James D. Julia: LeMat Grapeshot Revolver Design Evolution

The LeMat grapeshot revolver is one of the most distinctive and powerful sidearms of the US Civil War, sporting both a 9-round .42 caliber cylinder of pistol bullets and a shotgun barrel as cylinder axis. Alexander LeMat received a contract for 15,000 of these guns for the Confederate military, but only managed to deliver about 2,500 by the end of the war. He presented several of his early guns to Confederate generals, including Beauregard and Lewis, both of which are included in this video.

In this video, we will take a look at the progression of the LeMat design through the Civil War. The first example is a Belgian-made pre-production gun, with distinctive brass hardware. Following this are two early first model guns (Beauregard’s and Lewis’), and then both early and late second model guns (which allow us to see both type of locking system used by LeMat).

32 Comments

  1. LeMat was making a survival hand gun. One can run out of bullets, unscrew the main barrel and remove the cylinder, and you still have a little shot gun.

    • Considering that it was a cap-and-ball muzzleloader on both sides, if you’re out of bullets, you’re probably out of shot, too.

      A LeMat percussion plus bullet and shot moulds, lead, and caps would be self-sufficient almost anywhere. after all, you can always make your own black powder.

      You can make your own caps, too, but it’s a bit more tedious. (Hint; potassium chlorate or lead picrate is easier to make than mercury fulminate, and a bit safer to cope with, as well.)

      cheers

      eon

  2. Great video of a gun that has always intrigued me. I always wondered about the shotgun barrel under the projectile barrel and now I know. At one time I owned an Ithica double-barrel hammer gun that was a 20 gauge “Box Lock Demonstrator” with a factory made set of 8″ barrels and very gracefully made pistol grip. It came in a carrying case and was a salesman’s sample to demonstrate the breech design. In spite of the historical factor, it was seized by the Feds and destroyed but I was allowed to remove the sideplates intact and still have them.

  3. Always one of my Civil War favorites – did some drooling myself when the (rather pricey) Italian repros showed up on the market. Then I saw an online video of a guy shooting the reproduction and he pointed out something that had never occurred to me – he decided not to shoot the shotgun barrel because one shot would destroy the lustrous finish of the underside of the pistol barrel. Slight design oversight – the barrels should have been the same length.

      • Seems like I read of a gunsmith that made a breaktop “Super Webley” that was as I recall .38 Specials around a 20-gauge, but don’t think I saw any pictures. Like the guy that made a 5-shot .577 Bland out of a Ruger Redhawk it was a one-of-a-kind because of its Class 3/ “destructive device” status.

  4. I was under the impression that “brevette” meant an authorized copy, as opposed to LeMat’s factory. Same thing with brevette Colts.

  5. General idea reminds me somewhat GP-25 grenade launcher + AK-74 combination – in both upper barrel fire ball ammunition and can fire multiple times and lower is single-shot and muzzle-loaded.

  6. I am wondering about the grooves in the bbl…you state they are to catch fouling from the black powder. I believe they were for catching and holding grease used to lubricate the cylinder, ensuring continuous lubrication through long use.

  7. Gorgeous guns and excellent presentation.

    I missed however years of production. Relative to U.S. Civil war period, might it be between 1850-60?

    • It could be, if you used a .410 rifled shotgun barrel. It would not make much sense, though, unless you also made the main barrel caliber much smaller. Perhaps .22 Hornet main barrel coupled with a .410 rifled shotgun barrel capable of withstanding .454 Casull or .460 S&W Magnum pressures?

      • “.410 rifled shotgun barrel”
        It must be exactly .410 or can be any other as long as it is rifled? If second then paradox rifling is solution.

        • As far as I know, it has to be exactly .410, which is legally considered a .45 Colt / .454 Casull / .460 S&W Magnum barrel that just happens to be compatible with a .410 shotgun. Any other shotgun gauge, despite rifling, would make it a Short Barreled Shotgun with the associated paperwork and $200 tax stamp. This applies also to larger than 12.7mm rifled barrels that are compatible with shotgun ammunition (if not, it becomes a destructive device). Also, a short shotgun barrel other than .410, even if rifled, would make the firearm strictly illegal in many other countries.

  8. I have a Pietta reproduction, and it has all the works. Slightly different latch to unlock the main barrel, and no ears (just pins) on the hammer to fire the shotgun. Wonder how often Beauregard fired his?

  9. Any comment(s) on the mechanical advantage of the early/late style loading levers? I’ve heard complaints about reproductions vs. Colt reloading levers.

    Also in response to El Cid, wouldn’t a modern cartridge version just require a short barreled shotgun permit?

    In response to Daweo or the AR-15/M203.

    • I have several reproduction black powder revolvers. By far my favorite is the Remington New Army 1858(?) model — everything seems well designed, and the top strap seems much stronger than the Colt 1851, which is otherwise just as good. But the Remington feels slightly more at home in my hand, which is probably a personal fit.

      I do have a LeMat reproduction, which they emphasized is not a true reproduction because there were too many variations in caliber. It is pretty close to the first model in general layout. Its biggest problem is the leverage of the ramming rod. With the Remington and Colt, the rammer swings out 30-45 degrees before contacting the top of the ball, so you have plenty of leverage and it’s a breeze to load. With the LeMat, the rammer contacts the ball almost right from the start — maybe not even 10 degrees movement, not even enough to clear the barrel, so you can’t get your fingers around it for a good yank, and you’re not pulling down towards the cylinder but away from the barrel. It’s not fun to load.

      I once loaded all nine chambers and the shotgun but did not seal the shotgun with grease — when I shot the first chamber, it chain fired to the shotgun, and oh my! what a kick — the gun reared back far enough that the hammer tore a chunk of meat off the base of my thumb.

      It has the trigger guard spur and it makes the grip much better, seeing as how the things is so heavy with nine chambers and on ounce of buckshot. Firms it up, makes it much easier to hold steady.

    • Actually, it wasn’t a LeMat, it was a Great Western Peacemaker “clone gun” modified with a 16-gauge percussion shotgun barrel added. Being a .44-40, it worked perfectly well with 4-in-1 blanks in the revolver chambers, and a simple blank charge of flash powder in the shotgun barrel.

      Since the shot barrel was muzzle-loaded, it wasn’t considered an NFA weapon, which meant that unlike the “Mares’s Leg” cutdown Winchester used by Steve McQueen on “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, Treasury wasn’t always sending somebody around to check on where the gun was at.

      Modern-day “Mare’s Legs” are of course made as “pistols” from the outset, and thus aren’t required to be licensed as “cut-down rifles”.

      Frankly, in a real fight, they would likely only be useful for burst fire from the hip. A double-barreled shotgun would be a far more practical weapon, as would a plain old Peacemaker.

      cheers

      eon

    • They show old “Johnny Ringo” episodes on youtube, and it begins with the main character shooting six shots in a perfect circle, then the shotgun barrel in the bulls eye.
      Wonder where that TV prop is today?

  10. I am curious does anyone know if there were any of the Lefaucheaux Pinfire model Le Mats used in the Confederacy during the War? I know that they were made, but not exactly when and where they were used

  11. Shelby Foote notes in his Civil War history that Gen. Jeb Stuart’s LeMat probably tempted him to his death: Stuart had dismounted at a rail fence with some of his staff to take a plinking opportunity at some unhorsed Union cavalrymen from a Michigan regiment. (I don’t remember if Foote says whether the LeMat was new to Stuart, previously used by him, or other, only that Stuart was shooting with it.) One of the Union troopers (Foote names him), aged forty and a former Berdan’s Sharpshooter, plinked back. Stuart wore flamboyant clothes, made a fine target, and died some time later.

  12. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was aimed at handguns–and handgun substitutes. The idea was to eliminate “concealable weapons” and the hearings on the NFA also mentioned limiting magazine capacity to 12 shots. Imagine that every legal handgun is registered with the federal government and every legal handgun owner has to be licensed, with annual fees and re-registration required. If I read correctly, the reason that real handguns (conventional pistols and revolvers) fell off NFA registration was a squabble over “taxes” and the $200 registration stamp price hasn’t increased in 83 years. It could have been a squabble over sharing power–the FBI wanted to be the enforcement agency, and the NRA was shut out by FDR’s AG. Handgun substitutes such as sawed off shotguns and short barrel rifles stayed on the NFA “registration required” list. The later Gun Control Act of 1968 banned unregistered “destructive devices” that now include shotgun bird bombs. Some smooth-bore pistols were made in the past that used fixed cartridges–I’m unsure of when they were made. Some shotguns had rifled barrels. GCA 68 required that sporting guns such as the .577 Nitro Express be registered as a “destructive device” and today rifled shotgun barrels used for sabot slugs are legal–until the Secretary of the Treasury approves another “rule” change. Under GCA 68 the maximum handgun bore is 0.50 inches before it becomes a “destructive device.” The common 20 gauge shotgun in a “rifled bore” handgun is a whopping .615 caliber and the less common 28 gauge is still .55 caliber–making them both “destructive devices.” Going to a 32 gauge is .526 caliber and the 36 gauge is .506 caliber–still “destructive devices.”
    Actual utility of a 20 gauge shotgun in a handgun envelope can be debated. A 12 gauge handgun has a lot of recoil–the 20 gauge is probably also unmanageable. Simple physics–blowing enough lead out the barrel at a high enough velocity to drive the pellets deeply enough into a human body is going to result in a lot of recoil. There were factory-made “sawed off shotguns” in 20 gauge made prior to NFA 34, so perhaps there was some defensive utility.
    Or it could have been the fantasy of having a shotgun in pistol format was magical enough. Actual shooting performance is going to be low due to the difficulty of shooting pistols well–the thing had to kick harder than a .44 Magnum revolver. Lower muzzle velocity will compromise penetration of buckshot pellets, and there’s the fact that choke, not barrel length, determines shot spread.
    The LeMat revolver’s hammer nose had to be repositioned to fire the shotgun barrel. At room combat distances of under 50 feet the small shot charge might have been effective, though half that distance is probably more practical. At 25 feet the shot spread of the LeMat is around eight inches across. That’s enough when there’s 9 shots of .42 caliber with greater range.

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