Colt held a dominant market share in revolver sales in the 1880s, but was quite interested in taking a piece of the rifle market as well. This initially manifested with the Colt Burgess lever-action rifle, which prompted the famous alleged agreement between Colt and Winchester that Colt would not make lever action rifles and Winchester would not make revolvers. Well, if that agreement really did happen, Colt took a pretty technical view of it – because in 1884 – the year after pulling the Burgess rifle from the market – they introduced a new rifle.
This was the Colt Lightning, a slide-action design patented by William Elliot and purchased by Colt in 1883. The first model was the medium frame, offered in .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40 – companion cartridges to match Colt’s revolvers. This was followed by two more models in 1888; a large “Express” version to compete with the Winchester 1876 and 1886 and a small .22 rimfire version.
The Express would be the worst-selling by far, with just 6,498 produced despite being offered in 5 different calibers (.38-56, .40-60, .45-60, .45-85, and .50-95). It was dropped in 1894. The medium frame did much better, with 89,777 made by the time it ceased in 1902. The small frame rimfire Lightning was the most popular, with 89,912 made by 1904, when all production ceased.