Revisiting the Peacemakers Part 2
What Sam Colt learned about manufacturing the 1851 Navy
By Dennis Adler
This is one of those lessons in history that explains why, that even in what appears to be the best of times, all of your planning means very little if no one comprehends why you are doing it. This is the lesson Samuel Colt learned in the 1850s. How this relates to what is happening with Colt Peacemaker air pistols might seem a bit ambiguous, but as you read you will understand that what Colt learned in the past is relevant to what is about to happen in the present.
Sam Colt’s Experiences
In terms of celebrated Colt revolvers, the 1851 Navy is only surpassed by the 1873 Peacemaker as one of the most legendary guns of the American West. It was the perfect revolver in size, caliber (.36 caliber), weight, balance and handling. The U.S. Ordnance Department would select Colt’s 1851 Navy as the nation’s first standard issue sidearm for the Army and Navy in 1855, cementing the model’s role in American history, but in 1851, when it was still new and impressively innovative, Sam Colt – barely on his feet with his new company in Hartford, Connecticut – made a bold decision. During the first full year of manufacture, Colt displayed the 1851 Navy, along with other Colt models, 1849 Pocket Model and large .44 caliber Dragoons, at the London Exposition held in June. The 1851 London Exposition by its sheer size and scope is regarded as the first World’s Fair.
Colt’s 1851 Navy received high praise from the British and visitors from all over the world, and shortly after the Hartford-made Navy model was being shipped for sale throughout Great Britain and Europe. This would have satisfied most men, but Colt had long foreseen the potential for his guns in England and France, and even before getting his U.S. Patent in 1836, he had already secured patents for his revolving pistol design in England and France. With the enthusiastic reception to the Navy model at the London Exposition, Colt saw an opportunity to further expand his reach across the ocean, and in October 1852 chose London as a potential site for manufacturing his guns on foreign soil. He sailed to England that month, taking with him the journeymen and machinery needed to establish a factory. It was both a very bold and expensive feat for the 1850s.
Shipping machinery built in the U.S. across the Atlantic to England was a very costly endeavor but one Colt had discovered on his earlier journey was necessary. He had originally hoped to have his machinery built in England from his U.S. patent designs, both to save on shipping expense and to create a favorable impression among British consumers with everything having been made in England rather than imported. Unfortunately, the machinery needed to do the precision work required in building Colt revolvers could not be produced in England. The British school of gun making was soundly based around handcrafted construction, thus there was no use for such massive machinery as Colt’s among British gunmakers, and no companies capable of building them.
Instead he arrived in London with men and machinery, and selected a factory site at Pimlico on the Thames Bank near Vauxhaul Bridge; a large building formerly used to make the castings for construction of the magnificent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, the site of the 1851 London Exhibition. In less than a year he had his men and machinery in place and the first London built 1851 Navy was completed in 1853. Total production that year concluded with 3,999 guns, all emanating from one factory staffed by Americans.
The production of handguns in such quantities as the London factory was turning out, especially considering the precision required and the interchangeability of parts – a key factor in Colt pistol manufacturing – simply amazed British firearms makers and the British press. In the 1940 book, A History of The Colt Revolver – 1836 to 1940, by Charles T. Haven and Frank A. Beldon, the authors noted that to English observers, it was “…strange enough to see a whole gun made under one roof, instead of being taken home to be built by piecework in half a dozen kitchen workshops.”
The London-built arms were exactly the same as those made at Colt’s Hartford, Connecticut, Armory and after touring Colt’s London works, author Charles Dickens wrote an article in an 1855 edition of Household Words, stating that, “…under the roof of this low, brickbuilt, barrack-looking building we are told that we may see what cannot be seen under one roof anywhere else in all England, the complete manufacture of a pistol, from the dirty pieces of timber and rough bars of cast steel, till it is fit for the gunsmith’s case. To see the same thing in Birmingham and in other places where firearms are made almost entirely by hand labour, we would have to walk about a whole day, visiting many shops carrying on distinct branches of the manufacture; not to speak of the toolmakers, the little screw and pin makers; all of whose work is done here.” Dickens was equally impressed by Samuel Colt’s steam powered assembly lines “indefatigably toiling in the hot, suffocating smell of rank oil, down to the little stone chamber below – [which] performs nine-tenths of all the work that is done here.” Of course, there were Colt’s craftsmen, de-burring parts, polishing and fitting individual parts together, workers making handsome walnut grips, craftsmen using Colt’s formula for color casehardening of frames, hammers, and loading levers, other skilled workers bluing barrels, cylinders and small parts, and final assembly, producing the very same guns in London as they had in Hartford, Connecticut.
The magnificence of it all, as observed by Dickens and British gunmakers was equally bewildering and in contradiction to the long-established school of gun making in Great Britain (and much of Europe). This was to be the downfall of Colt’s vision. He could not build a British workforce because the English ways of doing things did not suit his ideas of mass production. By 1857 Colt felt he could no longer prevail upon his American workers to remain in England and made the decision to sell the factory and its machines to a group of investors who established the London Pistol Company. Their intensions were to build the same types of pistols as Colt’s, but without Colt’s foremen and Colt’s unbending system of manufacturing, the London Pistol Company could not do what Colt had done, even with Colt’s machinery. In the U.S., Samuel Colt’s Model of 1851 remained in production in Hartford for more than 30 years, his true legacy, not the Peacemaker.
Colt had developed what was close to the first moving assembly line with his parts being made by precision machinery to strict tolerances, and the assembly of guns being done as parts moved down the line; i.e. barrels completed and loading levers assembled, frames and firing mechanisms assembled, and guns finally put together with cylinders and readied for testing before being cleaned and packaged for sale. With all parts consistent in manufacture, Colt was able to produce the same quality of firearm time and again.
Though his concept of mass production had proven foreign to British gun making in the 1850s, Colt nevertheless set the standard for manufacturing handguns and the future of gun making. By the 1870s, it was almost the global standard. The underlying lesson, however, was that you cannot always take an idea that works in one place and make it work in another without some adaptation (let’s call it compromises), but once you work though those problems it is possible to duplicate assembly of consistently manufactured parts in more than one place. Colt’s development and enrichment of the manufacturing of interchangeable parts helped change the world of gun making.
Next month we will see Sam Colt’s theory at work in a way even he could never have imagined. You don’t want to miss this. The Airgun Experience will be on hiatus until early August. As they say, watch this space.