Double action revolvers were all the rage in Europe, being produced by Adams, Webley, and Tranter, but on the other side of the pond, Samuel Colt was not a fan.
Colt thought a self-cocking gun lacked accuracy, wasted ammunition, and was more liable to mechanical failures. After the U.S. Civil War, the United States military valued ruggedness and accuracy as it fought guerrilla-style conflicts with Native Americans in quick skirmishes, hence Colt’s Single Action Army. In contrast, European militaries fighting land wars wanted large caliber guns that could fire quickly.
Col. James Benton, commander of Springfield Armory, wrote of the double action revolver, “The only advantage this system possesses is, that the arm can be fired rapidly without disturbing the aim. The disadvantages are, liability to accidental discharge, and failure to explode the cartridge.”
Following Colt’s death and the success of the Single Action Army, the company finally gave in to the double action trend, releasing the Model 1877. Originally known as the Double Action, Self-Cocking Central Fire Revolving Pistol, a bit of marketing for the gun was needed. Benjamin Kittredge, a large Colt distributor who already named the commercially available Single Action Army as the Peacemaker handed out nicknames to the double action revolvers. The .38 caliber was known as the Colt Lightning, the .41 caliber as the Colt Thunderer, and the .32 caliber as the Colt Rainmaker. The Model 1878 in .45 caliber was named the Omnipotent.
This pair of ejectorless Colt Lightning Sheriff’s Model revolvers features the engraving of Howard Dove. Dove’s full coverage engraving on both revolvers have “D+” American style scroll engraving with small punch dot background and signed each backstrap on the left side. The revolver with a nickel finish, top right, has nitre blue screws, hammer, cylinder pin, and trigger. The revolver, at lower left, has a blued finish, a casehardened frame, gold inlay, nitre blue screws, hammer, cylinder pin, and trigger.
Rock Island Auction Company’s Aug. 25-27 offers collectors a rare opportunity to bid on all three models of the double action Model 1877, including the Rainmaker that is only counted in the hundreds made, as well as the Model 1878 Omnipotent, for which there are less than 200.
Double Action Demand
Frederick van Oppen, manager of Colt’s London Agency, shared his thoughts with the company headquarters in Connecticut, acknowledging the success of the Single Action Army but knowing for Colt to succeed in Europe, a double action revolver was needed.
“Our new Army pistol continues to give general satisfaction. We hope to do much with it, but all gunmakers abroad and at home, within British Dominions especially, state they can scarcely sell anything now in revolvers but double action central fire .450 bore pistols, with short to medium length barrels in preference,” van Oppen wrote in a letter to Colt headquarters in 1874, also forwarding on examples of English double action revolvers from Adams, Webley, and Tranter.
The company apparently considered making a double action revolver for a short time before reversing course, disappointing van Oppen who fired off another missive in 1874 noting that a San Francisco gun dealer ordered 200 English double action revolvers from Birmingham and that a London export house was no longer getting Single Action Army.
The Rainmaker, a .32 caliber of Colt’s Model 1877 is rare, with only about 200 made. This example is even more rare for being a Sheriff’s Model with a 3 1/2 inch barrel and no ejector and that configuration is confirmed by an accompanying factory letter.
“Your decision on the subject of manufacturing double action pistols is a great blow to our hopes of being able to increase our sales here, or to hold our own in the arms trade here, the competition in which is yearly growing harder.”
An 1875 letter from Col. James Franklin, vice president at Colt, to van Oppen seemed to show some acquiescence by the company possibly pressured by Webley introducing a double action revolver in the United States. “We are working out the double action pistol question. Perhaps we will be soon able to do something with it.”
William Mason, Colt’s plant superintendent worked on a double action design in 1876. Franklin wanted to know how many double action revolvers could be sold annually by the London Agency and van Oppen replied that he could sell 500 to 600 in the first year if chambered in .450 Boxer. Van Oppen also received a double action test model that seemed to be partially made from Single Action Army parts. He did not approve.
Once the Colt Lightning started production, it took several months for any to be sent to London because of their popularity in the United States.
The Colt Lightning, Thunderer, and Rainmaker
Upon first appearance, the Model 1877 looked like a slimmed down Single Action Army but with a “bird’s head” grip. Along with its three different chamberings, this six-shooter was also offered in barrel lengths from 1 1/2 inches to 7 1/2 inches. Despite taking different calibers the exterior appearance of the gun was the same from the Colt Lightning to the Thunderer to the Rainmaker.
The 1877 was first offered in .38 Colt and priced at $14 before the .41 Colt Thunderer was added. Only a couple hundred were chambered in .32. Because of the double action, the guns were considered to be complicated with a reputation for breaking. Still, more than 166,000 of the Model 1877 were made between 1877 and 1909. They were popular with police who could conceal the guns because of their size.
The following year, the more robust Model 1878 – and the Omnipotent – was introduced.
A letter from Master Engraver Howard Dove accompanies this pair of Colt Model 1877 Lightnings details his work that covers all the guns’ metal surfaces except under the front edge of the barrel and inside the trigger guard area. The pattern is a mix of several styles with exceptional scrollwork along with numerous geometric designs similar to that of Cuno Helfricht.
From Colt Lightning to Omnipotent
The Model 1878 had a lowered and shortened hammer spur and a was a larger frame than the 1877. It was rejected by the military because it fell out of time and had light primer strikes. That wasn’t a problem because Colt aimed it at the commercial market. The 1878 proved popular with military officers who purchased their handguns. They were also popular along the western frontier.
The 1878 could fire a 250 grain bullet at almost 900 feet per second.
Like the 1877, the Model 1878 were designed by Mason and Charles Richards, Colt’s superintendent of engineering. Its design was deemed more reliable than the 1877. The gun also had a lanyard ring on the butt, something in common with British wheelguns that van Oppen had relayed to Colt. While the 1878 was chambered for eight larger caliber rounds, it is the .45 caliber round that is attached to the Omnipotent.
The Model 1878 Becomes Omnipotent
Benjamin Kittredge was an arms dealer in Cincinnati, Ohio from 1845 to 1891 and was one of the original Colt allies that pooled resources to buy 12,000 Colt Single Action Army revolvers at a better price than what the Army was paying. He gave the SAA the name, “Peacemaker.”
He gave nine Colt guns nicknames for marketing, including the Colt Lightning, Thunderer, Rainmaker, and Omnipotent. Kittredge received his first shipment of the 1878 in July of that year, a sample of the .45 caliber. He received an order of six guns that the order marked “Omnipotent” in the Colt ledger.
Kittredge purchased the Model 1878 from his first shipment that year until 1890. Through Colt Records, author Don Wilkerson believes there are 154 Kitteredge-shipped Model 1878s etched Omnipotent on the barrel, making them highly attractive to collectors.
Although not originally interested, the Army did order 4,600 of the Model 1878 for use in the Philippines insurrection. That run of revolvers are considered the Philippine or Alaska models.
This photo of the Colt Model 1878 shows the etched “Omnipotent” on the gun’s barrel, making it highly sought after by collectors. This example available in Rock island Auction Company’s August Premier Auction is from the Tom Selleck Collection.
Colt Lightning and Outlaw Legends
Sales of the Colt Lightning jumped in the first years of the 20th century as pulp western writers shared the guns carried by John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, and Pat Garrett. Famed shooter and writer Elmer Keith wrote in his box “Sixguns” that he carried a Colt Lightning.
The Colt Lightning was also part of a tobacco promotion that if a person bought enough tobacco twists with a metal tag they could return the tags for prizes. Tobacco twists were tagged to prove they weren’t counterfeit nor poor quality. Consumers could order a Model 1877 – most likely the Colt Lightning — for 1,800 tags.
This view of the backstraps of the Colt lightning pair available in the upcoming August Premier Auction shows the details of Howard Dove’s engraving and shows the word “Duchess” engraved on the nickel finished gun on the left and the same word in gold inlay on the gun on the right.
Colt Lightning, Thunderer, Rainmaker, and Omnipotent
This quartet of double action firearms are all fascinating in their own way. The Rainmaker numbers about 200 made, and this example is offered in Sheriff’s Model configuration with a 3 1/2 inch barrel and no ejector, makes it even rarer. The Thunderer with its factory box letters to being California shipped. The Omnipotent, one of fewer than 175 acid-etched with Omnipotent on the left of the barrel is remarkable. The Lightning is a pair with phenomenal engraving by Howard Dove, scrimshaw grips and gold inlay.
Colts first-ever double action revolver, the Colt Lightning, Thunderer, and very rare Rainmaker of the Model 1877 are all available in Rock Island Auction’s Aug. 25-27 Premier Auction, offering a tremendous opportunity for the collector who is a completist. In addition, an extremely rare Colt Omnipotent, a .45 caliber double action from the Model 1878 line makes this auction an appointment not to be missed for double action revolver fans or collectors of rare Colts.
An advertisement for the Colt Model 1878 Omnipotent by B. Kittredge & Co. Kittredge often marketed Colt revolvers with nicknames. The Colt Single Action Army was sold as the “Peacemaker,” while the three Colt 1877 double action revolvers were named the “Lightning” for the .38 caliber, the “Thunderer” for the .41 caliber, and the “Rainmaker” for the .32 caliber.
The Peacemaker and its Rivals, by John E. Parsons
Colt’s Double-Action Revolver Model of 1878, by Don Wilkerson
This old Gun: Colt Model 1877 Lightning Revolver, by Rick Hacker, American Rifleman
Colt M1877 Revolver The Double Action Taking the Old West by Storm, by Alan Garbers, Guns magazine
Rock Island Auction Company