Big Guns

The story of the Colt Walker handgun.
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Credit: Autry National Center Colt Walker: 1847; Serial Number 1004

Credit: Autry National Center Colt Walker: 1847; Serial Number 1004

Texas Ranger Capt. Samuel Hamilton Walker and gun manufacturer Samuel Colt were truly opposites. One was successful and the other was a failure. One was famous the country over, and the other was still trying to make a name for himself. And the gun they made together—one of most celebrated firearms the world has ever known—would spell doom for one man and rejuvenate the life of the other. 

Despite their differences, Walker and Colt worked together to produce a six-shot percussion revolver that would make its mark on history—not just Texas’s, but the world’s.

The impact of the Colt Walker was truly felt far and wide. It gave the Texas Rangers superiority over their adversaries and helped the United States win the Mexican-American War, which would impact the trajectory of each combatant for decades to come; as the product of an early attempt at mass production, it helped vault the United States into the Industrial Revolution; and it was a gun that would change firearm design forever.

“This was the gun that proved the effectiveness of Colt’s revolving cylinder design,” says Jeffrey Richardson, the Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. “It was the first gun that Sam Colt produced that was accepted by the U.S. military and was used by the U.S. military. After it came out, there was no question as to whether this new weapon would be effective—not only on the American frontier, but around the world.”

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Credit: Library of Congress Samuel Colt's innovations and entrepreneurial endeavors had lasting impacts on both the gun and the manufacturing industries.

Credit: Library of Congress Samuel Colt's innovations and entrepreneurial endeavors had lasting impacts on both the gun and the manufacturing industries.

But back in 1846, when the two men designed the gun, neither Walker nor Colt could imagine the profound impact of their creation, and they could not have been in more disparate circumstances. Walker, who was very famous for his exploits in Mexico and on the frontier, was at the height of his career and fame. Colt, meanwhile, was an inventor and businessman who had lost control of his first firearm manufacturing company and found himself at one of the lowest points of his life. 

Desperate to revive his business, Colt wrote a letter to Walker (who had acquired some of the very first Colt revolvers), asking the Ranger to vouch for the worth of the gun. 

“I hope you will favour me with a minute detail of all occasions where you have used & seen my arms used with a success which could not have been realized with arms of ordinary construction,” Colt probed. 

Walker had become acquainted with Colt’s guns during his fighting career. In 1842, Walker had traveled to Texas and helped fight off a Mexican invasion. Soon after, he was captured by Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna’s forces after a fight in Ciudad Mier, Mexico. As a prisoner, Walker was part of the infamous Black Bean episode where Rangers and Texans were forced to select a bean out of a jar. Those who drew black were executed. Walker’s bean—as well as several other beans of well-known rangers, including W. A. A. “Bigfoot” Wallace—was the color of angels. 

After the experience, Walker formally joined the Texas Rangers and eventually rose to captain. He also gained the nickname “Mad” Walker for his ferocious behavior in battle and a festering obsession with taking revenge against Santa Anna. Instead of Mexico, though, Walker’s time in the Rangers would be served under John Coffee “Jack” Hays—one of the most revered Rangers of all—on the frontier fighting Indians. For the next two years, Walker fought Comanches and often sustained injuries in battle—even taking a Comanche lance to the body that required several months’ recovery in San Antonio. For his multiple injuries, Walker also obtained the moniker “Unlucky” Walker. It was during these Indian skirmishes that Walker gained his first exposure to a Colt handgun. Hays, Walker, and their small company of men successfully used Patersons, which was Colt’s first production gun, to beat a band of Comanche Indians at the Battle of Walker’s Creek in 1844. The Colt Paterson was a five-shot revolver that fired a .36-caliber round with a retractable trigger, and was named after the location of Colt’s first factory in New Jersey.

As a result of his favorable experience with Colt firearms, Walker was only too happy to oblige the struggling gun maker. 

“In the Summer of 1844, Col. J.C. Hays with 15 men fought about 80 Comanche Indians, boldly attacking them upon their own ground, killing and wounding about half their number,” Walker wrote. “Up to this time these daring Indians had always supposed themselves superior to us, man to man, on horse—at that time they were threatening a descent upon our Frontier Settlements—the result of this engagement was such as to intimidate them and enable us to treat with them. Several other Skirmishes have been equally satisfactory, and I can safely say that you deserve a large share of the credit for our success. Without your pistols we would not have had the confidence to have undertaken such daring adventures.” 

Colt, however, wasn’t only looking for affirmation. He was looking to leverage Walker’s endorsement and his great popularity for an ulterior motive: obtaining another government contract. Without one, Colt’s Paterson operation had failed in 1842. Over the next few years, the company fell into receivership, while Colt dabbled in a number of other enterprises—including telegraphs and submersible mines—but he remained eager to get back into the gun trade.

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Credit: Hartford, Connecticut Historical Society Museum Battle of Monterrey, Mexican-American War

Credit: Hartford, Connecticut Historical Society Museum Battle of Monterrey, Mexican-American War

By the time Walker came back from the frontier in the early 1840s, tensions with Mexico had flared up once again. At the beginning of the Mexican-American war, Walker commanded a company of Texas Rangers and fought under Gen. Zachary Taylor. Walker’s feats on the battlefield were subsequently published in the penny press of the day, which made him a legend across the nation. Though he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel under Hays in the Rangers, Walker was tasked by the Army to raise up a company of troops that would become known as the Mounted Rifles. Walker was given the resources to recruit men and procure uniforms, horses, supplies, and guns—Colt’s guns. To outfit his company, Walker traveled back East and met with Colt in late 1846. The two men huddled together in New York exchanging notes—the only time they ever met face to face. 

Working off Colt’s Paterson design, Walker made recommendations for a new gun. He wanted six shots and effectiveness out to 100 yards. He wanted a bigger round than the common .36-caliber, so they upped the lead to .44-caliber. Walker also wanted a fixed trigger and a loading lever instead of a ramrod. He even recommended the kind of sights the gun should have. Walker also wanted to outfit each of his men with two of the new guns. Colt agreed to Walker’s suggestions, and encouraged him to visit President James K. Polk to secure an order. 

“[The gun] was a force multiplier,” says Philip Schreier, a senior curator at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. “Five hundred guys armed with two revolvers firing 12 rounds. That beats 500 guys with one pistol and one shot … Everybody in the world had a single-shot muzzleloading gun. You fire it and you have to take 20 seconds to reload. If he’s got one guy who can fire 12 shots, that guy is going to dominate the battlefield. If you have 500 of them, that’s a huge advantage. Every other army in the world was trying to fire three times in one minute.”

There was only one problem: Colt didn’t have a factory. In fact, Colt didn’t have much of anything after the Paterson factory went belly up, even describing himself in a letter earlier that year as being “poor as a church mouse.” Undaunted by his inability to actually produce the weapons Walker needed, Colt dashed off a letter to Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the cotton gin’s inventor, who had the space and the means for production. Whitney was reluctant at first, but Colt, in their correspondence, reassured Whitney he would receive a large order from the government. 

In the meantime, Colt made a prototype according to Walker’s specifications but also took the opportunity to incorporate a newfangled idea into the gun’s production. Instead of each gun being made by hand, they would instead be constructed from identical components. At the time, the use of interchangeable parts was a very new concept in gun making, and even in manufacturing as a whole. Colt couldn’t completely implement the process due to time constraints, but his attempt stands as an early effort at mass production. Schreier says Colt’s innovations contributed to what would become known as the American method of manufacturing—a concept characterized by interchangeable parts and mechanization. 

In Washington, Walker lobbied Congress and the Army to buy Colt’s revolvers for his men. Walker and Colt had to agree to let the guns be inspected by Col. George Talcott, head of the Army ordnance. Finally, Colt received word from Walker in a letter dated Jan. 6, 1847, that the U.S. Government had agreed to a contract for 1,000 Colt Walkers at $25 per gun. In today’s dollars, the contract would be worth about $640,000. Whitney then agreed to produce the revolvers. Colt also made 100 more guns to give away to key members of the Army and Congress to help him secure future contracts. Jack Hays received a pair, as did Gen. D.E. Twiggs. 

In the end, it was Walker’s influence and transcendent reputation more than anything that helped Colt secure the contract. 

“Sam Walker, because of his popularity, got a position as a Whig,” says Jim Worsham, a retired professor of journalism and history at Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.Va., who’s working on a biography of Walker. “He got that position from Polk, who was a Democrat. Sam Walker, when he got this commission, went directly to the President to thank him for the commission and said, ‘Oh, by the way, my men need pistols.’ And President Polk signed the order.”

Soon after, Colt began production. Over the next several months, Colt would experience many delays thanks to Talcott’s fastidious approach to inspections and disagreements over tenants of the contract. To help with inspections, Colt implored Walker to visit him before he left for Texas and help win over Talcott. Instead, Walker continued recruiting men for the Mounted Rifles throughout early 1847. 

In a letter to Walker, Colt wrote: “It is an everlasting job to get up the tools for a new modle [sic] pistol every thing has to be made new and costs like the old scratch, I shalnot [sic] save one dollar out of the contract for 1,000 but for this I care nothing. If I can only get them off in time for you to use them in the Mexican War—being confident that you will get me more orders.” 

But almost as soon as the ink was dry on the contract, Walker demanded the new guns and left a trail of letters that traced his movements across the country while he was mustering recruits and supplies for the Mounted Rifles. Colt received letters from Baltimore, Md.; Washington, D.C.; Newport, Ky.; the steamer Albertros; and finally New Orleans, in which Walker nearly begged for the guns. Colt would finally get a shipment of six-guns sent on June 26, 1847. 

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Credit: AGE Fotostock A renowned and celebrated Texas Ranger, Sam Walker was instrumental in not only designing the gun that would change life on the frontier, but also in championing support for the effort from the U.S. government.

Credit: AGE Fotostock A renowned and celebrated Texas Ranger, Sam Walker was instrumental in not only designing the gun that would change life on the frontier, but also in championing support for the effort from the U.S. government.

The final product was, well, Texas-sized. The Colt Walker—made for a saddle holster—weighed a whopping 4-½ pounds, spread over a total length of 15-½ inches. Six .44-caliber (actually .454 caliber) lead balls or conical bullets could be propelled through the air at more than 1,000 feet per second by 60 grains of black powder. Colt Walkers sported a fixed, flat-blade front sight, while the rear sight consisted of a notch in the hammer. Among its more distinctive features were a brass trigger guard, a large loading lever that allowed the gun to break open for reloading, and black walnut grips. On its cylinder, the Colt Walker featured a roll-stamped scene of Walker and Hays fighting Comanche Indians. For decades, the Colt Walker was the most powerful handgun ever made and it stayed in first place until the .357 magnum came along in the 1930s. Schreier says it may even have maintained its superlative until the development of the .454 Casull in the 1950s. 

While the Colt Walker represented several technical innovations in firearms and their manufacture, there was one problem: they were prone to failure. Many Colt Walkers exploded because the steel cylinder wasn’t strong enough to handle the powder charge or because conical bullets were improperly loaded. Also, the explosion—and subsequent kickback—was powerful enough to dislodge the loading lever from its position underneath the barrel, which would open up the gun. In the field, though, Rangers reduced the charge to 50 grains to avoid exploding gun syndrome.

Since the travel time between Whitney’s factory in Whitneyville, N.Y., and Vera Cruz, Mexico (where Walker was stationed), took months, Walker did not actually hold the gun that bore his name until Oct. 4, 1847. When the guns arrived, he took them out, fired them, and was smitten. 

“He was very glowing about them,” Worsham says. “In fact, he wrote his brother telling him how effective they were at 100 yards and how there wasn’t a man in his command that wouldn’t love to have one. He was very, very pleased with them. He had been planning these guns and this was the first time he saw them in practice.” 

But just four days later, Walker was dead. As part of an assault on Puebla, Mexico, Walker and his men charged into action prematurely in the village of Huamantla. They decimated their adversaries, but Walker was shot, Worsham says, with .69-caliber buck-and-ball round fired from a second-story window. He died with one of his namesake revolvers in hand. A Mounted Rifleman named Ashbaugh picked up Walker’s six-guns and they were eventually returned to the Walker family in Maryland, where they remained until well into the 20th century. Both of Walker’s guns are now in private collections and are worth millions. 

Though Walker died with one of his guns in hand, new life was given to Colt. The gun maker would receive another order for 1,000 revolvers from the Army shortly after delivering the rest of the Colt Walkers. He improved the Colt Walker’s design and introduced the world to the Colt Dragoon. With subsequent contracts, Colt would make enough money to build a huge production facility in New Haven, Conn. His company still produces some of the finest firearms in the world today and his name has become synonymous with guns themselves. At the same time, Sam Walker rests peacefully in history—one of the greatest Texas Rangers of all time. 

These two great men’s lasting legacies, thus, are inextricably tied to one big gun. 

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