In the living rooms of America, day and night, over every television channel, the six-shooters of the Old West speak up for law and order. There are experts of show business who say the peak is at hand and that the western shows eventually will pass and become, like the Brontosaurus and the St. Louis Browns, merely an interesting part of the record. There is no certain sign of the passing yet. The television westerns may not be art, but they are doing quite a job of selling cigarettes and supergasoline, fast-acting potions and greaseless lotions, hair oil and wrapping foil and Sugarcoated Corn Pops. The opening and settling of the West is now allied intimately with the opening of sinuses and the settling of stomachs. The alliance, though a strange one, is at the moment unbeatable.
While selling all manner of new goods, unintentionally the westerns have also been promoting one very old, simple and sound item: the six-shooter that was invented 129 years ago by a 16-year-old Connecticut boy named Sam Colt. Although seldom used as television now uses them, Sam Colt's revolvers were the companion pieces of the men who won the West. When the Colt designers first put out a good metal-cartridge gun in 1873, the new model retained virtually all the sound mechanics Sam Colt bad perfected for percussion guns before he died in 1862. The 1873 model was officially known as Colt's New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol, a name that was correct but about a mile too long and a trifle stuffy for such a bumptious gun.
Among Colt agents and the Westerners the gun became known simply as the Colt .45, the Single Action Army, the Hog Leg, the Plow Handle, the Thumb Buster, the Equalizer and, most famously, as the Peacemaker. During the heavy traffic west in the 1880s, Colt's company turned out an average of 8,000 Peacemakers a year. A half century later, in the 1930s, they averaged 330 a year and stopped production in 1940. Today Colt and three other companies now making guns along Peacemaker lines are selling 150,000 a year. Television has helped this surprising revival, but there is a more important reason: the quality of the Peacemaker and its modern rivals.
The Peacemaker was the most effective gun of its day. It is still safer than most and as durable as any. Except for one rod, one pin and a dozen screws, the first Peacemaker made in 1873 is identical to those that were sent abroad in 1941 to serve in the Battle of Britain and identical to those moving on the Colt assembly line today. Through its whole life, by being simple, the Peacemaker defied obsolescence. The year it was born there were already rival guns featuring such advantages as double action and multiple ejection, but in comparative field trials the Peacemaker hit harder and truer and lasted longer. In 1873 the Colt designers only wanted their baby to be the best single-action revolver ever. Today, though perhaps a bit hoarse from barking so much on television, baby is doing just fine.
All three of the modern guns that are belching smoke across the opposite page have the look of old Colts, but only the uppermost one, the .22 Frontier Scout, actually is a Colt. The middle gun is the .22 Double-Nine made by High Standard, and the gun below it is the .22 "Single-Six" made by Sturm, Ruger & Company. When anyone imitated the Colt 100 years ago, in no time Colt's lawyers were upon the imitator like a pack of trained ferrets. For all that, if he were around now, Sam Colt would find something that pleased him in the modern Colt and its two counterparts.
If he took the modern Frontier Scout in hand, except for differences enforced by improved ammunition and some minor changes, Sam Colt would recognize his own work. In the Frontier Scout, the cylinder movement, the lockwork—the mechanical heart of any good gun—the grips, straps and frame are essentially like those of the Colts used by Zachary Taylor in Mexico, Robert E. Lee in Virginia and George Patton in France. The Frontier Scout is smaller than the Peacemaker, being designed on a seven-eighths scale as a safe and durable gun for the plinker, casual target man and the woodsman.
As a businessman whose patents are now impotent, Colt might rage at the sight of the rival Ruger "Single-Six." As an inventor he would be flattered. None of the Ruger parts is interchangeable with those of Colts; still, it is enough like a Colt to be a Colt. It retains the clean and simple mechanics that Sam Colt championed over 100 years ago. Considering the slow locktime inherent in all such single actions, the "Single-Six" is a surprisingly good target gun. It is a near-perfect field gun for a competent man, and like the old Colts, because of its weight, shape and balance, in an almost mystical way it seems to steady the novice hand.
Sam Colt was as good a salesman and showman as inventor. The rival .22 Double-Nine by High Standard would have appealed to his whole genius. At a fast glance the Double-Nine seems to be a straight-line descendant of the Peacemaker. Functionally, it is at best a distant cousin, for it hides some fancier features behind the old western lines. The Double-Nine is capable of single or double action. The ejector rod that would seem to operate, Colt-style, through a loading gate, actually works backward, allowing the cylinder to swing out so all chambers can be cleared simultaneously.
As often happens to multi-genius men, Colt is remembered only for part of what he was. In all the gunfire his talents as a showman and salesman have been fairly well lost. Salesman Sam differed from the more odious hucksters of his own and of this day: he had a conscience. When his gun was first developed and less than perfect, he never claimed it was a supergun but only a better gun. When it was perfect, he pulled out all stops. Colt had only spotty schooling (he fled Amherst Academy after starting a fire with his tomfool explosives) and was a punk speller, often getting the wrong number of ts and ds in the middle of his words. But he could use words the way his guns used lead. He gave his revolver a soul and almost the power to talk. In his ads Colt never damned his competitors by name, but he left the impression that most rival guns had been designed by Neanderthals. A pre-Civil War ad spoke thus of Colt Revolving Breech Firearms: Treat them well and they will treat your enemies badly.... They do not endanger your eyesight and brain as do the arms with patent primers, which fly like shells into many pieces. They do not stick fast, refusing to open or shut without the aid of an axe when heated, as do guns that open like molasses gates or nut crackers. They leave no burning paper in the barrel to blow the next cartridge into your face as do guns which open from behind.... If you buy a Colt's rifle or pistol, you feel certain that you have one true friend, with six hearts in its body, and who can always be relied on.
Psychiatrists have analyzed the renewed interest in the Old West and western guns as escapism. There is doubtless some truth there. One psychiatrist, pressing to the limit, has declared that the western guns are sex symbols. Analysts in the past have said the same of baseball bats and fishing rods, and the whole country will be reduced to couch level shortly when some omniscient analyst notices that the MacGregor Company is selling 14 different sex symbols to American golfers. On the western shows today, the heroes twirl their Peacemakers like batons and all of them can hit a playing card at 50 yards. This cheap use of the Peacemakers is no doubt helping to sell western guns and false notions about them to many people who have not handled guns much. The Peacemaker can hit a playing card at 50 yards; it can also hit grandmother if the slug ricochets off a radiator pipe.