Colts Model 1877 Double Action “Self-Cocking” Revolver
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Watch the Video of a "Scarce"* Model 1877 Double-Action Revolver That is Still Fully-Functional. Here’s a Quick Rundown on One of the West’s Most Famous Sixguns.
Although Samuel Colt experimented with double action pistol designs as early as the 1850s, a production line double action Colt’s revolver would not be seen on the shelves of western gun shops until many years after the iconic gun maker’s death. Colt’s first production model double action pistol would be the 1877 Colt's Double-Action (DA) Revolver. Colt enthusiasts may love or hate this model but one thing is for sure; it left its indelible mark on the history of firearms in the American west.
Designed by William Mason, the pistol was the predecessor to Colt’s “Frontier” which appeared the following year and was considered an improvement over the smaller M1877. The M1878 ‘Frontier’ DA Army would feature a larger-heavier frame to accommodate the more powerful .44-40 & .45 Colt ammunition. While the Frontier enjoyed reasonable success, the M1877 ‘Lightnings’ were produced in three-times the quantity and would remain in production 4 years after the last of the DA Army pistols left the assembly line in 1905.
The Model 1877 was made in three-calibers which were .32 Colt, .38 Colt, & .41 Colt (sometimes called ‘Long Colt’ ammunition by collectors). These smaller rounds were popular in conceal-carry arms and served as a great deterrent against robbers, desperados, and miscreants galore. However, they were anemic for use upon the frontier against wild animals or on military campaigns. Benjamin Kittredge was a Colt distributor and marketing genius who coined the formidable-sounding nicknames of quite a few well-known arms of the day. In the case of the m1877, he named all 3-models in a way that collectors still identify them in the 21st century.
· .32 “Rainmaker” the rarest and most sought-after variant of the model 1877 double action revolvers. According to firearms historian, Russ Withem, 247 were made.
· .38 “Lightning” which has become the generic name for which the m1877 is identified regardless of caliber
· .41 “Thunderer” features a slightly heavier round and was produced in numbers roughly equal to that of the lightning.
There was a down side to the model 1877; its mechanism was delicate and it was prone to break quite easily. Previous to the M1877, all of Colt’s revolvers were all single action and there were many advantages to justify this. The single action design is less complicated and simple is best. With less moving parts, there are less opportunities for something to break. Another good reason is that better accuracy can be achieved through the lighter trigger-pull of a single action at full cock as opposed to the heavier-longer trigger pull of the double action revolver. Theoretically, the new double-action was supposed to be a ‘faster-firing’ weapon but in reality, a Colt’s single action revolver can be fired far more rapidly in the hands of a skilled shooter. In recent years, quick-draw legend Bob Munden proved this time and again. In my own experience, I can rapid fire my Thunderer but I have seen other shooters fan their SAA revolvers at a faster rate with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Probably the best advantage to the double action design is the greater ease of shooting with one hand since you don’t have to unclench your grip to thumb the hammer.
Video Note: In my collection, I have a Colt’s model .41 “Thunderer”. What is rare about this specimen is that it’s still fully functional with a crisp action like a Swiss watch. The serial markings show that it was manufactured in the 1890s. The video here is one I made in my study demonstrating the design’s hammer ‘safety notch’, feed-gate and the pistol’s ability to operate as either a single or double-action weapon. (*Notice, I did not follow through and dry-fire on the DA trigger pull as that is extremely bad for this make/model of revolver.)
I have heard the M1877 to be reputed to being ‘the gunsmith’s favorite’ due to its need for constant repairs but I’m not sure I agree with the title. Being a ‘favorite’ implies that there is some degree of pleasure in fixing an M1877 DA Revolver and I don’t know a single gunsmith who likes working on this handgun regardless of the pay. A shooting buddy of mine knew of only one man in our area, a Tucson gunsmith who was willing to work on this temperamental pistol. This gunsmith warned that the “Lightning has the habit of requiring additional mechanical adjustments after the primary fix was done. So, once you fix one part, you need to fix the new problem that your previous fix just caused. In fact, both my shooting buddy and I know of old west gunsmiths who would preferably not deal with this model of Colt at all due to the complexity of working on it.
Below are the Manufacturing years and their serial numbers as listed in The Colt Heritage Book (1979)
Despite its issues, the Model 1877 was a commercial success and nearly 167,000 pistols of this type were made over a 32-year production run time from 1877 to 1909. A few famous gunmen of the late 19th century are believed to have both carried and used them. Among the more noteworthy people of America’s ‘Wild-West’ era who reputedly carried the Model 1877 include the names of John Wesley Hardin, Doc Holliday Bat Masterson, Soapy Smith and Billy The Kid. My caveat to this celebrity lineup is while many books state who carried this model, few such specimens with provenance have come to light. Still, the high numbers of manufacturing over a 30+ year run gives some testimony to the M1877 DA Revolver's popularity. Today, some manufacturers produce a variety of fantasy conversions of 1873 SAA as well as cap & ball creations that mimic the trademark “bird’s head” grips found on the M1877 & M1878 design but nothing beats the real McCoy. Colt’s model 1877 Double-Action revolver remains one of the most iconic weapons of America’s Wild West and no imitation comes close.
*Editor's note: The use of the term 'Scarce' is debatable as many original specimens in perfect working order still exist today. The term was used more in a provocative manner to illustrate the revolver's vulnerability to breakage as well as the testimony of many gunsmiths who don't particularly like working on this mechanically temperamental weapon.