Why you should care
Because America’s love affair with guns was kindled by one very talented matchmaker.
“God created men,” goes the famous frontier saying, “Colonel Colt made them equal.”
So how did one man, even a legendary arms-maker, accomplish a task generally reserved for constitutions, wars and philosophers? Well, the saying itself says it all: truly sensational PR.
If the name Samuel Colt, born 200 years ago on July 19, 1814, has become synonymous with guns, it’s no accident. It was precisely his intention. The bearded industrialist may not have invented the revolver whose design he perfected, but he was a pioneer in everything from production lines to political lobbying to mass marketing and celebrity endorsements, and, more than any other man, he is responsible for fanning the flames of America’s passion for privately owned firearms.
Like many top American entrepreneurs , Colt eschewed traditional pathways to success, like attending college or rising through the company ranks, in favor of convincing wealthy friends and family members to capitalize his 22-year-old’s dreams. After a brief stint at Amherst Academy went up in smoke thanks to a pyrotechnic prank, the audacious Hartford, Conn., native was sent by his father on the 1830s equivalent of an unpaid internship: a job on a cargo ship bound for India.
“The husky, fast-talking industrialist from Connecticut,” Jack Kelly writes in The Invention of the Revolver , “embodied every European stereotype of the American: He was charming and abrasive, self-made and overbearing … as imaginative as he was mercenary, an opportunist, a liar, and a genius.” During the lengthy boat ride, Colt whittled a revolving pistol prototype out of wood, and after a spell as a traveling showman touting the benefits of laughing gas, the young huckster persuaded his family and friends to give him the $230,000 he needed to give the gunmaking business a shot.
Colt capitalized on Americans’ romanticized view of the rugged frontier.
He was also relentless. Colt’s quarter-million-dollar venture, indeed his first three ventures, all went under. While the revolver provided a pivotal new advantage to American soldiers and settlers — the ability to fire five to six shots without reloading, a task that required 20 seconds with single-shot firearms — its $50 price tag (equivalent to $3,000 today) was prohibitive for the average buyer.
Riding to Colt’s rescue was the savior of many a weapons manufacturer: the federal government. Colt’s revolvers were held in such esteem by Captain Sam Walker and his Texas Rangers during the Seminole War that when the Mexican-American War flared up in the 1840s, Walker helped convince the U.S. War Department to order 1,000 revolvers from Colt “to keep the various warlike tribes of Indians and marauding Mexicans in subjection.”
Colt was back in business — with a new appreciation for both combat testimonials and government largesse. The budding industrialist may have despised the federal hand that first fed him — “To be … under the pay and patronage of Government is to stagnate ambition,” he once said — but in a few years he was writing the book on political lobbying, running up gigantic liquor tabs entertaining politicians and military officers, while earning celebrity endorsements from the likes of Sam Houston, the Republic of Texas’s former president.
And trailblazer that he was, Colt did not stop at U.S. politicians. He bestowed complementary arms on world leaders from Czar Nicholas of Russia to the king of Siam, and won endorsements from the likes of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Brigham Young. But Colt saved his most effective marketing ploys for convincing average Americans to pay a month’s wage for a device that required frequent maintenance and was known to malfunction.
Colt capitalized on Americans’ romanticized view of the rugged frontier to sell pocket revolvers and other pistols — mostly to those who, like himself, lived in Eastern towns and cities . And to do so, Colt deployed a marketing and sales arsenal unlike any before.
He created a national network of sales reps, ran ads in newspapers with artwork by famous Western artist and adventurer George Catlin and even paid United States Magazine to run a 29-page illustrated spread profiling his factory, which used interchangeable parts and mass-production techniques more than half a century before Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off an assembly line.
Colt was also well ahead of his time in giving his products patriotic names like the Colt Navy Revolver, and, long before the iPod and iPhone, he was whetting consumer appetites with slightly modified models with customizable elements. He even coined the expression “new and improved,” and got himself an honorary military commission and title of “colonel” to further boost marketing efforts.
By the start of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Colonel Colt’s revolvers were perhaps the best-known firearm in the world, and when he died a year later from rheumatic fever at the age of 47, he was one of the wealthiest men in the country. Yet Colt would not live to see the explosion in private gun ownership following the war nor the triumph of the iconic Colt .45 Peacemaker, “the gun that won the West” and was used by every gunslinger from Jesse James to Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp.
But if he had, you can bet there would have been some endorsement deals and free product coming their way.