The Colt Revolver is a distinctly American weapon that led the way for all repeating pistols to follow. However, like most artifacts, the Colt Revolver has its own antecedents and influences from which it is descended. The most important of these antecedents are the percussion cap and the Collier pistol. Without these two inventions, there would not have been any repeating pistols, let alone the Colt Revolver.
Prior to the invention of the percussion cap, rifles and pistols were discharged by igniting a small amount of gunpowder with a spark made from flint striking the metal by the powder. The flint was delivered by way of a hammer that was released from a spring when the operator pulled the trigger. The primary problem with this method was that there was a delay from when the spark hit the powder, to when the powder burned a trail to the main powder charge behind the bullet. This delay could prove costly to hunters and soldiers alike. Due to this, Reverend Alexander John Forsyth of Scotland began experimenting with fulminates as a source of primary ignition for firearms in 1807. Forsyth developed bottles filled with fulminate powder which he could attach to his guns and use in place of the small powder charge traditionally used. Later, Forsyth helped develop the precursor for the percussion cap, the patch lock. The patch lock was a small amount of fulminate powder fixed between two pieces of paper. This development helped lead to the percussion cap, which was invented in 1817, most likely by Joshua Shaw. Shaw’s claim was contested by Durs Egg and Prelat, but these claims are mainly discredited due to Shaw’s public demonstrations of the cap when he first developed it. It took several more years for the percussion cap to be perfected, and even longer for militaries to adopt it, but by the middle of the 1840’s, the percussion cap was in use by most of the dominant countries of the time. The importance of the percussion cap to the Colt Revolver is that it allowed for the containment of the bullet, powder charge, and source of ignition all within a firearm, while previously, the ignition source had been contained outside and separate from the other essential parts.
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The second key antecedent to the Colt Revolver was the Collier Pistol. The Collier Pistol was one of the very first revolving pistols. It was invented in 1818 by Eilsha H. Collier, and American engineer. The Collier Pistol relied upon a spiraled spring which would turn a circular magazine (which could be made to hold four, five, or even eight rounds) when the pistol was cocked. Additionally, the pistol used two more springs in order to push the magazine against the chamber for firing, and to pull it back and allow rotation when cocking. As well as rotating the magazine, the springs helped to form a close fitting seal from the magazine to the barrel, preventing excess loss of gas (and thus power) when fired. Unfortunately for Mr. Collier, his invention was denied when submitted to the British army, and he eventually gave up on the project. In regards to the Colt Revolver, the Collier Pistol showed the possibility of a multi-shot weapon and revealed a hole in the market, which Samuel Colt eventually exploited and filled. Also, the excessive complicity of the Collier served as a warning to other pistol makers to keep there designs simple, since that was the primary reason the Collier was rejected for the British military contract.
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The Colt Revolver was not the first revolver ever invented. It would not even be possible to make one without the prior inventions of several individuals. Both the percussion cap and the Collier Pistol serve as the two most important antecedents to the Colt Revolver due to their impact upon the gun making market as a whole, and in regards to the fact that without them, the Colt Revolver could not have been made.
Charles G. Worman, Firearms in American History, (Yardley Pennsylvania, Westholme Publishing LLC, 2007) 7
Jeff Kinard, Weapons and Warfare: an Illustrated History of Their Impact: Pistols, (Santa Barbara California, ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2003) 49-51
Kinard, Weapons and Warfare, 51