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colt guide

Everything About Colt Firearms

The idea behind the first Colt handguns was inspired more by sea spray and carved pine than by metal and gunpowder. Sixteen-year-old Samuel Colt, aboard the swaying deck of Corvo en route to Calcutta, was inspired by the wooden mechanics of the ship and translated that idea, a revolving cylinder repeater for firearms, into whittled pine.

Its success was not immediate.

However, this entrepreneurial and innovative young man, with all his initially failed attempts, would soon “win the West” with wartime tools and weapons, establishing a working model of the American industrial revolution that lives on these days through its civilian and military-grade firearms.

History Of Colt Handguns

history of colt

The first of all Colt handguns, the Colt Paterson revolver, was born in the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey, Colt’s Patent in 1836. It was a 5-shot revolver initially chambered in .28 caliber, later also in .36.

The first of all Colt firearms, however, was the Colt First Model Ring Lever rifle.

The Colt Paterson was flawed, not primarily because of design, but because of quality standards. The products initially made by the company had some failures, some successes, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Colt sought to implement interchangeable parts in production, but initially lacked the machinery to make reliable production a possibility. The New Jersey manufacturing plant, despite having some models in circulation with military outfits in the U.S. Marine Corps and Army, closed its doors in 1842.

Colt bided his time. He helped Samuel F.B. Morse with underwater electric cable, he worked on waterproof cloth cartridges and he designed underwater mines that would protect harbors.

He received another opportunity to produce one of his patents for a government contract during the Mexican-American war in 1846.

This resulted in the Colt Walker, a single-action six-round revolver in a powerful .44 caliber resulting from a collaboration between Captain Samuel H. Walker and Samuel Colt. Walker was a cavalry officer, and wanted a pistol powerful enough to knock a man off a horse or - failing that - knock down the horse.

At the time, Colt Manufacturing didn't exist. Walker contacted Samuel Colt due to Colt having invented the Paterson revolver, but wanted one with MOAH POWAHHH!!! and figured Samuel Colt would be the best man for the job. After the design was finished, the cash infusion from Walker's order let Colt revive the company, using the Whitney armory in Whitneyville, Connecticut.

Unfortunately, Walker's pistols weren't quite enough, as he was killed during the Battle of Huamantla about a year after he received them.

That model helped build on Colt’s understanding and expansion into mechanization and further cemented his interest in interchangeable parts made more efficient through mechanized processes. The Colt Dragoon, a large six-shot .44 caliber percussion revolver, was released in 1848 and found its way into civilian and military use, with three models that had subtle variations through 1850-1860.

Colt was able to build another business while coasting on this momentum. He opened Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford Connecticut by remodeling an empty textile mill into a gun factory, according to From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States.

In 1849, the popular Colt Model 1849 Pocket Revolver was pushed into production, a mirror of previous models — so much so that they gained the nickname “Colt’s Baby Dragoons,” according to the Standard Catalog of Colt Firearms. There were about 325,000 manufactured between 1850 to 1873 with 200 variations.

In 1851, Colt opened a plant in London, England and in 1855 he built another factory (Colt Armory) near the Connecticut River.

Soon came the Colt 1851 Navy, a largely produced six-shot, .36 caliber percussion revolver with a 7.5 inch barrel. About 215,000 were made in Hartford and 42,000 in London between 1850 and 1873, with beyond 100 variations coming about.

A few years later, their Colt 1855 Sidehammer (which had its hammer mounted on the right side of the frame), with its few subsequent models, was by and large a dud. Its production ceased, but its creeping loading lever designed by Elisha K. Root found its way into later models.

Colt’s involvement with the American Civil War resulted in large contracts, and in 1861 and 1862 alone the company sold 107,000 .44 caliber weapons to the U.S. War Department, according to Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters and Bizarre Events, with more being sold later on.

Colt passed in 1862 of rheumatic fever and Root soon took his place as president. Root passed in 1865 and the company was then passed onto Richard Jarvis, Colt’s brother-in-law.

Colt’s fortune (worth $15 million) and industrial facilities were left in care of his widow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt. A fire consumed the company in 1864, which left it unable to produce much until it was rebuilt.

Metallic cartridges were clearly the way of the future in the post-war period, but - at the time - the Rollin White patent on bored-through revolver cylinders meant no one could make them without paying a royalty to Smith and Wesson, who owned the patent. Cartridges, after all, require the entire length of the cylinder to be bored through to function. However, conversion pistols, which are cap and ball pistols modified so cartridges can be used, were fair game.

After the Rollin White patent expired, Colt offered a stop-gap model (the Colt Open Top) which were Colt Army and Colt Navy revolvers converted to use .44 Henry rimfire cartridges. However, they were already at work at ground-up cartridge designs, in small (the Colt House and New Line) and large-frame configurations. By 1872, they had entered their new large-frame pistol in Army trials and by 1873 had finalized the design of one of the most iconic pistols of all time: the Colt Single Action Army.

Also known as the Colt Peacemaker, 350,000 models of this .45 caliber were produced between 1873-1941. It was used by Buffalo Bill Cody and Teddy Roosevelt alike. The second generation Peacemakers were produced between 1956 to 1974, and the third generation were produced between 1976 and 1981, according to historical publication The Wild West. They are offered today in updated models in .45 colt, .357 mag and additional calibers through custom orders.

While the SAA would be Colt's bread and butter for several following decades, they were forward-thinking enough to recognize that double-action pistols were the next generation of handgun design. Their first model emerged in 1877 - the Colt Model 1877 or Colt Lightning, essentially a double-action SAA in .32, .38 and .41 caliber - followed by an improved model the next year, often called the Colt Alaskan or Colt Phillipine.

The Colt Lightning was notoriously delicate; even today, collectors are urged not to fire them. Colt radically changed their design, by creating the first swing-out cylinder for their Model 1889 revolver, a mid-frame design offered in .32, .38 and .41 Colt calibers. A revised model, the 1892 - also called the New Army and/or New Navy - followed, and was adopted as the US Army's new service pistol.

The M1892 didn't perform admirably in the field, as many troops resorted to stocks of .45-caliber SAA's during the campaign in the Philippines. However, Colt's acquisition of Winchester's top engineer would lead to the biggest developments in their history.

Automatic Colt Pistol

The first automatic Colt pistol emerged in 1900 as a test-bed design that sold in limited numbers.

The gun was the brainchild of John Moses Browning, without doubt the most brilliant designer of firearms to draw breath or sling lead. Browning had distinguished himself at Winchester, but with Colt, achieved what most would call his masterpiece.

The US Army made it clear that they wanted a pistol in .45 caliber after the war in the Philippines, and they - and Browning - knew that semi-automatic pistols were the future, as the first examples emerged in the 1890s.

Browning engineered a solid recoil-operated system, with a barrel held in place with a tilting link at the breech and a bushing at the muzzle, with a hammer-fired single-action firing mechanism. It was initially offered in .38 ACP (a hot .38-caliber round, broadly equivalent to 9mm) but the revised Model 1905 was chambered in the new .45 caliber round, .45 Automatic Colt Pistol or .45 ACP.

Several years of testing and development eventually culminated in the Thompson-Lagarde tests and the adoption of the model of 1910, put into production as the Model 1911.

Perfection was that day achieved.

However, that wasn't all Colt was up to. During that period, Browning also created the M1903 Pocket Hammer - essentially a compact version of the M1900 in .32 ACP - and it's revised model, the M1908 Pocket Hammerless, which had a shrouded hammer and offered in the new .380 ACP round. Browning moonlighted for Fabrique Nationale at the time, and a revised version of his striker-fired vest pocket pistol - the FN Model 1906 - went on sale as the Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket.

Oh! You thought GLOCK invented that? Not. Even. Close. The Glock vs 1911 debate is, oddly enough, just an argument over two John Browning designs. It's just that one is made with more modern materials and design appointments!

Another very successful early Colt pistol was the Colt Woodsman, a .22 LR target and woods pistol that was very highly regarded in its time. Production began in 1917 and ran until the 1970s.

Modern Colt Revolvers

However, Colt revolvers hadn't been abandoned, not by a long shot.

While John Browning was knee-deep in the 1911, Colt's other designers were hard at work creating the New Service, a full-frame revolver designed as a double-action replacement for the SAA. It was offered in .45 Colt (naturally) as well as .44-40, .44 Special, .38 Special and eventually in .357 Magnum.

The New Navy and New Army evolved into the civilan guise as the Colt New Police, eventually being redesgined in turn into the Police Positive, Police Positive Special and the Colt Official Police, with the latter being in production from 1927 to 1970.

In the era between the wars, an employee of Colt - John Henry Fitzgerald - became known for a modification to the New Service revolver. He took a .45 Colt New Service and cut the barrel down to 2 inches in length and reinstalled the front blade sight. He removed the front half of the trigger guard, rounded the butt and cut off the hammer spur. The resulting pistol, called a Fitz Special, was very rare as he only made a couple hundred at most, but the concept caught serious traction.

The rest of Colt thought it was a great idea, and in 1927, released a short-barrel, round-butt version of the Police Positive with a shortened ejector rod called the "Detective Special" and thus, the snub-nose revolver was born. It was joined in Colt's lineup in the 50s by the Cobra, made on the slightly larger I-frame architecture, but it's worth noting that Colt beat Smith and Wesson to the punch. The first J-frame wouldn't come out until 1950.

In the 1950s, Colt set about beefing up their medium-frame revolver architecture and created their I-frame, which - much like Smith and Wesson's L-frame - is designed for .357 Magnum rather than .38 Special. A target model - the Colt Officer's Model Match in .38 Special - was joined by a bull-barrel variant chambered for .357 Magnum, the Colt Trooper, along with the Colt .357 Magnum, a premium variant of the trooper.

A couple years later, the Colt Python - essentially a handmade version of the Trooper with a full underlug ejector shroud - joined the lineup, and is now one of the most sought-after collector pistols on the market. The Python to the Trooper is like a Colt custom shop 1911 vs a Colt Gold Cup 1911. The latter is still a highly refined pistol, but it wasn't handmade by a single smith, which the Python was.

The Trooper was eventually buttressed with the Colt Lawman, a budget version with little adornment for the law enforcement market. Colt also introduced the Diamondback, basically an aesthetic (though not mechanical) clone of the Python on Colt's D-frame, chambered in .22 LR or in .38 Special.

The Trooper was discontinued in the 1980s, replaced by the King Cobra. The King Cobra was also super-sized to create the Colt Anaconda, a large-frame double-action revolver built for .44 Magnum, which had never been offered by Colt in any capacity.

However, Colt was unable to sell enough of either. Sales of revolvers dwindled, leading to Colt shuttering their revolver division in the early 2000s.

Modern-Day Colt Handguns Have Had A Few Set Backs

colt 1911

There were some serious corporate struggles as well.

In the 1980s, Colt had several years of labor disputes, as their employees were organized under the United Auto Worker's union. (One of the biggest unions in existence, as it happens.) During that time, the contract for M16 rifles was lost to FN.

Colt guns had a bit of a hiccup in the 1990s. In 1990, Colt’s Manufacturing Company was purchased by the Connecticut state pension fund and investors backed by Creditstalt, according to a 1992 New York Times report.

The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1992, listing assets at $91.5 million and liabilities at $82.5 million.

By the early 2000s, Colt revolvers were completely abandoned. Poor sales doomed the King Cobra and Anaconda. All the smiths that could make Pythons were retired, retiring or dead. The SAA lived on through the custom shop, but that was it. Colt's defense concerns were spun off to a separate company - which eventually gained the contract to produce the M4 for the military - but by that point, Colt's civilian arm had lost too much marketshare to Bushmaster and others.

Colt did win a contract to supply a modernized 1911 to SOCOM (the Close Quarters Battle Pistol) but it didn't last long; the CQBP has been dropped completely.

In 2015, Colt filed for bankruptcy a second time. The company exited its second bankruptcy in January of 2016, having reduced its debt by $200 million and seeking to better serve its consumers by splitting its focus between government and commercial business.

This brief history is by no means a complete account of every model released by the company and every product category. Entire books have been written about the company and all it has to offer.

Beyond the brief list of handguns listed here, there are modern options the company currently offers.

Current Colt Revolvers And Pistols For Everyday Carry

colts for ccw
There are three available categories of Colt revolvers and 14 categories of their pistols.

The revolvers are as much a nod to the past as they are a culmination of modern-day technology:

  • Cobra: An option for concealed carry, this double-action revolver is chambered in .38 special and can take +P ammunition. It has fiber optic front sights and a 2” barrel. It has a listed 7-9 lbs DA and 3-4 lbs SA trigger weight
  • King Cobra: the King Cobra has been resurrected, as a 3-inch variant of the modern Cobra with a full underlug and chambered for .357 Magnum. 2-inch and 4.25-inch barrel models can be had too.
  • Single Action Army: The classic 1873 model is still on the table in .45 Colt and .357 Magnum. It comes with three barrel lengths: 4.75, 5.5 and 7.5 inches at 10.25, 11 and 13 inches in overall length, respectively. There are three finishes, and it has the second generation style cylinder bushing.
  • New Frontier: The New Frontier is a throwback to an iteration of the Single Action Army produced from 1890 to 1989. It has a blade front sight and an adjustable rear sight. It’s chambered in both .44 special and .45 Colt with the same barrel lengths as the Single Action Army listed above.

Colt offers an array of 1911 full size and compact pistols for duty, civilian use and competition:

  • 1991 Series: An update to the original Colt M1911, it has the same flat mainspring housing, recoil spring system and long trigger. However, it now has white dot sights and a lowered ejection port. It comes with two finishes, and is chambered in .45 ACP with a 7+1 capacity. It has an overall length of 8.5 inches and height of 5.5 inches. Its trigger weight is 4.5 - 6 lbs.
  • Series 70 Government Model: In .45 ACP with a 7+1 capacity, this model harkens back to the Government Models from previous global conflicts. It has the Series 70 firing system, an arched steel mainspring housing, short steel trigger and spur hammer. It has the same dimensions and trigger weight as the 1991 Series.
  • Stainless Steel Colt Competition Pistol: This model comes in .45 ACP (8+1 capacity), 9mm (9+1 capacity) and .38 super (9+1 capacity). It’s 8.5 inches in length, 5.5 inches in height and 1.25 inches in width (just like the previous two). The barrel is 5 inches. The trigger weight is 4.5-6lbs and its trigger action is single action hammer fired. It has red fiber optic front sights.
  • Gold Cup Series: Another competition pistol in .45 ACP (8+1 capacity) and 9mm (9+1 capacity), it sports 25 LPI checkering on the front and back strap, a beveled magazine, competition ergonomics, adjustable rear sights and the blue competition grips. Its dimensions are the same as the previously mentioned pistols, but its trigger weight is 4-6 lbs. Unloaded, it’s 38 oz. It also has red fiber optic front sights.
  • .380 Mustang: Another concealed carry option, the Colt .380 Mustang Pocketlite and Lite models both come in .380 ACP and are 5.5 inches in total length, 3.9 inches in height and 1.06 inches in width. Each model’s capacity is 6+1 and their single action hammer fired trigger system has a trigger weight of 4.5-6 lbs. The Lite model is 11.5 oz. unloaded, has a polymer frame and has dovetailed front and rear sights. It comes with 1 magazine, a cable lock, instruction manual and soft case. The Pocketlite model is 12.5 oz. unloaded, has an aluminum alloy frame, is finished with a Cerakote matte stainless coating and it comes with all the same accessories, but with two magazines instead of one.
  • Defender Series: This series, chambered in 9mm (8+1) and .45 ACP (7+1), is a compact 1911 model with a 3 inch barrel at an overall length of 6.75 inches, 5.125 inches in height and width of 1.25 inches. It’s single action hammer fired and has a trigger weight of 4.5-6 lbs. It weighs 24 oz. unloaded, comes with 2 magazines and the .45 ACP model comes in either stainless steel or black matte while the 9mm is offered in black matte.
  • Combat Commander: Another 1911 model, but with a shorter profile (7.75 inches in length with a 4.25 inch barrel, but with the same 5.5 inch height and 1.25 inch width) than the Government Model, it has a Dual Spring Recoil System and comes in .45 ACP (8+1) or 9mm (9+1).
  • Lightweight Commander: This has many of the same features and calibers as the Combat Commander series, but its unloaded weight is 29.4 oz. as opposed to the Combat Commander’s 33 oz.
  • Rail Gun: 8.5 inches long, 5.5 inches high, 1.25 inches wide, a trigger weight at 4.5 - 6 lbs., a single action hammer fired trigger action, chambered in 9mm (9+1) and .45 ACP (8+1), with Novak sights, extended thumb safety, upswept beavertail grip safety, Series 80 firing pin safety — this 1911 model features many of the standard fare specifications, but includes a M1913 Spec picatinny rail and also features that Dual Recoil Spring System.
  • M45A1: This model was chosen by the United States Marine Corps. It is essentially the previously described Colt Rail Gun, but has an ambidextrous safety lock, Brown Decobond stainless steel receiver and slide, enhanced hammer and flat, serrated mainspring housing with a lanyard loop.
  • Colt Combat Unit Rail Gun: Again, the same as the Rail Gun, but with Novak Tritium front sights, 25 LPI front strap checkering, black finish and custom gray Colt Logo G10 grips.
  • Delta Elite: This is the Government Model in 10mm (8+1 capacity). It has Novak sights, a wide slide serration, lowered ejection port and all the previously mentioned dimensions (8.5” long, 5.5” in height, 1.25” wide with a trigger weight at 4.5-6 lbs.).
  • Combat Elite: Its receiver, slide, barrel and slide stop are all made of forged steel. In .45 ACP with a capacity of 8+1, it’s 8.5 inches in length, 5.5 inches in height and 1.25 inches wide. It has an extended thumb safety, upswept beavertail grip safety and Series 80 firing pin safety. It has half checkered, half smooth rosewood grips and a single action hammer fired trigger action with a trigger weight of 4.5 - 6 lbs.
  • Special Combat Government: This series has a four finishes in .45 ACP (with a capacity of 8 rounds) and two finishes in 9mm (with a 9-round capacity). Its dimensions are similar to the previously listed Combat Elite. It weighs between 38 to 39.5 oz. depending on the finish.
gun blog writer jake smith

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter in his final year of studying public relations and apparel at the University of Idaho.