The Colt Burgess Rifle and Samuel Colt
By: Joel Kolander
Samuel Colt is often remembered as much for his business sense and marketing prowess as he was for his contributions to firearms. His is a story that often is simplified for brevity at the expense of the complexity, as history often does. It’s easier to remember his “invention” of the revolver, even if he never claimed to have invented it at all, only improved upon Collier’s design. It’s easier to herald the great success of the Peacemaker than it is to remember the failures in both Paterson and London. It is also easier to remember a gun that is still seen and used today, than it is to remember his phenomenal marketing efforts including, but not limited to:
- Presenting lavish pistols and dinners to potential buyers and influencers
- Establishing the Colt’s Armory Band
- Buying much of the fallen “Charter Oak,” an early American patriotic symbol in Hartford, and commissioning several works from its wood
- Hanging a 14-foot sign on the roof across from British Parliament that read “Colonel Colt’s Pistol Factory”
- Celebrity endorsements
- Visiting foreign heads of state to procure weapons contracts
- Pitting said heads of state against each other in an arms race to buy more Colt firearms
- Offering to raise, train, equip, and lead a military regiment, the “First Regiment of Colt’s Revolving Rifles of Connecticut.”
- Literally inventing the phrase “New and Improved”
If there were one Colt firearm that perfectly embodied Samuel Colt, some might point to a extravagant, damascened revolver presented to a head of state. Others might suggest a rugged and well-worn Colt Walker that cut its teeth as a young nation realized its “Manifest destiny.” However, a more unusual choice might represent Colt better than any other: the Colt-Burgess rifle. It’s an odd choice considering that it wasn’t developed until 20 years after his death, but it captures so much of what set Colt apart: his business sense, his ability to see and utilize talent, and his uncanny knack for wringing success out of apparent failure.
Turning Failure into Success
Colt’s early failures are well known. The Patent Arms Company in Paterson, along with his ventures in waterproof cable, underwater mines, tinfoil cased cartridges, and even a stint as a nitrous oxide “medicine man” were all doomed. However, out of nearly all of them arose a bit of necessary capital required to advance to the next stage or some other benefit. Even the Paterson revolvers, the plant for which was closed in 1843 and the assets auctioned off, introduced his revolvers to Captain Samuel Walker who helped give birth to the first revolvers of the wildly successful Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company: the Colt Walker.
The 1883 Burgess rifle is also quite easy to consider a success, despite its short 16-month lifespan and with only 6,403 produced. If the notion of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Colt and Winchester is to be believed, then this little rifle protected the Colt Manufacturing Company from a major competitor entering their primary market. Also, considering that Colt revolvers saw significant use by the U.S. military (a relationship which continued into semi-automatics), while Winchester lever actions saw only selective use in the military, it is safe to say that Colt had more to lose and therefore benefited more than Winchester did from any potential arrangement.
Colt was skilled at hiring talented people to work around him (with a glaring exception made for Rollin White). His hiring and trust of Elisha K. Root in 1849, allowed Colt’s dream of interchangeable parts to materialize, which would ultimately give rise to the assembly line. His attorney, Edward N. Dickerson, defended his patents to no end and can be credited a significant portion of Colt’s success. Even after its patriarch passed away in 1862, the company he built wisely continued by hiring men whose names Colt collectors are well acquainted with: Thuer, Richards, and William Mason. Another of those wise acquisitions was that of Andrew Burgess, who was brought aboard in 1882 to develop a new lever action rifle. Burgess was a one-man breeding ground for new firearms designs. Before he arrived at Colt, he had worked for both Whitney Arms and Marlin. After his stint at Colt, he would go on to found the Burgess Gun Co. in 1893 and would have 894 patents in his name. The contracting of Burgess is definitely in line with Samuel Colt’s ability to sniff out top talent.
In the early 1880s Samuel Colt decided he wanted a piece of the pie that Winchester was hoarding all to itself: the successful lever action rifles. Or at least, that’s how the story goes. Legend has it that Colt Manufacturing wanted to enter the ever-growing lever-action rifle market, so they released the Model 1883 Burgess rifle, an improvement on the Winchester Model 1873 in several ways. This supposedly inspired a “social call” from Winchester in June 1884, where Winchester representatives allegedly displayed a prototype of an double action revolver. Neither company wanted to gain a massive new competitor in their respective bread-and-butter markets, so they came to a “Gentleman’s Agreement” whereby Colt Mfg. agreed to not manufacture lever actions and Winchester Repeating Arms agreed to stay out of the revolver market. This is an inaccurate and oversimplified story.
By the early 1880s, Oliver Winchester’s shop had already released the Models 1866, 1873, and 1876 and showed no signs of slowing down. When Rollin White’s patent for the bored through cylinder expired in 1870, Colt Mfg. would have reasonably surmised that they would not be the only player to try and develop a revolver utilizing that patent. Remington, Colt, and Winchester were all chomping at the bit to develop a revolver that could utilize metallic cartridges.
Indeed, Winchester had already head hunted two designers from Smith & Wesson to come on-board and assist in the development of a Winchester revolver. Their names were William W. Wetmore and Charles S. Wells and their resultant revolver, today referred to as the Wetmore-Wells revolver, smacked of the Smith & Wesson No. 3 revolver with which they were so familiar. It was displayed at the 1876 Bicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and this would not have gone unnoticed to Colt Mfg, who was also present at that exhibition. The legend paints Winchester as responding to Colt’s foray into their market with the threat of a revolver, when in reality, it was Winchester who had made the first move. Does that make Colt’s development of the Burgess rifle a lethargic, but effective response to Winchesters foray into revolvers? Kind of.
The delay from when Colt was undoubtedly aware of Winchester’s plans for a revolver (1876) until his hiring of Burgess (1882) is too long a time to consider the development of the Burgess rifle a direct response to Winchester’s development of a revolver. That said, Colt Mfg. had little reason to respond quickly. Smith & Wesson had won the contract to provide their No. 3 revolvers to Russia, and Colt was contracted to provide Single Action Army revolvers to the U.S. government. Winchester was having little success pushing any revolver past the prototype stage and presented little threat for any major contracts (though Winchester did obtain a contract for 30,000 in June 1877 from the Sultan of Turkey). It wasn’t until Winchester wooed away Colt armory Superintendent William Mason in May 1882 that Colt felt pressure outside the realm of regular business competition.
Mason had been instrumental in transitioning Colt from percussion revolvers to those firing metallic cartridges. He helped design the Richards-Mason conversions, and was significantly involved in the development of the Colts first three models that accepted metallic cartridges: the “Cloverleaf” House Pistol, the .22 caliber Open Top, and the Model 1871-72 Open Top. It is also of no small consequence that he helped develop the iconic Single Action Army, the “New Line,” the 1877/78 double actions, and eventually the M1889. Mason was issued several patents related to the Peacemaker. His transition to Winchester six short years after they exhibited a revolver design at the Centennial Exhibition was no small matter, nor was the resultant revolver developed by him and Stephen Wood, the model which allegedly halted Colt’s lever action ambitions.
If all this weren’t complex enough, Colt and Winchester were also embroiled in competition for the shotgun market. Colt had produced their Model 1878 and Winchester was importing English doubles that were produced exclusively for them by English gunsmiths. The PR battle between the two became heated, and allegedly it was Colt who had had enough and finally decided to simultaneously move forward with a new lever action in 1883 and a pump action (the Colt Lightning) in 1884. Winchester then fired back and began importing Webley double action revolvers.
So it was not Colt who wandered ambitiously, nor casually, into a lever action market that drew an “Oh yeah?” response from Winchester. Indeed, it was bold moves by Winchester that finally prompted the response by Colt Mfg. in the hiring of Burgess. It was an incredibly savvy move on Colt’s part to not react to a Winchester prototype that had no prospects for military contracts. Hindsight may make it easy to agree, but to not respond immediately to a huge competitor, especially one so deft and cunning as Oliver Winchester (who was still alive in 1876), must have taken a remarkable amount of vision and poise.
By all rights, the Burgess rifle (a.k.a. the Colt-Burgess Rifle, the 1883 Burgess) should have been a fine competitor against the Winchester. Admittedly, it would have struggled against such a dominant force in the market, as well as to other newcomers such as Marlin in 1881, but it held several advantages over the legendary Winchester Model 1873: it’s shorter, weighs less, the breech bolt is sturdier, its toggle lock is stronger, and the receiver is beefier thanks to fewer cuts. The rifles, which made up around 60% of production, held 15 rounds beneath their 25.5-inch barrels and the carbines packed 12 rounds under a 20-inch barrel. Rifles could be ordered with a octagon or round barrel. All were chambered for the popular .44-40 Winchester round, yes, the standard chambering for the Model 1873. While the loading gate on the Winchester was still the leaf spring door of the King’s patent, the Burgess uses a sliding loading gate.
But for all the comparisons, rumors, history, and competition, at the end of the day the Colt-Burgess rifle is just another “almost was” in the history of American firearms. Its short production span and the great story behind it involving two of America’s powerhouse 19th century manufacturers make these rifles desirable to collectors of Colts, Winchesters, and 19th century American arms. With just over 6,400 produced, it’s impressive that four of the examples shared in this article have found their way into our 2019 February Regional Catalog. You may examine these guns more in-depth by clicking on any of the links, and perhaps make one of these Colt rarities your own.