November 3, 1997
Volume 50, No. 11
Bellesiles lays blame for U.S. gun culture at the feet of Samuel Colt
In the second of this year's Great Teachers Lecture Series, history's Michael Bellesiles explained how the gun culture that exists in the United States was spawned in the 19th century by the self-promotion and salesmanship of Samuel Colt.
Speaking Oct. 7 in Cannon Chapel, Bellesiles, an assoicate professor, said Colt may have been the first of that "great American archetype" of master showman and salesman. "Like P.T. Barnum, Colt manipulated public sensibilities and invented a number of sales techniques still in use. But Colt is far more significant than Barnum-Barnum just entertained America. Colt transformed its popular culture."
The idea for the revolver came to Colt when he was just a 16-year-old apprentice seaman in 1831, Bellesiles said. To secure capital for producing the guns, Colt went into showmanship, billing himself as "Dr. Coult of London, New York and Calcutta" and holding entertaining demonstrations of "Dr. Coult's gas": nitrous oxide. Patrons paid 25 cents and watched fellow audience members make fools of themselves under the influence of the gas.
Though he squandered much of the money he made, Colt learned two things from his laughing gas shows: the extent of human gullibility and how to work with the press. He persuaded his family to help him fund the Patent Arms Manufacturing Co. in Paterson, N.J., in 1836. Over the years, Colt bribed, cajoled, lied and exaggerated to federal and state officials to get them to order his guns. Not until later did he begin to capitalize on private ownership.
"Contrary to the popular image, few people in the United States owned guns prior to the 1850s," Bellesiles said. "Probate and militia records make clear that only between a tenth and a quarter of adult white males owned firearms. Massachusetts counted all privately owned guns; at no point prior to 1840 did more than 11 percent of that state's citizens own firearms, and Massachusetts was, along with Connecticut, the center of U.S. arms production."
But Colt managed to create the perception of a need for guns in the minds of urban males. His task of selling firearms to settlers was far easier; Colt had to convince city folk they needed guns for protection even though crime rates were so low that no police force in the country-other than slave patrols in the South-carried anything more deadly than a billy club.
"The public seemed indifferent, when not actively hostile, to gun ownership," Bellesiles said. "Even hunting was held up to ridicule, and it was mocked as the play of insufficiently grown-up boys. Those who prized hunting followed the British lead in seeing it as a gentleman's sport, one which should remain free from the taint of the lower orders."
But Colt changed all that, masterfully using the press to play off people's fears, just as he did on larger scales with governments. Colt went to Russia in 1852 and told the czar that the sultan of Turkey had just purchased 5,000 pistols. After the czar scrambled to likewise arm his troops with 5,000 revolvers, Colt then went to Constantinople to tell the sultan that the czar of Russia had just bought 5,000 pistols. Colt created a mini-arms race and made 10,000 sales.
Colt made other household items in his factory, all stamped with his name to keep it in the public's consciousness. When critics questioned the safety of his revolvers, Colt offered a reward to anyone who could document a single case of deadly misfire; reports of this offer simply gave Colt more free publicity.
"When questioned about the ethics of such an approach to sales, Colt responded that the surest guarantee of social peace was for everyone to carry a Colt revolver," Bellesiles said. "That aphorism, that an armed society was a peaceful society, was Colt's favorite even though it turned on its head over 200 years of Western legal tradition.
"Rather than relying on the state for personal protection, the individual must protect himself-it was a view which accepted the atomistic nature of society and could conceive of no communal strategy for collective security. It is a view which carries a price still," said Bellesiles.