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LeFaucheux Double Action Pinfire Revolver
The LeFaucheux was one of the only foreign-manufactured revolvers to have been imported by the U.S. government during the Civil War. Over 11,000 were ordered by Federal authorities for cavalry use, with most of these serving in the Western Theater. This number surpasses that of many American-manufactured arms and makes the LeFaucheux a significant U.S. martial arm of the period. Although not imported by the Confederacy, some Southern officers are known to have carried LeFaucheux Revolvers.
The Lefaucheux name is best known to students of history for the revolver of American Civil War-era fame, but the contributions of this father and son duo to firearms and cartridge design go well beyond this single distinction. In 1832, French gunsmith Casimir Lefaucheux patented a pinfire cartridge which featured a cardboard body with a brass base that expanded under pressure when the cartridge was fired, thus creating an effective gas seal. In addition to paving the way for breech-loading arms, this discovery made possible more powerful ammunition in smaller calibers than that typically seen up to that time. Lefaucheux later designed a breech-loading pepperbox pistol that took advantage of his cartridge design, and followed this with a breech-loading sporting rifle that featured drop-down barrels.
Although sharing the spotlight with other noted armsmakers including Samuel Colt, Lefaucheux arms found favor with the visiting public at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The pinfire cartridge was later improved by the invention of the metallic case and rimfire priming system, both of which were products of Lefaucheux's countrymen and competitors. In 1854, Casimir's son, Eugene Gabriel Lefaucheux, patented a simple and inexpensive yet reliable 12 mm caliber single-action breech-loading pinfire revolver. Within a few years, these arms had been adopted by military forces in France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Romania. Armsmakers in Belgium, Germany, and Austria also began to manufacture pinfire revolvers based on Lefaucheux's design.
In 1857, U.S. Army ordnance officers tested the Lefaucheux revolver, and although they were impressed with its accuracy and reliability, none were purchased. At the outbreak of war in 1861, both the Federal and Confederate governments looked to Europe to supplement insufficient arms inventories, and approximately 14,000 Lefaucheux revolvers were purchased at a cost ranging from $12.50 to $20.04 each. Of these, 12,000 found their way into Union service with known serial numbers in the 25,000 to 37,000 range.
The Lefaucheux pinfire design was not met with enthusiasm on this side of the Atlantic, with most soldiers preferring the percussion revolvers of Colt, Remington, Starr, and other makers to the French arms. Aside from their range and power, ammunition for these was readily available, while the unique Lefaucheux ammunition was not. In addition, the pinfire cartridges could be accidentally discharged by bumping the pin, even if the cartridge was in a pocket or pouch rather than in the chamber of the revolver. In addition to these drawbacks, the Lefaucheux was far less robust than American revolvers of the time.
Consequently, they were not able to stand up to the rigors associated with combat use, and many were disabled due to worn, bent, or broken parts. Some of these deficiencies were later corrected, but the improvements came too late to have much benefit for Union and Confederate soldiers. While a few of these pistols went home with returning troops after the war, most were sold as surplus. None were retained for military use.