The company made these Winchester challengers for two decades.
Of all the makes of guns used in the “shoot-’em-up” days of the Old West, Colts became the most iconic revolvers of that period, and Winchesters the most iconic repeating rifles. In fact, as I wrote in the August 2012 “Guns of the West,” the two firearms makers made a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1884 that Colt would stick to revolvers, and Winchester would stick to repeating rifles.
The Colt factory, however, apparently interpreted that agreement to apply only to lever-action rifles, because in 1884 the company began to produce a slideaction, or pump-action, repeating rifle, and it would continue to do so for two decades. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Colt pump-action rifle story is that the rifle was designed by former Remington gunsmith William H. Elliot, who had designed the Remington .41-caliber over-and-under-barreled “double derringer,” which became the most iconic cartridge derringer on the Western frontier.
The Winchester repeating rifles used a lever beneath the frame to open and close the action. But Colt’s new mechanism utilized a horizontally sliding forearm to open and close the action and put a new cartridge into the breech each time the forearm was “pumped.”
Colt’s pump-action rifle was offered in three different frame sizes. The first was the medium size, which was introduced in spring 1884. Winchester’s Model 1873 lever-action repeater had made its three biggest calibers of .44-40, .38-40 and .32- 20 so popular on the frontier that Colt had quickly offered its Single Action Army Model revolver in the same calibers, so the same cartridges worked in both the rifle and the revolver. And this meant fewer extra cartridges had to be carried on the frontier. So it is no surprise that Colt’s pump-action repeater was also produced in those same three calibers, with the .44-40 instantly becoming Colt’s best-selling repeating rifle.
The new Colt rifle also had an external hammer like the lever-action Winchesters, so the gun could be cocked or uncocked without pumping open the action, and the shooter could also visually know if the gun was cocked or uncocked. And one of the factors that was unique about the Colt pump rifle was that when the trigger was held against the back of the trigger guard, the gun could be fired as rapidly as the fore-end could be “pumped” back and forth, in a sense making it the “semiautomatic” rifle of its time. So Colt named it the Lightning Model after its advertised “lightning” speed of action.
This first pump rifle was offered in either a round or octagonal barrel, in 26-inch rifle length or 20-inch carbine length, with —like the Winchester lever-actions—a tubular magazine under the barrel that held 15 cartridges in the rifle length and 12 in the carbine length. The first models had an open-topped breech, but later a dustcover was added that slid back when the action was pumped open. The standard finish was blue, with walnut stocks. And, as with all Colts, any extras like engraving or special finish could be ordered at an additional cost. Colt made 89,777 of these medium-sized pumps from 1884 until production ceased in 1902.
In 1887 Colt introduced its small-frame Lightning Model rifle in .22 Short or .22 Long calibers, and the two different-sized cartridges could be mixed in the magazine without the gun malfunctioning. This Lightning became a popular boys’ rifle for small game hunting and target shooting. Its standard and optional finish was the same as the medium-frame Lightning, and the standard barrel length was 24 inches. Colt made 89,912 of these small-frame Lightnings until 1904.
By far the most impressive looking of the Colt pump rifles was the mammoth large-frame model, also introduced in 1887. Advertised as being especially designed to take down any-sized North American big game animal, the large-frame Lightning came in .38-56, .40-60, .45-60, .45-65, .45-85 and .50-95 Express calibers. So it was advertised as the “Express Model.” Its standard features were the same as the smaller-sized pump rifles, and any option was also available at extra cost. Standard barrel lengths were 28 inches for the rifle and 22 inches for the carbine. The rifle length magazine held 10 cartridges, the carbine length eight. Colt produced only 6,496 of these giant rifles before production ended in 1894, its short lifespan probably hastened because its oddball-sized cartridges were often hard to get on the frontier.
The factory-suggested retail prices ranged from $19 to $20.50 for the small-frame rifle, $16.50 to $18 for the medium-frame size and $19 to $20.50 for the Express rifles.
In their classic book Firearms of the American West,1866–1894 historians Louis Garavaglia and Charles Worman quote a June 1885 letter from one of Colt’s biggest dealers, E.C. Meacham of St. Louis, who wrote glowingly to the Colt factory: “If your line covers the 22, 32, 38, 44 & .40- 60, and you can furnish them as fast as the trade demands, we think our New Haven friend [Winchester] will find a great falling off in his rifle business.… In our opinion [these calibers] will cover the wants of the trade. Particularly because there is so much of this kind of ammunition in the market. A party does not wish to buy a rifle and feel that it is necessary for him to take his entire quantity of ammunition with the rifle.”
In Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather Worman adds that in an October 2, 1886, letter to Colt, CaptainW.R. Thomas of the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department asked for 24 more Colt Lightning rifles because Winchesters“do not work well, they catch, and it is with great difficulty that the shells can be thrown out [extracted].”
But Lightnings also “met with mixed reviews,” according to Worman. “Some early guns,” he writes, “were plagued by ejection problems, and Deputy Sheriff J.G. Jacqurdin of Brownsville, Texas, in 1889 wrote the factory expressing his dissatisfaction with the two he had and asked if he could exchange them.”
In a December 30, 1889, letter to Colt, exhibition shooter George H. Sickles wrote, “I understand you have made an Improvement on your 44 Cal Carbine—does it eject the shell perfectly in doing rapid shooting? I do shooting at Glass Balls and Marbles. I understand that a person can do more rapid shooting with your Carbine Improved than I can with a Winchester.”
In October 1892 an elaborate, factory-engraved .45-85-caliber Express Model, Serial No. 5963, was shipped to T.E. Denel in Red Lodge, Mont. In June 1898 the San Francisco Police Department bought 401 of the medium-frame .44-40-caliber Lightning rifles, marked and numbered in a special range for them. And a cased, factory-engraved Express Model is in the collection of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz at the Royal Military College Museum in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
There are various explanations about why Colt pulled its pump-action rifles off the market. The factory said it needed the space to produce more pistols. But I suspect that Winchester had its hand in the cookie jar, too. Whatever the case, the Colt pump-action repeating rifles became as extinct as the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.