Daniel Leavitt (November 16, 1813 – July 27, 1859) was an early American inventor who, with his partner Edwin Wesson, patented the first revolver after Samuel Colt's, and subsequently manufactured one of the first American revolving pistols. The innovative design was manufactured only briefly before a patent suit by Colt forced the company to stop producing the Leavitt & Wesson Dragoon revolver. But Leavitt's early patents, and those of his partner Wesson, stoked competition and helped drive the technological and manufacturing boom that produced the modern firearms industry.
Leavitt was born November 16, 1813, at Rye, New Hampshire, the son of Benning Leavitt, influential businessman, state senator, county commissioner and later Chicopee Selectman, and his wife Olive (Jenness) Leavitt. Daniel Leavitt married in 1838 at West Springfield, Massachusetts, Ruth Jeannette Ball. They had three children.
Leavitt's early patent
Leavitt took out a patent on his new design on April 29, 1837, when the U.S. Patent Office granted him United States patent number 182 for an 'improvement in many-chambered cylinder firearm.' The early weapon, the second of its kind, was a .40-caliber percussion, 6-shot single-action revolver with a 6¾-inch octagon tip-up barrel.
Leavitt took out his patent less than a year after Samuel Colt had obtained a patent on his seminal revolver, and before Colt had a chance to bring his new weapon to market. The patent was granted to Leavitt at his residence in Cabotville, Massachusetts, now part of Chicopee, Massachusetts. The design was radical in one respect. "The revolving cylinder which I use does not differ from such as have been previously employed in many-chambered guns," Leavitt wrote in his patent application. "The improvement which I have made consists in giving a convex form to that end of the revolving cylinder which is in contact with the barrel."
Leavitt's innovation was the beveled face of the cylinder, which was designed to direct flash from the fired cylinder away from adjacent chambers, thus preventing multiple discharges, the major problem with early percussion revolvers. In his design, Leavitt attempted to solve the problem through the beveling and the new convex shape he imparted to the revolving cylinder.
Leavitt's design, wrote Philadelphia's Journal of the Franklin Institute in 1838, was "one of those fire arms which have several chambers bored in a cylinder, the axis of which is parallel to the axis of the barrel of the gun, and which chambers can be successively made to coincide with the said barrel." But Leavitt's innovation, noted the Journal, was to make the end of the cylinder convex to draw off the fumes and flash of the cartridge explosions.
Early firearm manufacturing
The inventor's early patent demonstrated that the firearms industry was attracting considerable innovation and competition as it was getting off the ground. (In the same year that Leavitt's patent was granted, the U.S. Patent Office granted two other men patents on innovations in many-chambered firearms). On February 25, 1836, Samuel Colt had been granted a U.S. patent (later renumbered X9430) for his patent for a 'revolving gun.'
The revolvers were produced in small quantities by the firm of Wesson, Stephens & Miller in nearby Hartford, Connecticut. In 1839 Edwin Wesson, principal of the manufacturing concern and himself an inventor, make some modifications to Leavitt's initial design, dubbing the new product the 'Wesson & Leavitt' revolver, which he began producing at a factory in Massachusetts, a concern which led to the formation of the Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. After a patent grant to Wesson in 1850, awarded posthumously, the first Wesson & Leavitt revolvers rolled off the line at Chicopee Falls. The enormous 40-caliber handgun weighed over 4 pounds and was nearly 15 inches long, with 7.1 inches of that in the barrel itself.
In 1850/51 the firm produced some 800 copies of the new revolver, which could be reloaded by simply pressing a latch, raising the barrel and pulling the cylinder forward and off the axis pin. Along with the standard model, another thousand smaller .31-caliber Belt models were manufactured with a shorter barrel.
The new revolvers were embraced by customers. General Winfield Scott, for instance, carried one of the smaller Wesson & Leavitt 32-caliber six-shot revolvers in the Mexican-American War.
Samuel Colt sues for patent infringement
The success of the fledgling company's weapon soon attracted the attention of Samuel Colt, who sent his cousin Henry Sargeant to purchase one of the revolvers. Emboldened by the recent extension of his original patent until 1857, Colt sued Wesson & Leavitt, now run by Edwin's brother Daniel Wesson, who had gone to work for his brother Edwin in 1843 and who took over after Edwin's 1849 death. Colt's lawsuit alleged infringement of Colt's original patent on the revolver. The case went to trial in October 1852 before the United States circuit court for the District of New York. Both sides alleged tampering with the original U.S. Patent files as well as fraudulent exhibits. The case was extensively covered by the New York City newspapers. A month later, Colt had overwhelmed the tiny manufacturer in court and won large damages, forcing the Massachusetts Arms Company into eventual liquidation in 1853.
Following Colt's victory, his attorney Edward N. Dickerson fired off a circular at the manufacturers in the firearms business. "You will please to take notice," Dickerson wrote, "to desist forthwith from the sale of any REPEATING FIRE ARMS, in which rotation, or locking or releasing, are produced by combining the breech with the lock; or in which the cones are separated by partitions, or set into recesses; except such as are made by Col. Colt, at Hartford."
"Needless to say," write the authors of Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention, "this circular had a chilling effect on the American arms industry." A number of the firms warned by Dickerson capitulated and paid damages to settle with Colt. But despite this early victory, Colt's attorney warned his client not to persist with his patent infringement suits. "Nothing is easier than to get into a big law suit", said Dickerson, "but there are many easier things than to get out successfully. Your luck, as I suppose you will call it, has hitherto been very good – better than any other inventor in America by far, but it may turn, and another suit may bring out something which we know not of, and which may destroy us...."
Dickerson may have been smarting from confrontations in the U.S. District Court battle, which turned into a jousting match between two of the foremost attorneys of the day: Dickerson representing Colt; and Rufus Choate representing the Massachusetts Arms Company. Nevertheless it was Dickerson – and his client Colt, who was away on business in Europe during the trial – who came out on top in the first courtroom dust-up.
Despite the warning of Dickerson to his client not to press his luck, Colt's litigious salvos had one effect: they virtually shut down the output of his competitors for several years, and his firm became the largest manufacturer of civilian firearms during the 1850s.
The aftermath of Colt's litigation
Altogether the Massachusetts Arms Company – considered a predecessor of arms manufacturer Smith & Wesson – manufactured roughly a thousand of the .31-caliber belt models of the original patented revolver, 200 of which were purchased by the abolitionist Massachusetts-Kansas Aid Committee in 1856. Many of these firearms later found their way to abolitionist John Brown.
The Massachusetts Arms Company continued in business, and after the expiration of some of Samuel Colt's original patents, as well as improvements in the design of its revolvers, the company manufactured an assortment of weapons. Several of its early employees, notably designer Joshua Stevens, went on to found other successful weaponry companies. (The J. Stevens Company, founded by former Wesson & Leavitt employee Stevens, was ultimately sold to New England Westinghouse Company in 1915 to produce military arms for World War I).
The early inventor, although eventually crushed by the legal team of arms magnate Samuel Colt, had helped spur competition and drive technological improvements in the design of American pistols – guns later used in the Old West, the American Civil War and elsewhere, and the envy of the world's firearm manufacturers. Leavitt himself served in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia in 1847 as Captain of Company F, 10th Regiment, 6th Brigade and was a member of the Chicopee Freemasons lodge.
Leavitt did not confine himself to the design of firearms. On August 18, 1842 he was granted a patent (number 2755) for a 'Mode of Securing Bobbins in Shuttles for Weaving'. Leavitt's patent for an innovation for bobbins used in power looms demonstrated that the inventor had his eye on another emerging New England industry. It was an industry in which Leavitt had more than passing interest: his father Benning owned a Chicopee factory that produced bobbins. There is no indication whether Leavitt's patent for textile manufacturing was more successful than his firearm patents.
Leavitt died at Chicopee on July 27, 1859.