Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The LeMat

Jean Alexander Francois LeMat was born in 1824 in Bordeaux, France, and after receiving his Ph.D. in medicine, he emigrated to New Orleans in 1844. He achieved some renown as a physician, inventing an instrument for opening the trachea during an operation, but his main claim to fame was for his favorite hobby. In 1849, LeMat married Justine Sophie LePretre, whose cousin was the flamboyant US Army Cavalry General P.G.T. Beauregard. Besides being a surgeon, it seems Dr. LeMat also, somewhat ironically, designed firearms.

In October of 1856, LeMat received a patent for the LeMat Revolver, which was unusual in that its barrel, instead of rotating around a central pin, instead rotated around a second barrel, this one smooth-bored to fire a single 16-gauge shotgun shell. Which barrel was fired was determined by a small lever in the hammer; in the up position, it would strike the primer to fire the revolver, and when flicked down, it would discharge the shotgun barrel. The LeMat Revolver was 13.25 inches long and weighed a hefty 3.5 pounds; its revolver barrel was single action, and while early models were hexagonal, most were either octagonal or half-octagonal in shape.

The concept behind the LeMat Revolver would greatly improve the firepower of cavalry soldiers, or navy shipmen during boarding actions. Financed by Gen. Beauregard, LeMat commissioned about 25 prototypes in 1859 created by gunsmith Jon Krider in Philadelphia. Military trials were held later that year in both New Orleans and Washington, to great acclaim; the Governor of Louisiana was so impressed that he invested LeMat as a Colonel. In 1860, Louisiana ordered 400 LeMats for its state militia, but that order climbed to 8,000 once the state joined the Confederacy the next year. As Louisiana didn't have the production capabilities for an order of that size, production was moved to France, where they were overseen by former Assistant Secretary to the Smithsonian Institution Charles Frederic Girard, a partner of LeMat's who had quietly slipped back to his native France in 1862 to build the weapons. Union blockades made it difficult to import the revolvers; many freighters loaded with LeMats were seized or sunk, but many also made it through during daring night excursions. About 2,900 LeMats were created overall, with about 1,500 intended for the Confederacy; Beauregard, of course, used a LeMat, as did famed Confederate officers Braxton Bragg, J.E.B. Stuart, and possibly Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson.

The LeMat had problems which limited its popularity. They were heavy, clumsy, and poorly balanced. Manipulating the tiny hammer was difficult even under controlled conditions, much less while wearing heavy gloves in the midst of a raging combat. The revolved ammunition was an unusual .42 gauge, requiring its users to often have to create their own shot during a campaign. The weapon constantly struggled with material integrity; the first batch of French LeMats were flawed to the point of being worthless and refused by the Confederacy. Also, vicious recoil from the shotgun shell, by one account, "would almost tear the arm off a man."

The rise and fall of the LeMat Revolver has a lot to say about the arc of the Confederacy. Its brilliant innovation and wicked potential was limited by the meager industrial capabilities of the South, and its import was hampered by the Union blockade of southern ports. Ultimately, this blockade solidifying would strangle the Confederacy, and no more foreign-made commodities , including the LeMats, could reach the South at all. On April 9, 1865, the South surrendered; LeMat later relocated to Paris and continued to evolve his firearm, producing new versions of the weapon until the 1880's.

LeMat's design, incidentally, was not limited to the pistol: LeMat also released a carbine during the war, which was essentially the pistol with the barrel stretched out to rifle length. It and a smaller "Baby" version had rifled lower barrels, while the Revolver was smooth-bored. Both of these versions were produced only in limited numbers and quickly faded into obscurity.

Links and Sources:

"Civil War Revolvers of the North and South", by Robert Nieport, on, retrieved April 4, 2012.

Adams, Doug, et. al., The Confederate LeMat Revolver, Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2005.
Adler, Dennis, Guns of the Civil War, Zenith, 2011.
Holmes, Richard, Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor, DK Publishing, 2006.
Kennedy, David, and Bruce Curtis, Guns of the Wild West, Running Press, 2005.

Photos of Revolver from "LeMat" on Horst Held Antique Handguns, retrieved April 4, 2012.
Photo of Carbine from the collection of Edward N. Simmons.

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