The Awesome LeMat
This Was One Hard-Hitting Civil War Pistol.
The LeMat “Grape Shot Revolver” stands out as the most remarkable handgun of the Civil War. The chap with a LeMat slung on his hip or holstered on his saddle was instantly in command of a 9-shot, .42-caliber cylinder revolving around an 18-gauge shotgun barrel and was an awesome adversary at close range.
The origin, production and Confederate gunrunning of the LeMat is the stuff Civil War romances and intrigues are made from. Dr. Jean Francois Alexander LeMat and his French émigré friends in New Orleans certainly emerge as some pretty dashing Frenchmen who were able to support the Confederacy with guns, surgical supplies, medicine and propaganda abroad for the duration of the “War of Northern Aggression.”
To understand the revolver, you have to understand the man. While trained as a physician, Dr. LeMat was an inveterate inventor and is credited with more than 35 patents over his lifetime. His inventions ranged from surgical tools to metal alloys, from a floatation device to rescue disabled ships to a functioning helically driven airship that actually flew. Having a keen and inquiring mind, he was also gifted with social graces, which propelled him into the forefront of New Orleans society, allowing him to emerge as an impassioned patriot of the Confederacy.
He first patented his design for a combination revolver/shotgun in the United States in 1856 with subsequent patents obtained in France, Belgium, England, Saxony and Prussia. The first known models were produced by John Krider, a prominent Philadelphia gunsmith and appear to have been used for trial purposes and as prototypes to secure European patents. Krider No. 1, for example, resides in the collection of the Liège Arms Museum in Belgium.
Having a fist full of patents and some prototypes, LeMat needed financial backing and the help of someone who knew the ins-and-outs of government contracting. By marriage, LeMat’s cousin just happened to be Major Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard of the US Army Engineers, the same Beauregard who would shortly become one of the most prominent generals of the Confederacy, and upon whose orders Fort Sumter was shelled.
LeMat and Beauregard signed a partnership contract in 1859 in which Beauregard obtained 1/4 of the patent rights (which he later sold back to LeMat for $10,000). Beauregard subsequently signed some notes to move financing along and arranged for a semi-official board of prominent Army, Navy and political persons to conduct a public trial of the “LeMat Grape Shot Revolver.”
LeMat could not have wished for a more enthusiastic and successful rollout for his new handgun. The board’s findings, in part, read: “We consider the arm far superior to any we have seen for the use of cavalry acting against Indians or when charging on a square of infantry or a battery of field pieces. It is also indispensable for artillerist’s in defending their pieces against such a charge, and for infantry defending a breach… Its advantages in the naval service in boarding or repelling boarders is too obvious to require anything but passing notice…
“It is more than probable that the introduction and use of this pistol in the cavalry service would give to the latter the preponderance over the infantry, if not armed in like manner, for what would become of a line or square of infantry after its fire should have been drawn by the cavalry when the latter coming up to within a few paces would pour 10 shots into their very faces.
“We earnestly recommend that his arm be introduced in our military and naval services, as soon as the Government will find it practicable to do so…”
The Pietta Confederate LeMat is available engraved by special order. Photo: Jonathan Marmand
Following this report, an official military board was convened in Washington a few months later. With few reservations, the official Board recommended that the LeMat “be subjected to trials in the hands of troops that are in actual service in the field.” It didn’t happen, but what’s most interesting about the board’s report is the loading data it contains. The pistol load was 16 grains of powder and a 206-grain bullet, not a ball. The report reads, “elongated ball.” The shotgun barrel load was 40 grains of powder with either a 406-grain ball or 15 buckshot.
In the meantime, Beauregard approached every arms company in America with a proposal to manufacture the LeMat. None bit. Subsequently, the production of the LeMat was shifted to Paris, France and Birmingham, England.
With the formation of the Confederate Government in early 1861, LeMat, now a Colonel, obtained a contract for 5,000 revolvers for the Army plus another 3,000 for the Navy. To facilitate production in France, he formed a new partnership with Charles Girard, a prominent doctor and financier who became the major stockholder. LeMat meanwhile focused his energy on refining the design and designing a new revolver, the .32/.41-caliber Baby LeMat in pinfire as well as percussion and a .42/.48-caliber LeMat carbine. Limited numbers of the Baby LeMat and the LeMat carbine did make it to the shores of the CSA before the end of the war and are considered the rarest of the rare LeMats.
Unfortunately, Girard had his problems—political problems with the Confederacy’s chief Procurement Officer in Europe, Captain Caleb Huse, who resided in London. Huse was receiving kickbacks from the London Armory Company, which was producing the Kerr revolver and the Enfield rifle for the CSA, and Huse did everything possible to sabotage the LeMat contracts, accusing Girard of using cast iron rather than cast steel, refusing to inspect finished revolvers, even refusing to pay Girard for LeMats that had been delivered. It’s safe to say that Huse singlehandedly did more to destroy the Confederate LeMat than any other factor of the war, and his conniving resistance to its success is skillfully documented in Wiley Sword’s Firepower from Abroad.
The question of how many LeMat revolvers actually reached the CSA, to whom they were shipped and who actually used them is a confusing picture. By 1863, the official records indicate that 900 had been delivered to the War Department and 600 to the Navy Department.
Naval use of the LeMat is well documented. In Doug Adams’ invaluable book, The Confederate LeMat Revolver, he notes several LeMats “have known high-profile Confederate association: Thomas Henderson with No. 8, Major General John Lawson Lewis No. 88, General J.E.B. Stuart No. 115, Major Henry Wirz No. 189 (Commander of the Andersonville Prison), General P.G.T. Beauregard No. 427 and General Stonewall Jackson, serial number unknown.”
Adams concludes that by the end of the war, no more than 3,000 LeMats had been produced in France and England combined, and how many of those, beyond the previously documented 1,500, arrived on Confederate shores is unknown at this time. The book, Confederate Handguns, contains an extensive list of known LeMats, their serial numbers and documented associations.
The end of the LeMat story is Girard unsuccessfully tried to sell the LeMat patents to Colt after the war and ended up closing the LeMat factory in France in 1866 to settle the firm’s crushing debts. After a brief stay in debtor’s prison, Girard resumed his practice as a successful physician. LeMat and his wife left New Orleans and settled in Paris, where LeMat continued to churn out patented inventions including centerfire versions of the LeMat revolver and carbine until his death in 1895.
And the Confederacy’s dastardly European Procurement Officer, Captain Caleb Huse? He went to work for the London Armory Company!
But wait! That’s not the end of the story.
The angle of the grip makes the LeMat a natural pointer. The “Cavalry” model features a butt swivel.
The LeMat sights are period crude—OK for combat, tough going for target shooting.
Thanks to the pioneering work of the late Val Forgett, Sr. of Navy Arms, we can still buy and shoot a LeMat Grape Shot Revolver courtesy of the fine Italian gunmaker, F.LLI Pietta and Dixie Gun Works. Dixie currently catalogs three LeMat models: a Cavalry model, Navy model and Army model. The variations among the models are slight, while the model designations themselves do not conform to any historical examples.
The model illustrated here is one of the original Cavalry models imported and sold by Navy Arms, which no longer imports or sells LeMats. The distinctive features of the Cavalry model are its spur triggerguard, lanyard ring and takedown lever. The workmanship and detail of the Pietta LeMat are stunning as are its richly blued and color casehardened finish and finely checkered walnut grips.
It’s a handful of a handgun, weighing 3.5 pounds unloaded and 14 inches long with a 6.75-inch octagon barrel marked “Col. LeMat.” The cylinder is almost 2 inches in diameter. Frankly, I can’t imagine hauling this rig around in a belt holster. It belongs on a horse or racked in a ship’s armory.
The revolver side of the Pietta LeMat is made in .44 caliber and takes a standard 0.451-inch diameter ball, although the Civil War LeMat was loaded with a conical bullet. The shotgun side of the LeMat is a 20 bore and requires the use of 17-gauge over-powder and over-shot wads to keep the load in place when shooting the revolver.
Dixie and Pietta recommend a revolver loading of 22 grains of FFFg and an 0.451-inch ball and 30 grains of FFg and 0.75 ounces of buckshot or a 0.630-inch patched roundball. Why they would recommend a ball loading in the shotgun barrel eludes me, although the official trials board also loaded a ball as well as buckshot in testing the LeMat. It defeats the whole purpose of the LeMat Grape Shot Revolver!
The fire control system of the LeMat is interesting. The hammer nose is manually toggled up or down to strike the revolver nipples or the single shotgun nipple. It’s a good and simple solution.
The sights of the LeMat are period crude. The rear sight is a groove along the top of the hammer while the windage adjustable front sight is a large, thick pyramidal post—good for combat, bad for target shooting.
Two points to note about the Pietta LeMat. It uses the early reciprocating pin lock-up system. A small pin moves in and out of the face of the standing breech as the gun is cocked to mate with holes drilled into the rear of the cylinder. Historically, the pin system was later replaced by a more conventional and more rugged locking lug. In any case, the pin system works fine as long as the pin and its corresponding holes are kept clean.
The other point is the loading lever. Because the handle of the lever is hollow and contains the ramrod for the shotgun barrel, it’s not as strong and tough as a conventional cap-and-ball loading lever. The shotgun ramrod should always be in position inside the hollow handle to reinforce it when the lever is being used to seat a ball. Be forewarned, when shooting the shotgun barrel, the loading lever will consistently flip up and out of its spring clip and leave the shotgun ramrod on the ground at your feet.
Anyway, the Le Mat is a hoot to shoot. Speak about personal firepower with a Civil War handgun! The B-27 target shown here shot at 30 feet with a full load of 9 .44-caliber balls and a load of 15 No. 4 buckshot proves just how effective the LeMat was, if only the Confederacy could have gotten them in quantity. The irony is that, 153 years later, we can buy as many LeMats as we can afford.
The LeMat is a story about a fascinating man, a remarkable revolver, a weapons-starved Confederacy, a corrupt Procurement Officer and just enough intrigue and romance to spice it all up.
By Holt Bodinson
Maker: F.A.P. di Pietta, Italy
Importer: Dixie Gun Works
P.O. Box 130
1412 West Reelfoot Avenue
Union City, TN 38282
Action Type: Single-action 2-barrel revolver
Capacity: 9 (.44), 1 (buck or ball load)
Barrel Length: 6.75 inches
Overall Length: 13.40 inches
Weight: 56.4 ounces
Sights: Notch in hammer rear, post front
Grips: Checkered European walnut
Price: $925 (blue)
The Confederate LeMat Revolver
by Doug Adams, softcover, 112 pages, ©2005, $29.99. Firepower from Abroad by Wiley Sword, hardcover, 120 pages, ©1986, $23, from Mowbray Publishers, 54 E. School Street, Woonsocket, RI 02895, (800) 999-4697,
Confederate Handguns by Albaugh, Benet and Simmons. hardcover, 250 pages, ©1963. Out-of-Print
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