The Arms Race – The Colt vs. Wesson Story

Samuel Colt was born on July 19th, 1862. He went on to make a name for himself as a serious inventor, businessman, and industrialist. In his ventures, he founded “Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company”, an establishment that made mass production of revolvers commercially feasible. Since then, the company has been renamed “Colt’s Manufacturing Company”.

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Colt story is not a straightforward one. Along the journey, he encounters another great innovator, Daniel Baird Wesson of “Smith & Wesson Company”. The company offered stiff competition to Colt’s establishment when it came to manufacturing firearms and ammunition. In this article, we cover the incredible tale of the battle between two geniuses of their times.

A Different Era

Most gun connoisseurs are aware of the modern-day rivalries. The AR vs. AK, Mauser vs. Lee Enfield and the 870 vs. 500. However, before all these rivalries came to be, the Colt vs. Wesson war defined the gun world.

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S&W No. 2 Army, top, and Colt Pocket Model of 1849, bottom.Source: ataleoftwothirties

Surprisingly, both these companies were conceptualized at almost the same time. Even more amazing is the fact that both companies went on brief breaks to re-strategize before venturing back into production. Concerning magnanimity, the rivalry was once compared to the Ford and Chevy rivalry in the automotive industry.

Colt Emerges

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In 1836, Sam Colt made forays into the firearms industry when he came up with designs of the .28 and .36 caliber pocket guns. Later on, the weapons were given the name Paterson because of the strategic location of the production factory in Paterson, New Jersey. When quizzed on what prompted him to come up with the design for the Paterson, Colt went on record that he took inspiration from the locking mechanism he had witnessed on a sailing ship. He was fascinated in the manner the wheel could be held in place.

The Art of Being Different

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The .36 caliber Belt New Police Colt percussion revolver, carried by law enforcement officers during the American Civil War.(Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

The Colt Paterson was different in that it featured a revolving cylinder that could hold 5 pieces of .25 ammo. Because of the relatively new design, production encountered some hurdles. Since he was a solo venture, Colt was unable to adequately finance output with adequate machinery to allow interchangeable parts to be made. As such, many guns were made with different qualities. This means that while some models worked perfectly, some of them were prone to malfunction.

Over time, he was able to streamline production and made modifications that made reloading a breeze. He was able to successfully integrate a reloading lever and capping window which meant that one didn’t have to necessarily disassemble a gun into two before loading bullets.

The Story Begins

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Daniel Baird Wesson(Photo by Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Following the U.S. economic crash in 1837, Colt was forced to halt his production of revolvers. However, once normality resumed, he began a new fad that would see him become one of the wealthiest inventors of his time. Assisted by Eli Whitney Blake and Captain Samuel Walker, they founded the Walker Colt. Instantly, the US Army took to the new revolver like fish to water. Colt’s likable persona and outstanding sales skills enabled him to drive up demand for his gun beyond American shores.

Light Years Ahead

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(Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Henry Ford was without a doubt a genius. Incredibly, even before he came up with the idea of mass production, Colt beat him to it. The gun virtuoso sought to begin mass production of revolvers without hesitation. The only obstacle he faced was the apparent lack of sales. Some of the contributing factors were the fact that his guns were a bit expensive and too delicate. This was even after the US Army had tried and tested the weapons.

As a result of this, he was forced to close his workshop in 1843 before he resumed operations. The old Paterson factory is now in ruins after being completely shut down in 1983. Forest fires have taken a heavy toll on the old building, and the site is now no more than an ancient ruin.

Gun Dynamics

Before the advent of revolvers, inventors had struggled to make enhancements on the layout of guns and shingle shot muskets. A common request by soldiers was for companies to come up with ways to make reloading an easier task. Back then, reloading took too much time, in which they were left exposed to enemy forces.

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Colt’s single action revolver 7.5 inch barrel, 1844.(Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In a bid to make these improvements, many companies tried to expand the ammunition capacity. This was a somewhat novel concept because it meant that it took longer for the arsenal to die out. Further along the road, rotating barrels were introduced which offered a higher degree of flexibility to soldiers at the battlefront.

New Developments

Some of the pioneers of revolving firearms were Zane Irrizary who designed a revolving arquebus in 1597, and London-based John Dafte who came up with the 17th century styled six chambers rotating flintlock. Due to unreliability, most of the designs were halted.

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(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

James Puckle, a 17th century English inventor, was one of the pioneers who seemed ahead of his time. He developed and patented the revolving chamber gun. At the same time, he came up with designs of a tripod-mounted weapon with hand operated cylinders holding eleven shots. On average, the gun had a firing rate of 63 rounds every seven minutes; a pretty impressive score given the times. To reload, one had to change the ammunition cylinders in their entirety.

The Strong Viability of Invention

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(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In terms of commercial possibilities, Colt is credited as being the first to successfully blend quality and mass production. Notably, in the 19th century, Elisha Collier used the concept employed in the rotating flintlock to produce about 10,000-gun models. However, some design flaws in production meant that the entire enterprise was not really rewarding. The revolving cylinder and firing chamber were known to malfunction from time to time while gunpowder traces in the interior section meant that the guns had a high misfiring probability. Many experts believe that Colt took inspiring from the failings of earlier inventors to conceptualize his own take of the revolver.

Popular Models Emerge

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(Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images)

All through the history of handguns, there have been quite a number of popular models. Most notably, the Colt Single Action Army come to mind. The popular revolver was developed in 1873 before being adopted by the US Army as the weapon of choice. Other models, like the .357 magnum, the .38 special and the .44 magnum had their turn on fan favorites. Remarkably, movies like Dirty Harry series helped to make some of these brands much popular among the audiences.

Force to Reckon

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(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Colt Single Action Army revolver has been labeled a number of names throughout the years. Its official name was The New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol, but after release to the market, it got branded other names like the Equalizer, Model P, Frontier, and the most ironic name – The Peacemaker.

The gun rose to prominence after 3 members of the notorious Clanton gang were shot down in 30 seconds by law enforcers at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Following the incident, Doc Holliday, Billy Clanton, and Wyatt Earp achieved legendary status.

Strong Willed

Colt was able to achieve momentous success because of his persistence and defense of his patents. However, he seemed unwilling to upgrade his inventions to fire metallic case cartridges. This was despite the fact that some of these suggestions came from his very own engineers and workers.

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(Photo by Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

When one of his employees, a man named Rollin White, presented him with a patent for a bored-through revolver cylinder, Colt fired him on the spot. Nonetheless, White was determined and went on to pitch the idea to Daniel Wesson. Upon learning about the new patent idea, Wesson convinced Horace Smith to buy it from White.

Smith & Wesson Enter the Fray

In 1854, Daniel Baird Wesson and Horace Smith joined hands to acquire the Hunt-Jennings and Volition repeating rifles. After making a couple of tweaks on the original designs, the company rebranded into the Smith & Wesson Company. They went on to produce their famed lever action pistol before they decided to move on to their next weapon.

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Their next gun made use of volcanic lever action which prompted them to rename themselves to the Volcanic Repeating Arms company. They left the company after Rollin White presented them with a revolutionary new patent. In no time, they began production of the first cartridge revolvers in the US.

The Narrative Before

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(Photo by Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Before they scored big in the guns market, the Smith & Wesson’s company faced a downfall. The Volcanic was incredibly underpowered, even with its impressive size. The cause of this was the fact that the gun fired .41 caliber “Rocket-ball” themed ammunition. This was distinctly different when compared to other bullets at the time. This is because other than a disc primer, the interior was hollowed out.

Oliver Winchester, a shirt-maker at his profession, came to the rescue by buying out a handful of investors. As a consequence, Wesson was forced out of the company with Smith remaining as a plant manager. Eventually, they ended up gathering up together and following through with Rollin White’s idea. In that time, Winchester rebranded the company a fair number of times. He started out with the name New Haven Arms Company before finally settling on the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

Some Drawbacks and Failures

One common trait between Colt and Wesson is their sheer determination to succeed. Despite facing obstacles and failure being the end result, they seemed to keep on pressing on.

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(Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

After Sam Walker, a Texas Ranger captain requested Colt to make him a powerful pistol capable of hitting a target from 200 yards out, he got to work. He allied with Eli Whitney and wet his feet back in the revolver game.

After finishing up the designs on his new 1847 Walker, he was able to announce his return to the guns trade. His latest design was considerably lighter and stronger. In the end, he further enhanced the models to come up with the 1860 Army and 1861 Navy revolvers. These were Colt’s last piece of works before he met his untimely demise in 1862. Historians reckon that at the time of his death, he was worth a whopping $15 million, which would translate to about $17 billion in today’s economy.

Developments and Monikers

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Horace Smith. Source: Getty Images

The cartridge revolvers came to be known as No. 1 because of their diminutive size. The guns were chambered in .22 Short with tip-up barrels. Later on, they developed a second model, a No. 2 in .32 Rimfire before later on branching out to a larger No. 3 with a .44 caliber.

In 1880, the company developed their very first double-action revolver. The new addition was made for the .32 caliber before they moved onto their next project, a hammerless revolver. These particular revolvers were created to facilitate ease of carrying without the risk of the hammer snagging as one draws out the gun.

First Rights and Patents

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(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Following their 1856 patent of the Rimfire cartridge, Smith and Wesson were able to patent the resulting self-contained revolving cartridge gun. Since most of their earlier designs incorporated White’s idea, Smith & Wesson agreed to pay him $0.25 for every revolver made, instead of listing him as a partner in their company.

By registering these patents, they set themselves on the course of reaping the full benefits of their precedence. As a matter of fact, most recently, in 2015, the company sued a list of companies it touted made modifications to their original design without acknowledging that fact.

Widespread Use

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

The release of the No. 10 in 1899 arguably marked a turn of events for the Smith and Wesson. They were able to break into the consumer market. These guns were favored because the cylinder could hold six .38 caliber rounds, the barrel could easily be ejected on the side, and the sights were fixed. Upon release, the US Army made a point of ordering about 3,000 of the new model. This was right after there were widespread complaints about the effectiveness of cartridges. The famous revolver is still being used all over the world by both police agencies and military forces.

Weapon of Choice

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(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By the turn of the 20th century, the .38 special was regarded as the best weapon out there. In no time, most police departments stocked with the desired model, while at the same time, shopkeepers who tried to avert possible robbing incidences also adopted the gun enthusiastically.

During both world wars, the .38 special was also utilized to defeat enemies. Estimates show that throughout the years, more than 6 million No. 10’s have been manufactured. In that time, police and other law enforcement agencies have made a point of updating their systems with more modern semi-automatic pistols. The No. 10 was built in some specifications ranging from 6.5, 6, 4, 2.5 to 2-inch barrel measurements.

The Wind of Changes

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Source: Getty Images

Right after WWI, bulletproof vests came into being. The vests were an instant hit amongst gangsters because they could intercept rounds traveling below 1,000 fps. To counter the introduction of the bulletproof vests to the market, Smith & Wesson came up with new plans to ensure that their guns were able to tear through the vests. They experimented with stronger steel and advanced heat-treatment processes. Also, they called upon Bill Jordan, a famed firearms expert to beef up a new handgun design.

Straight from the Kitchen

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(Photo by Mathew Imaging/FilmMagic)

After trial and error, Smith & Wesson conceptualized the first magnum revolver of its kind. The .357 caliber No. 19 was released in 1935. The pistol was able to shoot out a bullet at 1,600 fps, fast enough to smash through bulletproof vests at the time. Upon release, the gun was a huge hit among law enforcement agencies and civilians looking to shield themselves from outlaws.

Clint Eastwood became one of the most famous presenters of the Smith &Wesson No. 29 while shooting one of this Dirty Harry movies. Having been released in 1929, the Model 29, was chambered to hold the large .44 caliber round and the .44 Special.

Government Ready Firearms

The Colt was adopted as the Army’s gun of choice in July 1873. While it’s true that the Colt and the Smith & Wesson models were adopted as preferred weapons, the Colt was undisputedly favored as the number one favorite.

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(Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In two decades, the government purchased about 30,000 more Army Colts at the rate of $13 each. The weapons were often found on holsters at artillery grounds, in the cavalry and infantry. So popular were these particular models that the government decide to make some tweaks in 17,000 army revolvers. The most notable was the significant cut down to 5.5 inches. The shorter pistols were utilized by the troops when fighting the Moro Rebellion, Spanish American War, and the Philippine-American War.

US Army Services

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Colt Python revolver cal .38 special(Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Colts were primarily used by the government on the Western frontier. On June 25th, 1876, about two hundred troopers belonging to George Armstrong Custer, were killed and their revolvers took by the victors. More specifically, the guns seized included the Colt Single Action Army and the 1873 Springfield carbine.

While the Single Action Army gained infamy because of its excellent stopping power and relative ease of use, it had the disadvantage of speed. Reloading would take ages to accomplish, and it had a slow rate of fire. In the end, it was replaced by the double-action .38-caliber Colt Model 1892.

Multi Fields Inventor

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A Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

It’s safe to say that Colt was a man of many talents. Not only did he invent new gun brands, but he also made insulated telegraph wires during his lifetime. After perfecting the telegraph wires, he shifted to developing enhanced batteries that were compatible with the needs of telegraphy.

Following his interactions with law enforcement agencies, he was able to demonstrate the power of underwater mines to the US Navy and successfully sunk a target ship. Awkwardly, he never received a contract because congressman John Q. Adams was opposed to the “unchristian” nature of the stealth weapon employed.

All’s Fair in War

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(Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)

Distinctively, Colt did not mind selling his revolvers to both the North and the South during the Civil War. He did not express his displeasure with slavery and neither did he laud the practice. His silence on the matter lead to him being labeled a disloyal Confederate sympathizer. Following this, he decided against setting up shop in the South. Instead, he refocused his energies on selling guns to both sides of the divide. His money-making ventures and ambitions saw him go on to sell to many war rivals throughout the years.

The Big Differences

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(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

As two distinctive brands, fans couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Smith & Wesson’ K-Frame and Colt’s Police Positive. The Model 10 K-Frame was initially issued to members of the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1987. On the other hand, the Colt Police Positive Special was manufactured in 1929. Strikingly, both models were made to fit .38 Special. Gun connoisseurs who are well-versed with the two models tend to cite that both models are at par despite the 60-year age difference. Unlike what many would expect, the Colt impressively still locks up tight.

Weight is Not Everything

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(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Smith & Wesson Model 10 K-Frame is a substantially larger and heavier gun. Regarding features, the rear sight notch is apparently wider than the Colt while the front sight just happens to be thicker; this means that you can acquire your targets with more ease. On a cylinder basis, on the Smith & Wesson model, the cylinder release patch happens to be a bit forward to allow the cylinder to pop out. Conspicuously, the DA trigger is a tad bit heavy while the SA trigger is much lighter. By the feel of hand, the Smith & Wesson Model 10 feels like it would cause much more harm compared to the Colt Police Positive Model.

Hitting the Target

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Source: durysguns

Compared to most guns these days, the Police Positive is relatively diminutive. Such sort of firearms is oft regarded as being “kit guns” these days. To distinguish between the two models, the Smith & Wesson Model 10’s cylinder rotates in a counter-clockwise motion, a distance from the frame.

The Colt rotates clockwise with the frame as the reference point. This particular feature formed the basis of numerous debates at the time. Colt ran ad campaigns suggesting that by having the cylinder sitting against the frame, their guns had an element of longevity. Of course, such claims have never really been proven to date.

Safety First

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Source: smith-wesson.com

Regarding safety, the Colt is considered much more superior compared to the Smith & Wesson Model 10, despite its relatively Lilliputian size. The Colt locks up tightly and pulling the hammer is a smooth affair. In addition to this, a shooter is able to cock the harm even when the cylinder is popped out, something that’s not supported in the Model 10. Trigger happy individuals are likely to realize that the DA has a smoother and heavier trigger, while the SA has a lighter feel to it. From a looks-only basis, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Colt doesn’t have as long a lifespan as the Model 10.

Look and Feel

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Source: sportsman outdoor super store

In the shooting range, both guns – the Model 10 and the Colt Police Special – are fantastic for shooting. Both models support a maximum of 6 shots, and the sights can handle heavier loads. Markedly, the grips in both are a bit too tiny. This makes absolute sense when you remember that at the time, larger rubber grips would fetch a pretty penny in the market. Even after enhancements were made, the Tyler T-Grip Adapters have sold like hotcakes all through history. The lighter feel on the Colt means that shooters are likely to identify the piece as something built after hours of exceptional craftsmanship. Meanwhile, the Model 10 has a steely feel to it, like it can handle adverse conditions.

Recent Developments

The Smith & Wesson Model 500 is a recent addition to the revolver world. The gun was made in 2003 and is oft regarded as the most powerful weapon ever created. The M&P (Military and Police) models have managed to become highly successful in recent times too. Part of the reason behind their popularity is because one can easily disassemble such guns without necessarily pulling the trigger.

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Source: sportsman outdoor super store

Even with the faded memories about this great Colt vs. Wesson revolver rivalry, there’s still hope that these two-gun companies could go head to head again in future. Just this year, Colt announced the launch of their new Cobra revolver, which was primarily be created for the concealed carry market. Since it’s still early days, one can only remain hopeful that the latest addition by Colt will reignite the sparks in the fiery rivalry between two former heavyweights in the firearms world.