Robert Adams and Samuel Colt Waged a Vicious, but Largely Unknown War over the 19th Century Pistol market
By 1850, Samuel Colt had come to dominate the American revolver market, aggressively defending his patents and using advanced manufacturing processes to out-produce rivals.
Meanwhile in February 1851, British gunsmith Robert Adams patented his double-action revolver design.
The key advantages Adams’ revolvers had over Colt’s were their larger caliber and double action. This made them fast-firing and hard hitting. You could shoot them with one hand, making them ideal for the sort of close-quarters combat British officers found themselves in during colonial campaigns.
Colt attempted to gain a foothold in Europe in the early 1850s, setting up a lavish display featuring his pistols at the Great Exhibition. It was at the exhibition that Colt faced his first competition from Adams.
London gunmakers George and John Deane’s stand displayed a plethora of products from a number of British gunmakers from London and Birmingham. Among them was a finely-decorated Adams Revolver, which enjoyed much interest from visitors.
Despite Colt gifting various presentation pistols to dignitaries and demonstrating the impressive interchangeability of his weapon to fascinated crowds, at the end of the exhibition Deane & Deane won a prize medal whileColt received only an honorable mention.
Undeterred, in 1852 Colt established a factory in London, hoping to gain lucrative military contracts from Britain and Europe. Initial orders from the Royal Navy for 9,500 revolvers and the British Army for 14,000 revolvers were encouraging. But the British became steadily more interested in Adams’ revolvers.
During trials at the Woolwich Arsenal, testers found that the Adams was faster to reload — 38 seconds to the Colt’s 58 second. The Adams was also more accurate and suffered no misfires, unlike the Colt.
Colt was unwilling to move away from his own open-frame, single-action designs in order to compete with his British rival. In 1856, Colt was compelled to close his factory.
Adams himself had initially worked as manager of the Deanes’ factory. It was with Deane & Deane that he first manufactured and sold his revolver. The success of the pistol following its unveiling at the Great Exhibition in 1851 saw Adams elevated to partner with Deane & Deane.
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