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Old 10-24-2015, 12:46 PM
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Default The Colt Model 1877 double action revolvers

This is another draft article for review - as always, comments welcomed.

John

The Colt Model 1877 double action revolvers



The double action (or self-cocking) revolver has been around for quite a while, with its roots going back to the 19th Century. Revolvers of this type are able to be instantly fired simply by pulling the trigger. We take revolvers like this for granted today, but they were virtually unknown until the second half of the 1800s. The very first successful cartridge-firing double action revolver in the U.S. was made by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company and offered to the public for $15.00 in January of 1877. It was known, logically enough, as the Colt Model 1877, and was produced as late as 1909. By actual count, 166,849 were made. This gun was more than probably a response to the double action Webley Bulldog revolver, which was made in England beginning in 1872. Many of these Webleys were imported into the U.S. and started a demand that Colt’s envied. First named the New Double Action Self Cocking Central Shot Revolver, the iconic Model 1877 became instantly popular. The double action advantage was appreciated by such western characters as Doc Holliday, John Wesley Hardin, Sheriff Pat Garrett, and Billy the Kid. In fact, you can see actor Val Kilmer accurately portray Doc Holliday using a Model 1877 in one of my favorite western movies, Tombstone.

The Model 1877 was invented by Colt’s employee William Mason, who was also involved in the design of the famous Colt Single Action Army revolver. In appearance, these guns somewhat resembled a smaller Single Action Army, but with a larger smooth curved trigger and a more open trigger guard. Another distinguishing feature was the distinctive “bird’s head” grip shape that has been widely copied in recent years on modern replica single actions that never originally used that style of grip. Aside from their double action capability, these double action pistols were operated quite similarly to their single action Model 1873 forebears. They were loaded through a gate on the right side of the frame when the hammer was brought to half-cock. They emulated the M1873 by having 3 notches to position the hammer – safety, half cock, and full cock. They could also be thumb-cocked in order to squeeze off a more precise single action shot. As with a single action gun, it was prudent to load them with only five rounds rather than six, with the hammer resting on an empty chamber. With the hammer fully down, the firing pin would otherwise rest on a live round, an invitation to disaster. Unlike the Single Action Army, the locking notches on the cylinder were at the rear of the cylinder rather than around its periphery.

The Model 1877 was made in three calibers. These were .32 Colt, .38 long or short, and .41 Colt. Nicknames were first assigned to guns in each of these calibers by Benjamin Kittredge, a major distributor for Colt, although the manufacturer never referred to them in this manner. The .32s (somewhat rare) were “Rainmakers,” the .38s were “Lightnings,” and the .41s were “Thunderers.” The nicknames stuck, and modern collectors often use them to refer to the specific guns instead of by caliber. All were available with nickel plating, or with case-hardened cylinder frames and blued barrels, grip frames, and trigger guards. Originally the guns came with one-piece checkered rosewood grips, but most were later standard with two-piece hard rubber (gutta-percha) checkered grips with the rampant colt logo in an oval at the top. One-piece hardened rubber grips are found very rarely. Ivory and other special-order grips were also available.

There were two styles of barrels - those with ejector housings and rods, and those without them. The ejector-equipped barrels ranged in length from 4 ” to 7 ”, with 7” and 7 ” on special order only. Longer barrel lengths were also available on special order. Some very rare guns had target sights. The ejectorless guns had barrel lengths of 2” to 4”. These were unofficially known as “storekeeper” or “sheriff” models. These shorter guns had longer cylinder base pins which extended farther out underneath the barrel. That was so they could be more easily grasped to remove and be used to poke the empties out of the cylinder. Because these longer base pins were pulled out more than usual, they sometimes became lost. More often than not they were replaced with standard-length pins. Such is the case with the gun illustrated, a .41 “Thunderer” with a 3 ” barrel. I suspect an earlier user was content to eject the empties with a pen or pencil, as this was commonly done. This gun is currently owned by AZFirearms.com in Avondale, Arizona.

But all was not roses with these double action guns. While their big brother single actions had an incredible reputation for reliability, such was not the case with the M1877s. Colt’s first foray into double action lockwork was not exactly masterful. The mechanics are delicate and intricate, quite prone to breakage with extended or careless use. Failure can occur through operation in either actual firing or dry firing. Because of this shortcoming, these guns have unfortunately earned a couple of derogatory sobriquets, either “Gunsmith Special” or “Gunsmith’s Nightmare.” In view of this, it’s suggested that still-working specimens not be subjected to actual firing or excessive manipulation. Spare parts are hard to come by, and most gunsmiths will tell you that they are not very interested into trying to repair an M1877. Repro parts do exist, and some (very few) gunsmiths know the gun well enough to attempt repairs. Proceed at your own risk.

These special guns are steeped in history. Both Billy the Kid (real name Henry McCarty) and his nemesis Sheriff Pat Garrett owned one. Garrett shot Billy in Billy’s home in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881 when Billy cried out “Quien es?” (Who is it?) in the dark. Evidently Pat valued reliability more than innovation at the time, because he was believed to have used a Colt Frontier Single Action Army in this instance. Word was that Billy was found dead on the floor with both a Colt Thunderer and a knife beside him. John Henry (Doc) Holliday had both a nickel-plated Thunderer and a Lightning. At the OK Corral gunfight on October 26, 1881, he put his Thunderer into action, firing several times. Finally fatally blasting Frank McLaury with a borrowed shotgun, Holliday himself was wounded in the fracas. Prolific killer and lawyer John Wesley Hardin was known to have had two M1877s. He had one on him while playing dice in El Paso’s Acme saloon on August 19, 1895. Reportedly spotting antagonist John Selman storming through the batwing doors behind him in a mirror, he went for the two-inch-barreled Lightning in his waistband. This proved futile, as Selman swiftly shot him in the head, instantly killing him. More shots to the chest and arm followed as he lay on the floor. Subsequent to his arrest, a hung jury mistrial enabled Selman to go free on bond. The self-defense issue had been unresolvable. Before a new trial could take place, Selman himself was killed in an altercation with a U.S. Marshal.

The Rainmakers, Lightnings and Thunderers were indeed very fast and handy guns. They certainly gave an edge to those on both sides of the law who carried them. They’re true classics.

(c) 2015 JLM
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Last edited by PALADIN85020; 10-28-2015 at 04:25 PM.
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Old 10-25-2015, 07:55 PM
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a masterful article on this fine model & its variations... the best write up I've seen on them in lo these many years. Thanks hand.
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Old 10-25-2015, 08:55 PM
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My paternal grandfather, and namesake, bought one of these in the early 1900's, in response to a threat on his life. When it came to me in the 1960's, there were three fired rounds and three live rounds in the cylinder. The family legend says grandpa took care of business when confronted on the street in Salt Lake City. The perp had tried to sell a mine to EPJ l's client. EPJ l told the client that upon assay, the mine was essentially worthless. The perp announced that he would kill my grandfather on sight. Apparently he tried and failed. Unfortunately, the gun has not survived in great condition, but it's still serviceable.
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Old 10-25-2015, 10:05 PM
Cooter Brown Cooter Brown is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Iggy View Post

...future generations of Iggys.
A comforting thought, that.

Tell 'em 'ol Cooter says "Hey".
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Old 10-26-2015, 11:34 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Iggy View Post
John,

With your permission, I would like to print your article off and tape it to the back of the shadow box with my gun for education of future generations of Iggys.
No problem, Iggy. Glad you liked it.

John
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Old 08-01-2018, 10:21 PM
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[quote=PALADIN85020;138767944]This is another draft article for review - as always, comments welcomed.

John


I see this was written a few years ago, and I have a habit of reviving the dead (when it comes to old threads) and I have to say, that was a great article!! I had just discovered the M1877 yesterday or today, not having known anything about it. It's a really cool little gun, and I'm surprised no one commented on this article. Very well written and thank for the info on this awesome little gun!! I was sad to see it end so abruptly though after that last paragraph before the final thought. Very interesting and I have to say, I can't believe I haven't ever come across a modern clone of that gun! I'd buy one for sure, of course in modern calibers like 38 special, 357 and maybe 32 lc for the lower caliber. How cool are these things??? I want one and was astounded to see them on gun broker in pretty darn good shape going for about 1,500 bucks. I was figuring it would be thousands and thousands of dollars. If anyone makes a clone of these guns, please someone let me know, I'd love to own one. Thanks again for this, I have suddenly become very interested and intrigued by these guns and this was very nice to find. Again, I'm still blown away that no one commented on this. I figured there'd be quite a few. Nice done.

Nevermind, for some reason my "smart" phone didn't show comments until after I posted mine, I see them now!

Does anyone know if the Maverick Brothers used these in the old TV show? They used a single action in a typical holster, but sometimes when playing poker they had a holster on their regular belt tucked under their coats that they'd pull out occasionally. Can't think of an episode. They were a smaller gun that looked similar to the old west style and that's what got me looking for a similar gun and lead me to the 1877.

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Old 08-01-2018, 11:27 PM
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I suspect that the reason there are no modern clones of the 1877 is that there are no competitions for them. It was Cowboy Shooting that lead to the Ruger Vaquero and the Uberti/Cimmarin arms copies of the SAA. As CAS specifically exempts double action pistols from competition there is no insentive to make a modern version.
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Old 08-02-2018, 04:16 AM
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Thank you for this nice artickle. I did know that there is a .32 model 1877 but was not aware of its nickname "The Rainmaker".

I tressure my model Colt model 1877 in .38 made in 1892. I am happy that it is in full working order. Never intend to shoot it.
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