Born in 1814, Samuel Colt was to have a major impact upon gun manufacture. The guns subsequently produced by his Colt Company were to have a significant impact upon the United States, as well as the rest of the world. In the course of only a few short years, his guns would go on to be the most widely used handguns of the civil war with both U.S. and Confederate troops. Sam Colts first handgun the Paterson Colt was a major advancement in the development of handguns.
Prior to 1836, handguns were generally of a single shot variety, being called pistols. Loading and firing of these single shot handguns was problematic at best. A single shot weapon was too time consuming to reload. In Texas and parts of the United States, as the troops were continually thrown into combat, attempting to reload a single shot weapon during battle was too much of a disadvantage for a soldier.
Colts design of a revolving cylinder was not entirely a brand new concept, as many as 200 years previously, rotating cylinders had been tried in matchlock pistols, however with indifferent success. Other revolving cylinder designs were more recent; including a 4 barreled revolving flintlock pistol, and a Collier revolving system. At the time of Colts patent for the Paterson revolver, American gunsmith Edwin Wesson (of Smith and Wesson fame) was developing a similar pistol. Colt won the British and American patents to the weapon in 1835 and 1836, and today is acknowledged as the inventor of the modern revolver type pistol.
Samuel Colt went to sea at the age of 16 and during his first voyage he made a wooden model of a revolver. When he returned to the United States he secured patents for his single barrel revolving pistol design, the Paterson Colt.
Colt formed a company to design and build the pistol called the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson New Jersey. The handgun was forever to carry the name of the actual location where it was manufactured in Paterson. Samuel Colt was sort of an early Henry Ford in that he believed in making guns with many interchangeable parts and building them in an assembly line process. This more then any other may be the reason for the huge success of the Colt weapons.
The Paterson Colt was a 5 shot revolver with a dropout trigger. This meant that when not in use the actual trigger of the gun was not visible, and there was no trigger guard around the trigger itself. This gave the revolver a very unique look to it. The main innovation of course was the rotating cylinder that could hold 5 shots, either bullet or ball. One shot would be loaded into each cylinder, and the act of pulling the hammer back on the gun would rotate the cylinder, aligning the cylinder with the single barrel of the gun. At this point the trigger would drop out of the frame of the gun allowing the shooter to fire the weapon. The Paterson was sold in 2 & ½" to 12" barrel lengths the longest 12" was called a Buntline. The majority of the weapons had a 7 and ½" or 9" barrel. Bore diameter or caliber came in many wide varieties, including .28, .31, .34, and .36 caliber. The larger caliber generally would have had the longer barrels as well. A different but very important difference in Paterson models was the method of loading the weapon. Many Patersons did not have the soon to be modern design of an attached loading lever. Without an attached loading lever a shooter would be required to load powder and ball, and then use a ramrod to push the ball firmly onto the powder. This had many disadvantages, not the least of which, it required a lot of strength to force a ball into its chamber, losing the ramrod would be even worse. Other models of the Paterson had an attached loading lever. This lever was used to force the ball into its chamber, being always attached to the gun; the lever greatly improved the Patersons functionality. The vast majority of all modern revolvers would have this attached loading rod.
The Paterson had a marked influence on the early west, and was a sought after handgun. Examples of the Patersons success abound, the Paterson alone being responsible for saving wagon trains from attack, as reported by the famous Kit Carson, or 12 soldiers pinned down by over 60 Indians and living to tell about it by Col. Jack Hayes. One surviving Indian encountering the Paterson revolver was quoted as saying the following "Him no good" this simple comment holds a lot of truth in its statement, compared to a single shot handgun the Paterson "was" no good for the enemy. The Patersons greatest success and Colts claim to early fame was garnered from the Republic of Texas. The Texas Rangers used the Paterson Colt with huge success, earning the weapon a new name the "Texas Paterson"
It is interesting to note that Colts original company "Patent Arms Manufacturing Company" was an actual failure, more Patersons were built then were sold by the company. Nobody may know why the original company failed, possibly the Patersons high price for the day of $40-50 was the reason, possibly the gun itself was to innovative for its time, certainly it was a radical departure from the concept of single shot handguns. Possibly there was just not much need for a 5 shot revolver at the time of its sale, remember this was before the civil war, and the Country was relatively at peace. Despite all this, Colt later went on to open the Colt Company and produced his next model revolver the Walker Colt.
The Walker was designed by Captain S.H. Walker a Texas Ranger who had used the Paterson and had ideas for its improvement. The Walker retained many of the Patersons original ideas, the attached loading lever, and of course the revolving cylinder (now in 6 shots, and .44 caliber). Colt went on to design many thousands of handguns to be used in the Civil war by both sides in a logical progression, the Walker Colt, 1st, 2nd, 3rd model Dragoons, the 1851 navy models and many other designs for police and pocket protection. All of these designs were built upon the original Paterson Colt, designed by a young man on his first voyage at sea.