Pietta LeMat Cavalry Model Percussion Revolver
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- Last updated: 14/12/2016
There is no doubt that reproduction percussion revolvers have a large following among shooters, and to a lesser extent, collectors and re-enactors, and I would guess that the majority of those in circulation would be covered by three or four basic models. The Colt Army and Navy models, along with the so-called 1858 Remington (actually first produced around 1863) will be the ones most commonly encountered, but the Italian company, Pietta produces a number of the more obscure variations of 19th century American handguns. Some of these, like their brass-framed “Reb” or “Texas” versions, are nothing more than figments of the designers’ imaginations but they do have a following nevertheless. Among the unusual, but accurate, models to come out of their factory is the remarkable LeMat revolver, a large, ungainly looking piece that originally found fame as the side arm of Confederate General, “Jeb” Stuart. The main point of interest is that this percussion revolver had a nine .44 shot cylinder that revolved around a centrally mounted .65 shotgun barrel… that’s a lot of firepower for a handgun of the period.
Guns for the South
Although manufactured in Europe, Jean Alexander LeMat’s ingenious revolver was first patented in America in 1856. The first prototypes were allegedly produced in Philadelphia in 1859 and were sent for examination by the United States Army in May of that year. Although the testing board recommended that the revolver was worthy of further examination, there is no evidence that this was carried out. Unable to interest the large American firearms manufacturers in his product, LeMat sold the majority interest in his product to Dr. Charles Girard of Belgium. With hostilities looming in the USA, an order for 5,000 of the novel pistols was obtained from the Confederate Bureau of Ordnance and production was commenced in Liege.
The Confederate Ordnance Department sent their European purchasing agent, Capt. Caleb Huse, to oversee production, but issues of quality control, rejected pistols and withheld payment prompted Girard to transfer production to England, to try and improve the situation. A number of pistols were manufactured by Tipping & Lawden in Birmingham while the Aston Brothers of London also made an unknown quantity. Serial numbers on the original guns, usually a good indication of the quantity produced, are somewhat inconclusive but an accepted production figure is around three thousand pistols, the majority of which were run through Union blockades to arm the Confederacy. There were two distinct variations of the LeMat with a number of ‘transitional’ models using parts from both types, and the Pietta version we have here would seem to fall onto this latter category.
The ‘Marmite’ Le Mat
There is no doubt about it, the LeMat is different. Pull this out of your bag at the range and it immediately becomes the centre of attention and there seems to be no middle ground; like Marmite, people either love it or hate it. While it may not be your first choice for a revolver you have to admire the mechanical aspects and it was probably only production difficulties that prevented it from being more popular in its era. The pistol probably owes a part of its parentage to the Webley Long Spur revolver, whose basic grip shape and barrel-mounted rammer it shares. While Pietta choose to name their three variations of this pistol as Cavalry, Army and Navy models, this nomenclature is historically incorrect as there were really only two models with a few variations as it was developed. The pistol under review has the barrel fastening, trigger guard spur and lanyard ring from the original first model LeMat, while the rest of the gun replicates the second model, hence it can be said to be nearer to the transitional pieces.
Apart from the hammer and trigger, which have a case hardened finish, the rest of the metalwork is finished in a high gloss black. The cylinder is rolled with some simple patterns -very similar to the originals. The oiled walnut grips are nicely chequered, said to be hand done, and the fit to the frame is first class. Indeed all of the edges mate well and the pistol is finished to an overall high standard. Weighing in at one and a half kilos it is a relatively large pistol and to those used to a more conventional percussion revolver, this one initially feels a little front heavy, particularly at arms length. However, it does point well, but I still cannot see the benefit of that spur on the trigger guard. Perhaps shooters with larger hands will make better use of it. Being an open top frame the rear sight is a notch in the hammer and the front is dovetailed into the barrel. The wide hammer spur has positive but not too sharp chequering, and the strong mainspring requires a little more effort than normal to cock the revolver, with a resulting heavy trigger pull. This strong spring is needed to ensure that the central shotgun barrel discharges, as the hammer throw to the central nipple is quite short. I have seen reference to the unreliability of the central barrel, but although I only fired it out of curiosity half a dozen times, but it went off without fail every time.
The LeMat uses a slightly smaller ball (.451”) than other .44’s I have used and it was not until I began to load it that I realised that the chambers are shorter than the Colt or Remington clones. This meant that my pre-charged loads of around 32 grains of powder were too much to allow the grease cookie and ball to fit the chambers. Trying to modify the loads on the bench made it difficult to get two charges the same, and thus the accuracy of the pistol could not be really tested on this occasion. It did however help me get to grips with the loading mechanism.
The loading lever for the main cylinder sits on the left side of the barrel and pivots upwards in the manner of the Adams and Webley revolvers of the day. The lever consists of a tube into which fits the loading rod for the central shotgun barrel. It is held in place by a small spring with the head of the rod fitting into a slight recess in the left barrel flat. Others have stated that the lever can jump out of the spring and send the rod flying but I did not find this to be the case. It is imperative when loading the cylinder that this rod is left in place otherwise the tube can be bent. Unlike the conventional rammer under the barrel arrangement, the gap between the plunger and the cylinder face is not much larger than the ball, so the rammer has to be placed at the “at rest” position each time.
The throw of the lever is also quite short, meaning that the powder charge is critical. A too-light charge and the ball will not be rammed fully home on to the powder. A minor niggle is that the capping cut-out on the right of the recoil shield could be a little bit larger. At a second session I finalised my charge at around 27 grains of Henry Krank’s black powder with the cookie and .451” ball. With this combination the pistol shot a little high and to the right at 20 metres, and the nine shots were in a circle of about ten inches. There were no problems with percussion caps falling into the works and only two misfires through almost one hundred shots.
A small hinged lever in the front of the frame locates into a slot in the barrel lug to hold the main barrel in place. A threaded ring is attached to the underside of the main barrel with corresponding threads on the shotgun barrel. Dropping this lever allows the barrel to be unscrewed and the cylinder removed. There is no need to put the pistol on to half cock to remove the cylinder, as with Colts and Remingtons, as the locking bolt is in the recoil shield and enters the rear of the cylinder. This barrel retaining lever was apparently prone to wear and dropping down of its own accord, prompting LeMat to change to a more secure screw arrangement for the second model. This arrangement is used on the other two Pietta variations of this pistol. The central shotgun barrel is meant to unscrew from the frame but try as I may I could not get this one out.
The Pietta LeMat will doubtless find more favour with those interested in the historical side of American firearms rather than target or fun shooters, and there are a couple at least among Western re-enactors. Its big drawback is the hefty price tag, but if you want something different with a bit of kudos then I guess you have to pay for it.