A repeater: Colt, the man and pistol

Associated Press

It's been a decade since the Wadsworth Atheneum had an exhibit on native son Samuel Colt, an icon who revolutionized the American firearms industry and put Hartford on the world map.

The last time the art museum showcased the Colt firearms collection was in 1996, but only a part of it was displayed.

This time around, the museum has its entire collection on view in a comprehensive look at Colt's transformation of Hartford into an industrial mecca during the 19th century.

Colt's story is told through "Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention," a display of nearly 200 pieces, with more than 100 revolvers and rifles, rare family gifts and numerous paintings, including several by George Catlin, famous for his portraits of American Indians.

The show opened this fall as the National Park Service decided whether to grant a National Historic Landmark designation to the Coltsville Historic Industrial District in Hartford, a 260-acre area that includes the signature blue, onion-domed Colt Armory.

From inventing the world's most recognized gun to creating the production line decades before Henry Ford, Colt was an innovator years ahead of his time.

"You might say he was the original Bill Gates," said Herbert G. Houze, guest curator of the exhibit and firearms expert. "His name was immediately recognized virtually everywhere in the world at the time and, also, he was immensely rich."

As a 16-year-old sailor aboard a ship to London and Calcutta, India, Colt, inspired by the ship's wheel, came up with the idea for the Colt revolver, carving wood components for the firearm that would become his most famous invention. A few of those whittled pieces are included in the exhibit.

After 15 years of perfecting the idea, Colt began to develop quality revolving pistols that were both cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing. Unlike past pistols, in which the cylinder had to be manually turned, the cylinder on the Colt revolver automatically rotated as the hammer was cocked, allowing gunmen to fire multiple shots more quickly. Their highly polished blue steel and elegantly simplistic form helped distinguish Colt firearms from competitors.

The exhibit not only looks at Colt firearms but also those of competitors such as Eli Whitney and Frederic Remington. Colt collected examples of competing firearms to show how his were better.

One of the more famous Colt firearms on display is an engraved 1840 No. 5 holster pistol with white ivory grips and silver inlay. The revolving pistol was the first purchased by the government for military use. Houze says the elaborate decorations on the display pistol indicate that Colt likely used it for exhibitions.

Though it was the quality of guns that made Colt rich, it was his promotional savvy that helped him become world famous. From British government officials and Prussian royalty to Russian czars and Japanese shoguns, Colt offered gifts to influential world leaders to induce them to adopt his guns.

Colt also gave friends and family gifts to promote himself. At one time, he bought more than 100 flat porcelain portraits of himself holding a revolver and sitting next to drafting equipment. A rare find today, a pair are on display.

Colt also marketed his products through paintings. During the 1850s, he commissioned a series of works by Catlin. In each painting, Catlin is holding or shooting a Colt firearm. One of the most famous of the paintings shows Catlin, in frontier attire, shooting buffalo with a Colt revolving pistol while on a horse in the wilderness. The painting is one of four on display at the exhibit. Another shows Catlin shooting in a flock of flamingos as they rise from a lake.

In 1862, before his 48th birthday, Colt died from recurring malaria and overwork. But his legacy and work live on more than a century later. Through the firearms, paintings and other items collected, the exhibit shows Colt as more than a gun manufacturer. He was an artist, a promoter and innovator. An accompanying lecture series and detailed catalog written by Houze add deeper dimension to one of the most inventive characters of the 19th century.

The exhibit runs through March 4, before traveling to Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha; National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City; Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Wash.; and Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas.

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