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A Conversation with Jim Rasenberger


Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

Samuel Colt's name is synonymous with the American West. His Colt Revolver changed combat, unleashing carnage across the 'Wild Wild West,' and precipitated the Industrial Revolution, transforming manufacturing forever. He discusses the complicated legacy of the man whose weapon reaped serious consequences.

History in Five: What initially drew you to studying Sam Colt? 


Jim Rasenberger: Before I began poking into his life, I knew Colt’s name mainly from the Hollywood westerns I loved as a boy. What’s a western without Colt revolvers and a shoot out in front of the saloon? But what made Colt truly fascinating was the way his invention—the first practical multi-shot firearm in the world— helped open the American frontier in the west at the same time that it catalyzed the American industrial revolution in the east. The double impact of the Colt revolver on the development of the United States was simply staggering. And it was mostly an untold story, filled with twists and turns and—yes—shoot-outs. A writer could not ask for better material.  



Hin5: In what specific ways did Sam Colt’s factory revolutionize American manufacturing? How have these changes impacted modern manufacturing?   


JR: Just as Colt’s revolver had a big impact on the opening of the American west to whites—mainly by making it easier for the emigrants to fight Native Americas-- the way his guns were manufactured was revolutionary. During Colt’s childhood, most objects were still made by hand, each a unique item. Crafting them was labor intensive, and repairing them was difficult. Sam Colt was not the first to use machines to make identical, interchangeable parts, but no one had ever done this so extensively or successfully. Long before Henry Ford came along with his assembly line, Colt was steering the United States toward mass production, and by the time he died in 1862, his Hartford armory was the most advanced factory in the world. Today, nearly every man-made object we encounter is made by techniques Colt pioneered. 



Hin5: Did Sam Colt have a stance on how firearms should be used? If so, what was it?


JR: Like many of his contemporaries, Colt had a wonderfully self-justifying belief that the more advanced his weapons were, the more they acted as “peacemakers.” If weapons were lethal enough, went this rather specious logic, no one would want to fight anymore. In truth, I think Colt was more interested in selling guns than saving lives. As it happened, it was against Native Americans that his invention found its first grisly purpose. Because single-shot firearms took at least half a minute to reload, they were ineffective against horse-mounted warriors of the Great Plains, who could fire arrows at a rate of 20 or 30 a minute. A gun with six bullets did a lot to change that equation, with terrible results for Native Americans.



Hin5:  How was Colt a man of his times? How did he specifically embody the American Spirit of the 1800s?


JR: Colt was big, brash, ingenious, wildly ambitious, venal, generous, and full of bluster—in short, the very embodiment of the United States in those turbulent years of Manifest Destiny. He loved America, and America pretty much loved him back. Just as America was coming into its own in 1851, he stepped onto the world stage at the famous Crystal Palace exhibition in London and brought his American spirit to the world. His revolver was a hit in London, and the world woke up to the extraordinary new technological advances in the United States-- thanks largely to Colt and his revolver. 



Hin5: Can you give us a sneak peek at Revolver? What is one of your favorite little-known stories about Sam Colt that’s included in the book?


JR: While researching the book, I had a number of discoveries that made me want to shout out with shock or glee (an awkward thing to do in a hushed archive).  One of my early finds had to do with a voyage Colt took to Calcutta at the age of 16, when he hired on as a sailor.  It was on this voyage he supposedly dreamed up and carved a model of his gun. I knew there were missionaries on the ship with him, and I managed to find the journals of two of these missionaries that no one had apparently seen since the 1830s. Both mention Colt. One describes him as utterly miserable during the voyage, a pitiful greenhorn in a brutal occupation. That same missionary also told the story of a sailor flogged for stealing raisins and nuts. I was sitting in the archives of the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia when I read the journal of the second missionary. He also described the flogging, and he named the poor sailor who was flogged. It was Colt! Knowing that Colt had been caught stealing, and gotten flogged—an excruciatingly painful humiliation that left permanent scars— added a great deal to my understanding of him. If the worst thing about Colt was his amorality, the most admirable was his ability to endure almost anything.  

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