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By T. Logan Metesh

Patent infringement is an age-old problem, and the firearms industry is not immune to its troubles.

One of the most important design breakthroughs in terms of handgun development was the bored-through cylinder. In 1849, while working for Colt, a man named Rollin White took parts from condemned guns and began experimenting with their cylinder design. Patented in April 1855, his new design allowed self-contained metallic cartridges to be inserted and extracted with ease from the rear of the cylinder. Since Sam Colt’s cap-and-ball revolvers still reigned supreme (at least until the patent expired a year later in 1856), this was quite the new development, both in terms of arms and ammunition.

White left Colt within a year and licensed his patent to Smith & Wesson. They came to an agreement that paid White 25 cents (almost $7 today) for each revolver they sold using his design. With the country involved in a civil war and seeing that there would be an increased need for arms, White opened “Rollin White Arms Company” about 100 miles from Smith & Wesson. There, he made revolvers under his patent and sold most of them to S&W to keep up with demand. By 1864, he had sold the business to Lowell Arms Company. They began making unlicensed guns using his design, which infringed on his patent, and he sued them.

This began a long process of litigation between White and S&W that involved lawsuits against a large number of small gun manufacturers. Most of the time, White and S&W won the cases. Sometimes the offending company was forced to pay royalties; other times, they were bought out and the guns were re-marked with White’s patent info before being sold.

Recognizing that his bored-through design was going to be the way of the future, Rollin White offered to sell his design in 1867 to Colt’s company; his sale price of $1,000,000 (or $15.4M today) was rejected.

One of the key pieces of brilliance on Smith & Wesson’s part in their royalty agreement with Rollin White was that he was responsible for paying his own court costs when it came to defending his patent. So even though S&W was paying White for each revolver they made, most of his royalties were tied up in court fees.

When he was denied a patent extension in 1870, he decided to petition Congress on the grounds that he hadn’t been fairly compensated by S&W under the agreement he signed. It is estimated that S&W had made the modern equivalent of $17.5M from White’s design and that they had only paid him the modern equivalent of $1.2M in royalties.

White’s petition passed in both houses of Congress, but was vetoed by President (and former Civil War general) Ulysses S. Grant. One of the reasons he cited was from Chief of Ordnance Alexander Dyer, who called White’s patent an “inconvenience and embarrassment” to the military because it prevented manufacturers from creating revolvers with his innovative design during a time of war.

Even though Rollin White had a great design that we still use today in revolvers, his bad business deal with Smith & Wesson led to his financial ruin. He gave up on recouping his losses through Congress in 1877 and he died in 1892.

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28 Responses to A Design That Stands the Test of Time: Rollin White and His Bored-Through Cylinder

  1. So the moral of the story is just because you’re an amazing engineer/inventor does not mean you are also a sensible business man? Fascinating

  2. White is not the only one to make a bad business deal. S&W made a lot of money selling .22 and .32 caliber revolvers during the war. But at a time when their leading competitors were selling .44 caliber cap and ball sidearms to the .gov S&W could have cornered the market had they simply taken the effort to come up with a heavier caliber breech loader.

    How long would Colt and Remington have been able to compete in a market with a S&W breech loader chambered in .44 Henry rimfire?

  3. Thing about it is, from Switzerland to Finland, there isn’t a country in the world in which he would have been less screwed. The only reason Robert Kearn’s story is even notable is because he sort of won.

    • This is a risk no matter what you do. In this case the patent holder basically wasted all his time chasing lawsuits when he could have been making and selling an excellent revolver.

      And that is what a business adviser told me with respect to my business: make an outstanding product at a really competitive price and sell the living snot out of it … and don’t bother pursuing lawsuits unless there is some really BIG money to be had in a lawsuit. Why? Pursuing lawsuits costs a HUGE amount of your own time (that you are not devoting to making and selling your product) and they cost a lot of money (that you are not investing in making and selling your product). In other words, beat your competitors in business, not in court.

  4. Bored-through cylinder?!?!? Like taking a Chevy 350 small block and boring it out to 355?

    Oh, the cylinder of a revolver. The name of this site is The Truth about Guns after all!

    • Breech loading a self contained cartridge as opposed to loading from the front with loose powder and lead and then putting a percussion cap on the nipple.

      Some tried to get around the patent by making a self contained round that loaded from the front, but it wasn’t much of a success.

      Pinfire revolvers were also breech loaders but they were a european thing that were never all that successful in this country.

      • There was a period of maybe 10-15 years when the conversions were reasonably popular as cheaper alternatives to conventional cartridge revolvers. Some conversions like the Thuer were fussy, others like the Richards were more user friendly and hence more popular.

        • Yep. Conversions were a real thing for a while. A factory new revolver could cost from 7-30 dollars depending on make and model. Disposable pocket pistols could be had for less, but they really lacked performance.

          You could convert your proven Colt or Remington service revolver to cartridges for about a dollar. Made sense.

    • each chamber had a small threaded hole for a nipple that held the percussion cap. it was not bored all the way thru.

      His design is what all modern revolvers use today.

    • A cap-and-ball cylinder is bored from the front, only part way to the rear of the cylinder; a much smaller hole is then bored from the rear of the cylinder to allow the flame from the percussion cap to ignite the powder. This technique is similar to the way that (single-shot) cap-and-ball rifles and muskets were made.

      • thanks for the technical description. having just finished Blood Meridian, i was wondering about those old Colt revolvers used by the kid and Glanton’s gang.

    • The back end of each of the cylinder’s chambers had only a small hole over which a percussion cap fit. Loading the six chambers was very similar to loading six muzzle loading muskets.

      With the bored-through cylinder, the cap and the hole for it are gone, replaced by the brass cartridge shell with a primer hole and seated primer.

      HTH

    • Ian of Forgotten Weapons describes how the White patent was supposed to work, and that the bored through cylinder was only a feature integral to the design, which was not intended for metallic cartridges, but his patent prevented the same feature from being used legally for metallic cartridges for the duration of the patent.
      https://youtu.be/FYVJisJyaNA?t=1m2s
      Ian also references the patent in several videos of firearms that had violated the patent at the time of manufacture. Naturally, as others have referenced, the dominant design prior to bored-through cylinders and metallic cartridges were cap and ball revolvers.

    • Presumably the author intended to say that he tried to sell his design to “Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” rather than to Sam his own self.

    • Thanks for catching my typo. It should have said he offered to sell it to Colt’s company, not Sam Colt himself.

  5. The thing that people today should know about the “gun patent wars” of the 19th century is this:

    The fortunes that were to be made in the gun business were huge in the 19th century. Many men made large boatloads of money in guns and gun patents. Today, we hear of Silicon Valley dot-com millionaires – in the 19th century, unless you were in some part of the industrialization of agriculture, you were going to make money in machining, machine tools and guns. It was a very fertile industry in the US, and gunmaking grew up side-by-side with machine tools. There was big money in guns in America, the UK, Germany and Belgium in the 19th century.

  6. Rollin White’s design had nothing to do with metal cartridges. The design was also terrible, certainly not “A Design That Stands the Test of Time”. The Colt company saw it as such and rejected it.

    It just so happened that the design included a bored-through cylinder, so later when Dan Wesson tried to patent his design of a cartridge revolver with a bored-through cylinder, he was told it conflicts with the Rollin White patent. So he went to Rollin White and bought his patent.

    This video was already linked before, but here goes again:
    https://youtu.be/FYVJisJyaNA

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