Size matters. Unlike what you see in the Westerns movies or on television, not everyone in the Old West era who packed a gun went around with a big “hog-leg” in a low-slung holster that was dangling from a wide cartridge belt strapped low on the waist. Many folks from all walks of life—shopkeepers, bankers, and bartenders—liked to keep a handgun discretely concealed on their person. The same went for sheriffs, marshals, policemen, and detectives; then of course you have to add gamblers, outlaws, and even “soiled doves.” For that reason all of your handgun manufacturers not only had big “horse pistols” in their line, but also included a selection of smaller “hide-out guns,” usually ranging in bore size from .22 to .41 in rimfire (RF) and centerfire (CF) models.
Lightning & Thunderer
One of those manufacturers was Colt’s Patent Firearms of Hartford, Connecticut. Early on Samuel Colt designed small percussion Patterson Model revolvers and later on his cap ‘n ball 1849 Pocket Model in .31 caliber turned out to be his top-seller. When the Civil War ended and the move to fixed metallic cartridge firearms was underway Colt first concentrated on a big single-action revolver for the military, but as soon as they won a government contract for the 1873 SAA, they turned their attention to the civilian market. One early cartridge-firing wheelgun was the Colts House Pistol also known as the “Cloverleaf” due to the shape of its 4-shot cylinder. This was a .41 RF SA revolver with a spur trigger and a 1.5- to 3-inch barrel. Colt also made single-shot derringers in .22 and .41 RF often referred to as “Muff Pistols” as they were often carried on cool nights by ladies with their hands inside fur muffs. In 1877 Colt came out with some more serious handguns for defensive use. They looked a lot like the SAA only they were scaled down a bit and chambered for the .38 Long Colt and .41 Colt, plus they had double-action (DA) firing mechanisms. Both held six cartridges and were known as the Lightning (.38 CF) and the Thunderer (.41 CF). Some 167,000 or so were manufactured up until 1909 when production ceased.
The Lightning was the smallest of the pair, although for a short period in 1877 Colt made a version in .32 Colt called the Rainmaker that today is extremely rare. Anyway, the 1877 Model was Colt’s first attempt at a DA revolver. Unfortunately the action of the two six-guns was overcomplicated and fragile, so most ended up on the benches of gunsmiths who quickly came to dislike their intricate design. The Lightning was an ideal hideout gun and offered a good compromise between size and firepower.
Barrel lengths ran from short 1.5-inch tubes to long 10-inch models that were more appropriate for belt carry. Of course back in the day, Colt was more than willing to cut the barrel to whatever length you wanted. The barrels were marked on the left side COLT D.A. 38 and the 1.5- to 6-inch guns could be had with no ejector rod, while the 4.5- to 10-inch models did. Texas bad-man John Wesley Hardin was reputed to pack a Lightning—as did a well-known British Detective of the Victorian period named Jerome Caminada, who became the superintendent of the Manchester Criminal Investigations Division (CID) and was nicknamed the “Sherlock Holmes” of Manchester. Lightnings were also used by American Express guards and agents, while examples have been found marked Policia Del Distrito Federal (Mexico City Police).