Pietta’s Rare Civil War Guns
Starr, Spiller & Burr, J. H. Dance, and LeMat
By Dennis Adler
The Grapeshot LeMat
There was one truly original Southern revolver produced during the Civil War, a gun that was not based on any previous design and that has become synonymous with the Confederacy, the LeMat. It is the only percussion revolver of the mid 19th century that rivals the 1847 Walker Colt for its sheer audacity of size and power.
The LeMat was a unique firearm, bold in its design, and more so in its presentation, a 9-shot .42 caliber revolver with a secondary lower “shotgun” barrel chambered for a grapeshot paper cartridge – the coup de grace.
This masterpiece of firearms design was the work of a French medical doctor, Jean Alexandre Francois LeMat who had moved to the United States in 1843 to further his study of medicine. After establishing a practice in New Orleans, in 1849 he married Justine Sophie LePretre, the cousin of U.S. Army Major Pierre-Gustave Toutant Beauregard. The very same Beauregard would lead the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in 1861 and start the Civil War.
Though a practicing physician, LeMat was also an avid inventor, and his ideas intrigued Beauregard, who not only encouraged but often financed some of LeMat’s most daring concepts including his patent for rifling cannon barrels and the development of the innovative LeMat revolver in 1856. Three years later, the very first examples of the LeMat Grapeshot revolver were manufactured in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by gunmaker John H. Krider.
Though designed and prototyped in America, and initially represented to the U.S. military in 1860 for evaluation by Major Beauregard, events of the year to come would lead to the LeMat being manufactured in Europe as a gun intended to support the Confederate States of America.
The LeMat revolvers were originally manufactured in Belgium, then the biggest arms making center in the world. Beginning in 1864 they were also made in Paris, while others were shipped in the white and completed in London.
.The Paris LeMats consisted principally of those models regarded as the Navy variation with round triggerguard.
Never produced in large quantities, LeMats were shipped to the South by freighters, which often had to run Union blockades at night in order to make deliveries of the arm “formidable” to Southern seaports. And not every freighter made it, some were captured, others rammed and sunk.
There were two principal LeMat models produced for the Confederate military (although there were other versions), the Cavalry or C.S. Army with spur triggerguard, lever-type barrel release, cross pin barrel selector for the 9-shot cylinder and lower grapeshot barrel, and swiveling lanyard ring; and the Navy variation with a knurled pin barrel release, a spur barrel selector, round triggerguard, and a new lanyard loop built into the buttplate.
Pietta manufactures both versions today. There is, however, one significant difference, the Pietta LeMat revolvers are chambered in .44 caliber instead of .42 caliber. The main reason, as the late Val Forgett, Sr. (founder of Navy Arms) wrote in his 1996 book LeMat The Man, The Gun, was to prevent the Pietta LeMat revolvers from being passed off as originals. In point of fact, a talented gunsmith could modify, remark, and antique the finish of a Pietta and have a very credible “fake.”
The LeMat remained the most prominent sidearm of the Confederacy and were carried by many of the South’s most famous generals, including Pierre-Gustave Toutant Beauregard, J.E.B. (James Ewell Brown) Stuart, officers of the Confederate States Navy, and the famed 18th Georgia Regiment.
Since the Spiller & Burr pretty much duplicates the .36 caliber Remington Navy, and the J.H. Dance a .44 caliber version of Colt’s 1851 Navy, we decided to put the two “unique” Piettas to the test, the .44 caliber LeMat and Starr double action revolvers.
The Starr double action was a difficult gun to handle back in the days of the Civil War, and in the 21st century the same operational quirks are present in Pietta’s highly accurate reproductions.
One needs to mind the trigger and remember that the hammer drops when the lifter mechanism (what looks like the trigger) strikes the hammer release at the back of the triggerguard. With practice you can pull the lifter part way to rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer. Then a continued pull will fire the gun. There is also a sliding device behind the lifter that changes the impact point of the lifter upon the hammer release.
Pushing it to the uppermost position makes cocking the revolver more consistent. There is a clear double click as the hammer moves back into the cocked position, but it is easy to go too far and fire the gun. This was one of the issues with the original arms. The trigger lifter also needs to be deftly pulled to prevent locking of the cylinder. The man who sold the original Starr double action pistols to the federal government, and the contractor who bought them, didn’t deserve to be hung as traitors, but the single action version of the Starr was definitely an easier gun to shoot!
Double action trigger pull on our test gun, provided by Dixie Gun Works, averaged a little over 12 pounds. By pre-cocking the action with the lifter (lots of practice!), it only required 5 lb. 8.5 oz. to pull the trigger the rest of the way and trip the hammer. Fired from 50 feet at a full size silhouette target, three out of six rounds landed within the central body mass of the 9 ring. Two were in the 8 ring and would have been serious wounds; the one flyer hit in the shoulder area, but would still have been a wound.
In the Civil War the LeMat definitely had an edge with three extra chambers plus the grapeshot barrel. The only drawback is its massive hammer, which requires a strong thumb to cock. Trigger pull on our test gun averaged 5 lb. 5.0 oz.
While the Starr is a difficult gun to aim because the hammer notch rear sight is curving downward, the LeMat’s hammer notch is like looking down twin peaks at an equally large dovetailed triangular front sight. Fired at the silhouette target from 50 feet, nine rounds all struck within the central body mass with 1 in the 10 ring, 3 in the X, and the rest in the upper chest area of the 9 and 8 rings. In battle, all deadly shots.