The Pistol Maker Who Saved American Industry

Every adult on the planet who has watched a Western movie knows about the Colt pistol. It was the sidearm of choice for Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill Coty, “Bat” Masterson and Wild Bill Hickok. Robert E. Lee, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Patton wore Colt pistols. But, the backstory of the man behind the famous pistol is a portrait of an innovation leader in action. Today, we would label Samuel Colt a disruptor.

Sam loved pistols from an early age. Following a childhood dream, he created a pistol that could shoot six rounds successively without reloading.  With an order to quickly produce a thousand pistols, he realized the “one-at-a-time” artisan approach to gun making would never work.  However, a pistol with interchangeable parts would not only be more efficient, he could realize his dream of an assembly line process for greater productivity.

Here we go with the drive-by history part. Henry Ford reasoned Colt’s two concepts (interchangeable parts and assembly line production) would be a way to provide automobiles for the masses.  He improved on the process that would become the factory operation approach for all industries.  With the advent of railroads and the availability of labor, especially immigrant workers, America quickly became the industrial capital of the world, exporting goods cheaply due to efficiencies gained by mass production.

The new American frontier leaped from being an agricultural also-ran in the late 1800’s to the dominant world power in the early 1900’s. We can thank Sam for starting a chain reaction that today produces smartphones, IBM Watson’s, and Tesla electric sports cars that can accelerate as fast as a Ferrari!

Innovation Leaders Relentlessly Traverse Challenge

Samuel Colt was born in 1814 in Hartford. His grandfather, a major in the Continental Army, thrilled him by giving Colt his old flintlock pistol.  But, Colt’s young life became laced with tragedy. At six, his mother died from tuberculosis. All three of his sisters died.  At eleven, he was indentured to a farmer where he did chores and attended school. The farmer introduced him to the Compendium of Knowledge, a book filled with exciting stories about everything for steamboat inventor Robert Fulton to gunpowder. His diligence was fueled by the stories he read and not by the misfortunes in his life.

Innovative leaders have always taken challenges head-on. Steve Jobs started Apple in his parent’s garage and grew it to a $2 billion-dollar company. But, his board fired him in order to take Apple in a new direction. Propelled by sheer resilience he started NeXT and Pixar; ultimately reclaiming his position as Apple CEO. He took the company to a value of $300 billion. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was turned down by twelve publishers. When publisher Even Bloomsbury finally took her manuscript (paying her only a £1500 advance), the editor told her to “get a day job.” Instead, she doubled her efforts. Today, through here doggedness she is a billionaire and her books have sold over 400 million copies.

Innovation Leaders Have a Clear “Picture in Their Heads”

One of young Colt’s chores was taking the horse and wagon into Glastonbury, CT for supplies. Glastonbury was a shipbuilding town on the Connecticut River.  On one trip, he listened to a group of soldiers rave about the prowess of the double-barreled rifle and boasting the impossibility of anyone ever devising a firearm that could shoot five or six times without reloading. It was a watershed moment for the 12-year-old Colt and he vowed to become the person who would craft an “Impossible gun.” It remained a “picture in his head” vision that would propel his work.

Innovation leaders live their work in reverse.  By that I mean they have a clear vision and then plan backwards to create a path for the execution of that vision.  Armed with a “picture in their head” they are far less distracted by obstacles and minutia.  It enables laser focus essential to going the distance.  Dreams that have staying power are those that are compelling, challenging, and colorful.  And, they inspire those around them, not by the promise of wealth, but by the calling of a grander purpose.

Innovation Leaders are Resource Attractors

Colt’s company was saved by Captain Sam Walker of the Texas Rangers. Walker had seen first-hand how well Colt’s pistols performed during the Seminole War and wanted to use them in the Mexican-American war. In 1847, he placed an order for 1000 pistols. Colt turned to chief mechanic and inventor Elisha Root to set up his assembly line concept. He also brought in artisan gun makers from Bavaria to add “roll-die” engraving on the steel. It enabled brand-making decorative flourishes to be added to the functionality of a well-made pistol. His company would ultimately produce over 400,000 revolvers. Great innovative leaders value interdependence and synergy.

Innovation Leaders Have a Passion for Their Brand 

Sam Colt was a marketing genius. He traveled the world promoting his revolvers often giving them to celebrities in exchange for their permission to use their photos in popular magazines. Colt pistols were advertised with the revolver being used on wild animal hunts or against bandits.  Wild West performers sported Colt pistols. When he was unable to get an audience with foreign heads of state as a private citizen, he talked the governor of Connecticut into make him a lieutenant colonel and an aide-de-camp in the state militia.  His “gifts” to kings and rulers were engraved “Compliments of Col. Colt.”

The impetus for Colt’s unleashed brand promotion was less about his personal ego and more about his passion for the Colt pistol.  Innovation leaders are quick to praise ingenuity and eager to make examples of those who risk for a new way or a better approach.  To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, just “building a better mousetrap” will not alone create a path to your door.  Folks must know about your better mousetrap…or new-fangled pistol.

The runaway pop movie, La La Land, gave us a magical musical.  And, one song “The Fools Who Dream” carries an amazing encouragement for leaders in pursuit of innovation. Here are a few of the Benj Pasek and Justin Paul lyrics.

“A bit of madness is key; to give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us; and that's why they need us.

So, bring on the rebels; the ripples from pebbles;

the painters, and poets, and plays

And here's to the fools who dream; crazy as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that break; here's to the mess we make.”

Samuel Colt was by no means a perfect leader.   He broke his share of hearts and made his share of messes.  But, his contributions as an innovation leader were significant in giving us “new colors to see.”  His legacy is not just the pistols that bore his name, but rather the kind of influence on the evolution of American industry that has had a profound ripple effect for over 150 years.


Image credit: Pixabay

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