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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.

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  1. Do I recall correctly that there were more Colt New Service revolvers built for U.S. and Allies than 1911’s and 1873’s (perhaps combined)?

    Cadillac also did the interchangeable parts proof; a fruit basket turnover to 3 (?) completed cars.

    That’d be like the astounding debut of a gas plasma rifle (40 watt range) at the 2017 SHOT Show.

  2. The fact our factories were not bombed had more to do with turning the tide than anything. We fought over there not here, a point liberals can’t comprehend.

    • There is no “one thing” that one the war…other than the US…the USSR would argue that but…

      The fact that the fighting took place thousands of miles away from the mainland US was pivotal to the Allies success. Not to mention the US was virtually self sustainable for raw materials at the time made all the difference. Factories could churn 24/7 without disruption, railroads could operate without having to constantly repair infrastructure, and the workforce wasn’t being killed off by the USAAF during the day and RAF at night.

      • Yes, but you only have to go a short distance from our coast and take a dive to see with your own eyes that the war was a lot closer than most think. While towards the end of the war the U-boats weren’t the threat they were, they still did a considerable amount of damage to the war effort, not only in tonnage sunk, but mostly in the fear they caused.

      • The “one thing” was the lend lease program. FDR, for all his faults domestically, kept us in the war before we were in the war. If we hadn’t kept Great Britain supplied and fighting, the Germans would have won the battle of Britain. Had they been able to focus their efforts on the USSR, they would have won. Heck, they almost did anyway.

  3. Yes, but Germany had developed a very substantial war machine not only in military terms, but in manufacturing ones. They were able to out produce most of Europe by that time. But, one of the key aspects of allied victory was the US/British air campaign which pummeled the German war effort, and sustained enourmous casailties in doing so. I totally disagree with many modern historians assumption that Germany was unable to win from the get go. That’s bull. If they would’ve won the Battle of Britain that war would’ve been very different. Never has so much been owed to so very few.

    • Achieving air superiority they may have been able to do; crossing the Channel under fire while carrying troops, tanks and supplies in dinghies that were not designed for that (even the US acquired that capability only in 1944) would have been something else entirely.

    • There are always a lot of “ifs.” If Germany had successfully invaded England, there might never have been D-Day, as there would have been no place from which to launch it. If Germany had not shifted its bombing of England from infrastructure, airfields and manufacturing to terror raids on London and other populated areas, it might have won the battle of Britain. If Germany had not so horribly failed in Operation Barbarosa, then it would have had the oil it needed to sustain its war machine. Lots of ifs, but it didn’t happen that way.

  4. John Hall was mass producing interchangeable M1819 rifle parts at Harper’s Ferry Arsenal in 1825. Originally saw that in “American Rifle” by Alexander Rose.

  5. Interesting article. Yes mass production is key. For good and bad(as I’m typing on a mass produced smart phone that cannot be made in America…)

  6. This is a stretch. We put produced everybody because of our organizational skills not because Colt invented mass production.

  7. We won because Hitler made a number of mistakes. Germany had multiple chances to win.

    Battle of Britain, Battle of Stalingrad, Battle in the Pacific, etc.

    Had he just won one of those, the war would very likely ended differently.

    • Actually, no. Germany had a chance to cause more pain and more destruction, but never did they have a chance to win against the Allies – not in manpower, not in resources, not in technological advancement – no chance.

  8. Draw a line on the map from Pittsburgh to Detroit and another set of lines parallel to the first about 100 miles away. World War 2 was won within that zone. The Germans said that the three greatest American generals were General Electric, General Mills and General Motors.

    The British military historian John Keegan grew up during WW2. He said that when he saw the American troops arrive in Britain with Colt pistols and Winchester rifles he knew that everything was going to work out, because that was what the good guys carried.

  9. Eli Whitney developed interchangeable parts for muskets/rifles well before this. Invention builds on previous invention. The Germans were also industrialists. Diesel engines. Virtually all early uses of organic chemistry. Application of the jet and rocket engine. Etc. We won because of the bombings, Hitler’s mistakes, and I would strongly argue, our immense at the time industrial capacity that was too far away for the Germans to bomb. Thus we armed the Brits and the Soviets as well as ourselves. This industrial capacity is what we have sacrificed to China and elsewhere in the name of globalism. It will be our downfall if not turned around. Please vote for Trump.

    • We didn’t sacrifice it in the name of globalism.

      We sacrificed it in the name of union endorsements.

      Don’t worry, I’m still voting for Trump, despite his isolationist philosophy that can do nothing but isolate us.

    • Important to also realize that the Germans built a lot of machinery (weapons) that were grossly over-engineered. Small fiddly bits requiring insane levels of precision is not a good way to win a war.

  10. Americans had mass production and a practical, business mans eye for what was needed. Americans mass produced M2 BMG’s and used them everywhere. Bombers had them for defense and fighters had them for offense. They were on vehicles and large and small vessels.

    By contrast, the germans that had not our production ability were arming fighters with 3 different gun types using different ammo. One varient of the fw 190 fighter had 12.7mm, 20mm, and 30mm on the same machine.

    Germans were, at best, delusional about how that war was going to end.

  11. Lots of reasons that the Axis lost of which Italy and Japan were also charter members.

    One important reason was logistics and transportation, the U.S. and by default our allies embraced wheeled vehicles in lieu of the horse’s hoof. The speed and economy greatly enhanced the tip of the spear both on the western front (GMC 2.5 ton CCKW) and the eastern front (Studebaker 2.5 ton US6). The axis used the horse or hu mn an transport to the very end.


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