The earliest examples of what today is called a revolver were made in Germany in the late 16th century. These weapons featured a single barrel with a revolving cylinder holding the powder and ball. It was not until the 1800s, however, they became affordable.
A breech-loading, multi-chambered revolver dating to around 1650 still survives.
The American Samuel Colt invented the first production-model revolver, the Colt Paterson. He received a U.S. patent for his repeating firearm containing a revolving cylinder with multiple chambers aligned with a single, stationary barrel on February 25, 1836. Colt had whittled a wood model with a pocket knife, while stationed on the S.S. Corlo.
|Colt Paterson 5th Model|
Later in 1836, Colt received a parent for the mechanism that led to the widespread use of the revolver, the mechanically indexing cylinder.
The Colt Paterson featured revolving chamber that housed five bullets of .28 and .36 calibers. However there was one major problem – the loading mechanism was not advanced enough and users had to partially disassemble the gun to reload it. In 1839, Colt added a capping window which enabled the user to reload the gun without disassembling it.
Colt did not invent the revolver, but his design was the first practical, working version of one, and he developed assembly-line techniques that drove down manufacturing costs. However, though the inventor’s U.S. revolver patent gave him a monopoly on revolver manufacture until 1857, securing funding for his novel production system proved difficult, and his fledgling Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company struggled and eventually folded. Colt then turned to work on underwater mines and telegraph lines.
Colt re-established his gun manufacturing business after Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers placed an order for 1,000 revolvers in early 1847. Walker had acquired some of the first Colt revolvers produced during the Seminole War and saw first-hand their effective use as his 15-man unit defeated a larger force of 70 Comanche in Texas. The Captain wanted to order Colt revolvers for use by the Rangers in the Mexican-American War, and traveled to New York City and met Colt in a gunsmith’s shop on January 4, 1847. The result was the first large sale of Colt’s revolver pistols.
|Colt’s Armory, viewed from the east; from an 1857 engraving.|
In 1873, Colt introduced the famous Model 1873, also known as the Single Action Army, the “Colt .45” or simply, “the Peacemaker”, A single-action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six metallic cartridges it was one of the most famous handguns ever made. Although originally made for the United States Army, the Model 1873 remained popular with ranchers, lawmen, and outlaws alike, into the early 21st century.
|Second generation Colt Single Action Army|
In 1848 Karl Marx was targeted for assassination when he met with two Prussian officers in his Cologne house. Dressed in his bathrobe he forced the officers out at the point of a revolver which, it turned out, was not loaded.
President James A. Garfield‘s killer Charles J. Guiteau bought a revolver with an ivory grip over a cheaper wooden grip because he thought it would look better as a museum piece after the assassination.
The .44 Magnum revolver comes into Clint Eastwood’s often misquoted ‘ Do you feel lucky, punk?’ speech in the movie Dirty Harry. He in fact says: “But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’” The gun has in fact never been the most powerful.