the colt revolver -- 7/30/15

Today's encore selection -- from Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne. In fighting Comanche warriors, the newly founded Texas Rangers were at a severe disadvantage because a Comanche could get off twenty close-range shots with his bow and arrow in the same time it took a Ranger to fire three shots. In the meantime, a teenager in New Jersey had just invented the first multi-shot sidearm -- a revolver -- but the U.S. Army could see no use for it:

"Despite his success fighting Comanches, [the twenty-five year old leader of the Texas Rangers, Captain Jack] Hays still faced one very large and intractable problem: his single-shot, hard-to-reload rifles and old-style pistols put him at a severe disadvantage against Comanches who carried twenty arrows in their quivers. There was no way around it. He had tried to adapt the long rifle to mounted use -- and had actually worked minor miracles -- but it was still a clumsy weapon that was best fired and reloaded on the ground. It was still the old backwoods rifle from Pennsylvania via Kentucky. Its short-comings accounted, in large part, for the berserk aggressiveness of Hays's Rangers in battle. To stand pat was to be soon peppered with iron-tipped arrows. Headlong attack, for all of its risks, remained a far safer idea.

"Meanwhile, back in the civilized, industrializing East, an enterprise was under way that would soon solve Hays's problem, and in so doing change the world, but for now was mired in failure and obscurity. In 1830 a sixteen-year-old with big ideas and a knack for intricate mechanics named Samuel Colt had carved his first model of a revolving pistol out of wood. Six years later, he took out a patent on it. In 1838 a company in Paterson, New Jersey, began to manufacture Colt's patented firearms. Among them was a .36-caliber, five-chambered revolving pistol with an octagonal barrel and a concealed trigger that dropped down when the gun was cocked. It was not the first such idea, but it was believed to be the first that was put into production for general use.

Colt 1851 Navy Revolver

"There was just one problem with the new gun. No one wanted it. The weapon's natural market, the U.S. government, could not see any application and refused to subsidize it. The weapon had the feel of a cavalry sidearm, but just then the U.S. Army did not have a cavalry. Nor did the new pistol seem to interest private citizens. It was a nifty, if somewhat impractical, product. Oddly, the only people who wanted it were in the exotic and faraway Republic of Texas. In 1839, President Mirabeau Lamar directed the Texas navy, of all things, to order 180 five-shot Colt revolvers from the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson. Later the Texas army ordered another forty. The pistols were shipped and paid for. There is no particular evidence that they were ever used by sailors or anyone else in the service of the Texas government. It seemed to be an obscure and impractical weapon destined for an obscure and irrelevant branch of the Texas military. Such as it was. And there they languished.


Author: S. C. Gwynne


Empire of the Summer Moon




Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne


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