Sam Colt did not believe in the double-action (DA) feature on a revolver, as he felt the heavy trigger pull was bad for accuracy. So it was not until 1877, 15 years after his premature death, that Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company introduced their first DA revolver. It was introduced as the “New Double Action Self-Cocking Central Fire Six Shot Revolver” in .38 and .41 Long Colt calibers. It was soon known as the Colt Lightning revolver, though some collectors insist that the .41 caliber version was known as the Thunderer. To simplify things, I will refer to Colt’s first DA revolver as the Lightning, regardless of the caliber, as there were a few made in .32 caliber as well.
The Lightning is a fixed cylinder revolver very similar to Colt’s Single Action Army in appearance, except for its distinctive birds-head grip shape. It was available with a side rod ejector, as the SAA, or in a short barrel ejectorless version like the SAA Sheriff’s Model. Reference works indicate the ejectorless version was available in barrel lengths of 1½ through 6 inches and 4½ through 10 inches with an ejector. Any barrel shorter than 3 inches is rare, and I personally handled a Lightning with a 1-inch barrel that was factory authenticated as original. Colt manufactured over 166,000 Lightning revolvers from 1877 to 1909.
The early Lightnings came with beautiful checkered one-piece rosewood grips, but by early 1881 less expensive checkered black hard rubber grips were standard. Standard finishes were blue with color casehardened frame or nickel plating.
The Lightning loaded and unloaded like Colt’s SA revolver, with the hammer being placed on half-cock and the cartridge being loaded/unloaded through a loading gate. The ejector less models had a cylinder pin with an extra-long knurled head. In case of a stuck cartridge case, this special cylinder pin could be used to poke the stuck case out of the chamber.
The most common Lightnings are .38 Long Colt caliber with 3½-inch barrel in the ejectorless model and 4½-inch barrel .38 caliber with the ejector. Sights are a V-shaped notch at the rear of the grooved topstrap and a tapered blade front sight.
Lightning revolvers with barrels shorter than 3½ inches or longer than 6 inches are rare. My only known “fake” is a Lightning in .38 caliber, serial number 24745, made in 1880 and now having what appears to be a very rare 2-inch barrel. The barrel has the correct Colt marking on the right side, where it should be as there is not room between the frame and front sight on the top of the barrel. Unfortunately, when I received the Colt factory letter it indicated this no finish 2-inch barrel Lightning left Hartford as a 3½-inch barrel nickel-plated .38. A close inspection by Colt authority Bob “Arizona Thumber” James verified that the barrel had been artificially aged.
Correct Lightning revolvers are known with markings for Wells Fargo and the American Express Company, as well as one factory marked “POLICIA DEL DISTRITO FEDERAL,” being the Mexican government police.