It was Mike Laney’s fault. I definitely blame him. I pretty much grew up on the Laney Ranch, located on the southwest end of the mighty Gila National Forest. Mike and I hunted, shot, and got into mischief on his family ranch starting when we were pretty much tykes. He started collecting antique guns at an early age, and over the years he has put together what I consider a fine, definitive gathering of Colts and Winchesters. My constant association with him resulted in his affliction for old, expensive firearms rubbing off on me.
One of his favorite collectibles that I, too, became fond of was the Colt Model 1877. There were several things that attracted us to this model, not the least of which was the fact that it was the first double-action revolver made by Colt. Admittedly, I hadn’t handled an 1877 until Laney began collecting them, probably because my dad never had one around. He wasn’t too keen on the 1877 since they weren’t the most durable handguns ever made by Colt.
Colt manufactured its first double-action model from 1877 through 1909, turning out over 166,000 of them. The 1877 is a handsome firearm and looks very much like the Colt Single Action Army. The design was actually based on the SAA; however, it was much smaller in frame, and it incorporated the infamous birdshead grip, a style often copied by modern manufacturers of replica firearms. The revolver’s double-action mechanism was quite intricate and very delicate. Designed by Colt employee William Mason, the 1877 was notorious for breaking down, rendering it useless or, at best, a single action. The 1877 was often referred to as the “gunsmith’s best friend.”
Like the SAA, the 1877 featured a three-position hammer, cylinder pin, and loading gate, all scaled down from the larger single-action design. It was made in three calibers: .32 Colt (dubbed the “Rainmaker”), .38 Colt (“Lightning”), and .41 Colt (the “Thunderer”). Very few .32 Colts were made, and they’re quite scarce today. Colt offered a variety of barrel lengths, ranging from 2 to 6 inches long; however, longer barrels were available on special order. The 1877 was also available in a Sheriff’s Model, which was ejector-less. The cylinder pin doubled as the empty case ejector. Early 1877s were available with one-piece, checkered rosewood stocks, another rare item today. Later guns left the factory with hard rubber, and pearl and ivory were also available.
Many folks associate Old West characters with the Colt Single Action Army almost exclusively—likely due, at least partially, to the fact that almost all western movies arm the players with single actions. While the SAA was probably the finest handgun available starting in 1873, western figures actually used a large variety of handguns, one of them being the 1877.
It’s fascinating to me to look back to the old days and study some of the favored carry guns of notorious characters. One of the most notorious gunfighters was John Wesley Hardin, who has been rumored to have put an end to around 40 men. After committing a long string of murders in the 1870s, including the killing of a deputy sheriff, Hardin was caught, prosecuted, and convicted. He was sentenced to 25 years in the penitentiary, but was pardoned after serving about 16 years. During his time in the slammer, Hardin studied law, and after his release he was admitted to the Texas bar. He moved to El Paso, Texas, to set up his new practice.
Hardin’s handgun of choice was the Colt 1877 revolver. He was reported to have carried at least two, a .38 Colt and a .41 Colt. He allegedly practiced drawing the pair and firing them every day. Over the years he’d become lightning fast with them, but in the end, his shooting experience didn’t help. John Selman shot Hardin in the back of the head in the Acme Saloon in El Paso.
Yet another famous gunman allegedly fancied the Colt 1877—William H. Bonney, the notorious Billy the Kid. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of speculation regarding Bonney, and I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what guns he favored. I’m guessing it was probably anything he could get his hands on. It’s been said that he carried a double-action Webley revolver, which could have been mistaken for the Colt 1877, or possibly the other way around. Bonney’s alleged killer, Pat Garrett, was the owner of an engraved Colt 1877 revolver, but it was not the gun he used to do in the Kid.
The 1877 was also utilized to a great extent by the infamous John Henry “Doc” Holliday. While it’s known that Holliday also carried a variety of handguns, it’s clear through historical accounts that the 1877 was one of his favorites.
In his book, Sixguns, famous handgunner Elmer Keith makes mention of the Colt 1877, stating that during his younger cowboying days, he carried a Colt Lightning .38 in the pocket of his chaps. Keith contended that the Lightning was small and fast.
My own interest in the 1877 has continued, though I didn’t own one until a few years back when the firearms of the late Charlie
Schreiner III went to auction at Little John’s. Schreiner was the owner of the YO Ranch in Texas, and he was a huge collector of firearms and Texas Ranger memorabilia. I was fortunate enough to place a winning bid on one of his Thunderers. The gun is a 6-inch .41 Colt with nickel finish and pearl stocks. It bears a great deal of the original nickel and, surprisingly, is in good mechanical repair.
I ordered a box of .41 Colt 200-grain RNFP ammunition from Ultramax a while back with the intention of trying out the Schreiner gun. Alas, I’m unable to bring myself to shoot the old gal. The thought of having to track down a gunsmith who will work on an 1877 isn’t appealing.
But I still love to handle the old .41. Reliable or not, it’s a great piece of history.