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The New Colt Gallery: The Revolver, a Gun That Made History

Updated May 2, 2012 — One of the biggest attractions during the Autry’s Day of the Cowboy and the Cowgirl celebration on July 23, 2011, was the reopening of the Greg Martin Colt Gallery, which had been closed since March for redesign. And it told one of the coolest technological stories of the 19th century: how the Colt revolver came to be.

1835 Colt steel revolver prototype with case-​hardened finish, walnut grips and folding, spring-​activated bayonet (Autry Collections Photo)

“The Greg Martin Colt Gallery really (explores) the entire history of the Colt Revolver, from its early beginnings, from the idea, from its inception, all the way up into the modern West,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture. “It (looks) at the development of the gun specifically, but focusing on how the gun played its part in the American West and why is that connection there between the Colt revolver and the American West.”

Colt’s Manufacturing Company even donated a 175th anniversary commemorative single action army model revolver to the museum in recognition of the new exhibition, titled The Colt Revolver in the American West. That gun is on display to the right of the entrance to the gallery.

Also on display is an 1835 prototype revolver, one of only a handful made before Samuel Colt patented and began mass-​producing his revolutionary gun.

Revolutionary because this gun did not require reloading after each firing. Instead, it had a cylinder that automatically revolved — hence the name — when the user cocked the hammer to align each round for firing. Nowadays, when we think of a handgun, the image that comes to mind is of a revolver with a six-​round cylinder — Samuel Colt’s revolver. But they didn’t always look or work like that. Before Colt’s invention, a user could only fire once before having to reload again, making for a slower, less efficient gun that often proved fatal in real-​world situations.

Autry staffers Nick Macierz, Joann Harris and Nathan Badge, (left to right) examine an engraving to make sure it hangs properly in the Colt Gallery in preparation for the opening (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“The idea before was, you get one, maybe two shots and then you have to reload,” Richardson said. “Well, that would severely limit you, whether you’re in war, or whether you were in hunting, whatever it might be. So as a result, having five, six, seven shots, as the Colt revolver often offered, really changed the nature of just about everything in the American frontier.”

Colt’s prototype, manufactured by gunsmith and one-​time clockmaker John Pearson, also doesn’t look like the regular guns we know today. In fact, it looks downright odd, with its smooth, ungrooved cylinder and its spring-​loaded bayonet that could be folded back or used for self-​defense when one ran out of ammunition.

Richardson said Colt drew his first designs for the gun in 1831, then kept tinkering with it. This model was the basis of his first patent, also in the exhibit. Interestingly, Colt did not patent his gun in the United States right away.

Samuel Colt’s first revolver patent, titled “Patent for Certain Improvements Applicable to Fire Arms, No. 6909,” granted to Samuel Colt by His Majesty’s Patent Office in the United Kingdom, October 22, 1835 (Autry Collections Photo)

“He actually had to go to Europe to patent the revolver first because of the peculiarities of patent laws at that time,” Richardson said. “If he would have patented his gun in America, he would not have then had the legal right to patent it in England and France. But the reverse did not apply. So he went to England first to patent it, then he went to France to patent it, then he came back to the United States to patent his gun.”

Colt received the British patent on October 22, 1835, the French one on November 16, and the American one on February 26, 1836, thus achieving a monopoly on revolver production until 1857.

When the Colt Gallery reopens, the British patent will be on display at the Autry for the first time ever. And it’s quite a patent.

“The British (patent) is done in a style that you can only say is very British,” Richardson said. “It’s very opulent, it’s got this beautiful script on the top, it has images .… The American patent, when you put it on display, it looks like any other thing. This British patent, you want to look at it; you want to know what it is; you want to know what it says because it’s so beautifully scripted throughout the entire piece. ”

Autry exhibition design staffers Joann Harris (left) and Julia Latane measure and prepare to hang an exhibit at the Colt Gallery (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Colt’s American patent, once a part of the Colt Company’s private collection along with the British one, was donated to the Autry in the eighties. It was on display in the gallery previously, but because it is a fragile paper document, curators decided to let it rest and allow for conservation work on it.

Another unique document on display is a stock certificate from the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, Colt’s first business enterprise, established in Paterson, N.J. in 1836.

Conservator Richard Moll examines the John F. Kennedy presidential presentation Colt revolver that will be in the Colt Gallery starting Saturday (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“It’s a very interesting piece,” Richardson said. “It’s the only one known to still exist.”

We mentioned the use of Colt firearms in the battlefield. Indeed, the single-​action revolver Colt, made on contract for the U.S. government, is also widely known as “the handgun that won the West.” Because for those who made their living in the West, guns like these were an indispensable, albeit expensive, tool.

“The single-​action army, because of its efficiency, because of its design, is considered the ultimate single-​action handgun that has ever been made,” Richardson said. “It was used by notable Western individuals, lawmen, outlaws, cowboys. It was used by just about everyone in the West.”

The gallery will show off 50 of the finest single-​action army revolvers ever assembled in one collection, including some owned by entertainers like Gene Autry and Tom Mix. There are also guns that once belonged to Wyatt Earp, the outlaw Harvey Alexander Logan (otherwise known as Kid Curry, a member of Butch Cassidy’s gang), and John Henry “Doc” Holliday (this is the gun he used in the shootout at the O.K. Corral).

The John F. Kennedy presentation gun in close-​up. The engraved letters JFK are just visible (Photo by Tessie Borden)

There are guns that presidents owned, including a model that Theodore Roosevelt used in his adventures in the West and presentation models meant as gifts to sitting presidents, such as Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy.

The Kennedy gun, in fact, is frozen in time. Two prototypes had been made (one is in the Autry collection) and work was in progress on the actual presentation gun — it was being engraved — when Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. All work stopped immediately, and though it was reassembled, the presentation gun was never completed.

Richard Moll, the Autry’s chief conservator, prepared the gun for the Colt Gallery.

“There are some guns that give you what the museum loves to call the ‘a-​ha’ moment,” Moll said. “They stopped working on that gun the day he was killed .… This pinpoints a day, a time, an event, and also, really, a time within the history of the U.S. ”

Richardson said it also embodies the multi-​faceted nature of Americans’ relationship with their firearms.

“(It) really gets at the fact, because it’s a very beautiful gun, that firearms can be these aesthetic objects of beauty, but they are also tools that can be used for horrible evil,” Richardson said. “That gun really gets at the two sides of what firearms can be.”

This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.