And now you can see one at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.
The handgun features a cylinder with not six, but nine .42-caliber bullets, but that’s not where the surprises end. That cylinder revolves around a separate 18-gauge barrel made to fire buckshot.
Imagine the advantage in firepower such a weapon afforded in a time when most soldiers carried rifles that would fire only one round, and it took them more than a minute to reload.
Little wonder that J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee’s indispensable cavalry leader, carried one through the Civil War. And he wasn’t the only Confederate general to swear by the weapon. P. G. T. Beauregard of Fort Sumter fame had even invested in the development of the revolver before the war, at one time owning a 25 percent share in the invention.
The Grape Shot Revolver was the brainchild of Jean Alexandre LeMat, a Frenchman living in New Orleans before the war. He was an avid inventor as well as a practicing physician, and Beauregard – to whose cousin Dr. LeMat was married – helped finance a number of his inventions.
Dr. LeMat obtained a U.S. patent for the revolver in 1856, and initially hoped to be able to sell them to the U.S. military. That never happened. But when the war came along, the Confederacy contracted for 5,000 of them. Unfortunately for the South, it lacked the facilities for producing the weapon, and, like so much of its essential materiel, the LeMats had to be manufactured abroad and smuggled past the U.S. Navy blockade.
Consequently, only about 2,500 of the LeMats actually made it into Confederate service.
The artifact now on display at the museum’s collection is a second-generation LeMat, manufactured in Paris, which probably arrived in the Confederacy in 1863 or later. It is unusual in that it is the earliest known LeMat in which the cylinder is turned by a “Colt-style” ratcheting cog mechanism rather than the reciprocating pin used earlier.
The distinctive LeMat is a weapon to grab and hold the imagination, so it has been placed in the hands of quite a few fictional characters as well as historical figures. In the TV series “Westworld,” the menacing “Man in Black” played by Ed Harris wields a LeMat modified to accommodate modern pistol cartridges. And in the series “Firefly,” a “space western” set 500 years in the future, Jayne Cobb carries a recognizable LeMat with some futuristic doo-dads added on.
But the LeMat at the Relic Room is the real thing, not make-believe. You should check it out.
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.
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