Patent infringement is an age-old problem and the firearms industry is not immune to it.
One of the most important design breakthroughs in terms of handgun development was the bored-through revolver 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 the 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 White sued them.
This began a long process of litigation between White and Smith & Wesson 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 legal 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 Smith & Wesson under the agreement he signed. It is estimated that Smith had made the modern equivalent of $17.5 million from White’s design and that they had only paid him the modern equivalent of $1.2 million 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 Grant 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 to this day 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 died in 1892.
Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC. Click here for a free 3-page download with tips about caring for your antique and collectible firearms.