The original concept came from a Dentist/wanna be gun maker who lived down the way from Remington in Ilion, New York. He first showed his ideas to Remington, but they were not interested. So Dr. Elliot send a letter off to Colt.
As luck would have it, Colt was interested in making a rifle that was chambered for the same caliber as their models 1873 Peacemaker and 1877 Lighting Double Action Revolvers.
By 1884 Colt had worked out the bugs and offered the new pump action for sale in .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40 calibers.
The guns receiver was similar in size to that of the 1892 Winchester (another carbine made for revolver cartridges). The tube magazine could hold up to 15 rounds. The cartridges were loaded via a side loading gate (again just like the Winchester). The Lightning had an exposed hammer, manipulated by the bolt. Even the straight grip stock looked and felt very similar to the Winchesters.
They gave the gun the name Lightning as a companion to Colt's Model 1877 double action revolver (earlier named the Lightning) and because like the revolver it was fast.
In 1887 Colt introduced two more frame sizes. A small frame in .22 rimfire and a larger frame gun to chamber the big game cartridges .38-55 & .50-95 Express. The large frame .50-95 Lightning below was beautifully restored by Doug Turnbull.
The larger framed guns only lasted 7 years and in 1894 they were disco'd with only 6,496 guns being made.
In 1898 the San Francisco Police Department purchased 401 of the medium frame Lightnings in .44-40 for their officers.
This is one of those San Francisco Police guns:
When production of the medium frame Lightnings ended in 1904 some 89,777 were made.
The small framed, rimfire guns found their way into the shooting galleries at state fairs and carnivals, similar to the model 1890 & 1906 Winchester pump action rifles. By 1904 Colt had produced some 89,912 rimfire Lightnings.
In 1904 Colt decided to end production of the gun. This is where the story gets interesting.
Around the mid 1870s Winchester was watching the rise of the handgun market, it appeared that Smith & Wesson and Colt were collecting some serious money making handguns. Around the same time a man named William Mason, a former Colt employee, went to work for Winchester. He was given the task to create a revolver that could compete with the offerings from Colt's and S&W.
This was the gun he created:
At the same time Andrew Burgess designed an improved version of the 1873 Winchester and Colt produced it as the Colt Burgess model of 1883.
According to legend, Winchester was unhappy with Colt cutting into their rifle/carbine market and Colt wasn't to enthused about another possible competitor to their handguns.
During a secret meeting, the leaders of the two companies made an agreement. Winchester would stick to making rifles and Colt would stick to making pistols.
That was the end of the Colt Burgess and the beginning of the end of the Colt Lightning. In the end Colt found that sticking to handguns made more sense.
Thanks to the popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting, gun makers like American Western Arms, United States Fire Arms (USFA), Taurus and Uberti you can buy a quality made replica.
This is a good thing, because there were only 185,186 Colt Lightnings made (between all three frames). So original guns are hard to find and usually expensive when found.
Below are some pictures of reproduction Lightning Rifles. You can click on the pictures for larger versions.
The America Western Arms Lightning
The United States Fire Arms Lightning
The Uberti Lightning and Beretta Gold Rush (both made by Uberti)
The Pedersoli Lightning
The Taurus Thunderbolt
Doug Turnbull Manufacturing
Arms Collectors Forum