be the last time the US government would sell weapons to people that might become future enemies. Whew!

Hooray for political humor!

Somewhere around 4000 more revolving rifles were purchased by the US, this time to out-gun the guns they had already bought and given to the bad guys. The weapons performed admirably through the Civil War, and are probably the only reason the North was victorious.

(NOTE: The above statement is almost certainly completely untrue, but it adds a lot more punch to the topic, don’t you think?)

So why don’t we see these anymore? Well there was one minor flaw in the design. Sometimes the gunpowder would leak from its paper cartridges, especially when the gun was being jostled all over the place in the field of battle. The stray gunpowder would get lodged in the various hidey-holes around the firing cylinder. You get a little hot gas leaking between the firing cylinder and the barrel, and this powder would ignite. Also, it would spread to all the gunpowder in all the cylinders and they would also ignite. This is less than ideal.

What you’d get is called ‘chain fire’, and it boils down to a spray of metal shooting forward out of the chambers. This happened from time to time with revolver pistols as well. The difference was, with a pistol your hand is behind the chambers. It would piss you off, but you could just drop the gun and grab your throwing stars (or whatever) and carry on. With a rifle, your left hand would be steadying the barrel, and would be right in the line of fire for that stray metal.

After the Civil War, a group of officials met and decided to retire the rifle from duty. The weapons were sold off for 42 cents a rifle, a bit of a discount from the 44 dollars they had paid to Colt.

I think it’s a shame this trend never passed on to other weapons. A six-shooter bazooka for example would have made for some great WWII photo opportunities.

Or maybe it already exists. What do I know?

I suppose Colt should get credit for trying. The company didn’t invent the revolver, but their design improvements were numerous, and without them the entire genre of Western films could be filled with shotguns and muskets. Clint Eastwood’s unnamed grizzled hero in those Sergio Leone films would have looked a lot less bad-ass holding a musket.

It was the Colt Patterson that really sealed them as America’s official gun gurus. This was a single-action gun, which meant that the trigger was only there to finish the job of shooting. In those movies, when the bad guy is holding a gun, then makes a threat and then pulls back the hammer to look threatening… well, back in the Patterson days, if that hammer wasn’t already back, the hero would know he had a chance to escape.

The clear indicator that was still more comeuppance speech on the way.

So the act of looking awesome while you blast multiple rounds into someone wasn’t easy – no doubt turning the gun sideways ‘gangsta-style’ was right out of the question because of the whole gunpowder-falling-out thing. But you could do that super-cool Old West move of slapping the hammer of your pistol between each shot.

The Patterson was, no doubt, responsible for a death or two because of its design, just like the revolver rifle. First of all, you had no safety, apart from the two-step process to fire the weapon. Secondly, the act of reloading the pistol required a technical degree from DeVry, minimum. You had to partially disassemble the gun, then fill each chamber with powder and a metal ball, then put the whole thing back together if you wanted another six shots. Really, if you ran out of ammo, you’d have a better chance at just throwing the nearest horseshoe at the guy.

Hopefully it’s a pointy one.

Around the time of the Civil War, Colt started manufacturing other things: sewing machines, watches, typewriters and bicycles. They were waiting for the patent on the metallic cartridge revolver to expire so they didn’t have pay their rivals, Smith & Wesson, to build them. They had to build something.

By World War I, the company’s guns were so much in demand, the backlog to complete an order was three years. The stock market crash hit them hard, as many of their clients who had lost everything were using their products to end their lives, thus cancelling out any repeat business.

In the 1930s the company went on strike. Things got ugly, and the strikers became violent. The company set up a barracks for the workers in the Colt Armory, which begs the question: if your workers are that pissed off and most likely able to gain easy access to your product (a gun), shouldn’t you maybe listen to them? Colt didn’t think so – even a bomb detonated in front of the company president’s house didn’t sway them. The government ruled that Colt didn’t have to deal with the union, and the strike ended.

As far as striking workers go, this was some damn fine sign penmanship.

Colt is a company that will always make money when the world is unstable. The 60s were great for them; they owned the patent on the M-16, and foreign policy in Vietnam ensured that business would be booming.

My only wish for this article would be to have found more blunders on behalf of Colt. The revolver rifle was an interesting quirk, but it looks like if you’re on the hunt for something to kill someone with, Colt’s record is pretty damn good. Stick that in your pipe and shoot it until your pipe is dead.

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