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Col. Lemat's grapeshot revolver.

* War often fosters invention, and the American Civil War, considered by many to be our first modern war, saw more revolutionary ideas in firearms introduced than most other conflicts. One of the most interesting and certainly much romanticized handguns--although little hard fact is known about it--is the LeMat revolver. This unique Rebel revolver was the highly-prized personal sidearm of cavalrymen in gray, Southern sailors, and such heroic Confederate leaders as General James Ewell Brown ("Jeb") Stuart and General P.G.T. Beauregard. Its unique design, sleek looks and battle load of 9 pistol shots--plus a hefty load of buckshot--made it a formidable arm by anyone's standards!

The LeMat was the result of the inventive genius of a New Orleans Frenchman, Dr. Jean Alexandre Francois LeMat, a devout Confederate who gave up his medical practice in order to pursue supplying the Southern cause with his extraordinary revolver. Actually, Dr. LeMat had been working on the idea for this arm for several years before the War Between the States, and it was granted patent number 15925 from the U.S. Patent Office on October 21, 1856. For the next couple of years, it is believed that Dr. LeMat continued with his medical career while he promoted his unusual revolver.

On March 2, 1859, a trial board comprised of prominent members of the military and the political world was held. The board, held in New Orleans, included such distinguished names as Lt. Col. Braxton Bragg (who was recently retired from the U.S. Army and was later to become a top Confederate general) and Major Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. (Then an army Engineer officer and later to become one of the Confederacy's foremost generals, Beauregard was also soon to enter a partnership with LeMat for production of his revolver.) The board overwhelmingly favored the adoption of the LeMat for the armed services, especially the cavalry. Part of their report stated, "... We consider this arm far superior to any we have seen for the use of cavalry 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 ..."

A little over a month later, on April 4, Major P.G.T. Beauregard officially became Dr. LeMat's partner. According to the contract agreed upon by both men, one fourth of LeMat's patent rights would go to Beauregard in exchange for a financial investment and favors which the army major was able to procure.

In May of that same year, another trial board was convened, this time in Washington, D.C., and it was this board's recommendation that the LeMat revolver "be subjected to trial in the hands of troops that are in actual service in the field." Although this board was staffed by such military notables as Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston of the First U.S. Cavalry (he was later to become a Confederate General) and Brevet Major and Captain of Ordnance, T.T.S. Laidley (who later designed the U.S. Army's rifle targeting system which promoted accurate shooting by the private soldier), no government field trials were ever actually held.

However, inspired by the Washington, D.C. Board's favorable comments, Dr. LeMat patented and improved the hammer for his "grapeshot" revolver, then traveled abroad, spending the next several months securing patents on his handgun in England, Belgium, Russia, Spain, Prussia and Saxony. It is also believed that he made the necessary arrangements for the manufacture of his LeMat revolver during this trip.

While abroad, LeMat employed a Dr. Charles F. Girard as a "special agent" in Europe. Girard was soon to become a full-fledged partner, owning a three-quarter interest in LeMat's patent rights! In April of 1860, Major P.G.T. Beauregard sold his interest in LeMat's patent rights back to the inventor. By July of that year, the new partnership with Dr. Girard was agreed upon and the firm of C. Girard & Co. was established. Apparently, LeMat himself was content to stay in the background working on improvements and new models of his revolver, along with pursuing possible sales, for a one-fourth interest.

By the spring of 1861, the bitterness between the North and South erupted into the secession of the Southern states from the Union. Knowing that the new Southern Confederacy would need arms and equipment for a war that statesmen on both sides predicted was forthcoming, Dr. LeMat traveled to Montgomery, Alabama where the Confederate government was being formed. It was also around this time that Dr. LeMat became Col. LeMat, evidently taking advantage of a complimentary title bestowed on him by the Louisiana governor in 1859. "Col." LeMat served on the governor's staff as Aide-de-Camp. As a result of his presence, he procured a contract to supply 5,000 grapheshot revolvers to the Confederate Army. Another order for 3,000 LeMats was soon thereafter obtained from the Southern Navy and production of these guns was set up in France.

Recent research has revealed that there was no LeMat factory as such. Rather, these arms were produced in a "cottage industry" arrangement; different parts of the LeMat were produced by small shops capable of making individual components, instead of having the entire gun turned out in a single factory. This is sometimes known as a "wheelbarrow factory," in that quantities of completed parts would be loaded in a wheelbarrow, or small cart, and transported to the next stage of operation, until the handguns were completed.

These first army revolvers were percussion arms, made with .42 caliber, 9-shot cylinders that rotated around a 5-inch smoothbore barrel of .63 caliber for firing a buckshot or a larger, specially designed disintegrating ball load. However, due to problems with the Confederate purchasing agent in France, and the rapid devaluation of Southern currency, only around 900 pistols appear to have been delivered to the Rebel army and about 600 LeMats to the Confederate Navy during the war.

Problems resulting from the use of malleable cast iron in the LeMat's frame, barrel, and cylinder plagued both C. Girard & Co. and the Confederate government throughout the entire conflict. Finished LeMats were first shipped directly to the Confederacy where they were inspected, and either accepted or rejected. Those revolvers that did not meet the Southerners' standards were offered for private sale in the South.

Ironically, despite these problems, the Confederate government, in 1864, placed yet a third contract for 2,000 pistols of the modified "Baby LeMat" pattern, which (briefly) was a smaller version offered with a 9-shot, .32 caliber cylinder with a 4-1/2-inch barrel and a .41 caliber smoothbore underbarrel which measured a scant 2-3/4 inches. These Baby LeMats (as was true of their larger brothers) were by now required to be made in France, but were shipped to London, England, for inspection and proving. Although this process saved some time for the ill-fated Confederacy, it proved too costly and time consuming for the Girard firm, and the production of all LeMat revolvers was moved to Birmingham, England's gunmaking center.

Byt he end of the war, only about 100 of these smaller LeMats were completed and ready for inspection. None ever reached the Confederate States. It appears that the production of the LeMat revolver ceased shortly after the War Between the States ended. A few pinfire versions were produced but for all practical purposes, manufacture and saels of any LeMats, percussion or pinfire, ended soon after Appomattox. It is estimated that less than 3,000 percussion revolvers, and only a handful of pinfires were ever turned out. Nonetheless, those that did make their way to southern shores were favored sidearms, as they offered the fighting man a fierce handgun with the potential of 10 successive shots without reloading--including a formidable buckshot charge.

Val Forgette, often referred to as the "Father of Modern Black Powder" for his introduction nearly 30 years ago of a affordable and shootable reproductions of Civil War-era revolvers and longarms, can now add the colorful LeMat replica to his muzzle-loading lauresls.

Val's firm, Navy Arms Co., is offering three models of the LeMat grapheshot revolver which they term the Army Model, the Navy Model, and the Cavalry Model. Each of these guns features minor variations found in original LeMats of the last century. Externally, these handguns are fit and finished beautifully. They feature highly-polished blue octagon rifled pistol barrels that measure 6-3/4 inches long with a 4-7/8-inch long .65 caliber smoothbore tube underneath. The 9-shot, .44 caliber cylinder, the loading lever assembly, frame, triggerguard and backstrap are all blued and polished as well. The guns' triggers and hammers are nicely color casehardened and the two-piece walnut stocks are handsomely cut-checkered about 18 lines to the inch, with a blued-escutcheon plate neatly inset on each side. Additionally, each model's cylinder sports a bit of floral embellishment around the outer surface by the cone (nipple) of each chamber. This decoration, along with a border of tiny dots encircling the forward section of the cylinder, appears to be roll-engraved, or etched in--whichever method was used, it serves the revolver well and does enhance the overall look of the LeMat. As well, the top of each model's barrel is stamped with the name, "Col. LeMat," framed within a fancy Victorian Filigree-styled border. The front sight is a blued dovetailed wide-based bead, and while the rear sight is nothing more than a notch in the hammer in the manner of the percussion Colts, for all practical purposes, it is non-existent. The LeMat is a fistful of firepower, weighing in at 3 pounds, 7 ounces, and measuring a full 13 inches from stem to stern.

During the photography session for the color page that accompanies this piece, we had the opportunity to compare a Navy Arms LeMat replica with an original percussion arm from the collection of longtime Confederate arms collector, Bob Lewis. All hands present were impressed with the attention to detail shown on Val Forgette's copy--including Bob who like most collectors is a real stickler for authenticity!

As far as variations are concerned, the Army and Navy Model LeMats share the same lanyard ring extension at the base of the grip, and their loading assemblies are held in position in a similar manner--a cradle arm, which is screwed into the under portion of the pistol barrel, and a ramrod head indentation holding it in place at the muzzle. These two revolvers both utilize the same frame disassembly pin system. The major distinction between the two is the method used to fire the grapeshot underbarrel. All three LeMats are made with the smoothbore barrel's cone built into the upper-rear section of the gun's frame. This barrel is fired by manually switching the spring-loaded pivoting underbarrel hammer nose downward into firing position. To shift the Navy model's underbarrel hammer into firing position, simply push forward on the protruding lever found at the top of the hammer. The Army and Cavalry models utilize small pins found on each side of the revolver's hammers. By merely pushing the pins downward, the underbarrel hammers are moved into firing position.

My personal favorite LeMat is the Cavalry model (I'll be you're not surprised at that statement, huh?). This is almost identical to the actual revolver used by General "Jeb" Stuart during the Great Rebellion. Stuart was the epitome of the Southern Calvaryman and literally rode circles around the Yankee army! This version has the spur triggerguard, which was originally designed to aid mounted troopers in holding their handguns steady while handling a plunging or bolting cavalry steed. I think the spur addition to the triggerguard adds class to the gun and lends a certain raciness to it. Two other features I prefer on the Cavalry LeMat are the loading lever assembly's simple muzzle indentation (a means of holding it in place), and the lever system employed for breaking down the barrel assembly from the frame. Both Gunsmith Editor, Garry James and I found this to be easier and faster to operate than the pin system of the army and Navy models.

Four non-firing prototypes were sent to us for examination--two Cavalry Models, one Army and one Navy Model--so we restricted ourselves to visual scrutiny along with basic disassembly of each version. As handsome as these arms were externally, both Garry and I felt that their internal workings could have been finished better. However, since both of us are black powder addicts, it is not surprising that we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a shooting version of the Navy Arms LeMat. What is surprising is that several of the non-muzzle-loaders of the Guns & Ammo staff are equally excited about the LeMat replicas and are even considering adding one of them to their personal batteries. What better testimonial is there than that? As of this writing, production of the LeMat is under way, and a finished shooting LeMat should be available by the time you read this article. They are scheduled to retail for about $500 per copy, and due to cost of manufacturing, will be made in a limited run only. Navy Arms will also offer a deluxe set which will consist of a LeMat, engraved in the same manner as General P.G.T Beauregard's personal sidearm. This revolver will be cased, along with a copy of a book co-authored by Val Forgette and Alan Serpette on the history of the LeMat. This volume promises to reveal some new insight into the firearm's past, along with many interesting photos of original guns. This deluxe set will sell for $1,000. If you are like me, and your pulse quickens when you see a gun like the rare and exciting LeMat being offered, then you'll definitely want to own a Navy else can I say?

For further information on the availability of the LeMat reproduction, write to navy Arms Co., Inc., Dept. GA, 689 Bergen Blvd., Ridgefield, NJ 07957.
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Author:Spangenberger, Phil
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:May 1, 1985
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