The M1877 was designed by one of the inventors of the M1873 Colt Single Action Army, William Mason, as Colt's first attempt at manufacturing a double-action revolver. The M1877 was the first successful US-made double-action cartridge revolver manufactured from January 1877 to 1909 for a total of 166,849 revolvers.
The principal difference between the models was the cartridge in which they were chambered: the "Lightning" being chambered in .38 Long Colt; the "Thunderer" in .41 Colt. Both models had a six-round ammunition capacity.
The M1877 was offered in barrel lengths from 2.5" to 7.5" and was available with or without the ejector rod and housing. The shorter barreled versions without the ejector rod were marketed as "shopkeeper's specials".
Neither "Lightning" nor "Thunderer" were Colt designations, nor used by the factory in any reference materials. Both terms were coined by Benjamin Kittredge, one of Colt's major distributors.
The M1877's early double-action mechanism proved to be both intricate and delicate, and thus prone to breakage. The design had a reputation for failure and earned the nickname "the gunsmith's favorite". Because of the intricate design and difficulty of repair, gunsmiths to this day dislike working on them.
Outwardly, the Model 1877 shows a striking resemblance to the Colt Single Action Army revolver, however it is scaled down slightly and much thinner in dimension. The standard finishes were blued, with a case-colored frame or nickel plating. The bird's head grips were of checkered rosewood on the early guns and hard rubber on the majority of later-production guns.
Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin frequently used both "Lightning" and "Thunderer" versions of the Colt 1877 revolver. Likewise the 1877 "Thunderer" in .41 caliber was the preferred weapon of Billy the Kid and was his weapon of choice when he was killed by Pat Garrett in 1881.