There’s a new breed of action rifle in Cowtown. Instead of the diehard lever gun of old, many Cowboy Action shooters looking to shave the last seconds off their time will soon be using a pump rifle. In the quest for speed in that game, top shooters are posting winning scores with the old Colt Lightning design, or clones thereof. Because top shooters use them, that means everybody wants one, whether or not they work better than the ol’ lever action mainstay. Variety is, of course, what drives the gun industry, and we’re surely not complaining, but we confess we had no idea how well these corn-shuckers would perform. The original Colt Lightning was made in three sizes, the smaller two being more popular. The medium frame, first of the series, was made from 1884 to 1902, and was offered in .32-20, .38-40, or .44-40 to match popular revolver calibers of the day. Total quantity made was around 90,000 in the medium frame, which today’s guns copy. Original guns in shootable condition are scarce and costly, but today you can buy a decent copy of the Lightning from several sources, including Taurus, American Western Arms (AWA), USFA, Beretta, and one or two others, and at least one of them is totally affordable. Calibers now include .45 LC and .38/.357, but AWA still offers the original chamberings.
To immediately dispel several rumours making the rounds of the Internet, yes you can get Taurus Thunderbolts ($475), and no, AWA USA, which produces the $850 Lightning Carbine, is not out of business. We spoke with the heads of both companies and verified product availability, and ultimately acquired a sample of the guns of each, in .45 LC.
We also had the loan of a Beretta Gold Rush carbine ($1429) in the same caliber. We shot them over the machine rest and in simulated action shooting, and this is what we found.
This 26-inch-barrel rifle (also available in .357/.38 Spl.) had a hardwood stock that looked like birch, with a touch of figure to it to keep it from being plain. Very soon the Taurus Thunderbolt will be available with a case-colored receiver (Model C45BCHR) at the same price, or in stainless for $525. At this writing there are no carbine versions forthcoming.
Workmanship overall was very good, we thought. The bluing was exceptionally nice, and one of our favorite touches was the crescent-shaped steel butt plate, nicely fitted, and totally in keeping with the aura of cowboy guns. We found the metal polishing to be excellent, as was the overall fitting of the gun. The straight-hand butt stock was uncheckered, but the forend had some coarsely done checkering that helped traction, but could have been sharper. The sights were unusual and in need of attention by the dedicated shooter, we felt. The front blade resembled half a nickel with a bite taken out of the rear portion. As seen by the shooter, it tapered upward to an indefinite, rounded top. Windage was adjustable on either the front or rear unit by drifting, and the rear had a screw to hold it in place within its dovetail notch. The rear, a buckhorn with step adjustment, had a tiny notch in the center that we thought needed to be enlarged to a square notch. Then the owner could take a file to the top of the front blade, and end up with a decent sight picture. However, we shot the gun with the issue sights, with what we thought was the right amount of the front sight sticking up above the rear, and got as good results on target with this setup as with the best sights of the other two guns tested here. In other words, the sights worked but we didn’t much like ‘em as they were.
The hammer had an odd feature in the form of a button that permitted uncocking the rifle without touching the trigger. However, this button got the hammer to half cock, and the trigger needed to be used to get the hammer all the way down before the action could be opened. The action was locked in the firing position whenever the hammer was in either the half or fully cocked position. The AWA had the same type action, but the Beretta was a surprise, as you’ll see. We could see little use for that button on the Taurus’ hammer, but it was not in the way, and it’s there if you want it. The action was quite slick for a new gun, we thought, and got slicker as we used it. It was easy to see how this type rifle could help someone shoot very quickly while still retaining accuracy. The trigger hand never breaks its grip, and that is the hand that controls the rifle. The forend did rattle a bit, but all three guns had that fault.
One distinct feature of the rifle-length Taurus was its ejection-port cover, which the two carbines lacked. But we noted the cut for the cover removed significant metal from the action, which may not be a good thing. The trigger pull was stout but clean at just over five pounds. At the range when we began loading the gun we found it to require a distinct knack. This was the same with all three guns, and we liked it about as much as loading a lever rifle. The action must be open to insert cartridges. Three times with the Beretta and once with this Taurus we had a round slip back beneath the lifter as we loaded the magazine. This required two screwdrivers, holding the rifle in a padded vise. Once the gun was properly loaded (it held 14 rounds) it performed perfectly. We tested with Black Hills cowboy ammo, Ultramax cowboy ammo, and with Winchester cowboy ammo, all with 250-grain cast RNFP bullets. We knew this gun would not feed rounds that were over SAAMI specs for length, so avoided them. We tried a few Cor-Bon 300-grain jacketed soft-nose loads, and they came out at about 1450 fps. They might be useful in this interesting rifle for deer hunting, but it would have to be used as a single shot.
Grouping was disappointing. [PDFCAP(2)] from a machine rest and our best groups with the Thunderbolt were about three inches. We averaged about 4 inches for all five-shot groups at 50 yards from a machine rest. That’s probably adequate to hit the steel plates in action shooting, but we were not impressed. We’d do something serious to the sights before we used this rifle for any purpose other than having fun, but the issue sights worked well enough, we thought, for that use. Felt recoil was less with this rifle than with either carbine, but was never an issue with any of ‘em. Muzzle blast here was noticeably lower.
The all-blue AWA Lightning is available in a variety of calibers including .32-20, .38-40, .38 Spl., .44-40, or .45 LC. If you want it with an octagonal barrel in either the test rifle’s 20-inch length or with a 24-inch barrel, the price is $890. Russ Simpson, president of AWA, informed us that there were many options available for original Colt Lightnings, so the crescent butt plate here, and the buckhorn rear sight on the Beretta carbine, might have been found on originals. No originals, however, have been found or documented with color-case hardened receivers. AWA offers real case hardening (by Doug Turnbull) as a $300 option in either barrel configuration. All the AWA rifles have receivers, trigger guards and other major parts that are machined from forgings. The parts are made by Mateba in Italy for AWA, but assembled in Hialeah, Florida. Stocks are walnut. Our sample had a mighty nice piece of wood on it, which we later found out was an upgrade. You can upgrade in several steps for extra money. There is also a Limited Edition (500 total) being produced largely to the buyer’s individual specifications.
Our initial impression of the AWA was entirely positive, and it pretty much stayed that way. The wood was better than just nice walnut, and carried a decent oil-type finish. It also had extremely nice wraparound checkering on the grip, and two well-done panels on the forend. The forend wood grain matched the butt stock. The butt was fitted with a crescent-shaped plate. All the inletting, metal polishing and bluing were excellent. The left side of the blued action had a tasteful rendition of the company logo laser etched into the flat. The military type sights, such as the one added to this rifle by its owner, were common on original carbine versions of the Lightning, but not always standard. AWAs come with buckhorn sights. Both front and rear sights were set in dovetails in the barrel, adjustable for windage by drifting. The front was a gold-faced bead, and the flat-top, V-notch rear had a flip-up ladder arrangement for longer range. As with the Taurus, there was no distinct elevation control, given a round bead and a V-notch, so the shooter could either place the bead at the bottom of the V or level with the top.
The action cycled easily and smoothly. Loading the AWA was identical with the other two, with the exception that with this rifle we never had a loaded round come back under the carrier. The Beretta gave us fits with this, as you shall see, and we had one instance of it with the Taurus when we first began. But the AWA was, during our testing, free from that trouble. The people behind this concept as done by AWA clearly have a handle on the correct inner workings of the old Colt Lightning. The instruction manual recommended only factory-loaded cowboy-level ammunition. The magazine held ten rounds. The trigger pull was just under four pounds, and free from creep.
This Uberti-made gun comes chambered in .45 LC or .357 Mag/.38 Special. A 24-inch-barrel version ($1459 in either caliber) has a barrel that is octagonal for half its length. Our 20-inch carbine had a fully round barrel. The rifle version holds 13 rounds, and our carbine, ten. Beretta went for the buzz with this presentation, giving the Gold Rush a mighty attractive case-colored-looking receiver and fancy, checkered walnut. However, the wood here was not a whole lot nicer than that on the AWA, nor was the checkering all that much better. The fit of metal to wood was distinctly better on the Beretta, and the metal polish and bluing were very slightly superior here also. You ought to get something for your extra $580, we suppose. But the case coloring was not the real thing. We could easily cut into the “hardened” steel with a hand graver, but even a hammer and chisel won’t touch a true case-hardened surface. With the AWA, if you opt to get case-color hardening, you get the real thing, and then that gun still costs less — lots less — than this Beretta/Uberti.
The sights on the Gold Rush gave a great sight picture, yet still looked traditional. In fact we thought this rifle had the best sight picture of this test. The rear was a buckhorn with big ears, but it had a sharply defined, square notch in its bottom. The flat-top front post gave an excellent sight picture within that notch. The rear was adjustable for elevation by a sprung step, and for windage by drifting either the front or rear sight. The rear sight had a locking screw at the dovetail. The butt was protected with a steel carbine-type plate.
A big problem we had three times with the Beretta was that during loading (ten rounds max), a round slipped rearward beneath the carrier and jammed the action. This put the gun out of action until the jam could be cleared, and that was not all that easy. We used two small screwdrivers, holding the rifle held in a padded vise. The Beretta came with a note from Uberti about how to clear this jam, which described the same method we worked out for ourselves.
Once the magazine was loaded, feeding and ejection proved to be slick, probably the easiest of the test trio. But we found an unusual feature in the Beretta’s action, explained on the company website thus: “Compared to the original, several modifications have been discretely incorporated that greatly enhance safety and reliability. A solid transfer-bar safety mechanism is housed in the hammer, making the gun absolutely safe to load and unload without having to lower the hammer.”
In other words, the action could be opened with the hammer fully cocked. We were taken aback by the Beretta’s action when we first tried it, and ultimately never did like this feature. With the other two guns, the action was locked closed whenever the hammer was on full or half cock. With the Beretta, it was possible to open the action with the hammer at full cock. This was disconcerting for those who have the habit of pulling the gun into the shoulder firmly with both hands. With the other two guns this is acceptable, but not with the Beretta. Any pressure on the cocking handle zings the loaded round out of the gun, and you lose that shot. Another fear we had was that the action could be partially opened and the round would still fire, which we thought would lead to ruptured cases. This didn’t prove to be a problem with our limited testing, but we still didn’t like it. We tried several times to rupture a case in this manner, but we were unable to do so. Beretta gets a tentative pass on this design, which lets competitors unload the unfired rounds easily when required. With the other two guns the hammer must be carefully lowered to cycle each round out, and we far preferred the fully locked breech of the other two to this design.
Gun Tests Recommends
• Taurus Thunderbolt C45BR .45 LC, $475. Our Pick. If we wanted to be instantly competitive in Cowboy Action shooting today we’d grab a brace of six-shooters and a Taurus Thunderbolt, all in .45 LC, and be quite happy. We found no reason to spend more than the cost of this worthy Taurus for a Lightning-type rifle for cowboy fun. In fact, we’d probably buy Taurus Gauchos for the revolvers too. Yes, you can spend a whole lot more than the cost of this Taurus, but all you’d get, we felt, would be fancy wood and a prettier rifle. For action shooting, which can be downright dirty and mighty hard on the guns, we thought the Thunderbolt was the only way to go. We’ll pocket the extra $375 to $1000 that the others would set you back, thank you, and be mighty happy with this one.
• AWA Lightning Carbine .45 LC, $850. Conditional Buy. If you’re one of those who won’t be happy without real walnut, you’ll have to bite the bullet and get the AWA. And you won’t be disappointed, we believe. We thought it was a handsome and well-made carbine, and seemed to function a touch better than the other two during our limited experience with it. Ultimate accuracy seemed to be on a par with the Taurus, or maybe even better with the best loads, but the AWA didn’t seem to like Ultramax ammo. We had no problems and no magazine-loading jams with this little carbine, and would be both happy and proud to own it if we had a need for a competitive Cowboy-Action rifle. But given the great price of the Taurus, we’d have to think long and hard to justify the AWA. Our biggest problem would probably be trying to limit our upgrading. We’d go for case coloring, maybe better wood, a touch of engraving, and … hey, there goes the budget.
• Beretta Gold Rush carbine .45 LC, $1429. Don’t Buy. Accuracy was, like all the rifles in this test, not very good despite the excellent sights. We got 3- to 4-inch groups at 50 yards, and some a whole lot worse. This may be adequate for Cowboy Action work but not for serious hunting, we thought. The bottom line for all three of these pump rifles is that although they are adequate for Cowboy Action work, that’s about all they are good for as issued. We’d like a lot more accuracy before we took any of ‘em hunting.
We had a hard time justifying the high cost of the Beretta over the AWA, let alone the Taurus. We also thought if it looked like color case hardening it ought to be case hardening, not just some slick, fancy-looking, painted-on stuff that isn’t at all functional.
Yes, the whole gun looked great and performed well — except for the loading problem — but the other two guns seemed to offer just as much or more for a whole lot less money. We also didn’t like the fish-belly stock shape, which originals never had. We think you can get more gun for lots less money with the AWA, even if you opt for real case coloring. And you can get a real bargain in the Taurus if you don’t want “fancy.” We would not buy this one.