Colt Firearms History
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Rollin White’s patent for breech-loading revolvers held by Smith & Wesson expired in 1869, but wrangling in Congress kept the patent hanging over manufacturers’ heads for almost another year.  Then the market was flooded with cheap knock-offs of the Smith & Wesson .22 caliber Type One (later called Suicide Specials).  Distributors wanted Colt’s to make its own inferior gun, but President Richard Jarvis insisted there be no reduction from Colt quality.  


Initial Production (SN 1-6000, 1871-72).  Introduced in 1871, the Colt Seven Shot Revolver (the Open Top .22) single-action rim fire was Colt’s first breech-loading metallic cartridge revolver.   Initial production was set at 6,000 in three types for 1871-1872.  Priced at $8, Open Top .22s cost almost four times more than a Suicide Special.  It was like a Rolex among Swatches, like royalty amongst her subjects.   

Following Initial Production, manufacture of the Open Top .22 ceased and Colt’s introduced New Line Revolvers in a variety of calibers and the iconic .45 caliber center fire 1873 Single Action Army.  

Panic of 1873 and the Rollin White patent.   The financial panic of 1873 sent the economy into a deep depression.  To make matters worse for gun makers, it appeared that Congress would extend Rollin White’s patent.  This double threat left Colt’s New Lines and 1873s sitting on warehouse shelves.

Crisis Production (SN 6001-112,400 Late 1873-1875).  With sales plummeting and hoping to avoid massive layoffs, Richard Jarvis struck a deal with the company’s five top distributors.  Colt’s sold them the Open Top .22 just below cost and indemnified them against any losses from patent infringement.  In exchange, the distributors agreed to collectively purchase 1,000 Open Top .22s a week for one year and 750 a week for a second year.  

Losing money on each gun, Colt’s turned to add-on items such as fancy stocks, engraving, and premium plating as a profit center.  Margins on such items typically exceeded 100%.  

Colt’s manufactured 85,000 Open Top .22s in 1874 and 14,000 in 1875.  From 1874 to 1876 production and sales of the Open Top .22 eclipsed those of all other Colt firearms combined.  It held the line.

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