FIGHTING IRON: COLONEL LE MAT'S "GRAPESHOT REVOLVER"


Modern warfare is often a long-range affair in which men never see the faces of their enemies: but in the 19th Century, things were different, especially for the cavalryman. A cavalry fight was a wild melee of desperate men grappling to the death at spitting distance.  In these intense and very personal struggles, mobility, skill at arms, and—above all—firepower usually decided the outcome.

The cavalryman's traditional weapons were the saber and the lance.  Infantry formations armed with single-shot muzzle-loading rifles could readily be broken by a mass of horsemen bearing down on them, slashing and thrusting as the soldiers tried to reload.  A surprise cavalry attack on unprepared troops wrought havoc.

As a defense against opposing cavalry, however, the lance and saber were less valuable: running down a standing man to stab him is a different proposition than fending off  a mobile opponent.  The best defense was to stand off a few yards, take an enemy out of the saddle, and reduce him to the status of a foot soldier, unable to escape his fast, mobile, and heavily armed assailant.

The invention of firearms made this sort of "long-range" fight a practical defensive tactic against men armed with swords and lances. Almost as soon as guns were invented, most of the designer's thought was given to developing types to suit the specific needs of cavalrymen.  From the "hand gonne" of 1500 to the Colt M-1911A1 autoloader, the primary goal of pistol design has always been to create a powerful weapon capable of unseating an opposing horseman a few metres away; a gun that could be used with one hand, leaving the other to control the horse.

By the mid-19th Century the tactical value of horse cavalry had peaked, as had the technology of percussion-cap ignition.  Firearms using percussion ignition are cumbersome and inefficient by modern standards, and in a historical context hardly more than a transitional technology between the flintlock and self-contained ammunition. Nevertheless, they were a significant advance, one that made compact repeating pistols a practical proposition. 

The relentless westward expansion of the American frontier, the California Gold Rush of 1849, and most especially the Civil War's fierce competition for military handgun contracts spurred the development of many innovations in the 19th Century.  Some of these were practical and others merely bizarre; one of the most unusual yet eminently practical designs was "Colonel" Alexandre Le Mat's so-called "Grapeshot Revolver."  In some ways the Le Mat was the zenith of percussion revolver technology, the ultimate piece of "fighting iron" of its day.  It conferred on its user a level of firepower unmatched by any contemporary weapon. 

Sam Colt's “Patterson” Model of 1836, named for the city in which it was made, was the first really successful revolver (the multi-barreled "pepperbox" type wasn't much good at any distance greater than the width of a poker table).  The Patterson was far from perfect, as it was fragile and unsuited to really hard usage.  Even so, with its multi-shot capabilities, it gave a good account of itself in the USA's war against Mexico in 1846. General Sam Walker, a hard-bitten cavalryman and Indian fighter who'd used the Patterson in combat, approached Colt with his ideas for how the horse-soldier's gun should be made. Colt’s eponymous “Walker” Model of 1847 was the result: a massive revolver that gave cavalrymen their first really heavy-calibre repeating weapon, one eminently suitable for close-quarter fighting.  In many respects, until the introduction of autoloaders, the development of the  heavy cavalry pistol was little more than a process of refinement and updating of Walker's theories. But in the 1850's breechloading handguns still lay in the future, and the percussion revolver was the apex of pistol technology.

 

Dr. Jean Alexandre Francois Le Mat was a Parisian gentleman who had emigrated to Louisiana and lived in New Orleans, where (as with most Southern gentlemen) he was given the courtesy title of “Colonel,” even though he was not a military man.  Perhaps spurred by this polite fiction, he applied his scientific ingenuity to developing a fighting handgun military and naval service, and in October 1856 was issued US Patent #15925,  entitled "Improved Fire-Arm." In it he described a pistol "...construct[ed]...in any of the forms known of Colt's and similar revolvers, but instead of the usual central cylinder, [i.e., the axis pin] I employ a shot barrel...".  Other than the use of a short shotgun barrel about which the cylinder revolved, and a hammer which could be selected to fire that barrel or one of the "bullet-charges," Le Mat's gun was a conventional single-action revolver, albeit of unusual size and power.

Le Mat and his partner Pierre G.T. Beauregard (who later rose to General’s rank in the Confederate Army) tried to find a manufacturer to produce his invention, but failed to get more than a few prototypes made. These he showed to the US Army, who expressed polite admiration for the concept but declined to adopt it as standard issue.  When the Civil War began, the opportunistic Le Mat offered his invention to the Confederate States, who were a good deal more taken with it than the Union had been.  Manufacturing facilities in France and in England were found, and some 3000-odd Le Mats were eventually produced for the Confederate forces. Manufacture of models using self-contained ammunition actually continued after the war, but by the mid 1870's the popularity of the ungainly "grapeshot revolver" waned and Le Mat went out of business.  Original Le Mats are worth very substantial sums today, and are far too expensive to shoot, but a handsome and reasonably priced replica is manufactured by Italy's renowned Pietta firm.

The Le Mat is a big revolver.  The central shotgun barrel is approximately 18-bore (as in the original) which demands a pretty fair-sized cylinder to surround it. The cylinder is big enough to hold nine shots rather than the usual six.  Pietta’s copy is in .44 calibre, but most of the originals were .42 calibre.  With a rifled barrel some 170 mm long, an elongated grip, and that huge hammer, the overall length is well over 30 cm, and fully loaded, its weight is nearly three kilograms. When shooting the Pietta reproduction, I found that despite its virtues, the Le Mat has some inherent faults which may have been the reason the US Army wasn't really interested in adopting it.  Two serious design flaws are the very flimsy rammer lever and the weak lock-up system.

In Colt’s and Remington’s percussion revolvers the rammer levers are hell for stout: their leverage is enormous and a ball can be shoved into a chamber without too much effort.  The Le Mat's lever is a rather flimsy affair, stuck onto the side almost as an afterthought (indeed, no rammer lever is shown in the patent drawing). It's held in place by a small spring-metal finger that's easily deformed, allowing the lever to flop loose; but worse, the lever itself and the screw on which it pivots are simply too weak for the job.  A dead-soft, pure lead ball can be seated without damage, but if there is any significant degree of hardness (as is commonly the case in balls cast from scrap lead) there's a very real possibility of bending the lever or breaking the pivot. This isn't Pietta's fault, and there is nothing wrong with the replica; it's a design defect. 

A further minor annoyance is that the all-important ramrod for the shotgun barrel is a separate piece housed inside the tubular ramming lever, held in place only by friction and a tiny notch in the barrel.  Under recoil impulse it has a tendency to fly loose.  Not much of a problem on the range, but in a mounted action it would surely have meant the ramrod was lost permanently.

The second design problem is the locking system for the cylinder.  Instead of the two-point lock used by contemporary Colts and Remingtons (and all modern revolvers) in which a lock bolt rises out of the frame into a cylinder notch, while the hand exerts a counter-force to hold everything tightly, the Le Mat uses a single small stud that's cammed in and out of round locking holes in the rear cylinder face.  This stud is too small and will pop out if the cylinder is turned by hand, even with the hammer at full cock.  Given the weight and rotational inertia of the massive cylinder, this locking device is prone to slipping, putting the revolver out of time, especially after it gets worn.

All that said, shooting the Le Mat is an interesting and enlightening experience.  It makes you realize just how effective this weapon must have been.  The recoil is very manageable, given the gun's great weight.  Even the shotgun barrel, loaded with stiff charges of powder and buckshot, doesn't produce too much kick, and the elongated grip allows the gun to ride back in the hand, absorbing some of the force.The sights are very crude, but no worse than those of contemporary handguns, especially the Colts.  The rear sight is a broad and ill-defined notch in the hammer, and the front sight is a huge pyramidal excrescence.  You can't "take a fine sight" with this gun, but at 6.5 metres' distance you don't need to.  The Le Mat is no target pistol, but groups fired offhand were good enough to accomplish the goal of hitting a man in the chest.  Buckshot patterns were acceptable given the cylindrical bore, and at that short range would almost surely have been incapacitating if not lethal.

Pietta make this replica to use a .451" ball instead of the original .420" one.  Presumably this is to keep the price down by employing boring and rifling machinery used in their other reproduction guns, as .451" is the standard for .44 caliber percussion revolvers. It's unclear to me, though, why Pietta didn't make the shotgun barrel the right size to accept standard 20-bore components, instead leaving it at the original .65 caliber. Twenty-bore wads simply fall to the bottom, and it’s impossible to find factory-made wads in the proper diameter. I was compelled to make my own with a cutting punch of the correct size.  With a little force 16-gauge shot cups can be shoved down the barrel but cushion wads and over-shot wads have to be home-made. 

In my shooting sessions I used a Hornady swaged pure lead ball over 25 grains of FFg black powder, ignited by an RWS #11 percussion cap; and for the lower barrel, nine US #1 buckshot (0.320”) diameter with a 50-grain charge.  All shooting was done at a range of 6.5 metres.  Both bullet groups and shot charges were fired offhand. 

It's easy to understand why the Le Mat was popular with many of the famous cavalry officers of the Confederacy, including the most dashing cavalryman of them all, Jeb Stuart.  It puts not six, but ten shots at the horseman's disposal.  In a short-range cavalry scuffle, with one revolver ball enough to kill a man handily, and the shotgun barrel big enough to hold a murderous charge of buckshot, a brace of Le Mats in saddle holsters would have provided a lot of reassurance to a man about to do battle. As the pictures show, the Le Mat wasn’t designed for pinpoint accuracy, but hitting a man a few metres away, even from the back of a horse, would be pretty easy to do. As a last resort, swinging it one the end of a stout lanyard would have made it into a pretty effective mace.  The horse soldier armed with a Le Mat and a metre-long saber was well armed indeed by the standards of 1861!