Everything About Colt Firearms
The idea behind the first Colt handguns was inspired more by sea spray and carved pine than by metal and gunpowder. Sixteen-year-old Samuel Colt, aboard the swaying deck of Corvo en route to Calcutta, was inspired by the wooden mechanics of the ship and translated that idea, a revolving cylinder repeater for firearms, into whittled pine.
Its success was not immediate.
However, this entrepreneurial and innovative young man, with all his initially failed attempts, would soon “win the West” with wartime tools and weapons, establishing a working model of the American industrial revolution that lives on these days through its civilian and military-grade firearms.
History Of Colt Handguns
The first of all Colt handguns, the Colt Paterson revolver, was born in the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey, Colt’s Patent in 1836. It was a 5-shot revolver initially chambered in .28 caliber, later also in .36.
The first of all Colt firearms, however, was the Colt First Model Ring Lever rifle.
The Colt Paterson was flawed, not primarily because of design, but because of quality standards. The products initially made by the company had some failures, some successes, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Colt sought to implement interchangeable parts in production, but initially lacked the machinery to make reliable production a possibility. The New Jersey manufacturing plant, despite having some models in circulation with military outfits in the U.S. Marine Corps and Army, closed its doors in 1842.
Colt bided his time. He helped Samuel F.B. Morse with underwater electric cable, he worked on waterproof cloth cartridges and he designed underwater mines that would protect harbors.
He received another opportunity to produce one of his patents for a government contract during the Mexican-American war in 1846.
This resulted in the Colt Walker, a single-action six-round revolver in a powerful .44 caliber resulting from a collaboration between Captain Samuel H. Walker and Samuel Colt. Walker was a cavalry officer, and wanted a pistol powerful enough to knock a man off a horse or – failing that – knock down the horse.
At the time, Colt Manufacturing didn’t exist. Walker contacted Samuel Colt due to Colt having invented the Paterson revolver, but wanted one with MOAH POWAHHH!!! and figured Samuel Colt would be the best man for the job. After the design was finished, the cash infusion from Walker’s order let Colt revive the company, using the Whitney armory in Whitneyville, Connecticut, which was owned by Eli Whitney’s family.
For reference, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.
That model helped build on Colt’s understanding and expansion into mechanization and further cemented his interest in interchangeable parts made more efficient through mechanized processes. The Colt Dragoon, a large six-shot .44 caliber percussion revolver, was released in 1848 and found its way into civilian and military use, with three models that had subtle variations through 1850-1860.
Unfortunately, Walker’s pistols weren’t quite enough, as he was killed during the Battle of Huamantla.
Colt was able to build another business while coasting on this momentum. He opened Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford Connecticut by remodeling an empty textile mill into a gun factory, according to From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States.
In 1849, the popular Colt Model 1849 Pocket Revolver was pushed into production, a mirror of previous models — so much so that they gained the nickname “Colt’s Baby Dragoons,” according to the Standard Catalog of Colt Firearms. There were about 325,000 manufactured between 1850 to 1873 with 200 variations.
In 1851, Colt opened a plant in London, England and in 1855 he built another factory (Colt Armory) near the Connecticut River.
Soon came the Colt 1851 Navy, a largely produced six-shot, .36 caliber percussion revolver with a 7.5 inch barrel. About 215,000 were made in Hartford and 42,000 in London between 1850 and 1873, with beyond 100 variations coming about.
A few years later, their Colt 1855 Sidehammer (which had its hammer mounted on the right side of the frame), with its few subsequent models, was by and large a dud. Its production ceased, but its creeping loading lever designed by Elisha K. Root found its way into later models.
Colt’s involvement with the American Civil War resulted in large contracts, and in 1861 and 1862 alone the company sold 107,000 .44 caliber weapons to the U.S. War Department, according to Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters and Bizarre Events, with more being sold later on.
Colt passed in 1862 of rheumatic fever and Root soon took his place as president. Root passed in 1865 and the company was then passed onto Richard Jarvis, Colt’s brother-in-law.
Colt’s fortune (worth $15 million) and industrial facilities were left in care of his widow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt. A fire consumed the company in 1864, which left it unable to produce much until it was rebuilt.
The 1870s were a remarkable time for the company. It was finally able to manufacture revolvers with a self-contained metallic cartridge (first seen in the .41 caliber Colt House Revolver), which eventually led to what became known as “the gun that won the West,” the Colt Single Action Army Revolver.
Also known as the Colt Peacemaker, 350,000 models of this .45 caliber were produced between 1873-1941. It was used by Buffalo Bill Cody and Teddy Roosevelt alike. The second generation Peacemakers were produced between 1956 to 1974, and the third generation were produced between 1976 and 1981, according to historical publication The Wild West. They are offered today in updated models in .45 colt, .357 mag and additional calibers through custom orders.
Following the Peacemaker, Colt released double action revolvers — the Model 1877 (about 166,849 produced between 1877-1909 in .38 Colt and .41 Colt) and Model 1878 (about 51,210 made between 1878-1905 in a variety of calibers), according to Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values, page 109.
Shortly thereafter, the New Army and New Navy models featured the first swing out cylinders. They were updated in subsequent models. The company also produced shotguns, rifles and concealable derringers during this time.
The turn of the century was a time of upheaval: automatic pistols. The Model 1900, what Flayderman calls the Paterson of Colt autos, was the first automatic Colt. From 1900 to 1903 about 3,500 models were produced in .38 ACP, with their magazines holding seven rounds each.
Colt began to work with John Browning to produce models of his machine guns, the Browning Automatic Rifle and the Model 1903 and 1908 Automatics (including the aforementioned Model 1900), according to Colt. Colt produced the M1895 Colt-Browning Machine Gun, and it was among the first gas-operated machine guns.
Both World Wars, a time of tribulation requiring among other things innovative arms, was impacted by Colt’s .45 caliber Model 1911. The Army relied on its stopping power in World War I while it served as their standard sidearm. It was updated as the Model 1911A1 in World War II and produced en masse. In total, there were about 2.5 million manufactured for both conflicts, all the while it was released commercially for the civilian market. Colt was also producing rifles, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns during these wars.
At the same time, Colt was still in the revolver business. The Model 1892 (New Army and New Navy) was buttressed with a civilian model for police, the Colt New Police. However, all three were replaced with the Police Positive, a double-action medium-frame revolver initially developed for .32 caliber rounds, and then the Official Police, developed for use with .38 caliber rounds, especially .38 Special, though both revolvers would be offered in that chambering. The Police Positive and Official Police pistols would be two of the most popular service revolvers – along with the Smith and Wesson Model 10 – of the 20th century.
Colt also offered a large-frame model, the New Service. The New Service was offered in a bevy of chamberings during its life cycle, including .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44-40, .44 Special and .45 Colt. The New Service was also adopted as the M1917 revolver – Smith and Wesson’s Triple Lock N-frame was too! – as there weren’t enough M1911 pistols to go around for World War I, though moon clips were required.
Following the stock market crash and Great Depression, Colt had to rely on new business tactics and a cash surplus generated from WWI. According to Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law, the company survived by reducing the work week, cutting salaries and keeping more people on payroll than needed.
Despite the large contracts associated with WWII, the company began to lose money and production ceased. Fast forward to 1955, and the company merged with Penn-Texas, but also released the Colt Python.
The Colt Python is a cultural benchmark for many in the firearms community. It was in production from 1955 until the late ‘90s, a premiere option that established itself as a high-end revolver. Its accuracy, trigger pull and weight to control recoil were all selling points. It was produced in barrel lengths at 2.5, 3, 4, 6 and 8 inches.
The Python was also joined in the lineup by the Colt Trooper, a more budget-friendly revolver that was more easily acquired by civilians and law enforcement. The Trooper and Lawman models were popular police pistols – along with the Official Police – well into the 70s and 80s, as revolvers began to be phased out of police armories and semi-autos began taking their place.
Colt began to produce the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in 1960, based on Eugene Stoner’s design, and soon after there was a fully automatic iteration. This was an important military contract that led to the U.S. military purchasing 300,000 from Colt by 1965.
In the ‘70s, the M1911A1 was replaced in the Air Force and Army and in the ‘80s the company faced a four-year strike that severely impacted its bottom line.
Afterward, it released the Double Eagle double-action single-action pistol (based on 1911 designs with plenty of input from CZ), the Anaconda and Sporter Rifles.
Modern-Day Colt Handguns Have Had A Few Set Backs
Colt guns had a bit of a hiccup in the 1990s. In 1990, Colt’s Manufacturing Company was purchased by the Connecticut state pension fund and investors backed by Creditstalt, according to a 1992 New York Times report.
The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1992, listing assets at $91.5 million and liabilities at $82.5 million.
The company exited its second bankruptcy in January of 2016, having reduced its debt by $200 million and seeking to better serve its consumers by splitting its focus between government and commercial business.
This brief history is by no means a complete account of every model released by the company and every product category. Entire books have been written about the company and all it has to offer.
Beyond the brief list of handguns listed here, there are modern options the company currently offers.
Current Colt Revolvers And Pistols For Everyday Carry
The revolvers are as much a nod to the past as they are a culmination of modern-day technology:
- Cobra: An option for concealed carry, this double-action revolver is chambered in .38 special and can take +P ammunition. It has fiber optic front sights and a 2” barrel. It has a listed 7-9 lbs DA and 3-4 lbs SA trigger weight
- King Cobra: the King Cobra has been resurrected, as a 3-inch variant of the modern Cobra with a full underlug and chambered for .357 Magnum.
- Single Action Army: The classic 1873 model is still on the table in .45 Colt and .357 Magnum. It comes with three barrel lengths: 4.75, 5.5 and 7.5 inches at 10.25, 11 and 13 inches in overall length, respectively. There are three finishes, and it has the second generation style cylinder bushing.
- New Frontier: The New Frontier is a throwback to an iteration of the Single Action Army produced from 1890 to 1989. It has a blade front sight and an adjustable rear sight. It’s chambered in both .44 special and .45 Colt with the same barrel lengths as the Single Action Army listed above.
Colt offers an array of 1911 full size and compact pistols for duty, civilian use and competition:
- 1991 Series: An update to the original Colt M1911, it has the same flat mainspring housing, recoil spring system and long trigger. However, it now has white dot sights and a lowered ejection port. It comes with two finishes, and is chambered in .45 ACP with a 7+1 capacity. It has an overall length of 8.5 inches and height of 5.5 inches. Its trigger weight is 4.5 – 6 lbs.
- Series 70 Government Model: In .45 ACP with a 7+1 capacity, this model harkens back to the Government Models from previous global conflicts. It has the Series 70 firing system, an arched steel mainspring housing, short steel trigger and spur hammer. It has the same dimensions and trigger weight as the 1991 Series.
- Stainless Steel Colt Competition Pistol: This model comes in .45 ACP (8+1 capacity), 9mm (9+1 capacity) and .38 super (9+1 capacity). It’s 8.5 inches in length, 5.5 inches in height and 1.25 inches in width (just like the previous two). The barrel is 5 inches. The trigger weight is 4.5-6lbs and its trigger action is single action hammer fired. It has red fiber optic front sights.
- Gold Cup Series: Another competition pistol in .45 ACP (8+1 capacity) and 9mm (9+1 capacity), it sports 25 LPI checkering on the front and back strap, a beveled magazine, competition ergonomics, adjustable rear sights and the blue competition grips. Its dimensions are the same as the previously mentioned pistols, but its trigger weight is 4-6 lbs. Unloaded, it’s 38 oz. It also has red fiber optic front sights.
- .380 Mustang: Another concealed carry option, the Colt .380 Mustang Pocketlite and Lite models both come in .380 ACP and are 5.5 inches in total length, 3.9 inches in height and 1.06 inches in width. Each model’s capacity is 6+1 and their single action hammer fired trigger system has a trigger weight of 4.5-6 lbs. The Lite model is 11.5 oz. unloaded, has a polymer frame and has dovetailed front and rear sights. It comes with 1 magazine, a cable lock, instruction manual and soft case. The Pocketlite model is 12.5 oz. unloaded, has an aluminum alloy frame, is finished with a Cerakote matte stainless coating and it comes with all the same accessories, but with two magazines instead of one.
- Defender Series: This series, chambered in 9mm (8+1) and .45 ACP (7+1), is a compact 1911 model with a 3 inch barrel at an overall length of 6.75 inches, 5.125 inches in height and width of 1.25 inches. It’s single action hammer fired and has a trigger weight of 4.5-6 lbs. It weighs 24 oz. unloaded, comes with 2 magazines and the .45 ACP model comes in either stainless steel or black matte while the 9mm is offered in black matte.
- Combat Commander: Another 1911 model, but with a shorter profile (7.75 inches in length with a 4.25 inch barrel, but with the same 5.5 inch height and 1.25 inch width) than the Government Model, it has a Dual Spring Recoil System and comes in .45 ACP (8+1) or 9mm (9+1).
- Lightweight Commander: This has many of the same features and calibers as the Combat Commander series, but its unloaded weight is 29.4 oz. as opposed to the Combat Commander’s 33 oz.
- Rail Gun: 8.5 inches long, 5.5 inches high, 1.25 inches wide, a trigger weight at 4.5 – 6 lbs., a single action hammer fired trigger action, chambered in 9mm (9+1) and .45 ACP (8+1), with Novak sights, extended thumb safety, upswept beavertail grip safety, Series 80 firing pin safety — this 1911 model features many of the standard fare specifications, but includes a M1913 Spec picatinny rail and also features that Dual Recoil Spring System.
- M45A1: This model was chosen by the United States Marine Corps. It is essentially the previously described Colt Rail Gun, but has an ambidextrous safety lock, Brown Decobond stainless steel receiver and slide, enhanced hammer and flat, serrated mainspring housing with a lanyard loop.
- Colt Combat Unit Rail Gun: Again, the same as the Rail Gun, but with Novak Tritium front sights, 25 LPI front strap checkering, black finish and custom gray Colt Logo G10 grips.
- Delta Elite: This is the Government Model in 10mm (8+1 capacity). It has Novak sights, a wide slide serration, lowered ejection port and all the previously mentioned dimensions (8.5” long, 5.5” in height, 1.25” wide with a trigger weight at 4.5-6 lbs.).
- Combat Elite: Its receiver, slide, barrel and slide stop are all made of forged steel. In .45 ACP with a capacity of 8+1, it’s 8.5 inches in length, 5.5 inches in height and 1.25 inches wide. It has an extended thumb safety, upswept beavertail grip safety and Series 80 firing pin safety. It has half checkered, half smooth rosewood grips and a single action hammer fired trigger action with a trigger weight of 4.5 – 6 lbs.
- Special Combat Government: This series has a four finishes in .45 ACP (with a capacity of 8 rounds) and two finishes in 9mm (with a 9-round capacity). Its dimensions are similar to the previously listed Combat Elite. It weighs between 38 to 39.5 oz. depending on the finish.
About The Author
Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter in his final year of studying public relations and apparel at the University of Idaho.