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March 10, 2022

The Colt Lightning Rifle

By Kurt Allemeier

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Colt was on top of the world with the Single Action Army revolver and took aim at the lever action rifle market. Its entry? The Burgess rifle, released in 1883.

The Burgess failed to find traction and was never a challenge to Winchester’s legendary Model 1873, the rifle that was the “gun that won the west” yin to the Colt Single Action Army’s yang. Colt discontinued the Burgess after 16 months and after a mere 6,403 were made. Winchester was selling about 15,000 Model 1873s per year.

Then, lightning struck for Colt.

Lot 209: This 1886 production rifle is a very scarce deluxe Colt Lightning rifle with a casehardened frame and fancy grade walnut handle and pistol grip stock featuring attractive multi-point checkering.One is in Rock Island Auction Company's May 13-15 Premier Auction.

Lot 183: This exceptional Colt Large Frame "Express Model" Lightning slide action rifle is an early production, three digit serial numbered example as manufactured in the first year of production (1887) and is chambered for the highly sought after powerful .50-95 Express cartridge.

The company introduced the New Lightning Magazine rifle in 1884 that used a pump action to cycle rounds. The company made more than 185,000 Colt Lightning rifles between 1884 and 1904.

Another fine example of early slide action, a Colt Deluxe gold and silver finished L.D. Nimschke engraved Lightning magazine “Baby Carbine” with factory letter.

The Colt Lightning, like the carbine gifted for Christmas to Carrie Adell Strahorn, Queen of the Pioneers, was produced in three models and offered in a number of calibers. Rock Island Auction Company has six of the Colt Lightning rifles on offer in its May 13-15 Premier Auction. Three are medium frame models and three are large frame models that are chambered in heavier calibers.

Gentleman’s Agreement Between Colt and Winchester

Legend has it that after the Burgess was introduced, Winchester officials approached their opposites at Colt about making a revolver and competing in that arena, offering up samples of what their pistols would be like. That led to a gentleman’s agreement between the companies that they wouldn’t intrude on each other’s market.

Offered here is a highly desirable, high condition, deluxe variation of the Colt Large Frame "Express Model" Lightning Rifle as manufactured in 1892.

That didn’t stop Colt from buying the patent for a pump action rifle from a dentist who dabbled as an inventor. Dr. William H. Elliot’s design had a sliding forend that replaced the conventional lever used with the Burgess and Winchester rifles.

Elliot wasn’t someone who caught lightning in a bottle with his pump action design. He earned more than 130 firearms patents in the second half of the 19th century. His most successful design was a Remington double-barrel pocket pistol. Manufactured between 1866 and 1935, more than 150,000 of the over-under guns were produced.

Lot 1172: The patent holder of the double derringer pistol design also held the patent on the Colt Lightning pump action. This factory engraved Remington double derringer is on offer in the May 13-15 Premier Auction of Rock Island Auction Company.

An engraved model of the double derringer, as it was called, and its factory original box is on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s May Premier Auction.

Colt Lightning, Part I

A warning here -- don’t confuse the Lightning rifle with the original Colt “Lightning." The Colt Model 1877 double action revolver in .38 caliber was unofficially called “Lightning,” first. The M1877, Colt’s first double action revolver, was given nicknames of “Lightning” for .38 cal versions and “Thunderer” for the .41 caliber model by Benjamin Kittredge, one of Colt’s major distributors. An early .32 caliber model wore the moniker, “Rainmaker” as well. Two Colt Lightning revolvers are also on offer in the May Premier Auction.

The original Colt "Lightning" was the .38 caliber Colt Model 1877 double action revolver. Several Colt M1877 revolvers will be available as Lot 1180, Lot 206, Lot 1181, Lot 1182, and Lot 1205 in Rock Island Auction Company's May 13-15 Premier Auction.

Kittredge, who came up with at least nine Colt Model trade names. also gave Colt's first large frame double action revolver, the Model 1878, a nickname, too, calling it the "Omnipotent.

Lot 207: Offered in the May 13-15 Premier Auction is one of less than 200 B. Kittredge & Co. shipped ”Omnipotent” marked Colt Model 1878 Double Action Revolver. Kittredge had "Omnipotent etched on the left side of the barrel.

Pump Action Rifle

Colt engineers honed Elliot’s design before the Lightning – the rifle – was released it in 1884.  The gun was described as reliable, easy to use, and extremely fast. Holding the trigger and using the pump allows the rifle to be fired very quickly – or slam fired, according to a Colt advertisement of the time. The Winchester 1897 might be more famous for slamfiring in the trenches of the Great War, but the Colt Lightning rifle did it first.

The Colt Lightning rifle was also light, weighing about 6.5 lbs. Over the three versions, they were offered in a deep-blued finish with a case-hardened hammer, a walnut stock, and forend and open rear and front sights. One of the medium frame Lightning rifles on offer features a rare case-hardened finish.

Lot 3049: This medium frame Colt Lighting is on offer in Rock Island Auction Company's May 13-15 Premier Auction.

The Colt Lightning rifle was introduced with a number of calibers, including the .44-40, the same as the Colt Single Action Army’s frontier model. This model, considered the medium frame Lightning, was also chambered in .32-20, and .38-40, with a 15-round tube magazine. Colt made 89,777 medium frame rifles.

Three years later, the small frame and the large frame Lightning rifles were introduced.

Colt Lightning Carnival Gun

The small frame Lightning, chambered in .22 rimfire, gained popularity as a carnival gun and with backyard marksmen. It was the most popular model, with 89,912 manufactured. The rifle was offered in a 24-inch barrel with a tube magazine holding 15 rounds – 16 if it was loaded with short ammunition. Many of the small frame rifles had rubber butt plates while the rest had iron.

Lot 196: This early production three-digit serialized medium frame Colt Lightning rifle will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's May 13-15 Premier Auction.

Colt Lightning Big Game Gun

The large frame Lightning, known as the Express because it could carry .50-95 Express ammunition, was made for big game hunting. A 28-inch barrel rifle and a 22-inch barrel carbine were produced. It was only made until 1894 and is the scarcest of the three models with just 6,496 manufactured. It was also chambered in .38-56, .40-60, .45-60, and .45-85 as well.

Lot 1154: The marking on this large frame Colt Lightning rifle shows it takes the the .50-95 Express ammunition, making it a desirable model.

Police Gun

The medium frame was popular with law enforcement for its firepower. The Colt Lightning rifle most sought-after by collectors is the 401 medium frame rifles sold to the San Francisco Police Department in 1898 that carried a special number series and are stamped “SFP.”

End of the Colt Lightning Rifle

Colt discontinued the Lightning after making more than 186,000 of the rifles to focus manufacturing capacity on its pistol lines, according to author James E. Serven, who wrote a history of the company.

Since it was often overshadowed by Winchester’s ubiquitous rifle the Colt Lightning doesn’t get much screen time. It did find its way into the spaghetti western “For a Few Dollars More,” wielded by the deadly Col. Douglas Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef, and a few others.

The Colt Lightning rifle was often overshadowed in western movies by the Winchester lever action rifles, but it appeared in the spaghetti western "For a Few Dollars More," here used by a deputy sheriff.

Gentleman’s Agreement, The Colt Lightning's Slight Return

Returning to the apocryphal agreement between Colt and Winchester, more basic economics might have been at play with discontinuing the Burgess and pursuing the Lightning, according to Samuel L. Maxwell Sr., who wrote a book about the Colt Burgess rifle.

Burgess rifles, introduced in 1883, were priced at $24 for a 20-inch carbine model and $27 for a rifle with a 25.5 inch octagon barrel and had some shortcomings, including a lack of a dust cover over the action that came standard on the Winchester 1873.

A Winchester 1873 was priced less expensively and could be had for about $20 in the 1880s, but the company had been dropping prices to fend off competition. Colt on the other hand was financially well-positioned with the success of the Single Action Army, released in 1873, and its double action revolvers.

Lot 212: This large frame Colt Lightning rifle will be available in the May 13-15 Premier Auction by Rock Island Auction Company.

Colt priced the Lightning at $20.50 to $19 depending on the barrel length and whether they were round or octagonal barrels, according to Colt advertisements at the time. The success of the Lightning left Colt with little reason to continue with the Burgess lever action rifle. Production ended in 1884

Maxwell posits that Winchester was struggling to stay profitable while already competing with Marlin and Whitney. Trying to break into the pistol market, Winchester would face stiff competition from not only the venerable Colt brand but the already established Smith & Wesson and Remington, too. Meanwhile, Colt didn’t price the Burgess rifle competitively against Winchester so it didn’t have a problem discontinuing the model.

That left the companies at an impasse and back to doing what they do best, Maxwell argued, Colt making pistols and Winchester producing rifles.

Lot 183: This early production three-digit serialized large frame Colt Lightning rifle will be available in the May 13-15 Premier Auction by Rock Island Auction Company.

Colt Lightning Rifles

Despite its short history, manufactured from 1884 to 1904, the reliable and fast pump-action Colt Lightning rifle proved to be a respectable challenger to the lever action rifles of the time. When the Lightning was discontinued, Colt had turned to developing a semi-automatic handgun. Today, the Lightning is a gun collection must have for fans of Colt, vintage rifles, and firearms innovation.

Sources:

A Fist Full of Double Trouble, by Phil Sprangenberger, truewestmagazine.com

Colt Lightning Rifle, by Jon C. Branch, revivaler.com

Colt Firearms 1836-1959, by James E. Serven

Colt-Burgess Magazine Rifle, by Samuel L. Maxwell Sr.

The Colt Lightning Pump Action Rifles: Striking Again, and Again, and Again…, by Chris Eger, guns.com

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Comments

AvatarKirk StovallMarch 12, 2022

Finding a Colt Lightning by accident many years ago, I immediately became a fan. Following the morphosis of firearm development in the late 19th century, there was also Andrew Burgess, who had dozens of patents with various firearm manufacturers, including Colt with the Colt/Burgess. Probably the most obscure design Burgess invented was a similar slide action repeating rifle that was operated by sliding the grip on the gun to reload and fire it.

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