They don’t make firearms designers like they used to. Those who dominate the industry today aren’t like the pioneers of centuries past—those who would take risks, dare to be bold and groundbreaking in their ideas, and obviously drink too much before taking their blueprints to the drawing board. As a result, we haven’t seen insanity tinged brilliance in the same vein as the LeMat revolver for 150 years. This Civil War weapon’s distinctiveness can be summarized quickly: It’s a freakin’ nine-shot revolver with a 16-gauge shotgun attached.
Where you’ve seen it:
The LeMat makes an appearance in several different flicks, and understandably so, given its unusual, almost futuristic appearance. In The Quick and the Dead, a young Leonardo DiCaprio uses his cat-like reflexes to avoid the business-end of a LeMat (right) worn by Gutzon, the Swede. The LeMat also appears in Jonah Hex, Wild Wild West, and my favorite prematurely-cut-short space western TV series, Firefly.
The year was 1859, and Dr. Jean LeMat had a good thing going. At first. His cousin, a major in the U.S. Army, partnered with him to market his new revolver design to the army. But just before he sealed the deal, the U.S. Civil War erupted, and his cousin became one of the first to resign and join the ranks of the Confederacy. This was followed by a stroke of good luck: The Confederates had enough interest in the design to award LeMat with a contract for 5,000 revolvers. This was followed by another stroke of bad luck: All the revolvers would need to be built overseas and smuggled through the Union naval blockade to the south. This worked to some extent: 2,900 LeMats, most built in Paris and shipped to England for proofing, managed to make it into the hands of the rebels, including famed cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart.
In the time of cap and ball blackpowder revolvers, reloading was a tedious task—one that took a long time to complete and could get you killed pretty quickly on the battlefield. Many soldiers overcame this by carrying an extra loaded cylinder and making a swap when they ran out. Again, slow going. Others still relied on the “New York Reload,” or simply carrying a second revolver. So as you might imagine, with this being the norm, having a revolver with an extra three shots of pistol ammunition, plus that whopping load of 16 gauge buckshot or “blue whistlers,” was an enormous advantage. To switch from the standard pistol cylinder to the shotgun chamber, one merely flipped up the pivoting striker on the hammer and let fly.
The LeMat was produced in .42 and .36 caliber. The latter was not an uncommon caliber at the time, but the former was proprietary, and forced the owner of the revolver to cast their own rounds. Not much of a selling point. The 16-gauge round would make today’s popular .410 revolvers feel pretty tame by comparison.
Let’s just do some rudimentary mathematics here: 9-shot revolver+16 gauge shotgun=one of the coolest combinations in the history of firearms. If you have a couple bucks laying around and want one of your own, Cabelas sells a modern reproduction that looks like a lot of fun.