Civil War Revolvers
Of The North And South
by Robert Niepert
Handguns had been unreliable, hard to handle single shot muzzle-loading
weapons until Samuel Colt set out to solve that problem in 1835.
A side effect of the percussion system of ignition used in rifles was that
it enabled the revolver to become a practical proposition. Revolvers
were developed using the flintlock mechanism but they were far from satisfactory.
The small charge
of loose priming powder had to be prevented from falling out as the cylinder
revolved. This problem was solved by the percussion cap. The
cap was snugly fitted on the nipple of a cylinder. The nipple was
placed on the same axis as the cylinder so that the cap and the charge
would never be upside down. Another advantage was that the cap could
not easily fall off when the cylinder was rotated or held in any position.
Getting the cylinder to smoothly revolve presented a minor problem also.
This contingency was quickly eliminated by simple modifications.
Other improvements like rifled barrels made the pistols effective to a
range of 50 to 75 yards. The two most popular types of revolvers
are pictured at the right. The Colt type (top) and the Remington
type (bottom). The Colt type, which has no top strap allows for the
removal of the barrel and separates into three distinct assemblies.
The Remington type (bottom) has a top strap (above the cylinder) and the
barrel remains attached to the frame and as you can see, has only two assemblies.
All types of revolvers were used in the civil war. Everything from
obsolete flintlocks to the new double action pistols saw duty. As
was natural, a greater variety of antiques and oddities saw service in
the weapon poor South than in the North. In this era of technical
inventiveness, Southern manufacturers played their part, both by developing
new pistols designs and ingeniously copying those of their foes, but the
South never quite caught up with their Northern adversaries. Production
limitations and scarcity of materials always kept them restricted.
When the war broke out, there were at least 60 pistol manufacturers in
the United States most of which were located in the New England states,
with Colt, Remington, and Smith and Wesson dominating the market.
Some of the suppliers of pistols for the war had been in arms manufacturing
years before the hostilities broke out. Companies like the Starr
Revolver and Rifle company (Yonkers, New York) made arms for the American
Revolution. The percussion detonation system itself was invented
in 1807. Both Colt and Remington were in business during the early
and mid 1800's and by 1847, the Colt six shot revolver had already been
adopted for military use by mounted troops. During the Civil War,
the U.S. Government purchased 373,077 percussion pistols. Many men
in the Civil War were issued or bought their own revolvers only to lose
them, give them away or throw them away. The extra weight of the
pistols and their ammunition proved to be too much for the infantryman.
Many other regiments were forbidden by their officers to wear pistols.
In this article, I have decided to mention only the top six sidearms used
in the war.
Colt's patent gave him a monopoly in the United States on the production
of handguns with mechanically rotated cylinders. When the Civil War
began, Colt's manufacturing company in Hartford, Conn, was prepared to
produce enormous quantities of the revolvers and they did until a fire
in February of 1864 closed the factory's revolver production for more than
a year. The Colt 1861 Navy pistol produced in both .36 and .44 caliber
(rare matched set of .36 caliber Navy models pictured here) was the most
popular of the percussion pistols at that time. The Navy Model came
with standard walnut grips and distinctive ship engravings. The 1851
Navy had an octagon barrel, squared back trigger guard and no front sight.
The Union government bought only 17,000 of the 38,000 Navy Model pistols
that were produced. The Colt Army Model 1860 .44 caliber was a streamlined
version of the 1848 dragoon and weighed two pounds 11 ounces, less than
half the weight of the dragoon. The Colt Army model is 14 inches
long only slightly differing from the Navy Model which is one inch shorter.
Colt replaced the octagonal barrel with a round barrel featuring internal
rifling and the hinged loading lever with a new creeping lever in 1860.
The Union purchased over 107,000 of the revolvers between 1861 and 1863
with a price tag of $13.75 each. That price made the Colt Army Revolver
far more expensive than those made by Remington or Starr. The high
cost coupled with the death of Colt in 1862 caused government orders to
cease after November 1863.
Griswold and Gunnison Revolvers
The Confederate government gave interest free loans and lucrative
contracts to encourage a number of entrepreneurs to begin making sidearms
for the army. Griswold and Gunnison were one of only three manufacturers
of pistols who took advantage of those incentives and the only company
to achieve any degree of success in the South. In 1862, the Confederate
selected Griswold and Gunnison to make all the pistols they possibly could.
Griswold operated a cotton gin factory in Georgia before the war so he
and Gunnison set up their manufacturing operation there. Their pistols
were almost exact replicas of the Colt .36 caliber Navy pistol. The
main differences between the two pistols were the brass frame instead of
steel and a round barrel. The Confederate army used brass because
of a shortage of suitable metals. The pistols were of good quality
but the company was only able to make 3,600 pistols during its three year
existence. The revolvers were sold to the Southern army for an astounding
price of $40.00 each. The factory was destroyed by Gen. Sherman in
1864. Today, only a few of these pistols remain.
born New Orleans physician named Jean Alexander Francois LeMat invented
the most formidable handgun used during the Civil War. Col. LeMat
as he was sometimes called, patented his unique revolver in 1856.
The double barrel sidearm had a cylinder that held nine .44 caliber rounds
fired from the top barrel and a load of buckshot in the lower .63 (18 ga.)
caliber barrel. The configuration of the hammer in the position to
fire the nine shot cylinder can be seen in the top right photo. The
lower barrel was fired by a flick of the thumb which repositioned the small
"inner hammer". The configuration of the hammer in the position to
fire the lower shotgun barrel can be seen in the lower left photo. Notice
the striker at the top of the hammer has been rotated down to strike the
nipple of the lower shotgun barrel. This central (lower) barrel would
serve as a cylinder pin as well as the secondary barrel.
The revolver was 13.25 inches long. There were three primary
versions of this pistol commonly referred to as the Navy edition, the Army
edition and the most popular Cavalry edition; but more accurately known
as first and second models, early to mid-Paris Transitional models, the
London model and so on.
of the early production problems with this revolver was that the pistols
were designed in a non standard ammunition size. The standard revolver
sizes for both the Union and Confederate troops were .36 or .44 caliber.
The LeMat was manufactured in .40, .42 or .35. A soldier in the field
would be limited to what the arsenals could provide, or he would be forced
to make his own bullets. Soon the LeMats were developed in standard
LeMat manufactured about 300 of these well made and very reliable
revolvers in New Orleans before the war. Due to production and material
problems, LeMat returned to France to have the weapon mass-produced for
the Confederacy. French made pistols had their problems and the first
batch were found to be of poor quality and none were purchased by the Southern
army. LeMat didn't give up but instead contracted with Belgian and
English firms and soon 3,000 high quality revolvers reached the South.
This run of pistols came with either an 18 or 20 gauge shot barrel and
a full length extension could be added to the shotgun barrel of one type
of the weapon. The pistol was also offered with two different barrels,
one a full octagon upper barrel and the other with a top barrel that was
a half octagon. The loading arm itself is interesting in that the
rod, which can be removed in all variations of the LeMat revolvers, is
a tool. Its end is threaded, either for mounting a cleaning brush
or as a “stuck” ball removing adaptation. This rod also has a groove
cut in it for holding a cleaning swatch. There is a third groove
cut into the rod at the bottom. That groove is thinner and has a
small (approximately 1mm) hole at the end.
An example of the Second Model revolver is pictured at upper right.
Many of these percussion pistols were given to prominent Confederates as
gifts. General J.E.B. Stuart was known to be very fond of his LeMat.
Gen Beauregard, who also carried the pistol, was rumored to be in partnership
with LeMat in manufacturing the revolver and historians still argue if
General "Stonewall" Jackson owned one.
photo at left is an example of the early to mid-Paris Transitional
model. It has the full octagonal barrel. The spur trigger looked
good and was also helpful in stabilizing the gun while firing. A
substitution of an integral butt-cap lanyard ring instead of the rotating
one and the "LeMat" logo was moved to the right side of the barrel.
The first models had problems with the right hand side loading arm as it
dislodged or broke and could become jammed in the cylinder. The arm
was also mounted into the metal of the barrel, creating a potential weak
spot. The loading arm was moved to the left side of the transitional
model and a change in its configuration and mounting it into the gun's
frame addressed these issues. Also on this model a small screw was
added in the barrel lock lever. This mechanism of locking the frame
and barrel together was the final modification. An additional advantage
of all types of LeMat revolvers over its five or six-shot percussion competitors
(Colt, etc.), was that the Le Mat delivered nine shots of high caliber
plus a grapeshot load, effectively doubling the firepower that a single
soldier could deliver. Equipping an entire unit with these would
give them significant advantages over opposing forces.
England LeMat is even more rare than the transitional model. It is
not clear when production of the LeMat revolver in England began.
LeMat received an English patent for his two-barrel revolver in early 1862,
but there are no surviving records of the actual production dates.
The experts have long wondered who made these guns in England, with some
speculation focusing on the London Arms Company, although there is no evidence
to support such a claim. The production of LeMats in England took
place at the same time as the production of the Second Model LeMats in
France and was completed prior to the summer of 1864, when the last of
the Paris address LeMats were made; so London LeMats are in fact earlier
guns than the late Second Model Paris LeMats. There are only two
known surviving examples of the "London LeMats". Notice the different
style lanyard ring on the butt of this example. A photo of the English
manufactured LeMat is pictured at the right.
The Baby LeMat
rare Baby LeMat Pattern Percussion Revolver was made in Paris, France in
1861 through 1862. Of the 2,000 Baby LeMats ordered from Girard and
Cie in June 1864 for the C.S.A., only about 100 were delivered and those
revolvers had to run a Union blockade of the South to do so. It is
debatable if any others made it through the blockade and the Confederate
import receiving site at Wilmington, North Carolina, was captured on January
15, 1865. This made further imports of arms practically impossible.
The nine shot .32 caliber revolver with an octagonal top rifled barrel
was accompanied by a .41 caliber center shotgun barrel. The top barrel
was 4 and 1/4 inches long and the bottom shotgun barrel was 4 and 5/16
inches long. The originals were hand-engraved with "Systeme LeMat
Bte s.g.d.g. Paris" on top with a line border. The Baby LeMat was
adorned with the same checkered walnut grips and engraved iron escutcheons
as its big brother.
This small Le Mat, whether percussion or cartridge, is one of the most
rare and sought-after of the LeMat series firearms. The one pictured
here on the top left (serial number 75) belonged to Lt. Murdaugh of the
C.S.A. Navy. This pistol's value was increased even more because
it has the acceptance stamp of Lieutenant Murdaugh, the Confederate Arms
Inspector in London, indicating its Confederate origins. It sold
at auction in March, 2003, for $75,600.00. There are only twelve
known Baby LeMats in existence today.
Leech and Rigdon
The little known Leech and Rigdon company was formed within a year
of the outbreak of the Civil War and they soon were producing
substantial numbers of their revolvers for the Confederacy. More
than 1,500 of their pistols were bought by the Confederate Ordnance Department.
Charles Rigdon of St. Louis was a scale maker in the north but being a
Southern sympathizer, he moved his equipment to Memphis, Tenn., where he
joined forces with Thomas Leech. Leech was a manufacturer of military
cutlery and dabbled in small arms repair. In 1862, Leech and Rigdon
began producing swords and other military equipment. When their company
moved to Columbus, Mississippi, in 1863-64, they started turning out pistols.
About 1,500 of their revolvers were purchased by the Confederacy.
Their design was based on the Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver. The
Leech and Rigdon had an iron barrel and frame instead of steel with brass
back straps and trigger guard. Due to a shortage of steel, a lot
of brass and iron parts were used in the manufacturing process. Unfortunately,
this resulted in some inferior metal casings which led to poor performing
actions. The invading Union army pushed the company from city to
city and finally Leech and Rigdon quit manufacturing pistols in 1863.
The Colt patent expired in 1857 and the E. Remington and Sons company
took immediate advantage of its demise by introducing
its own pistol designs. The Beals-Remington company designed two
double action revolvers that were manufactured in .31 caliber and held
five shots. The U.S. War Dept. bought nearly 3,000 pistols of this
style. The high quality and low price of the Remington revolvers
led the U.S. government to purchase 125,314 of the Army model pistols and
4901 of the navy model pistols. The Remington six shot .44 caliber
percussion pistol edged out the Colt pistol in overall sales to the Union
army. The Remington .31 caliber pocket pistols were popular and are
widely remembered today but in fact fewer than 1,000 were made. Remington
is best known for it's Navy Model 1861 in .36 caliber and the Army Model
1863 in .44 caliber. Both were six shooters and being manufactured
after 1860 they were mostly in the hands of the Union army. Soon,
Remington developed an innovative loading system. The New Model 1863
further enhanced these features with added safety notches on the rear of
the cylinders. The pistol weighed 2 pounds 14 ounces and sported
an octagonal barrel that was 6 1/2 inches long. The Remington was
considered one of the finest revolvers of the civil war, and was sought
after by troops of both sides. The Remington has several design advantages
over the Colt. The Remington's solid single piece frame gave it the
advantage of strength and accuracy over time. The trigger groove
in the cylinder between each chamber allowed the hammer to rest in a safe
position with the cylinder fully loaded as opposed to the Colt's hammer
resting on a loaded chamber. But the biggest advantage is that the user
of a Remington can reload within seconds by changing out the empty cylinder
for a loaded one. To change the cylinder, the trooper only had to
drop the loading lever, slide out the cylinder pin, slide in a freshly
loaded spare cylinder, slide back in the cylinder pin and snap shut the
Inventor Ebenezer (Eban) Townsend Starr's company in New York manufactured
3 types of percussion revolvers. The Starr company
was noted for it's carbine but they did produce and sell a .44 caliber
pistol to the Union army. Union soldiers in the western campaigns
used the Starr double action revolver (weighing almost three pounds) but
at the urging of the U.S. Ordnance Department the Starr Arms Company of
New York scrapped its expensive self cocking (double action) Army revolver
which sold for $25.00 each for the more conventional and much cheaper single
action design. The Union bought 25,000 of the .44 caliber single
action percussion pistols with eight inch barrels and fewer parts to break
for $12.00 each. The Union purchased a total of 47,454 of Starr's
pistols making it the third most popular pistol used in the Civil War.
By the close of the war, the Starr Arms Company had grown so dependent
on its sales to the government that it could no longer survive without
the military orders and by 1867 the company closed its doors. During
its short time in business, the Starr Arms Company produced about 48,000
revolvers, 26,000 carbines and an unknown number of derringer pistols.
Time Life Books
Echoes Of Glory
Hard Tack And Coffee
Various internet sources
Atlas Of Official Records
The Muzzleloading pistol
Black Powder Gun Digest
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