August 2007 ~~~~ Editor:  Cliff Hanger ~~~~
"Green Ones and Black Ones"
The Most Common Field Pieces of the Civil War By James Morgan

        At the beginning of 1861, the American field artillery consisted almost exclusively of pre-Mexican War smoothbores not significantly different from the pieces with which we fought the Revolution. By 1865 however, advances in metallurgy combined with new manufacturing techniques, better powder, and more dependable fuses to bring muzzle-loading artillery to its highest possible state of effectiveness.

        This article will attempt to provide reenactors with some useful background information about the artillery pieces, old and new, which were most commonly used during the war. In that sense, it is a follow-up to the author's earlier contribution, "Mounted But Not Mounted: The Confusing Terminology of Artillery," which appeared in the March 1990 Camp Chase Gazette.

        First however, some definitions. Early field artillery was identified by the term "pounder" (usually abbreviated "pdr"), which referred to the weight of the solid shot fired by a particular size gun. Thus a 12-pdr gun was called that because it fired a solid round shot weighing 12 pounds. With the development of howitzers in the 17th century, the term became obsolete, though it continued to be used right up through the Civil War.

        "Howitzers," technically speaking, are not "guns." They are shorter, lighter pieces than guns of the same bore diameter, have chambered bores, use smaller charges, fire explosive shells instead of solid shot, and were meant, essentially, to lob their projectiles at low velocity into a target.

        Guns are longer and heavier. They use larger charges and have untapered (unchambered) bores of a consistent diameter all the way to the breech. They were originally intended for relatively long range pounding or battering (thus the word, "battery") of targets with projectiles fired at high velocity.

        These distinctions had blurred considerably by the time of the Civil War, but the terms continued in use. Howitzers, in any case, had come to be manufactured in the same standard bore sizes as guns, so the "pounder" designation of a particular gun was automatically applied to the howitzer of the same bore size.

        A Model 1841 12-pdr gun, for example, had a 4.62 inch bore. The Model 1841 howitzers of the same bore size were therefore called "12pdrs" even though their hollow shells usually weighed less (though, depending on how they were packed, could weigh more) than 12 pounds. In short, by the time of the war, "pounder" actually referred to bore size rather than to projectile weight.

        Not long ago, the author heard someone say that, based on what we see on the battlefields, there must have been only two types of cannon used during the war - "green ones and black ones." Of course he was joking but that, in fact, is not a bad starting point for a discussion of Civil War field artillery.

        The "green ones" obviously are the bronze (sometimes called "brass") pieces, usually smoothbores, which have weathered to a pale greenish hue. Their designs generally pre-date the war by from five to 20 years. The "black ones," for the most part, are the iron rifles which were being developed just as the war began.

        When the fighting actually started, the armament of the field artillery consisted only of "green ones." There were six altogether, though one, the little 12-pdr "mountain howitzer," saw such limited use during the conflict that it will not be considered here.

        The five main pieces were the Model 1841 6-pdr and 12-pdr guns, the Model 1841 12-pdr and 24-pdr howitzers, and the Model 1857 Light 12-pdr Gun-Howitzer, or "Napoleon."

        Larger pieces such as the 24-pdr gun and 32-pdr howitzer could also be used in the field, but only with difficulty due to their size and weight. Technically, these are classed as "siege" pieces, rather than ''field'' pieces.

        Note again that these smoothbores were all there was. There were no rifled field pieces in the U.S. service before 1861.

        Let us take them one at a time.

Model 1841 6-pdr Gun
        The 6-pdr was a popgun. Used extensively during the Mexican War, it was made obsolete by the increased range of the available infantry weapons as much as by the coming of better artillery.

        Though fairly mobile at 900 pounds, it's softball-sized shot was entirely too small to do much damage and it could easily be outranged, especially once rifled guns came into play. Most sources give it a range of about 1500 yards, but this is being generous. No doubt the gun could throw a shot that far but, at that distance, it's small round projectile could hardly be accurate and would be easy for troops to avoid.

        These guns existed in large numbers at the outbreak of hostilities, however, and were pressed into service by both sides. Both sides also got rid of them as quickly as possible.

Model 1841 12-pdr Gun
      Packing a solid punch and having a respectable 1600-1700 yard effective range, the 12-pdr was a much better weapon than its little brother. But its weight (1800 lbs) was a liability, just about at the top limit for the requirements of mobility in the field.

Model 1841 12-pdr Howitzer
      This was by far the most effective field piece of the war for use at any range under 400 yards. Its large shells gave it firepower, while its light weight (less than 800 lbs) made it highly mobile and easy to position, even by hand.

        Because of its mobility, the piece was readily adaptable for close infantry support. Nine of them were supposed to have followed the infantry in Pickett's Charge so as to protect its flanks and render whatever service they could in front. However some confusion of orders and effective Federal artillery fire during the pre-charge cannonade resulted in the nine pieces being unavailable. It is interesting to speculate what difference they might have made had they accompanied Pickett's troops. The 12-pdr howitzer's great weakness was its effective range, which is not much over 1,000 yards, well under that of even the 6-pdr gun. It made the piece an easy target for other artillery.

Model 1841 24-pdr Howitzer
         When positioned in field fortifications, these were extremely useful pieces of ordnance because of their powerful 5.82 inch shells. Their 1400 pound weight made them a bit unwieldy in the field, and their 1300-1400 yard effective range put them at a disadvantage to other pieces. Nevertheless, infantrymen could not have relished the idea of charging a battery of 24-pdr howitzers.

        E. Porter Alexander, General Longstreet's de facto Chief of Artillery for much of the war, called them "my favorite guns." (Alexander, p. 182) On occasion, he even had them mounted on skids and used as mortars.

Model 1857 Light12-pdr Gun Howitzer
        Undoubtedly the best known field piece of the war, the "Napoleon" was a kind of hybrid in that it could do everything the other four smoothbores could do. It had more firepower than the 6-pdr gun, weighed 600 pounds less than the old 12-pdr gun, was every bit as sturdy as the bigger 24-pdr howitzer, and could fire shot or shell, with effect, to 1700 yards.

        In another sense however, it was not a hybrid at all as it possessed none of the technical features of a howitzer - notably, it lacked a chambered bore - and was called a howitzer only because it could fire shell.

        The basic Napoleon came from the French Emperor Louis Napoleon, who in the early 1850's ordered his Ordnance Department to design something with which he could standardize his field artillery. Not only would such standardization save money, but it would greatly simplify the manufacture, supply, and distribution of the guns themselves, not to mention their carriages, implements, and ammunition.

        Unlike many hybrids, the Napoleon was a resounding success. It greatly impressed the three-man American military commission which toured Europe in 1855-56 (one of whose members was George McClellan). On their return, they brought back the specifications of the new French gun, and a recommendation that it be seriously considered for the American service. About a year later, with minor modifications, it was formally adopted.

        Strangely, (or perhaps not so strangely, given the Congress's well-known lack of interest in the military during peacetime), only five Napoleons were purchased for the army between 1857 and the outbreak of the war. One of these was used for proofing. The other four were given to Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, in late 1857.

        It was no coincidence that the new guns went to that particular unit. Battery M's commander was Capt. Henry Hunt, acknowledged even then as one of America's premier artillerists. Hunt later brought the guns to First Manassas where they were the only Napoleons on the field and where, without infantry support, they broke up a Confederate flank attack on the beaten Union army as it retreated toward Centerville late in the day. Hunt actually was credited by General Winfield Scott with saving the Union army that day. He went on to become the Army of the Potomac's Chief of Artillery. The Federal government quickly began ordering more Napoleons.

        General McClellan, as part of his reorganization of the army, ordered that all four Model 1841's be replaced with Model 1857's, which is precisely what had been intended when the Napoleon was first adopted. This process was begun immediately, though logistics problems and the emphasis on the war in the East resulted in the western Federal armies using the old models much longer than did the Army of the Potomac.

        The Confederates, without the Union's industrial capacity, were required to keep the older guns and howitzers in service throughout the war. In December of 1862, General Lee suggested that all 6-pdrs be melted down and recast into Napoleons. Though a few were recast right away, it was not until after Chancellorsville that the Army of Northern Virginia managed to replace even these smallest of the 1841's with Confederate-made or captured pieces.

        Just under 1200 Napoleons were produced for the Union army during the war. The Confederates produced some 500-600 of their own, though these came in several styles. The early Southern pieces closely resembled the Model 1857, while later designs eliminated the distinctive muzzle swell and otherwise changed the appearance of the piece.

        Shortages of bronze ultimately required Richmond to manufacture Napoleons of cast iron. These were strengthened with breech reinforcing bands which made them look rather like fat Parrott rifles. For convenience however, all of these Confederate-made models are simply called "Napoleons."

        The reader should note that all Napoleons were 12-pdrs. Occasionally, someone will write or speak of "6-pdr Napoleons," but this is a misnomer, as there was no such thing.

        Before moving on to a discussion of "the black ones," it might be useful to note something of the use of particular metals for particular field pieces.

        The early United States used bronze (an alloy of approximately 90% copper and 10% tin) for most of its field artillery. This was the traditional material and was used by the big European powers. Around the turn of the 19th century, the factors of cost and supply combined to bring about a switch to iron.

        Bronze was 5-6 times more expensive than iron on a per-piece basis. Moreover, while there were large deposits of iron ore in the United States, there was little available copper or tin and foreign sources of supply would most likely be cut off during a war. Thus, the "Iron Age" of American artillery began in 1801.

        For a variety of reasons mostly involving the domestic politics of the day, the Iron Age ended with a return to bronze around 1835. Bronze is a better material for smoothbore artillery anyway. It is not brittle like cast iron and though it will wear and even stretch, it is much less subject to bursting.

        With the return to bronze came design experiments which resulted in the Models of 1841. These, as we have seen, remained the standards until the coming of the war demanded their replacement.

        The Napoleon was a significant step forward which took the smoothbore concept about as far as it could go. But the real advances in field artillery during the Civil War came with the development of iron rifles with their great ranges and astounding accuracy.

        Early in the war, it was thought that the need for rifled guns could be met quickly and easily by rifling existing smoothbores. As a rifle's elongated solid shot (called a "bolt") weighed about twice as much as a smoothbore's round shot of the same diameter, doing this seemed to offer the promise of magically turning 6-pdr smoothbores into 12-pdr rifles.

        Charles T. James - inventor, militia general, and former U.S. Senator from Rhode Island - made one of the first attempts at rifling bronze guns and created the short-lived "James Rifles." Some of these were merely re-bored 6-pdrs. Others were manufactured from scratch, with one style resembling the old guns and another looking very much like the sleek 3-inch Ordnance Rifles.

        Unfortunately, none of them worked very well as friction from the projectiles quickly wore down the soft bronze, in effect turning the guns back into smoothbores. The experiment of rifled bronze field pieces was abandoned early.

        Curiously though, the 2nd Connecticut Battery was still armed with four James Rifles and two old 12-pdr howitzers as late as Gettysburg. It was the only battery in the Army of the Potomac not then equipped with Napoleons or with one of the iron rifles.

        Two of the Ordnance-pattern James Rifles now mark the position of the 2nd Connecticut at Gettysburg (Hancock Avenue, just south of the large Pennsylvania monument).

        The two most important "black ones" were the Parrott Rifle and the Ordnance (often misspelled "ordinance") Rifle. Other types were tried, but none were produced in as large quantities or saw as extensive use as these two.

Model 1861 2.9-inch and Model 1863 3-inch Parrott Rifles
        Captain Robert P. Parrott resigned from the army in 1836 to take over as superintendent of the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York. He had long been interested in the problems of cast iron artillery and tried various experiments to overcome those problems. Apparently concluding that it was not possible to improve the metal itself, Parrott decided to create a stronger piece by reinforcing the cast iron with a band of wrought iron shrunk around the breech, the point of greatest pressure during firing. This was critical because rifles, with their tight-fitting projectiles, generated much greater internal pressures than did smoothbores.

        The idea was not new, nor did Parrott claim it as his own. But he did devise a better method of manufacturing banded guns.

        Typically guns to be banded were held in place while the band was heated, fitted, then allowed to cool (ie, shrink) onto the breech. The problem was that gravity acted on the cooling metal to pull it downward so that the fit around the breech was uneven.

        Parrott's innovation was to slowly rotate the gun tube throughout the fitting and cooling so that the metal would retain a consistent density and cool evenly. In his larger guns, he also used the Rodman method of piping water into the bore to help ensure even cooling. The result was guns which were much stronger at the breech than normal cast iron guns. He hoped this would prevent bursting, a long-recognized problem even with the lower pressure cast iron smoothbores.

        Parrott's first model was a 2.9-inch 10-pdr developed in 1859-60, but finally known as the Model 1861. It is easily distinguished from his Model 1863 by the muzzle swell which was eliminated on the later piece. Parenthetically, though Confederate-made Parrotts do have the muzzle swell, they may be readily distinguished from the Federal-made 1861's by looking at the forward edge of the breech reinforce. On Federal guns, the edge is vertical (perpendicular to the bore), while on the Southern 10-pdrs, it is bevelled.

        One of the first Parrotts was sold to the Commonwealth of Virginia in the summer of 1860. In light of the worsening political situation in the country, Virginia had inventoried its state arsenals and decided to upgrade from the approximately four dozen 6-pdrs which were all it then had in its possession.

        Francis H. Smith, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and an old army friend of Robert Parrott's, visited Cold Spring, watched tests of the new 10-pdr and ordered one for further testing back home.

        When it arrived at VMI, the gun was turned over to the school's instructor of artillery, Professor Thomas J. Jackson, not yet known as "Stonewall." Jackson, a former artillery officer, conducted a series of firing tests and pronounced himself thoroughly satisfied with the gun. Its accuracy at ranges well over a mile made it an impressive piece. Another dozen immediately were purchased from the West Point Foundry. Using the specifications and models obtained from Cold Spring, Tredegar and other southern foundries manufactured the piece during the war. Ironically, one of those Virginia Parrotts was the first of its type to be fired in anger, as it was used against United States troops at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. Only three weeks earlier, the Federal army had taken delivery of its first Parrotts.

        For all of Robert Parrott's improvements and Stonewall Jackson's enthusiasm, the Parrott rifles proved a major disappointment. They were still cast iron pieces and they still burst unexpectedly and often. All Parrott had really managed to do was move the bursting point forward. Strengthened at the breech, Parrotts became infamous for bursting at the center near the trunnions.

        The real difficulty was the gun's unpredictability. Some Parrotts served long and dependably, firing several thousand rounds with no problem. But cast iron cannon tended not to show wear and tear. The metal simply gave way whenever it gave way, after few rounds or many, so there always was a high level of uncertainty in connection with the use of cast iron guns.

        Private Augustus Buell of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery (a Napoleon battery) later noted, perhaps with some sarcasm, that "so long as the Parrott gun held together it was as good as any muzzleloading rifle." (Buell, p. 22)

        Unfortunately for the crews who worked them, Parrotts too often failed to hold together and became extremely unpopular with artillerymen. Buell himself best expressed the common view when he later said, "If anything could justify desertion by a cannoneer, it would be an assignment to a Parrott battery." (Buell, p. 147)

        Another less dangerous problem with the 1861s was its 2.9-inch bore. The Ordnance rifle was a 3-incher and the two guns could fire some of the same ammunition. More than once, 3-inch ammunition was issued to crews of 2.9-inch guns, causing delays and ammunition jams.

        The Parrott Model 1863 was a 3-inch piece created specifically to alleviate this problem. Additionally, some 2.9-inch guns were re-bored to 3 inches. But it was too late. Though the 3-inch Parrotts continued to be purchased by the Federal government through 1865, the army began phasing them out in favor of Ordnance Rifles mid-way through the war. At the beginning of the Wilderness campaign in May 1864, only five of the 49 batteries in the Army of the Potomac (excluding the IX Corps which was not technically under General Meade's command) were Parrott batteries, the others being armed either with Napoleons or Ordnance Rifles.

        Even with its weaknesses, the 2.9-inch Parrott was an important artillery piece. In 1861 it was the first workable rifled gun available to either side. For the Union, it could be produced quickly, inexpensively, and in large numbers.

        Altogether some 500-600 Model 1861 and 1863 10-pdr Parrotts were produced for the Union army. Perhaps another 150 came from Confederate factories. The end of the war, however, brought the end of the Parrott, for the gun was never used agaln.

Model 1861 3-inch Ordnance Rifle
      Unquestionably the best rifled gun of its day was the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle. Originally called "Griffin Guns," after their designer, John Griffen, the Ordnance Rifles were often mistakenly called "Rodman Guns" because of their superficial resemblance to the large Rodman coastal defense smoothbores. In fact, however, there was no connection.

        Wrought iron was expensive and had been difficult to work with, which explains why it wasn't successfully developed earlier for artillery. But in 1854, Griffen modified a procedure then being used in the production of wrought iron for lighthouse construction. (For a detailed explanation of this complex procedure, which involved welding together bundles of wrought iron rods then passing the whole through a rolling mill, see Hazlett, pp.120-29.)

        The new technique resulted in an enormously strong gun tube. When first tested in 1856, the Griffen Gun amazed the representatives of the Ordnance Department. Griffen himself challenged them to burst the piece. After more than 500 rounds with increasing charges and loads, they finally succeeded only by firing it with a charge of seven pounds of powder and a load of 13 shot which completely filled up the bore! (Hazlett, p. 121)

        The bursting problem was solved. What plagued the Parrott was virtually nonexistent in the wrought iron gun. Only one Ordnance Rifle is known to have burst during the entire Civil War (a gun in a Pennsylvania battery burst at the muzzle - the safest place for a gun to burst if it must do so) while firing double canister during the Battle of the Wilderness.

        The "3-inch wrought iron rifle" had a slightly greater effective range than the Parrott and compared favorably even with the British Whitworth for accuracy. "The Yankee three-inch rifle was a dead shot at any distance under a mile," said one admiring Confederate gunner (Hazlett, p. 120) and it was quite effective at a mile and a half.

        On top of all of this, the gun was a hundred pounds lighter than the Parrott (800 lbs to the Parrott's 900) which made it highly mobile. For just this reason, it was the preferred weapon of the Horse Artillery (that is, those batteries working with cavalry and therefore requiring maximum mobility).

        The Ordnance Rifle, not to put too fine a point on it, was a nearly perfect field piece. The absolute epitome of muzzle-loading artillery, it remained the primary rifled field gun in the U. S. inventory well into the 1880's when it finally gave way to steel breechloaders. About a thousand of these remarkable guns were produced for the Union army. Lacking the technology, the Confederates did not produce them.

        In summary, then, there were but seven pieces of artillery which did the bulk of the cannoneer's work during the Civil War. These were the Model 1841 6-pdr and 12-pdr guns, the Model 1841 12-pdr and 24-pdr howitzers, the Model 1857 Light 12pdr gun-howitzer, the Model 1861/ 1863 Parrott (which, for our purposes, can be considered as a single type), and the Model 1861 Ordnance Rifle.

        The last two of these, in particular, demonstrate the tremendous advancement in artillery made during the four years of the war. The leap from smoothbores to rifles was the first necessary step in the development of modern artillery.

        Indeed, the gap between even the best of the smoothbores and the least effective of the rifles serves to illustrate the old truism that our great l9th century bloodletting was, at one and the same time, the last 18th century war and the first 20th century war. 

Colt's Manufacturing Company From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Colt's Manufacturing Company (CMC--formerly Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company) is a United States firearms manufacturer founded in 1847. It is best known for the engineering, production, and marketing of dozens of different firearms over the later half of the 19th and the 20th century. It has made many civilian and military designs used in the United States, as well was many other countries.

Among the most famous products from Colt are the Walker Colt used by the Texas Rangers and the "Colt .45" revolver, the proper name of which was the Single Action Army. Later well-known CMC revolvers include the Colt Python and Colt Anaconda. John Browning also worked for Colt for a time, and came up with now ubiquitous parallel slide type of design for a pistol, which debuted on the Colt M1900 pistol, leading to numerous pistol designs including the famous Colt M1911 pistol. Though they did not develop it, Colt was responsible for M16 production for a long time, as well as many derivative firearms related to it. The most successful and famous of these are numerous M16 Carbines, including the Colt Commando family, and the M4 Carbine.

Colt also developed many important less known firearms that were often ahead of their time. Among the most recent was the CAR-15 family - an innovative weapon system family of the 1960s, as well as a number of 5.56mm machine guns such as the Colt CMG-1, CMG-2 in the 60s in the 70s. They also invented the Colt SCAMP PDW, a little known firearm of the late 1970s that was among the first of its type. Colt's produced also the first 15 000 Thompson Submachineguns Mod 1921. Another important design was the lesser-known Colt-Browning Model 1895 (Potato Digger) - one of the first gas-actuated machine guns. Going back even farther reveals other important products of the 19th century. The Colt Revolver Rifle, one of the first repeating rifles, and used during the American Civil War. In addition to this were a large number of famous revolvers, such as the 1847 Colt Walker, the smaller Dragoon Mod. 1848 of the same caliber .44, the Navy Mod. 1851 cal .36, the Pocket Mod. 1849 cal .31 and numerous other famous revolvers of the 'Wild West'. His designs played a major role in the popularization of the revolver and the shift away from earlier single pistols and pepperbox type weapons. While Colt did not invent the revolver concept, his designs resulted in the first very successful ones with patents on many of the features that lead to them being so popular.

In 2002, Colt Defense was split off from Colt's Manufacturing Company. Colt Manufacturing Company now serves the civilian market, while Colt Defense serves the law enforcement, military, and private security markets worldwide. Prior to the split Colt was also well known for their production (now taken over by Colt Defense) of the M1911 automatic pistols, M4 Carbines, M16 assault rifles, and M203 grenade launchers, although none of these were Colt designs. Diemaco of Canada was also purchased, and renamed Colt Canada, though most of its products remain the same. Diemaco and Colt had earlier worked together on designs and shared many similar products.


Rampant Colt—The original logo of Colt's Firearms
CMC was founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1847 by Samuel Colt in order to produce revolvers, of which Colt held the patent, during the Mexican-American War. Colt's earlier venture, the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, had declared bankruptcy in 1842 and was no longer producing firearms, but the efficiency of the Colt Paterson revolver design had become apparent to the Texas Rangers, and they placed an order for 1,000 larger revolvers that became known as the Walker Colt, ensuring Colt's re-entry into manufacturing revolvers. Later, the U.S. Army also sought out the young entrepreneur to produce even more revolvers.

Colt's early history largely revolved around the production of revolvers, developed out of Sam Colt's original 1834 invention of the revolver. Colt is perhaps best known for the famous "Colt .45", a name which actually refers to two separate historically significant firearms. The first of these is the aforementioned 1873 Single Action Army, of which Colt was the original producer, and which was one of the most prevalent firearms in the American West during the end of the 19th century. Colt still produces this firearm, though now they are available only as a Custom Shop offering. All original, good condition first generation Single Action Armies, those produced between 1873 and 1941, are among the most valuable to the collector. Especially valuable, often going for well over $10,000, are the Orville W. Ainsworth and the Henry Nettleton inspected U.S. Cavalry Single Action Army Colts.

One of the first truly modern-style handguns, the Colt revolvers became known as "The Great Equalizer", because they could be loaded and fired by anyone, whereas most previous guns had required sufficient strength and dexterity. In theory, anyone who had a modern-style revolver was equal to anyone else, regardless of their relative physical abilities. This term has since come to be used for firearms in general, as awkward weapons like muzzle-loaded muskets became a thing of the past.

The OWA Colt refers to the earliest issued Single Action Armies which were inspected by Orville W. Ainsworth. O.W. Ainsworth was the ordnance sub-inspector at the Colt factory for approximately the first thirteen months (Oct. 1873 to Nov. 1874) of the Single Action Army's production. It was Ainsworth that inspected the Colts used by General Custer's 7th Cavalry troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. However General Custer himself fell holding a couple of English-made Webley revolvers in his hands.

Henry Nettleton was the ordnance inspector in 1878 at the Springfield Armory. Second only to the OWA Colts, Nettleton Colts are prized by serious collectors. Both the Nettleton and OWA Colts will have the cartouche (OWA or HN) on the left side of the wood grip.

The Single Action Army has been copied by numerous makers both in America and in Europe. The two major makers of Colt replicas are Aldo Uberti in Italy and United States Firearms Mfg. Co. in Hartford, Connecticut. Both companies make superb replicas that are much more affordable than the real Colt (for those who don't have to have the "real thing").

The Colt Model 1895 "Potato Digger" was one of the first gas-operated machine guns, developed with John Browning. It became the first automatic machine gun adopted by the United States and saw limited use in the Spanish-American War.

The Colt entry for a semi-automatic pistol at the turn of century defeated two other contenders: a .45 Pistol Parabellum (e.g the Luger pistol) from DWM and an entry from Savage Arms. There had been many other contenders earlier on, but these were eliminated. The Colt also competed with Colt M1900 design in .38 ACP against other entrants in a 1900 competition that included entries from Mauser and Steyr.

The second famous "Colt 45" is the John Browning-designed M1911, which was the standard U.S. military sidearm from 1911 to 1985. The M1911 is still frequently used by civilians, law enforcement, and military agencies today.

Though the US was not directly involved in the Crimean War (1854 - 1856), Colt weapons were used in supplying and aiding the Russians fighting in the Crimea.

The 1960s were boom years for Colt with the escalation of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara shutting down the Springfield Armory, and the U.S. Army's subsequent adoption of the M16 (which Colt held the production rights to).

Colt would capitalize on this with a range of AR-15 derivative carbines. They also developed AR-15 based Squad Automatic Weapons, and the Colt SCAMP, an early PDW design. At the end of the 1970s, there was a program run by the Air Force, to replace the M1911A1. The Beretta 92S won, but this was contested by the Army. The Army ran their own trials, leading eventually to the Beretta 92F being selected for the M9 (later updated to 92FS due to a production run of defective slides.)

Colt ACR/M16A2E2 (second from top to bottom), of the U.S. Advanced Combat Rifle program
Colt ACR/M16A2E2 (second from top to bottom), of the U.S. Advanced Combat Rifle program

The 1980s marked fairly good years for Colt, but the coming end of the Cold War would change all that. Colt had long left innovation in civilian firearms to their competitors, feeling that the handgun business could survive on their traditional double-action revolver and M1911 designs. Instead, Colt focused on the military market, where they held the primary contracts for production of rifles for the US military.

This strategy dramatically failed for Colt through a series of events in the 1980s. In 1984, the U.S. military standardized on the Beretta 92F. This was not much of a loss for Colt's current business, as M1911A1 production had stopped in 1945, and most had not been made by Colt at the time.

Meanwhile, the military rifle business was growing because the U.S. Military had a major demand for more upgraded M16s —- the M16A2 model had just been adopted and the Military needed hundreds of thousands of them.

In 1986, Colt's workers, members of the United Auto Workers went on strike for higher wages. This strike would ultimately last for four years, and was one of the longest running labor strikes in American history. With replacement workers running production, the quality of Colt's firearms began to slip. Dissatisfied with Colt's production, in 1988 the U.S. military awarded the contract for future M16 production to Fabrique Nationale.

Some criticized Colt's range of handgun products in the late 1980s as out of touch with the demands of the market, and their once-vaunted reputation for quality had suffered during the UAW strike. Colt's stable of double action revolvers and single action pistols were seen as old fashioned by a marketplace that was captivated by the new generation of "wondernines" - high-capacity, 9 mm caliber handguns, as typified by the Glock 17.

Realizing that the future of the company was at stake, labor and management agreed to end the strike in an arrangement that resulted in Colt being sold to a group of private investors, the State of Connecticut, and the UAW itself.

The new Colt first attempted to address some of the demands of the market with the production in 1990 of the Double Eagle, a double action pistol based heavily on the M1911 design which was seen as an attempt to "modernize" the classic Browning design. Colt followed this up in 1992 with the Colt All American 2000, which was unlike any other handgun Colt had produced before.

The Colt All American 2000 was a polymer framed, rotary bolt, 9 mm handgun with a magazine capacity of 15 rounds. It was everything that Colt thought the civilian market wanted in a handgun. Unfortunately, the execution was disastrous. Early models were plagued with inaccuracy and unreliability, and suffered from the poor publicity of having to be recalled. The product launch failed and production of the All American 2000 ended in 1994.

The cost of developing Colt's ACR also cut into their bottom line, as none of the ACR contestants were adopted — a result that came out in the early 1990s.

All of the above ultimately led to the company's chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. Colt Manufacturing Co. announced the termination of its production of double action revolvers in October 1999 [1].

The 1990s brought the end of Cold War, which resulted in a large down turn for the entire defense industry. Colt was hit by this downturn, though it would be made worse later in the 1990s by a boycott.

The Boycott
In 1994, the assets of Colt were purchased by Zilkha & Co, a financial group owned by Donald Zilkha. It was speculated that Zilkha's financial backing of the company, combined with his connections to the Democratic Party, enabled Colt to begin winning back military contracts. In fact during the time period it won only one contract, the M4 Carbine. However, the US Military had already been purchasing Colt Carbines for the past 30 Years (See Colt Commando).

During a 1998 Washington Post interview, CEO Ron Stewart stated that he would favor a federal permit system with training and testing for gun ownership. This, in combination with the growing revelations of Zilkha's ties to anti-gun factions of the Democratic Party, led to a massive grass-roots boycott of Colt's products by gun stores and ordinary gun owners, some of whom sold their Colt firearms to cut into Colt's market share even more. This ultimately led to the resignation of Ron Stewart.

Zilkha replaced Stewart with Steven Sliwa and focused the remainder of Colt's handgun design efforts into "smart guns", a concept which was favored politically but had little interest or support among handgun owners or Police Departments. This research never produced any meaningful results due to the limited technology at the time.

The boycott of Colt has faded out with the new CEO William M. Keys, a retired U.S. Marine Lt. General, working hard to bring Colt back from its tarnished reputation. Due to the efforts of William Keys, Colt's quality has improved as much as its favor with die hard Colt fans.

Competition Heats Up
Most problematic for Colt, its flagship 1911 pistols and AR-15 rifles had to compete with a glut of the company's own used rifles and pistols that could be purchased at prices well below what Colt offered for their new products on the civilian market.

Colt also has to compete with other companies that make 1911-style pistols such as Kimber and AR-15 rifles such as Bushmaster. Bushmaster has subsequently overtaken Colt in the number of AR-15s sold on the civilian market.

Colt suffered a stinging legal defeat in court when it sued Bushmaster for copyright infringement claiming that the "M4" in M4 Carbine was a trademark that it owned. The judge ruled that since the term M4 is a generic designation that Colt does not specifically own, Colt had to pay monetary reimbursement to Bushmaster to recoup Bushmaster's legal fees. The M4 designation itself comes from the U.S. military designation system, whose terms are in the public domain.

Colt today is a shadow of its former self. Colt continues production of classic designs which are sold in both the limited collector's market as well as through more traditional channels. However, it survives primarily on the manufacturing of a variety of civilian and military weapons. The most popular of these are various AR-15 Carbines, a weapon category that it invented and helped develop over nearly 30 years since acquiring the AR-15 design. The AR-15 Carbine derivatives, and weapons like them have proved so popular that a large amount of competition has arisen in the area. As with AR-15 rifles, the original Colt designs and their derivatives are heavily copied, and as a result they face much competition from other manufacturers.

Colt has entered in several US contracts with mixed results. For example, Colt had an entry in the Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) program of the 1980s- but along with other contestants failed to replace the M16A2. Colt, along with many other makers entered the US trials for a new pistol in the 1980s, though the Berretta entry would win and become the M9 Pistol. The Colt OHWS hand gun was beat by H&K for what became the MK23 SOCOM, it was lighter than the H&K entry but lost in performance. Colt did not get to compete for the XM8 since it was not an open competition. Colt is a likely entrant in any competition for a new US service rifle. Current M16 rifles are made by FN USA, Colt lost the production contract in the 1990s.

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