Here's How Much Samuel Colt Was Worth When He Died

For all of the trauma and turmoil they've caused, guns are an indelible aspect of the identity of America, and few guns are more American than the revolver. From cowboys to bank robbers to noir detectives, those pieces of rapid firing machinery have been omnipresent in the country's culture since the 19th century. And we have one man to thank for that: Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver.

The success of the revolver was largely due to Colt's innovative and ruthlessly amoral business practices. When he first patented the idea for a gun with a revolving cylinder that could fire multiple shots without being reloaded in 1835 it wasn't exactly popular, per Biography. The following year he opened a factory in New Jersey, but sales were slow, and within the first ten years of business the company's success was so meager that according to History Colt was overtaken by his shareholders and relegated to a sales role. The few sales they'd made to militias and frontiersmen in Texas and Florida weren't translating to meaningful profits.

Late in life success

After the initial failure of his gun manufacturing business things turned around for Colt in the late 1840s. American expansion into the west was fueling the need for guns, and Colt collaborated with the US army to supply them with his product. Once he got a foothold in the industry Colt proved himself to be a master of marketing. He was an early adopter of such modern techniques as utilizing celebrity endorsements by way of gifting custom engraved revolvers to various heads of state in Europe. He also commissioned George Catlin, a famous artist and adventurer, to produce paintings featuring rugged adventurers and frontiersmen using Colt revolvers, thus branding the gun as an essential part of the 19th century American ethos.

Colt's schemes were wildly successful. But marketing wasn't the only key to that success. As Steve Horton illustrates in an article in the Hartford Courant Colt was an autocratic businessman and a war profiteer who abused his employees in order to meet his manufacturing goals. Even though he was born and lived in Connecticut, he was also a Confederate sympathizer and sold guns to the Confederate army before it became officially illegal to do so. 

Samuel Colt died in 1862 at the age of 47. At the time of his death it's estimated that he was worth $15 million, or around $383 million in 2020 dollars, a remarkable sum of money for the time.