Colt’s Double-Action Lightning

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.

Gun Details
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.

Ride The Lightning
The Lightning was popular with gamblers and gunmen of our Old West. Pat Garrett had a presentation inscribed Lightning. It is believed that Doc Holliday carried a Lightning at one time. It seems to be reasonable that as his health deteriorated that he would have liked the small, easily concealed, fast-into-action DA revolver with its low-recoiling .38 cartridge. The legendary John Wesley Hardin had a rare 2½-inch barrel .38 Lightning on his person when he was killed. Serial number 84304, produced in 1891, it was nickel plated with pearl grips and engraved on the backstrap “J. B. M. to J. W. H.” J. B. M. was James B. Miller, notorious hired killer known as “Killer Jim” Miller. Ironically, it is believed that Miller was hired to murder Pat Garrett and the cowhand that confessed to the killing was paid to do so. And Billy the Kid is believed to have sent many of the 21 men he supposedly killed to “Boot Hill” with a Colt Lightning.

Elmer Keith, in his classic handgunning book Sixguns says, “William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, was probably the first man to use a DA extensively in combat. He carried a pair of 6-inch barreled Colt Lightnings in .41 long caliber. Only a couple of years ago (author’s note: approximately 1950) one of those guns turned up in Butte, Montana, badly corroded, dirty and rusty and showing no evidence of having ever been taken apart. Yet when grips were removed for cleaning, one had “W. H. Bonney, New Mexico” and a date in the 1880s cut inside of it.” Keith described a personal Lightning: “We once returned a Lightning model in .38 long caliber to J. H. Fitzgerald of Colt, and had him make it into a .41 with barrel just to the end of the extractor (authors note: 4-inch custom length). This custom Lightning made one of the fastest DA’s of the old timer type I have seen and I carried it for years out of sight in my left chaps pocket.”

Later in Sixguns Keith says, “Over 30 years ago I used to do good fast hip shooting with an old Colt Lightning .41 Long…” This most likely was the custom Lightning he described earlier. Describing the Lightning, Keith said “The Lightning short-barreled .41 became known as the ‘gamblers’ gun’, as it was small, short, and fast to get into action and easily concealed.”

Lightning revolvers were carried in the usual Western holsters. The Mexican loop holster was popular with the longer-barreled Lightnings when worn openly on the hip with a cartridge belt. The Slim Jim style holster, with a simple riveted belt loop, remained popular with small-frame revolvers such as the Lightning. But it was with the Lightning that the shoulder holster became popular. I have a high-quality spring clip shoulder holster for a 6-inch barrel Lightning made by the well-known H. H. Heiser of Denver, Colorado. Heiser was one of the three major U.S. holster makers prior to World War II, along with S. D. Myres of El Paso, Texas and George Lawrence of Portland, Oregon. Heiser was a harness maker in the early Colorado gold mining days that relocated his business to Denver. Many Colorado gunmen came to Heiser for custom gun leather.

The Heiser shoulder holster has a leather covered spring, which captures the revolver around the cylinder with a leather cup at the bottom to secure the muzzle. The holster rides under the off-side arm suspended from the usual leather harness. The unusual feature of the Heiser version is the leather sweat guard that folds down over the gun butt.

Shooting Impressions
Even though my 4½-inch barrel Lightning was manufactured in 1901 and most likely was proofed for smokeless powder loads, it is 110 years old and I chose to shoot it using the low-pressure black powder substitute loads. Ten-X says that their .38 Long Colt has a 150 grains HBFP lead bullet at a velocity of 599 feet per second (fps) out of a revolver.

I must say, I was impressed with the way the Colt Lightning performed. At the realistic gunfight distance of 15 feet, it was easy to keep five shots on a paper plate offhand. At that distance the revolver shot to point of aim. I shot an unopened aluminum can of soda pop, and it was literally destroyed. I also shot a bar of bath soap, expecting to punch a nice clean hole through it, but it was blown into several pieces. It appears to me that the hollow base flat point bullet would perform relatively well as a “manstopper.”

Using the classic strong hand unsupported target shooting stance at a cardboard target with an aiming point marked on it put four shots in 1.38 inches strung horizontally at point of aim, with a fifth shot jerked trigger flyer. I finished up the shooting session by point shooting at the small box the bath soap had came in. The Lightning balances and points well and I hit three out of five shots point shooting at approximately 12 feet. I can see where, if a Colt Lightning was one’s main handgun, with a bit of practice one would be well armed. For more information call 800-962-2658 or visit