Blasts From the Past: The LeMat Revolver

Why this nine-shooter earned the nickname the “grapeshot revolver”

Antique Guns
The compact revolver had an incredible amount of firepower for its time.Courtesy James D. Julia Auctioneers

Blasts From the Past is a weekly look at great old guns and underappreciated shooters from yesteryear. If you have photos of rare, interesting, or unusual firearms, send them to fsgunnuts@gmail.com.

The LeMat revolver is one of the interesting curiosities of the Civil War, a revolver with a shotgun barrel in the center, hence the nickname “grapeshot revolver.” It was invented in 1856 by Dr. Alexandre LeMat in New Orleans. General P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederacy was one of LeMat’s backers, and he carried a LeMat during the war, as did J.E.B. Stuart and Richard Anderson.

The LeMat was a major firepower upgrade over handguns of the day. Not only did it offer the buckshot barrel, but the revolver cylinder also held nine shots, as opposed to the six of most revolvers. A small lever near the top of the hammer acts as the barrel selector. Flipping it up with your thumb shifts the striker down to hit the nipple over the shotgun barrel.

Two LeMat prototypes were produced in Philadelphia; the guns were made in France and Belgium. Serial number 1 was made by Belgium’s Francotte. In all, about 2,500 full-size LeMats, and about 100 percussion Baby LaMats, were made, most of which made it to Confederate forces, the sole users of the gun during the Civil War. The French also used a cartridge model of the LeMat in the Franco-Prussian War, giving it an 0–2 record in major conflicts, although it was never produced in large enough numbers to make a difference one way or the other. There was also a carbine version, which was even scarcer than the handgun, with fewer than 20 ever made.

The cased gun pictured here is a first-model LeMat that belonged to Thomas B. Memminger, a Confederate surgeon during the Civil War, and the son of Confederate Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger. It's a very early gun (serial number 25) and in October it's set to go up for sale at James D. Julia Auction, where it is expected to bring $25,000–$35,000.

First-model LeMats were all .42 caliber; a smaller, .32-caliber version followed. Baby LeMat Owners had to cast balls to fit the non-standard barrels of the earlier LeMats. As a first model, Memminger’s gun comes complete with a .42-caliber mold.

Update July 1: Corrections have been made to this post after publication.