Size matters. Unlike what you see in the Westerns movies or on television, not everyone in the Old West era who packed a gun went around with a big “hog-leg” in a low-slung holster that was dangling from a wide cartridge belt strapped low on the waist. Many folks from all walks of life—shopkeepers, bankers, and bartenders—liked to keep a handgun discretely concealed on their person. The same went for sheriffs, marshals, policemen, and detectives; then of course you have to add gamblers, outlaws, and even “soiled doves.” For that reason all of your handgun manufacturers not only had big “horse pistols” in their line, but also included a selection of smaller “hide-out guns,” usually ranging in bore size from .22 to .41 in rimfire (RF) and centerfire (CF) models.
Lightning & Thunderer
One of those manufacturers was Colt’s Patent Firearms of Hartford, Connecticut. Early on Samuel Colt designed small percussion Patterson Model revolvers and later on his cap ‘n ball 1849 Pocket Model in .31 caliber turned out to be his top-seller. When the Civil War ended and the move to fixed metallic cartridge firearms was underway Colt first concentrated on a big single-action revolver for the military, but as soon as they won a government contract for the 1873 SAA, they turned their attention to the civilian market. One early cartridge-firing wheelgun was the Colts House Pistol also known as the “Cloverleaf” due to the shape of its 4-shot cylinder. This was a .41 RF SA revolver with a spur trigger and a 1.5- to 3-inch barrel. Colt also made single-shot derringers in .22 and .41 RF often referred to as “Muff Pistols” as they were often carried on cool nights by ladies with their hands inside fur muffs. In 1877 Colt came out with some more serious handguns for defensive use. They looked a lot like the SAA only they were scaled down a bit and chambered for the .38 Long Colt and .41 Colt, plus they had double-action (DA) firing mechanisms. Both held six cartridges and were known as the Lightning (.38 CF) and the Thunderer (.41 CF). Some 167,000 or so were manufactured up until 1909 when production ceased.
The Lightning was the smallest of the pair, although for a short period in 1877 Colt made a version in .32 Colt called the Rainmaker that today is extremely rare. Anyway, the 1877 Model was Colt’s first attempt at a DA revolver. Unfortunately the action of the two six-guns was overcomplicated and fragile, so most ended up on the benches of gunsmiths who quickly came to dislike their intricate design. The Lightning was an ideal hideout gun and offered a good compromise between size and firepower. Barrel lengths ran from short 1.5-inch tubes to long 10-inch models that were more appropriate for belt carry. Of course back in the day, Colt was more than willing to cut the barrel to whatever length you wanted. The barrels were marked on the left side COLT D.A. 38 and the 1.5- to 6-inch guns could be had with no ejector rod, while the 4.5- to 10-inch models did. Texas bad-man John Wesley Hardin was reputed to pack a Lightning—as did a well-known British Detective of the Victorian period named Jerome Caminada, who became the superintendent of the Manchester Criminal Investigations Division (CID) and was nicknamed the “Sherlock Holmes” of Manchester. Lightnings were also used by American Express guards and agents, while examples have been found marked Policia Del Distrito Federal (Mexico City Police).
Produced by Uberti on the .22 Stallion frame, the OWD (Old West Defense) is a compact six-gun in .38 Long Colt/.38 Special and would have been the perfect hideout gun for a Pinkerton man or Wells Fargo operative.
The Colt Lightning is long gone, however, over the years there have been a number of SA six-shooters that have the look if not the action of the Lightning. Which leads us to a new handgun introduced by Uberti—the Bird’s Head Stallion Old West Defense (OWD). This gun is a version of the Stallion series of small-scale SA revolvers. It very much resembles the 1873 SAA, but the original Stallions were chambered in .22 LR and .22 WMR only. This latest version says on the left side of the barrel that it will take .38 Colt & S&W Spec. It has a 3.5-inch barrel that is equipped with an ejector rod/housing and the “plow handle” grip frame ends at the butt in what has become known as the “birdshead” alluding to its shape.
In my estimation the OWD moniker fits this gun very well owing to its amalgamation of compact size, lethality and concealability. Were I a Pinkerton man or Wells Fargo operative, it would certainly rate high on my list as a carry gun for locales where I’d want to be discretely armed. Of course in reality it’s a fantasy gun, as nothing like this that I’m aware of ever came off a 19th century production line, but at the same time, its late 1800’s roots are more than evident. It has the classic “four click action” as you thumb the hammer back to full-cock, but then you will note that the firing pin is obviously not riveted to the hammer nose, but mounted inside the frame. Beware; this is not a spring-loaded, inertia-type firing pin, so when the hammer is at rest the firing pin protrudes through the breech-face. It will lie against a primer if the chamber under the hammer is loaded and a blow to said hammer could have dire consequences. This means that your six-shooter is best carried as a five-shooter—then again any dyed-in-the-wool Cowboy Action Shooter will do that anyway.
Another noteworthy feature is the rebated cylinder chambers. While this might have been a good idea in the days of “balloon-head” cartridge cases, I don’t really see the “why and wherefore” today. To me, on a “cowboy” revolver it just makes things a little more difficult at the loading table of a CAS match. The cowpoke manning the table has to be extra careful because he can’t see the breech-end of the cylinder to verify that the chamber under the hammer is empty. Aside from that, I really don’t have any other adverse comments to make about the OWD.
An external examination demonstrated a superb level of quality and workmanship. The barrel, cylinder and grip frame/trigger guard are expertly polished and deeply blued. This blends in well with the blues and grays of the color casehardened frame and hammer. Wood-to-metal and metal-to-metal fit is top shelf. One-piece walnut grips adorn the OWD and they are skillfully checkered adding to their looks and utility.
I noted that the OWD has a healthy hammer spring, but the trigger pull has the bare minimum of creep and breaks at about 4 pounds. The front sight is a fairly low blade that is 0.125 inches wide, making it easier to see and quicker to get on target. The fixed rear sight notch is corresponding in width and I found later on that the sights were rather well regulated. Like other short-barrel SA revolvers that I’ve handled lately, removal of the OWD cylinder can be challenging. In order to pull out the base pin, you have to get by the ejector rod head and the only way you can do that is to push it all the way back as far as it will go. The challenge is holding it back under spring tension while you press in on the base pin release and simultaneously withdrawn the pin. I did it; so can you.