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THE COLT SYSTEM OF MANUFACTURE
In The Percussion Period
1. Colt Factory before the 1864 fire. (Connecticut State Library, photo courtesy Roy Marcot)
2. Rebuilt Colt factory in 2012.
The first company Sam Colt organized to manufacture arms was a business failure. But he learned from his early mistakes and when the war with Mexico and the offer of a U.S. Army contract for the famous Walker revolvers gave him a chance to start again he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity. Additional Army orders and the development of some excellent smaller pistols for the civilian market allowed him to establish a new factory in Hartford, Connecticut and gave his new firm a sound financial foundation. These military and commercial orders, together with extension of his patent, his inventive genius, energetic and persistent marketing, and some very wise personnel decisions, placed the Sam Colt’s firm on the path to success. Within ten years of receiving the Walker pistol contract, the Colt Patent Manufacturing Company had, according to Secretary of War Floyd, risen “to the importance of a national work.”
Orders were such that the firm soon outgrew its initial Hartford facilities and Mr. Colt purchased 250 acres beside the Connecticut River for a new plant. The new armory was constructed and operations in it commenced in the fall of 1855. According to one source, by March 1857 Colt’s investment in his land, buildings, machinery, tools and raw materials was approximately one and a quarter million dollars. By that date he employed six to eight hundred men inside the main building and others outside. On a daily basis he paid in wages alone from $1,000 to $1,500 and, according to this source, manufactured on a yearly basis from 75,000 to 100,000 firearms. However, this production figure was apparently marketing hype, for Colt’s factory records give the following arms production totals, which are still very impressive and include arms of all types, including the Model 1861 Colt musket.
Mr. Colt wisely reinvested much of his early profits, but in doing so he did more than buy facilities, machinery and tools. His smartest investments were in hiring such men as Elisha King Root, his plant superintendent. Together they would both acquire, and design and build, the machinery that led to the success previously mentioned. But the achievement was even more remarkable in that they advanced “The American System of Manufacture” to the point that the Colt factory was perhaps the world’s best commercial representation of that system in the late 1850s and early 1860s. This system involved a sequential series of operations carried out on successive specialized machines to produce many identical (or very nearly identical) parts, which allowed their expeditious and efficient assembly into finished products. Though Eli Whitney has been credited with this development, the ideas had actually appeared earlier in Europe and were already being practiced in the U.S. armories. Springfield Armory, in particular, was responsible for a great many advancements and Colt used the practices he observed there and added to them.
In his marketing, Colt overstated the interchangeability of parts for his revolvers; however, Ordnance Department records show that Colt was well advanced over other military revolver manufacturers in this respect. The degree to which Colt revolver parts were interchangeable, thus lessening the time and expense of their assembly, will be discussed below. But one aspect of Colt’s use of machinery in the manufacturing process should be noted here and that is the degree to which the Colt process required highly skilled labor. In a paper read by Samuel Colt to the British Institution of Civil Engineers in 1851, Sam Colt claimed that if the cost to make a Colt weapon was $100, $10 of the cost for was the wages of those who attended to and passed pieces through the machines, $10 was for the highly skilled workmen who assembled the weapon, and $80 was the cost of the machinery, facility and material.
This cost allocation was contradicted by multiple sources, but may not have been greatly exaggerated if Colt was stating initial costs. Certainly his use of and investment in machines was extensive. However, some of these machines were used for many years and their yearly maintenance costs, other than for replacement cutters, etc. was probably not great. It is certain that his use of these machines enabled him to produce great numbers of parts that were far more uniform than could be achieved through traditional (manual) methods.
Unfortunately, no single source gives us a good, detailed description of the manufacturing process used in Colt’s factory. In fact, putting together the descriptions from all sources known to the author has still left voids in his knowledge. Still, the author believes that the consolidation of those sources and some speculation based on existing arms can give us a better understanding of how Colt arms were made and help explain some observed characteristics. The material from these sources is merged in the description below, which generally follows a “walk through the factory” approach.
COLT MANUFACTURING OVERVIEW
Like many other arms manufacturing concerns of the time, Samuel Colt’s manufacturing process involved his own staff and his facilities, inside
3. Colt factory site diagram from U.S. Army Ordnance Department inspection report made after the 1864 fire. The area marked in red experienced the most damage.
contractors, outside contractors and suppliers. Colt provided the facility (or factory buildings and their utilities); machinery; tools; raw materials; and the overall management and control, including factory supervision, engineering and development, inspection, clerical, store-keeping, sales, shipping and financial control, etc. He obtained raw materials and, sometimes, finished components from outside contractors and suppliers. Raw materials were provided from a number of sources, one of the most important being the high quality iron, steel and files obtained from Thomas Firth & Sons in England. Outside contractor Blake made bullet molds and Matthewman made flasks. Component suppliers included Hazard for powder, Le Roy for bullets, Collins - saber bayonets, Pratt Whitney - rifling machines, and Stegmuller – mahogany pistol cases. Inside contractors in February 1860 included Herman Bodenstein (engraving), Joseph Davis (stocks), etc.
The manufacturing work within the factory was largely, if not wholly, done through inside contractors. These men provided the labor but used Colt’s facilities and materials to perform the work. Workers were paid sometimes by the hour, but usually on a price per-piece basis. Some of the most skilled men earned up to $5 per day, while the lowest paid, usually boys, made 50 cents per day. One inside contractors would be tasked to do such work as rough forging of parts like the frame while another would be assigned the work of taking the forged blank, milling it to shape and drilling it, etc. to the point it was ready for the next stage of manufacture. When work reached the desired degree of completion, and when work was to move from one contractor to another, Colt’s inspectors would inspect the products to ensure their acceptability. The work that proved to be unsatisfactory would be returned to the contractor for correction and if that proved impractical, the contractor would be responsible for the cost of the wasted materials.
4. The second floor of the pistol armory. (United States Magazine)
The Colt pistol factory in use during the period of interest here burned down in 1864; but it was rebuilt in the same location to look much like the original buildings. The rebuilt factory still exists today but is vacant and in a sad state of deterioration. Our focus will be on the operations that were carried out in the main building, which faced the Connecticut River. The river supplied a ready means of transport for Colt’s supplies and products but not energy for the factory, for like most manufacturing concerns of Colt’s size at the time, the power for Colt’s machines came from steam.
“The motive power is located in the center of the main building. It consists of a steam engine - cylinder, 36 inches in diameter, 7 foot stroke, fly-wheel 30 feet in diameter, weighing 7 tons. … The power is carried to the attic by a belt working on the fly-wheel; this belt is 118 feet long by 22 inches wide, and travels at the rate of 2,500 feet per minute.
Fully appreciating the great interest manifested by our readers in descriptions of this kind, we will now proceed to conduct them through the interior of this immense industrial pile, and on the way we will endeavor to explain, as understandingly as possible, the various processes of the manufacture, from the raw metal and wood, to the complete and effective arms familiarly known as Colt's Revolvers.
Leaving the office [building]we cross the bridge [to the factory], pass down through the machine shop, engine room, etc., to the rear parallel, an apartment 40 by 50 feet square, the center of which is appropriated as the store-room for iron and steel. Large quantities of these materials, in bars and rods, are stored here in charge of a responsible party, whose duty it is to fill the orders from the contractors, and render an accurate statement of such deliveries to the main storekeeper's department. This latter system is universal throughout the establishment - thus the materials of all kinds can be readily accounted for, no matter what their state of transposition.”
THE MANUFACTURING PROCESS
From the available sources we can infer that the factory was divided into departments, forging, parts (frame, barrel, cylinder, trigger guards back straps and small parts), heat treatment, stocking, inspection/ assembly, proof, polishing, finishing, final inspection, papering, wareroom and shipping. The manufacturing process flow was generally in that order and will be discussed in that order below.
Before the contractors could order supplies of raw materials from the Store Room, they had to themselves have been given orders for their work. This, of course, means that Colt management had decided to produce some number of revolvers and had given the necessary orders to manufacture the parts. This decision was one to be made with some deliberation due to the investment that it implied, for set-up of the machinery to make the arms was a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Consequently, for normal production, orders were generally given for the manufacture of a given type of pistol in multiples of a thousand.
5. The Forging Shop. (United States Magazine)
“…the armory proper … is the second story of the front parallel [front building, nearest to the river]. This is probably not only the most spacious, but the best arranged and fitted workshop extant. We fully understand this to be a broad and sweeping assertion, yet we have an abundance of competent authority to back the opinion. On first entering this immense room, from the office, the tout ensemble is really grand and imposing, and the beholder is readily impressed with an exalted opinion of the vast mechanical resources of the corporation. The room is 500 feet long by 60 feet wide and 16 feet high. It is lighted, on all sides, by 110 windows that reach nearly from floor to ceiling; it is warmed by steam from the boilers - the pipes being under the benches, running completely around the sides and ends; there are the perfect arrangements for ventilation and sufficient gas burners to illuminate the whole for night-work. Running along through the center is a row of cast iron columns, sixty in number, to which is attached the shafting - which here is arranged as a continuous pulley - for driving the machines, as close together as possible, only allowing sufficient space to get around and work them. The whole of this immense floor space
6. Drop hammer. (Connecticut State Museum)
is covered with machine tools. Each portion of the firearm has its particular section. As we enter the door the first group of machines appears to be exclusively employed in chambering cylinders; the next turning and shaping them; here another is boring barrels; another group is milling the lock frames; still another is drilling them; beyond are a score of machines boring and screw-cutting the nipples, and next to them a number of others are making screws; here are the rifling machines, and there the machines for boring rifle-barrels; now we come to the jigging machines that mortise out the lock-frames; and thus it goes on all over this great hive of physical and mental exertion.”
Sam Colt introduced this phase of the manufacturing process in his 1851 presentation to the British Institution of Civil Engineers as follows:
“The machinery requisite for constructing the repeating firearms, though at first view, like a cotton, or silk factory, apparently intricate, is in reality composed of the simplest elements, and consists in a repetition of known mechanical actions specially applied. It will suffice to describe the operations on a few parts, commencing with the lock frame, which is the basis of the whole, and to which all the other parts are adapted.”
THE LOCK FRAME
Iron and steel parts began as plate or bar stock, which was heated and then cut into the length needed, heated again and drop forged into patterns for the various parts such as frames, barrels, levers, etc. Resuming Sam Colt’s description:
“Like all the other parts, the lock frame is forged by swages, and its shape completed by one blow. The action of the machines commences by fixing the centre, and drilling and tapping the base for receiving the arbor, which having been previously prepared – the helical groove cut on it, and the lower end screwed – is firmly fixed into its position, furnishing a definite point from which all the operations are performed and to which all the parts bear relation. The facing and hollowing of the recoil shield and frame; the cutting and sinking the central recesses; the cutting out all the grooves and orifices, planning the several flat surfaces, and shaping the curved parts, prepare the frame for being introduced between hard steel clamps, through which all the holes are drilled, bored and tapped, for the various screws; so that after passing through twenty-two distinct operations, the lock frame is ready for finishing by hand, which consists in
7. Revolver frame jigging machine. (Connecticut State Museum)
merely removing the rough edge, or burr, left by the machinery, and giving it the last polish and hardening.
Mr. Colt provided a little more detail in a later portion of the paper:
“The swaged block of metal [the forged frame] was held in clamps and the centre hole drilled and tapped for the base pin [the “arbor” above], which was then inserted, in order that each subsequent operation should have relation to, and accord with the position of that part of the arm, which served as a common centre. The lower inside curve was then cut, the various slots, grooves, spring bearings, etc. were cut through clamps, by which the piece was presented to the various automation machines, and last of all, the operations of centering, drilling and tapping all the holes were performed, also under the guidance of clamps.”
Resuming Mr. Colt’s description from his paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers:
“In making the cylinder, or chamber, which was also forged from a block of steel, annealed, the centre hole was first drilled, then the exterior was turned and engraved (also by a machine), then the ratchet teeth were cut out of the solid metal …, the holes for
8. Cylinder boring machine. (Connecticut State Museum)
9. Boring barrels. (United States Magazine)
10. Rifling barrels. (United states Magazine)
11. Turning and shaping machines. (United States Magazine)
the barrel, with which the base pin is ultimately connected, tapped, and then rifled by a self-adjusting machine, which gives to the longitudinal grooves, the form of a contracting pitch spiral, commencing nearly straight at the lower end and terminating at the muzzle in a curve of much smaller radius.”
“Armsmear,” pages 238-239, provided some additional details. The pistol barrel went from the jigging machine to the 1st filer, who did the initial shaping, for which he was paid seven cents each. After “other manipulations” it went to the 2nd filer, who was paid only two and a half cents for each but would complete approximately 150 barrels a day. After the latter was finished he stamped upon it his mark to ensure the inspector didn’t return to him poor work done by another. The barrel was sufficiently completed at this point that leather faces were used on the vice to avoid scratching the barrel’s surface.
According to “Armsmear,” page 227, brass trigger guards were cast in moulds casting 12 at one time. After being cut off the casting, the guards were milled, filed and polished (initial polishing). The author says the guards were then sent to the electroplater after “polishing” but clearly they had to first be fitted to a frame (together with a back strap) and the stock then fitted to the grip. After proof firing of the assembled pistol the trigger guard was given a final polish and those to be plated were sent to the plating department. After plating they went to the burnishers who brightened the silver finish.
12. Dry polishing. (United States Magazine)
It is not documented, but it is almost certain that at least final sanding of wooden stocks was done with the grip metal parts assembled and the stocks on in order to obtain the excellent fit Colt achieved. This was the process used by Smith & Wesson and probably other revolver manufacturers. Sperm oil was used on the inside of a gun stock to soften it and linseed oil on the outside to harden it.
“All the various parts of the lock are made by machinery, each having its relative initial point to work from, and on the correctness of which the perfection depends. So with the stock and the mountings, the ramrod lever, etc., all are formed and worked by different sets of machines.”
The author of “Armsmear” provided some additional details:
“Other tools, as punches, are greatly larger than what they act on, and so, striking on a steel plate, cut out navy triggers as rapidly as a baker stamps out crackers in dough…”
INTERCHANGEABILITY OF PARTS
Regarding the skill required by those who took the parts from the machine and finished them, Mr. Gage Stickney, previously superintendent of Colt’s London armory, testified in 1854 before the Select Committee of Parliament on the Gun Trade that the work required first class mechanics. He also denied that the parts
13. Musket stocking machine. (United States Magazine)
one Colt revolver would interchange with those of another of the same model but appears to have meant they would not interchange without at least some manipulation by a skilled workman.
“As soon as completed the different parts are carried to the story above, which, with the exception of the machinery and the columns through the center, is an exact counterpart of the room below. It is designated the Inspecting and Assembling Department. Here the different parts are most minutely inspected; this embraces a series of operations which in the aggregate amount to considerable; the tools to inspect a cylinder, for example, are fifteen in number, each of which must gauge to a hair; the greatest nicety is observed, and it is absolutely impossible to get a slighted piece of work beyond this point.”
The “Armsmear” author also described inspection of parts before the assembly process began and discussed the exacting nature of Colt’s inspectors. He also mentioned the strict compliance required with gauges, knocking lock frames against an object to see if they rang “dull and dumpish,” etc. If the frame rang “dull and dumpish” it was condemned as lacking a tight base-pin (or arbor).
Another author’s description is much the same, but in it he also notes that: “Each piece having stood the rigid test, the inspector punches his initial letter on it and assumes all responsibility connected therewith.” Unfortunately the placement of these Colt inspector stamps was not given and the author has been unable to determine which of the markings on surviving pistols belonged to which type of Colt workman.
Quality Grades and Multiple Production Runs
The above accounts of revolver parts inspection by Colt’s inspectors differ somewhat in that one implies no substandard parts passed inspection while another notes that Colt officials “winked at” some defects that did not impair the arm’s utility. While some earlier authors have written that Colt did not sell any substandard arms, that was not the case. Like other manufacturers, Colt sold weapons that varied in quality. The author did not find documentation on the prices charged for the lowest grades of arms, but it is possible that such arms were provided to dealers at an additional discount. Likewise, the author has not found evidence that Colt in any way marked such arms to show that they were inferior to the standard grade. At least one other pistol manufacturer at that time, Smith & Wesson, did mark their substandard arms “2nd Quality.” Colt sold some arms made with parts they considered not good enough to submit to government inspectors and used other parts that had been condemned during Ordnance Department inspection. Such arms will be addressed in a later chapter. Again, the author has not noted these pistols to have any special markings made by Colt inspectors, though they often do show marks of government condemnation.
Colt also sold arms of superior quality, such as the “extra finish” OMN revolvers Sam Colt mentioned to his European agent. These arms were often made from specially selected parts and the author believes that selection was made at this point in the manufacturing process. The author also believes the Colt inspectors marked the parts to show their special nature so that they could be readily identified later in the manufacturing process. The same process appears to have been used when multiple production runs of the same arm were made simultaneously. For example, Colt manufactured approximately two thousand stocked Model 1860 Army revolvers at the same time they were making contract arms for the Army and marked the major components of the stocked pistols with a “0” so that they could be distinguished from Army contract parts. It also appears that small lots of standard commercial Model 1860 Army revolvers were sometimes made at the same time as Army contract revolvers and the parts intended for the commercial market were marked to indicate those parts were to receive the more highly polished commercial finish or to have the straps silver plated. The special factory markings applied to such revolvers will be addressed later in this book.
14. Arms assembly. (United States Magazine)
“… all the separate parts travel independently through the manufactory, arriving at last, in an almost complete condition, in the hands of the finishing workmen, by whom they are assembled, from promiscuous heaps, and formed into firearms, requiring only the polishing and fitting demanded for ornament.”
None of the other documents that describe the Colt manufacturing system say how parts were delivered to the fitters who were to assemble them into revolvers, but “promiscuous heaps” is probably not a good description. They were most likely delivered in trays holding a set number of parts with those parts arranged in a set position. In the process that followed, the revolvers were assembled for the first time.
Thanks to his patent extension, Sam Colt had a significant lead on other revolver manufacturers at the start of the Civil War. At least in terms of his manufacturing process and tools, he had used the time exceptionally well and this was recognized by the Ordnance Department. In July 1861, BG Ripley, the Chief of Ordnance, wrote to John Taylor, the Sub-inspector in charge of inspection at one of Colt’s competitors, the Starr Arms Company, objecting to the time it was taking Mr. Taylor to complete the inspection. Mr. Taylor’s response was very informative regarding not only the problems at Starr but also the manufacturing processes used at that firm and at Colt.
“…The great trouble with the company is they were not as ready as they should have been. When I came here only 70 pistols were ready to prove and they in fact were not ready for they had to be improved before I could prove and inspect them. … Some of the delay has been caused by the labor it takes to assemble the arms after proof, so many parts being rejected. You can judge the complication of them when I inform you that they pay 25 cents to assemble them in a soft state while Colt pays only 3 1/2 cents for assembling his pistol. These have to be assembled after they are blued and hardened and Colts are only assembled once before inspection…”
In this letter, when Mr. Taylor referred to “assembling,” he was referring to the fitting of parts that was required rather than the act of simply putting the pistols together. Filing and adjusting of some parts was typically required in order to put together a complete, properly functioning pistol and this was first done with the parts in the soft (unfinished and not hardened) state. Note also that the pistols had to be ready for proof firing, meaning they had to be assembled and functional, and apparently many of these Starr pistols did not work satisfactorily since they had to be “improved” before they could be proved. Note also that for the Starr revolvers significant additional fitting was required after the metal parts were finished (during “hard fitting”). It would appear that, due to the quality of their manufacture and the simpler design, Colts did not have to be fitted again after finishing and hardening of the parts, or if they did the work was incidental. But one aspect of the process warrants some speculation.
In his testimony to the Select Committee of Parliament, Joseph Whitworth stated that the process of hardening parts made their perfect interchange impossible because iron always changed its shape during and after this process. Parts machined in the soft state were changed, even if only slightly, by hardening and afterwards the fit had to be restored. Regardless, as indicated in Mr. Taylor’s letter, the final assembly process for Colt was far easier than it was for Starr, although some fitting was still required.
“… It will move our special wonder in the assembling-room … to see how readily, after a slight touch with a file, and more often without any fitting, pieces taken at random from heaps of the same sort, fit into each other. … all the bits of the same name have been formed in the same die, or cast in the same mould, and measured with the same exactitude, by the self-same gauges. … This matter of interchange deserves the more notice, because it has been both exaggerated and underrated.
It is not easy to exaggerate the readiness of interchange in the parts of a musket. [On the other hand] … the members composing a pistol may each find in … its counterpart, some slight manipulations may be needed. [But] … orders come every day for some single piece – barrel, hammer, trigger, or lock frame – to replace one that has failed. Such orders are given, and filled out, with well-grounded confidence that the new-comer will at once find itself at home in its new position, though a thousand leagues away, and in an arm fabricated years ago.”