The Colt Revolver was not the only multi-shot pistol on the market in its time. At first the Colt Revolver was dominated in the market by its competitors. The main competitor of the Colt was the Allen and Thurber pepperbox. In this section I will go over the advantages and disadvantages of the pepperbox as well as explain why Colt’s pistol won out overall.
Ethan Allen was a cutlery manufacturer in Massachusetts before he became a producer of pistols. He began making firearms in 1832 and in 1838 began producing his now famous pepperboxes. The pepperbox was similar to the colt in that it was a revolver and could hold multiple shots. It differed however in how it held those rounds. The pepperbox used a group of barrels, between four and six, to hold its charges instead of a cylinder like Colts. Additionally, Allen included a unique feature with his pistol, known as a double action. A double action essentially allows the user to cock and fire the gun by only pulling on the trigger, instead of having to cock the hammer manually before firing. This allowed for much faster firing, as well as one handed firing in case of emergency. The Allen pepperbox held several advantages over the Colt Revolver. The Allen fired faster, had the patented double action, was dependable, did not suffer from powder fouling as Colt’s did, and were much cheaper. On the other hand though, the pepperbox was a smooth bore gun, meaning it did not have a rifled barrel, unlike the Colt. This made it far less accurate. Also, the heavy barrel weight and shift of weight when rotating the barrels added to the accuracy problems of the pepperbox. Additionally, the Allen was not made in high calibers, preventing its use in the military. Finally, the pepperbox was easily and widely copied, and once the patent ran out on the double action the flood gates opened with many companies’ blatantly copy the Allen pepperbox, or worse, inventing newer and better versions like the Blunt and Syms company.
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The Colt Revolver ended up being the dominate pistol in the American West for several key reasons. First and foremost reason for this was the Colt’s ability to deliver high caliber rounds quickly and accurately. The need for high caliber weapons on the frontier was great, and pepperboxes were unable to support heavy loads like the Colt could. Additionally, the military required an accurate weapon, which the rifled barrel of the Colt delivered. The final point that tips the scale to the Colt is Samuel Colt himself. Samuel Colt was a tireless promoter, having show rooms in New York and engraving patriotic or historic scenes on the sides of his guns. Additionally, Colt was very clever in that he gave military officers in all branches heavily customized and valuable versions of his guns, which not only ingratiated him with the military, it put his guns into use by the officers, who would grow used to them and desire them for the rest of the armed forces. With this combination of advantages and promotion, the Colt won out over the other pistols produced at that time.
Military contracts and excellent promotion won the west for the Colt Revolver. Although the Allen pepperbox gave Colt some early competition, it was never able to remove the association in people’s minds between the words Colt and revolver. Due to the superior accuracy and load capacity of the Colt Revolver, as well as Sam Colt’s own ingenious marketing, the Colt Revolver became the dominant pistol used and bought in America in the mid 1800’s.
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Louis A. Garavaglia and Charles G. Worman, Firearms of the American West : 1803-1865, (Albuquerque New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press, 1984) 97
Charles G. Worman, Firearms in American History, (Yardley Pennsylvania, Westholme Publishing LLC, 2007) 57