The LeMat Revolver: A Fistful of Firepower

Double Threat: The LeMat, or Grapeshot Revolver, coupled a revolving cylinder that held nine rounds with a secondary barrel that could hold buckshot or a lead ball. 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.

Dr. Jean LeMat received the first patent — No. 15,925 — on October 21, 1856 for his revolver. He 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.

LeMat’s manufacturing effort for his revolver was backed by P. G. T. Beauregard, pictured, who became a general in the Confederate Army. Fewer than 100 of the guns were made in the U.S. in 1859 and it is estimated that 2,900 more were made in Belgium and France. The scarcity of this revolver has made it valuable to history buffs and gun enthusiasts.

More than a foot long, this 2nd Model LeMat, produced circa 1860, weighed nearly four pounds. By the middle of the Civil War, LeMat had rechambered his second series. 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.

A fully loaded LeMat held nine slugs in the revolving chamber and pieces of shot or one .20-gauge musket ball in the secondary barrel.

This 2nd Model LeMat patent drawing incorrectly shows eight rounds in the cylinder.

During the war, LeMat’s 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.

This LeMat, reportedly carried by one of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troopers during the Battle of Franklin, was excavated with six of its nine cylinders still loaded near the banks of Tennessee’s Harpeth River.

When the excavated gun was found, the pistol was missing its loading assembly, a common aspect of perhaps half of battlefield-recovered examples. Experts believe that their lightweight design meant many of those assemblies broke off during repeated use, but they also think that owners often removed them because they interfered with the process of firing the gun or pulling it out of the holster.

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