View Full Version : Colt Lightning Rifle

August 17, 2009, 09:27 AM
First off, my apologies for this very long post. If you don't feel like reading the great American novel, complete with photos, feel free to skip to the end...I won't mind.

Last weekend, my dad gave me his gun collection (except for the S&W .357, which he has determined to be the singularly greatest handgun on the face of the earth). It's only five long guns, but, holy smokes, they're something else. A 1906 Winchester 1906, a 1904 Winchester 1897, a 1908 Winchester 1897, an Argentine M91 Mauser and...an 1884 Colt Lightning in .38-40.

Other than the Mauser, the guns saw honest use, especially during the Great Depression, when my grandfather and great grandfather used them to put food on the table. In North Dakota, the two day limit on ducks was 45 per person, so they would do all the hunting they could during the season and my grandmother would can the meat in mason jars for winter. Pheasants, too, and it was easy to get your limit of either. As an aside, my dad can't stand the taste of duck or pheasant anymore.

When World War II started, my grandfather was a Master Sergeant in the ND National Guard. Shortly after the beginning of 1942, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and sent off to San Francisco. So all of the guns stayed with my great grandfather.

After the war, my grandfather, grandmother and father moved to Idaho. Sometime after that, my great grandfather had some kind of "trouble". Nobody seems to know what that "trouble" was (my dad was in his teens then and my grandparents are gone now), but he moved from North Dakota to Idaho. He shipped all of his belongings, which included a complete plumbing shop, to my grandparents' house in large wooden boxes. Several of them were full of guns, many of which were old back then (probably around 1947). They threw most of them away. Notable amongst the guns that didn't make it to the trash can were an 1863 Springfield that my great-great-great grandfather carried in the Civil War (it was heading to the garbage, but my dad thought it looked neat, so he saved it...and still has it) and the Colt Lightning rifle.

I don't think that the rifle saw much use after that. Maybe a deer or two, but I'm not so sure because I don't think that the .38-40 is that kind of round, but who knows...

Anyway, it shows its age and it shows the results of the corrosive ammunition of the day, as well as not being cleaned all that much, if at all. I spent hours last night cleaning rust out of the barrel - patch after patch that came out looking brown and nasty, until the patches were clean. Also, I don't think that anybody before me understood the purpose of oil as a preservative. Thankfully they understood it as a lubricant, because all of the gummy crap in the action has preserved it from the ravages of time - the innards look very good. Likewise, the wood, for a 125 year old rifle, is in very good shape.

Here's what I've got:







Hmm...the pictures look better than I thought that the gun was...maybe it was just the light. Anyway...

So here comes the $64,000 question! What do I do? I'm never going to sell this rifle, that's not in question. But I'd certainly like to be able to shoot it every now and then, just as a connection to my family. Obviously, I'll have it checked out by a gunsmith to make sure it's in shootable condition. But what about restoration? I don't want it to look like a brand new gun because that would sort of be cheating its heritage. And I'm pretty sure that I've arrested the rust. But beyond that, I'm kind of at a crossroads. Is it rare enough that it would be a candidate to send back to Colt for work? Is it not particularly rare so that some barrel work would not be out of order? Should I just relegate it to the mantle? I'll take any advice I can get!

August 17, 2009, 10:58 AM
Yours to do with as you please, but here is "me".

First, I'd shoot it (if the 'smith says ok) and see how it shoots. If it shoots anywhere near decent, I'd not do anything else except 'exercise' it now and then just for fun and memories.

If the bore is so bad off that it just won't shoot at all, I'd still not do anything to alter the OUTSIDE of the gun. I'd look into getting the barrel relined. I think there are some smith out there that could do it and put it back to shooting quite well and still have the 'look'.

Good luck. You have some great firearms if only because they have some great family connections and family memories.

August 17, 2009, 12:23 PM
Maybe I'm way off base here, but if you shoot the gun and it breaks, parts are non-existant. So either put it away and take it out now and again for fondling, or sell it (it's worth a bit).

August 17, 2009, 01:44 PM
"Restoration", as done by most non-professionals, would quickly turn that beautiful medium-frame Lightning from a $1500-$2500 collectible into a $500-700 shooter.

I wouldn't want to be one to do that.


August 17, 2009, 02:00 PM
We were kinda in the same boat. Ours is a 32.20 Mdl 92.

I shoot it.

'Modern' ammunition for the 32.20 seems to be limited to 100 grain flat point lead @ 1000 fps.

Older, 50s and 50s vintage 32.20 rifle ammunition was loaded with jacketed 100 grain bullets that, supposedly, reached about 1,500 fps.

Mostly, other than your own reloads, todays 32.20 stuff is way downloaded to accomidate the Cowboy and Action crowd and, I suspect, litigation.

The newer ammunition is waaay quiet in a carbine.

Maybe todays 38.40 ammunition offers similar pluses and minuses.

It isn't all bad.


August 17, 2009, 02:09 PM
Thanks for the input, fellas. I'm going to leave it as is, run it down to the gunsmith and have him take a look at it to see if it's safe to shoot cowboy loads with.

If it's safe, it'll be something nice to bring out on the fourth of July to shoot a round or two when the family's in town. And if it's not, that's OK...it can take its place of honor over the fireplace with the old 1863 Springfield.

Besides the family heritage, last weekend with my folks was one of the most fun that I've ever had - if your parents and/or grandparents are still around, you really need to spend a some time with them talking about what things were like when they were young, especially if they grew up in the '30s and '40s.

James K
August 18, 2009, 09:39 PM
Those Colts are a lot rarer than a 92 Winchester. And a lot more fragile. If the gun is safe to fire, you could take a chance on shooting it once in a while. Black powder loads would be better, but messy, and reasonable .38-40 smokeless loads should be OK. (The fragility is not in the barrel or locking system, it is in the loading system and the springs.)

As for any "restoration" attempt, forget it. As noted, the value will go straight down unless you obtain the services of a professional restoration service, and that would be expensive.


Buck Conner
September 6, 2009, 10:30 AM
Do not remove any of the finish or alter anything or you'll hurt the value. We get these guns in every once in a while in small, medium and large frame, some untouched and others messed with. Not knowing what they are doing when cleaning or the value of any of these weapons, folks can destroy a gun's value pretty fast.

We had a very nice at one time 44/40 come in with everything correct, a solid $4,500 arm. Instead of leaving it as is (keeping it) or selling it, they gave it to a grandson who decided to shoot it. The gun comes back in a year later, finish had been removed with #4 steel wool, wood refinished and sights changed. The new owner wants me to give him the quoted value from the previous year. We looked in our past files and found a picture of what it had looked like and viewed what had been done. He took a $4,500 value down to $1,500 with his expert refinishing. :eek: :cool:

September 12, 2009, 05:34 PM

Consider this. Take me money you would spend on restoring that Colt so its a shooter, and put it towards one of these:


September 14, 2009, 05:22 PM
No worries, Chris, I'm not going to restore it. Actually, it's a shooter right now, although on a very occasional basis. I've been very slowly working on it with bronze wool and a lot of oil. Most of the active rust is gone and the original patina is undisturbed.

I do like the looks of the repro Lightnings and if I ever get into SASS, one of those would be my first choice (but not in .38-40...it may have been a good idea back then, but it's a pain in the butt now).

Thanks for the link.

Jim Watson
September 14, 2009, 05:34 PM
Looks pretty good to me. A proper restoration would cost literally thousands of dollars and the gun would no longer look like what Grandpa hunted with.

The Lightning is not a real sturdy design and I would limit shooting to what a friend calls "ceremonial occasions."

The reproductions are no better and maybe not quite as good. If you want to CAS, a lever action will be a lot more reliable.