The Colt revolver has been featured in countless Western films, creating a powerful mystique that has captivated and inspired the public through legends and tales of heroism.
Examples of the first, history-making Colt revolvers are on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Firearms Museum.
The first Colt revolver was named the Colt Paterson, designed in 1836 by Samuel Colt. Manufactured in Paterson, N.J., the name was relative to the region of its inception. It was one of the first repeating revolvers that carried a five-shot cylinder. The trigger was retractable and would release upon cocking the hammer of the gun. The U.S. military had difficulties finding an effective application for this new Colt design. The Paterson was eventually purchased by the State of Texas for the Navy, under the direction of Sam Houston. After the Texas Navy was disbanded, the Colt was relegated to the Texas Rangers who were in the midst of a war with the Comanche Nation.
The Comanches were winning many battles throughout the 1800’s, attacking with lightning speed on horseback, outpacing their opponents who were relatively slow in response with single shot weapons and outdated strategies. A Comanche warrior could fire off 10 arrows in the equivalent of time it took for a Ranger to fire off one shot. This approach led to the deaths of most Rangers, facing a grim average lifespan of three to four years during the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Jack Hays quickly rose through the ranks of the Rangers due to his fearless nature and natural leadership, according to the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. At the age of 23, Hays was appointed leader of the Texas Rangers by Sam Houston. Hays had a natural keen awareness and extraordinary riding agility that helped the Rangers fend off the attacking Comanche, angered by the expansion of settlers. Leading the Rangers, Hays did his best to counter-attack the Comanche by studying their tactics and using the natural terrain in defense.
Prior to the Texas Rangers, the Mexican Army had been fighting the Comanche for many decades. The Mexican Army retreated to the south after suffering major losses as a tactical strategy. Their traditional fighting tactics were not as effective on this new frontier. The Mexican Army was “laying in wait,” allowing the Rangers to do the fighting for them and weaken the Comanche Empire, which would then create an opportunity for the Mexicans to retake the territory after the Rangers were defeated.
Fortunately for the Texas Rangers and the State of Texas, the Colt Paterson Revolver leveled the battlefield for the Rangers.
Hays immediately could see the potential application of this new weapon, the “Colt Paterson.” He provided every Ranger with two pistols, which gave them 10 shots each, equaling the 10 arrow firing capacity of a Comanche warrior. At the battle of Bandera Pass, The Rangers lured the Comanche into close range, then attacked the Warriors with an element of surprise, unleashing the new weapon.
Firearms Museum Curator Danny Michaels said Colt’s firearm was revolutionary.
“The single action of his revolvers was his most important,” he said. “Other revolvers predated him, but the indexing and single action as he designed would set the standard. He also recognized the importance of the process to make and market the guns. He was, if anything, a marketer, and that combined with organizing his factories with the emerging “American System” of manufacturing, were keys to his success.”
The Comanche during the early 1800’s were the most powerful tribe of North America, controlling a territory called Comancheria that spanned into five states; Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Their blazing speed, horse riding prowess and light warfare tactics were unequaled by any Army, any who dared challenge them suffered catastrophic defeats.
The Comanche after 1840 were under the leadership of Chief Buffalo Hump, a great leader who brought the various bands of Comanche together after the Council House Fight, a massacre in which various Comanche Chiefs were attacked under the guise of a truce by representatives of Texas in San Antonio. The Paterson Colt gave the Texas Rangers an advantage against the Comanche, which would then turn the tide of the war and secure the Texas border for the United States.
The U.S. declared war with Mexico in 1846 due to the two nations being in an on-going dispute over the Texas border. Texas was annexed in 1845, the Mexicans were in disagreement of this claim, believing they had conquered the territory. This land claim was an affront to the Mexican Nation, led by General Santa Anna they responded with a declaration of war.
At the beginning of the Mexican War progress was quite slow, the U.S. Army struggled to gain an edge against Mexico at the beginning of the campaign. The U.S. Army had difficulties fighting the Mexican “Rancheros” and the “Guerrilleros” who travelled fast and light, displaying great horsemanship. The Texas Rangers were asked to enter the war, in order to “equal the odds,” against these impressive riders. The Texas Rangers armed with the Colt Paterson, used the tactics they developed against the Comanche to turn the tide of the war.
Gen. Zachary Taylor and Col. Hays dispatched Samuel Walker to go meet Samuel Colt with plans to modify the Colt Paterson for use in the field. This led to the design of the Colt Walker, a more suitable gun for combat.
“The large caliber and ability to use a heavy charge made it a powerful handgun, which was a substantial upgrade from the Paterson,” Michaels said. “The addition of a loading lever also made it much more user friendly so that the gun didn’t have to be disassembled to be reloaded, unlike the Paterson.”
Walker, the namesake of the legendary Colt Walker, died from a severe battle wound during the Mexican War.
The Colt he helped design helped U.S. soldiers for decades.
The Colt Paterson that preceded it was one of the most advanced designs of the time period, setting a new standard in field combat, which had an enormous impact on the Western expansion of the United States. Colt’s engineering left a legacy of designs that are revered to this day, amongst gun collectors and historians.