It happened today - March 5, 2016
Number one with a bullet. That would be a fair description of Samuel Colt, who on March 5 of 1834 patented the revolver. He had a couple of misfires before sales really took off because the Texas Rangers ordered a Lone Star State quantity during the Mexican American war. And by the time Colt died in 1862, he was one of America’s richest men. That’s progress for you.
No, really. Whatever you think of firearms, Colt was a modern man who employed standard mechanical production of interchangeable parts to mass produce a product and slick advertising with celebrity endorsements to mass produce customers.
Colt wowed them at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, formally, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations and also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, when he dumped a bag of parts on the table and assembled guns that worked without the necessity for hand-finishing by skilled craftsmen. It really was a revolutionary way of making things, all kinds of things, and it changed the world in ways from guns to automobiles to computers.
In a way it’s odd because one associates the six-gun with cowboys, those American equivalents of knights-errant, mounted on a horse, defending women’s honour, living by a code of honour and combating the dark knights who misused all these things.
OK, it’s a slightly romanticized vision. But there is a core of truth to it. And yet this essentially old-fashioned breed of men depended on this very modern technology. And there’s no halting progress.
As Lord Dunsany (who had the marvellously non-modern name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany) put it in his novel Don Rodriguez, “Blame not the age, it is now too late to stop; it is in the grip of inventions now, and has to go on; we cannot stop content with mustard gas; it is the age of Progress, and our motto is Onwards.”
Certainly it was true at the Crystal Palace. And onwards we went indeed, from revolvers to machine guns and automatic weapons, followed by mustard gas that didn’t really work and nuclear weapons that did. In addition to guns, better metallurgy and efficient factory production created barbed wire that fenced in the wide open West, and railways that tamed it to the point that Kid Sheleen laments in Cat Ballou that the last time he was in Tombstone they’d turned the OK Corral in to a roller skating rink.
As far as I’ve been able to determine they never really did so, and in fact it seems there already was a skating rink in Tombstone in its heyday. But there really was a roller-skating Holliday Skate Palace in Valdosta, Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s because he once lived there (Valdosta, not the Skate Palace). Certainly Tombstone is now a tourist attraction rather than a real Western town, and you can buy Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp fridge magnets online.
The world is like that these days. And it’s not that way so much because of the six-gun as it is because of the very modern way it was made.
Samuel Colt. Number one with a bullet. And we never looked back.