The LeMat was a self-contained arsenal of devastation. With a revolving cylinder that held a daunting nine rounds and a secondary barrel that contained a load of buckshot or a lead ball, the revolver had few peers; however, the traits that made it so deadly would
also prove to be significant shortcomings. Not only was the LeMat relatively complicated and difficult to produce, at 3.1 pounds and more than a foot long it was heavy to carry and unwieldy in the hands of untrained shooters. Given the gun’s unusual size and features, it is easy to dismiss as poorly conceived—little more than a mechanical curiosity. Yet it deserves a second look, especially considering the relatively primitive state of mid–19th century gun manufacture and the adverse conditions Southern gunmakers generally faced during the Civil War. In short, there were reasons other than a supposedly flawed design for the LeMat’s rapid demise. Like so many other products of the Confederate war machine, it faced an uphill battle against the industrially superior North in terms of manufacture and maintenance.
The LeMat revolver’s unlikely story begins with its namesake, Jean Alexandre Francois LeMat. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, including Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, Eliphalet Remington and Christopher Spencer, LeMat was trained as a physician. Born in France in 1821, he studied medicine at the University of Montpellier and worked at a military hospital in Bordeaux for a year and a half. In 1844 the doctor immigrated to the United States and settled in New Orleans, where he rose to social and financial prominence following his marriage to Sophie LePretre, daughter of wealthy planter and merchant John Baptist LePretre. In the process, LeMat gained as a cousin-in-law West Point–educated Army officer P.G.T. Beauregard, an engineer who had served on General Winfield Scott’s staff during the Mexican War.
In addition to exporting tobacco and cotton to the French government, LeMat boned up on to all things military, informed about the latest weaponry by Brevet Maj. Beauregard. The tactical uses of different firearms fascinated the doctor, as did the engineering that made them possible. He marveled at the Army’s ordnance, an array of pistols, rifles, shotguns, artillery and ammunition, each designed to inflict a particular kind of carnage. Such innovations inspired LeMat to draft plans for his own gun—a weapon he hoped would be worthy of America’s reputation for firepower.
On October 21, 1856, the LeMat received its first patent: No. 15,925. Its inventor labeled it an “Improved Center-Barreled Revolver,” otherwise known as the “Grapeshot Revolver.” Among its most distinctive traits was a 20-gauge smoothbore shotgun barrel that doubled as the arbor, or central axis, on which the gun’s cylinder rotated. This gave the shooter nine .42-caliber bullets from the revolver and an extra load of ball or buckshot from the center barrel.
Despite LeMat’s bold assertion that “[t]he operation of my revolver speaks for itself,” in reality its action wasn’t as clear as he claimed. In a design similar to that of other revolving pistols, the rear of the gun’s cylinder contained a percussion-cap cone for each chamber. Its hammer, however, differentiated it from the others. In order to fire the shotgun barrel, LeMat installed an additional percussion cone situated just below and at a slight angle to the cylinder’s firing mechanism. To accommodate this setup, he added a hinged striker to the hammer. When flipped downward, the alternate hammer nose would hit the shotgun’s primer and discharge the barrel.
LeMat’s design was unlike anything in the federal arsenal at the time. The prospect of 10 powerful shots made it a potential marvel, and Beauregard used his connections to garner attention for the ingenious weapon. On March 2, 1859, he arranged for a trial in Washington, D.C., with an armament board composed of high-ranking officers such as Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston and Winfield Scott.
For the range test they loaded each cylinder chamber with approximately 1 gram of gunpowder and a .42-caliber projectile. The shotgun barrel received 2.5 grams of powder and 15 pellets of buckshot or a single 1-ounce ball. Board members fired a total of 25 pistol and 13 shotgun loads into an unspecified target (probably a thick slab of wood) at a distance of between 15 and 35 yards. LeMat’s revolver performed well on average, with the pistol rounds and the 1-ounce shotgun balls penetrating 2.5 inches, the buckshot loads 1 inch.
Still, the board members felt there was room for improvement, mentioning specific concerns about the loading lever affixed to the right side of the pistol’s frame. To charge the cylinder chambers, the shooter used this hollowed-out pivot rod, which housed a second removable rammer for the shotgun. According to their report, the officers thought the lever was too large and awkward, and that the revolver should be tested with troops in the field to ascertain its overall durability. But aside from those reservations, the board’s opinion of the gun was overwhelmingly positive. In a letter of endorsement, the trial’s participants declared the LeMat “a great and important improvement on [Samuel] Colt’s revolver; containing as it does, three additional pistol shots in the revolving cylinder, and one stationary central barrel….We consider this arm far superior to any we have yet seen for the use of cavalry, acting against Indians, or when charging on a square of Infantry or a battery of field pieces.”
They likewise noted its value to artillerists in defending their cannons and to naval personnel when boarding enemy ships. In short, they “earnestly recommend[ed]” that the military adopt LeMat’s revolver as soon as the government found it “practicable to do so.”
With a semiofficial seal of approval in hand, LeMat and Beauregard formed a partnership and went into business. Notwithstanding his modest 25 percent share in the venture, Beauregard assumed the mammoth tasks of promoting the pistol, building relationships with armories and distributors and managing their mounting expenses.
By the end of 1859, they had already spent $5,750 ($158,000 today) but had little to show for it. Thus far they had produced only 100 pistols, through a small Philadelphia-based gunsmith, John Krider & Co. What they needed was a large-capacity armory capable of accurately reproducing the LeMat’s intricate components.
Some of the world’s best gun manufacturers were then located in the northeastern United States. But once the secession crisis unfolded in the spring of 1861, those facilities were off-limits to the Southern-sympathizing LeMat and his revolver.
The newly established Confederacy needed weapons, of course, and thanks in part to the influence of Beauregard, now a Confederate general, LeMat won a contract in late July 1861 to furnish Southerners with 5,000 Grapeshot Revolvers. But when he learned that the South lacked the materiel and industrial resources necessary to produce such a sophisticated firearm, LeMat had no choice but to take his operation to Europe, where his pistols would be manufactured in a disjointed production process. To make the parts for his revolvers, LeMat used armories in Liege, Belgium, and Paris. The components were in turn sent to
Birmingham, England, for assembly, before being shipped to the Confederacy.
As the war went on, the perils of the stormy North Atlantic, combined with the risks of running the Union naval blockade, made delivering the guns increasingly costly and unreliable. Of the 2,900 Grapeshot Revolvers LeMat produced, historians estimate that somewhere from 900 to 1,700 actually made it to the Confederacy.
Firsthand accounts from LeMat pistol users are extremely difficult to find today. We do know that the proprietary calibers of the early model (or first series) LeMats were a common source of complaints from soldiers. Army supply chains, North and South, typically delivered .36- and .44-caliber pistol ammunition. That meant shooters armed with LeMats, which were initially chambered in .35 and .42 calibers, had to cast their own projectiles.
By the middle of the war, LeMat had rechambered the second series to meet these standards. He also repositioned the loading lever on the left side of the frame, for a stronger mount (although they still frequently broke); reshaped the trigger guard, eliminating the ornate finger rest; and added an easily accessible thumb switch to the hammer’s hinged striker. But despite those improvements, Southern troops still chose other models over the LeMat.
For the conflict’s duration his pistols were more prestige items than trusted battle implements. Numerous Confederate commanders possessed them. In addition to Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston and Henry Wirz each owned at least one. Legendary cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart supposedly loved his. Stonewall Jackson, too, is rumored to have had a LeMat, though his revolver’s whereabouts remain a mystery to this day [see sidebar, opposite page]. The challenge facing modern firearms scholars is a shortage of anecdotes chronicling the LeMat’s combat service.
This raises what may be an unanswerable question: Did the LeMat see much use during the war? The clues we have suggest that it didn’t. For instance, there are no extant photographs or paintings depicting the notable commanders who owned LeMats with their pistols holstered. In fact, when the gun’s best-known proponent, Stuart, was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864, he was carrying not a LeMat but a Whitney.
It’s impossible to say whether this should be seen as tacit commentary on the revolver’s quality. In Dr. LeMat’s defense, his concept was sound and its potential applications manifold. Scott, Bragg and the rest of their armament board colleagues certainly thought so. But regardless of their approval, the Grapeshot Revolver ultimately faded into obscurity. The woefully underequipped South had been unable to produce a gun of such advanced design, and the LeMat never received the meticulous attention to detail that is critical to the evolution of every firearm. It was manufactured in Europe, then secretly slipped back into the South—circumstances unlikely to engender success.
But more than 150 years later LeMat’s legacy endures—more so on the auction block than in American
arsenals. The scarcity of his revolvers help drive premium sales prices, generally $15,000 to $50,000, depending
on condition. Indeed, LeMat’s failed pistol has captivated countless history buffs and gun enthusiasts, many of them willing to pay big money to own such a rare specimen of an ambitious weapon that wound up on the wrong side of the war.
Michael G. Williams is a Maryland-based writer and firearms enthusiast. He cannot afford a genuine LeMat.