The Successes and Trials of Samuel Colt


Samuel Colt is known to many as the father of the repeating firearm. His successes and setbacks were many. The story of how he overcame adversity and tragedy is one of the most remarkable you’ll find.

samuel colt
Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt’s ultimate success in patenting and producing repeating firearms came only after many false starts and failures. It was a rocky road. The story is not as simple as that however because along the way Samuel Colt experienced personal trials and tribulations that many may not be aware of. Aside from the fact that his life was short, having died from gout at the age of forty-seven in 1862, Sam Colt found himself embroiled in family tragedy some people don’t experience even if they lived to be one hundred. Following are a few of the least known things about Samuel Colt on his way to being king of the repeating pistol.

The Nitrous Oxide Entertainer

Samuel Colt was merely in his late teens when he traveled the east and south entertaining crowds with nitrous oxide demonstrations. Colt did this to earn money to send to his gunsmiths who were working on building prototypes for his repeating weapons. Being an entertainer was a way to make a slim living and keep his larger dream alive.

Nitrous oxide was also known as “Laughing Gas“. Sam Colt would typically run an ad in the local paper, charge perhaps twenty-five cents per ticket, and after calling himself Dr. Colt (he often used the ancestry spelling of Coult) would demonstrate with volunteers from the audience the crazy and funny things people would do after inhaling the gas. Entertainment choices were not nearly what they are today and the nitrous oxide show was a huge hit.

1843 colt pistol
1843 Colt reproduction pistol

It was estimated that Colt may have demonstrated the gas on over 20,000 people and on himself perhaps a thousand times. There are no records as to how much Colt earned as a nitrous oxide entertainer but it appeared to be enough to keep his gunsmiths working.

Perfecting the Underwater Explosive Mine

Sam Colt had experimented with chemistry since he was a boy. While he tried to both patent and sell his repeating pistol during the early years the going was slow. While not being able to convince the army of it’s effectiveness or need, Colt began working on underwater mines using electric current to help protect the nation’s harbors, especially from possible invasion from England.

Sam Colt actually made this weapon work on a small scale when he demonstrated the underwater bomb as a youth during a Fourth of July town event. While his firearms business was stagnating, he took up this effort again in a serious way and even did procure experimental funds from Congress. In all, Colt put on a series of demonstrations for the army and other government officials, mostly in the waters of New York Harbor, and did succeed in impressing his audience. Each demonstration showed how his underwater mine, connected by insulated wire, could demolish some of the biggest vessels the government supplied him to use as targets.

colt lightning pistol
Authentic .38 Colt Lightning

While Colt’s experiments succeeded the government lost interest in the project, mostly because the threat from England had diminished, and the underwater devices were never ordered up by Washington. Never however, during his work on the underwater weapons, did Sam Colt give up on promoting and refining his repeating pistols.

Sam Colt’s Older brother and a Sensational New York Murder

Samuel Colt had three brothers. Christopher, John, James and Samuel were the sons of Christopher Colt Sr.

Older brother John C. Colt was involved in killing a New York printer by the name of Samuel Adams in 1838. John Colt had a degree of success in writing and lecturing on the subject of “double entry bookkeeping“. Not exactly the most exciting subject matter but in the early 1800’s it was something merchants and companies in America’s rapidly growing economy were in need of and could put to practical use.

The murder of Samuel Adams on September 17, 1841 who had been involved in printing a set of Colt’s books was bad enough, but Colt had tried to crudely hide and ship away the corpse in a small box and was ultimately caught and arrested. The crime was horrible and became a big sensation with the New York press. Stories of the crime even spread to papers all across the country.

Samuel Colt, struggling with his firearm manufacturing company (selling firearms on a retail basis without big government contracts) and in the midst of developing the underwater explosive mine, stood by his brother and helped financially and otherwise with his defense. In fact, Sam appeared as a witness for the defense with a pistol demonstration shooting balls with cap detonators without gunpowder. This has gone down as one of the more unusual courtroom demonstrations in history.

1851 colt navy revolver
1851 Colt Navy Revolver

John C. Colt was ultimately convicted and sentenced to hang on November 18, 1842. All subsequent appeals had failed. On the day of the scheduled execution at the Tombs jail in New York City, John took his own life in his cell by stabbing himself just an hour or so before the hanging was to commence. The means by which he obtained the knife was never solved.

There is much more to this story. There are revelations concerning Samuel Colt and a prior marriage producing a son that is all connected to an unusual wedding in John Colt’s jail cell on the day of his scheduled execution in 1842. I would recommend the fascinating book Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend by author Harold Schechter. While the book goes into great detail about the murder and trial it also gives a sweeping background about the Colt family and Samuel Colt’s efforts to make a success of his repeating pistol and rifle. You’ll find it a great read.

colt armory hartford
Colt Armory

Links to two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy include;

Western Frontier Generals / Crook and Miles

Pullman Railroad Cars

The Firearms of Annie Oakley

When Samuel Colt passed away in 1862 during the midst of the Civil War he was one of the wealthiest men in America. His Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company was an industry leader. He was at the forefront of America’s early industrial revolution. As a side note, the wife of Samuel Colt, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, experienced not only the death of her husband in 1862 but also the tragedy of having two sons and a daughter dying in infancy just a short time earlier. Another son born in 1858 did live until 1894.

Upon Samuel Colt’s death, Elizabeth took over the management of the company and the years from the Civil War through the end of the 1800’s were some of the company’s best.

armsmear hartford

Sites to Add to Your Travel Planner

Armsmear, the mansion built by Samuel Colt in Hartford Connecticut is an excellent example of Italianate architecture. The home is now a National Historic Landmark. The home is located at 80 Wethersfield Avenue and is used today as a “51 unit apartment complex for retired single women.” Also on the same street is the James Colt Home which is also another example of Italianate architecture.

The Museum of Connecticut History is located at 231 Capitol Avenue, Hartford. The museum includes the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company Factory Collection which was given to the museum in 1957.

Along the Connecticut River is the old Colt Armory where Samuel Colt manufactured his firearms. The site is a National Historic Landmark. The building today includes the original forge shop and foundry. Another excellent book on this subject is The Colt Armory: A History of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Inc. by author Ellsworth S. Grant.

(Photos of Colt firearms are from the author’s own collection. Remaining photos and images are from the public domain)