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Rare 5 1/2" Blued Colt Model 1878 Revolver in .38-40 - Only 552 Produced in this Variation

Rare 5 1/2" Blued Colt Model 1878 Revolver in .38-40 - Only 552 Produced in this Variation

  • Product Code: FHG-2454
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $2,795.00

The Colt Frontier Model of 1878 represented a major departure in design philosophy from that firmly established by Sam Colt when he started the Colt Patent Firearms Company. The “Frontier” was the first large frame, large caliber, double-action handgun to be produced by Colt, and was a hybrid between their incredibly successful Model 1873 Single Action Army and the Model 1877 Double Action Revolver, better known by its nicknames as “Lightning”, “Thunderer” or “Rainmaker” depending upon caliber. The Model 1877 had been introduced the previous year and had met with a moderate amount of success initially. During his lifetime, Samuel Colt had repeatedly argued that double action revolvers were difficult to shoot due to their heavy trigger pulls and were unsafe when compared to single action models. However, less than 20 years after his death, the company that he created dove headfirst into the double action revolver market, and never looked back. The Model 1877 revolver was a mid-sized, double action revolver chambered in either .38 Colt (Lighting), .41 Colt (Thunderer) or very rarely in .32 Colt (Rainmaker). The model was the Colt company’s first foray into the production of a double action mechanism and was met with mixed reviews upon release. For the average customer on the American frontier, the guns lacked two important features that both revolved around ammunition. They were not chambered in a major, “man-stopping” caliber like .45 Colt, .44-40, or .38-40 and they did not allow the interchangeable use of ammunition between the revolver and a rifle, like the .44-40 and .38-40 did. Colt addressed this in 1878 with the release of the Double Action Frontier Model of 1878. This revolver was a hybrid of the large frame Single Action Army revolver, combined with the lock work and birds head grip of the Lighting / Thunderer series. The guns were offered in a wide array of large, medium and small bore chamberings like the Single Action Army was, with the calibers of .45 Colt (44% of production), .44 WCF (37% of production) and the various British calibers of .450, .455 and .476 (13% of production) leading the pack in popularity. The Model 1878 was Colt’s first big bore double action revolver, but it still resembled the single action variants. It had a frame-mounted gate through which the gun was loaded and unloaded, just like a single action revolver. It would be six more years before Colt would revolutionize double-action revolvers with the swing-out cylinder design of the Model 1889 revolver. During its production run from 1883 through 1905, some 51,210 DA Frontier Models were produced by Colt. This was a far cry from nearly 358,000 Single Action Army revolvers produced during its original production life span from 1873 to 1940, but the Frontier paved the way for Colt to become the leading American manufacturer of double action revolvers from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries.


Like most Colt revolvers of the time, the Double Action Frontier was available in a variety of finishes, barrel lengths and calibers. The standard finishes were blued or nickel-plated, with hard rubber grips. Engraving, special adornments and fancy grips were always available options. The barrel lengths were the same as the Single Action Army, with 4 ¾”, 5 ½” and 7 ½” being standard, but longer and shorter barrels (often without ejector rods) being available as well. The standard Frontier chamberings were Colt’s classic .45 Long Colt, and their less popular .41 Colt, as well the three popular Winchester Center Fire (WCF) calibers of the era; .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. Special order calibers included .44 Russian, .44 German Government (11mm Reichsrevolver), 450, 455 and 476 Eley, .22 rimfire and .38 Colt. The revolver had a six shot, fluted cylinder, which was loaded and unloaded through a pivoting gate that was located on the right side of the frame. The cartridges were removed via a manual, spring-loaded ejector rod, mounted along the lower right side of the barrel, like that on the Single Action Army. An oval shaped, swiveling lanyard loop was mounted on the butt of the bird’s head grip of most of the Frontier revolvers. Although the Frontier never achieved the level of success of the Single Action Army, a variety of western notables, including Buffalo Bill Cody, Pawnee Bill Lilly and Rowdy Joe Lowe all owned and used Colt Double Action Frontier revolvers.


This Colt Model 1878 Double Action Frontier Revolver is in about FINE condition. The revolver is serial number 32934 and was manufactured in 1893. It has a 5 ½” barrel, is chambered in .38WCF (.38-40), has a blued finish and hard rubber grips. The revolver is 100% complete, correct, and original. The gun retains about 40%+ of its Colt factory blued finish, with most of the finish loss the result of fading and thinning. The largest amount of bright blue remains on the left side of the frame, and the top, bottom and right side of the barrel. The right side of the frame shows more thinning and loss than the left, and the left side of the barrel retains a decent amount of blue with scuffs and surface finish scratches. The areas of the frame and barrel that have worn and thinned have a mostly plum brown patina, with some of the high edges of the frame showing a silvery gray patina. The cylinder shows only some traces of blue, mostly in the flutes, with most of the cylinder showing the same plum brown patina with the silvery gray patina at the high edges. The metal of the gun is almost entirely smooth with no real pitting to speak of. There is some scattered pinpricking and minor roughness on the cylinder, primarily on its face and around the chambers. Similar erosive wear is present around the bottom of the topstrap, the forcing cone and around the muzzle as well. The barrel also shows scattered freckles of surface oxidation along its entire length. The top of the barrel is crisply marked in a single line as well and reads:




The left side of the barrel of the revolver is clearly marked in a single line: 38 W.C.F. This was Colt’s way of indicating the caliber of the gun was .38-40, or “.38 Winchester Center Fire”. The mark is applied with a roll die, and is not in an acid etched panel, as would be appropriate for the earlier production Model 1878 revolvers. Colt started using the roll die mark instead of the acid etched mark during the 1880s. The bottom of the bird’s head grip is clearly marked with the serial number 32 / 934 in two lines, and the rear face of the cylinder is marked with the last three numbers, 934.  The loading gate is assembly numbered 71. Like the Single Action Army, this assembly number does not relate to the serial number of the gun. The gun is mechanically excellent and functions exactly as it should. Both the double action and single action modes work crisply and the revolver times and indexes perfectly. While the screws retain no finish, the other small parts all retain at least some strong traces of their bright fire-blued finish, with some nice niter blue on the back of the hammer and on the trigger. The screw heads are relatively crisp and generally show only minor slot wear. The loading gate operates as it should, and the ejector rod functions smoothly and correctly. The original lanyard loop is present in the butt of the revolver and swivels and pivots appropriately. The bore of the revolver rates about VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE. It is mostly bright and shiny with very crisp rifling. Only some lightly scattered minor pitting, some pinpricking and mild frosting in the grooves is noted. The two-piece, Rampant Colt hard rubber grips are in about VERY GOOD condition overall. They are solid and free from any chips or breaks. They show the typical color fading that is expected from Colt hard rubber grips as they age, and now have a brownish color with a slightly green tinge, instead of their factory new black color. The Rampant Colt logos remain crisp and clear, and the checkering shows only minor wear and light handling marks. 


Overall, this is a very nice and solid condition example of Colt’s groundbreaking, large frame double action “frontier” revolver. The .38-40 caliber was not particularly popular with the Colt customers for the Model 1878 and only a total of 1,732 were produced in that caliber in all barrel lengths and finishes. Of those only 552 were blued guns with 5 ½” barrels, making this variant the popular in that caliber. The two next most popular variations in .38-40 were 4 ¾” blued guns (414) and 7 ½” blued guns (411). Thus the .38-40 Model 1878 revolvers only represent 3% of all Model 1878 production and 5 ½” barreled blued guns represent only 1% of the total production. As such, these are fairly scarce revolvers! This is the gun that is father of all of Colt’s large frame double action revolvers and is a great piece of old west history. The gun is in very nice shape, showing real world use but no abuse. The gun is 100% complete, correct, and original, retains some nice blue and is fine mechanical condition. This would be a great addition to any display of Colt revolvers or firearms of the American West and is a gun you will be glad to have in your collection.


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