Sam Colt went to London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 to display his new guns and to show off what he had accomplished in the world of manufacturing. After all, this was the “Great Exhibition for the Industries of All Nations,” and he wanted to make a big impression.
Englishmen were amazed at the rapidity of production by all of the American exhibitors, but Colt employed his flair for the dramatic and really stole the show. (This should come as no surprise from the man who used to call himself “Dr. Coult” and give demonstrations on laughing gas.)
The biggest selling point for Colt’s revolvers was their mass production and interchangeable parts. Both of these concepts were relatively new and a display of their implementation was most intriguing. To prep the crowd for what they were about to see, Colt set out nine of his 1851 Navy revolvers on a table. The guns were then completely stripped down to their most basic components. Colt had some people from the gathering crowd come up and inspect the guns for any identifying marks that would link the pieces to any specific gun. (Even though the guns had serial numbers, this would only help on a few of the myriad parts on the table.)
Making a big show of it, Colt produced a giant sack and swept all of the pieces off of the table and into it. Next, everything was shook up to ensure it was in a big jumble. The sack’s contents were then dumped onto the table in a big heap where Colt’s associates were waiting to get to work.
As Sam talked about his gun’s design and the ingenuity of his mass-production manufacturing techniques, his workmen stood behind the table grabbing parts with great speed and reassembling the nine revolvers, regardless of which gun they had initially originated.
When Colt was done talking, he demonstrated that his men had taken a giant pile of parts and reassembled them into nine completely functional revolvers. The result was astonishing. No one had seen this done before and Colt’s demonstration proved that it was possible, not just with guns but with almost anything you wanted to manufacture.
Britain’s House of Commons wasn’t completely convinced that his guns were machine-made, so they had Colt testify to that fact in front of one of their committees. Ever the showman, he not only swore that the guns were machine-made, he even told them that they were made “much cheaper” (in terms of cost, not quality) than their handmade counterparts.
Even though Colt’s exhibition only won an “Honourable Mention,” the results of his display would be far-reaching. Colt proved that mass production on assembly lines could produce a quality product for less money.
As such, factories in all kinds of industries embraced this new American system of manufacturing. Most notable would be Henry Ford and his automobile factories in Michigan.
It is with this concept that I extrapolate Sam Colt’s influence upon World War II and victory by the United States and our Allies. Because the American system of manufacturing had been in place for decades in the United States, we had figured out how to streamline the production process in every type of factory we had.
It’s how Remington produced 60 billion rounds of ammo.
It’s how Winchester produced 15 billion rounds of ammo.
It’s how General Motors produced $12 billion worth of airplanes, tanks, trucks, guns, and ammo – more than any other Allied producer.
It’s how Ford produced more than 275,000 Willys jeeps.
It’s how we, as a nation, produced more than 6.2 million M1 carbines.
Victory in World War II was possible because the Allied troops were able to outperform their enemies in combat. This was because Allied troops were better supplied than their counterparts.
Allied troops were better supplied because American factories, and those of our allies, had embraced this new system of manufacturing. It allowed them to adapt from peacetime to wartime production with great speed and ease. This, in turn, allowed our troops to overwhelm our enemies on the field of battle.
Allied victory in World War II was possible because Sam Colt stripped nine 1851 Navy revolvers, shook them up in a sack, and then dumped them on a table in London.
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.