He turned down Rollin White’s offer, transforming the firearms world.
During the shoot-’em-up days of the last half of the 1800s there were plenty of newspaper articles and pulp fiction stories written that described an Old West gunman reaching for his trusty Colt revolver. But you can bet your bottom dollar that there were never any words written about a gunman reaching for his trusty Rollin White revolver. And therein lies one of the strangest and most ironic true stories of the American firearms industry.
For centuries the three major components that were needed to fire a projectile from a gun—the lead ball, the powder charge and the ignition system (first flintlock and then percussion cap) that provided the spark to ignite the powder charge—all had to be loaded into the gun separately. So most guns were single-shot or double-barreled.
But in 1836 Samuel Colt was granted a U.S. patent for a cap-and-ball pistol with a revolving cylinder that could fire five or six shots before it had to be reloaded. Even after an initial production failure, with a patent extension Sam Colt ended up owning the exclusive right to manufacture cap-and-ball revolvers in the United States until his patent expired in 1857. Especially during the California Gold Rush days, no man on the frontier was considered to be properly armed unless he carried one or two of Colt’s revolvers. And with a giant new factory in Hartford, Conn., cranking out revolvers by the thousands, by the middle 1850s Sam Colt had become one of the wealthiest manufacturers in the country.
In the meantime, during the 1850s the race was on in both the United States and Europe to develop what was called the “self-contained cartridge”—a metal “sleeve” that could be loaded into the open breech of a gun with the powder, ball and ignition source already sealed inside the sleeve for instant loading and firing. But the metal sleeve would take several years of experimentation and failure before it would become the common cartridge of today.
Enter a young gunsmith named Rollin White, born in 1818, who went to work in Sam Colt’s revolver factory in 1849. White was also an inventive tinkerer. Loyal to Colt, he even paid the factory $18.50 in 1852 for a revolver to experiment with in order to create a workable cartridge revolver. And then he quit the Colt factory in December 1854.
On April 3, 1855, Rollin White was granted a U.S. patent for his newfangled cartridge revolver. Whereas Sam Colt’s revolver patent had been granted specifically for a cap-and-ball revolver cylinder with chambers that weren’t bored all the way through it, the key to White’s new patent was that it was granted for a revolver cylinder with chambers that were bored all the way through so that “cartridges” could be inserted into the open back ends of the chambers. It was an act of fate that, out of all the other gunsmiths who were trying to perfect a workable cartridge revolver, it was Rollin White who had first applied for a patent on a revolver cylinder with the simple innovation that its chambers were open from end to end. And now, still loyal to Colt, White offered to sell Colt the exclusive rights to produce cartridge revolvers in the United States.
Legend has Sam Colt throwing White out of his office in anger for developing his cartridge-revolver patent on Colt company time. But a future patent infringement lawsuit by White against another firearms maker merely notes, “After the said patents were granted, he [White] applied to and endeavored to make some arrangements with Col. Colt to manufacture arms on the plan of his said inventions, but without success.”
And so, for whatever his reasons, Sam Colt flatly turned down Rollin White’s offer to sell him the rights to manufacture cartridge revolvers until White’s patent expired in 1869. The stage was now set for one of the most bizarre chain of events in the history of the American firearms industry.
Over in Norwich, Conn., gunsmiths Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson and B. Tyler Henry had been working on a contrary, years-old, tubular magazine, lever-action, repeating rifle mechanism that fired a special self-contained cartridge developed by Wesson. In 1854 this mechanism became Smith &Wesson’s first pistol, made in .31- and .41-caliber sizes, and it is known today as the Smith & Wesson lever-action Volcanic pistol. About 1,700 were produced before Smith & Wesson sold out its interest in them in 1855.
And on November 17, 1856, Smith & Wesson signed an agreement with Rollin White that gave it, not Colt, exclusive rights to manufacture cartridge revolvers in the States until White’s patent expired in 1869.
After the Volcanic Co. went bankrupt in 1857, its biggest investor, Oliver Winchester, inherited the company and its assets and moved it to New Haven, Conn. He kept B.Tyler Henry working on its balky lever-action mechanism, and in 1862 the .44-caliber, 15-shot Henry repeating cartridge rifle became an instant hit on the frontier. And the Henry, in turn, evolved into the first Winchester, the Model 1866.
In 1868 the venerable old Remington factory, having overbuilt its production facilities during the Civil War, made a deal with Smith &Wesson to produce 5,000 Army Model cartridge revolvers in .46 caliber. These Remingtons became the first large-caliber cartridge revolvers produced in the United States, and they also temporarily saved the Remington Arms Co. from bankruptcy.
Always undercapitalized, Smith &Wesson started out slowly in its small plant in Springfield, Mass, producing a .22-caliber Model No. 1 revolver beginning in 1857, and the .32- caliber rimfire Models No. 2 and No. 1 1/2 in 1861 and 1865. But Smith & Wesson would not make a big-caliber cartridge revolver, the .44-caliber Model No. 3 American, until 1870, after the Rollin White patent expired.
150 years later we can only speculate on what might have been.
But one thing is certain: If Sam Colt had bought the rights to Rollin White’s patent for cartridge revolvers, there would never have been a Smith & Wesson revolver company.
And it is probable: If Colt had sauntered over to the financially strapped Volcanic Co. in New Haven and laid some cash on the frustrated Oliver Winchester before the Henry rifle was perfected, Colt could have ether shut down the factory or produced his own Colt lever-action repeating rifles. And there never would have been a Winchester rifle company.
Also probable: If Colt had bought Rollin White’s patent for cartridge revolvers, he probably wouldn’t have assigned the rights to Remington to produce its first cartridge revolvers. And Remington might have gone bankrupt years earlier than it finally did.
In 1861, with Smith &Wesson’s permission, Rollin White produced about 5,000 .22-caliber cartridge revolvers with his own name on them for the war effort. For 10 years he tried in vain to get a patent extension granted to him for his exclusive rights to produce cartridge revolvers. But he died in firearms history obscurity in 1892.
Samuel Colt died in 1862 without knowing that he had inadvertently created two of the biggest U.S. firearms makers of the 19th century, Smith & Wesson and Winchester, and prolonged the life of a third one, Remington.
In the late 1860s the Colt factory tried to get permission from Smith &Wesson to produce cartridge revolvers. Not surprisingly, Colt was turned down. It was not until 1873, four years after Rollin White’s patent for cartridge revolvers expired in 1869, that Colt began producing what became the most popular cartridge six-shooter of the Old West, the Single-Action Army Model.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.