Colonel Jean Alexandre François Le Mat was a Paris-born aristocrat–and Creole physician–who designed firearms in his spare time. On October 21, 1856, he was granted United States Patent No. 15,925 for a unique design of the first multi-shot percussion revolver with an 18-gauge grapeshot barrel fixed beneath it. The lower barrel was 5 inches long, and an extension could be attached to it to form a true shotgun. The shooter could fire nine cartridges then, with just a flick of the thumb, hit his target with a single blast of buckshot.
It still wasn’t a fast-loading or easily transported weapon. The LeMat was designed as a single-action weapon. Shell casings were removed with a slide rod ejector. That means no flipping open the cylinder and flinging out the empty cartridge casings like you see on TV.
The pistol was mostly a novelty as many would buy the latest AR-15 rifles until the start of the Civil War, when Col. Le Mat, a longtime Southern sympathizer, offered his invention to the newly formed Confederate government, who placed an order for 5,000 of his pistols. When he couldn’t find an acceptable manufacturing facility in the South, he traveled to France in hopes of having the weapon manufactured there.
The journey almost ended before it began. He booked passage on the British mail packet Trent, which was stopped and boarded by the Federal warship San Jacinto. The two Confederate officials traveling with LeMat were arrested. Despite his Confederate ties, Le Mat was not detained.
After a couple of false starts, the Birmingham Small Arms Company in England ended up producing the guns, which were given to Confederate officials in Britain and France, who then had them slipped through the Union naval blockade that barricaded the Confederate coasts.
It wasn’t necessarily an ideal weapon for an army. The LeMat Revolver didn’t take the Confederate standard .44 caliber percussion (and later centerfire) cartridge that was the standard for Confederate handguns. That meant anyone who carried a LeMat that hadn’t been converted to use the standard ammunition also carried specialized cartridges. Since the unloaded gun weighed 3.1 pounds, all that brass was a lot of extra weight to haul around.
The original .40 caliber above 18 gauge model was used by the Confederate Army until the end of the war. When the Confederate Navy saw the Army’s new weapon, they ordered a lighter .35-caliber pistol equipped with a 28-gauge (.50 caliber) shotgun barrel. But the contract was soon canceled.
Famous Confederate officers like Major Generals Braxton Bragg, J.E.B. Stuart and Richard H. Anderson carried a LeMat.
Le Mat’s guns continued to be popular until the late 1870s, when they suddenly and unexpectedly went out of fashion. Le Mat died shortly afterward, in 1883. But that doesn’t mean you’ve never seen one. Since reproductions are still being made, the LeMat has appeared often in Hollywood.
- TV Gunslinger turned Sheriff Johnny Ringo, carried a LeMat revolver. Played by Don Durant, Johnny Ringo aired for one season (38 episodes) in 1959-60.
- Jayne Cobb, a character from the television series Firefly and the movie Serenity, uses a handgun based on the LeMat Revolver.
- Dr. Theophilus “Doc” Algernon Tanner in the Deathlands series of novels has carried two different LeMat revolvers.
- Bruce Willis’ character in the movie 12 Monkeys was equipped with a LeMat for a time-traveling mission into the past to assassinate a bioterrorist.
- Swede Gutzon is armed with a LeMat in the film The Quick and the Dead.
- Inman, the main character in the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, carries and uses a LeMat.
- Bufe Coker, a character in both the novel and miniseries Centennial carries a LeMat revolver.
- Ezra Justice in the novel “The Justice Riders” written by Chuck Norris uses a LeMat revolver.
- Red Dead Redemption, a video game set in the dying days of the old west, includes the LeMat revolver as an available weapon in the later part of the game.
- Jonah Hex, a film based on the comic, with Josh Brolin playing the title character, uses a pair of LeMats in the film.
If you want more information, here are some of my sources:
The LeMat Revolver by Floyd Largen – originally published in the October 1996 Military History magazine
Civil War Revolvers Of The North And South by Robert Niepert
Giving credit where it is due, the Johnny Ringo pictures are from Don Durant or FOUR STAR Entertainment Corp. The Jonah Hex picture was from FirstShowing.net.