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Book Reviews

These are some reviews from a recent issue of The Civil War News:


Systeme Lefaucheux, Continuing the Study of Pinfire Cartridge Arms Including their Role in the American Civil War

by Chris C. Curtis.

Illustrated, bibliography, index, 312 pp., 2002. Graphic Publishers, 2510 North Grand Ave., Suite 104, Santa Ana, CA 92705-8753, $44.95 plus shipping.

I am sure that many of us have been intrigued by the pinfire system but knew little about its history and probably even less about the role of this weapon in the Civil War. In 1983, Chris Curtis and Gene Smith produced a work titled The Pinfire System. Though published in a limited number, the arms world saw the first serious look at this cartridge and the guns related to it.

Chris Curtis has now given us a new and updated book on the pinfire with an incredible amount of information and photos of this remarkable firearm and the objects and data related to it.

The first three chapters deal with Casimir Lefaucheux, who was granted a patent on the pinfire cartridge in 1835; his son Eugene, who continued the work after Casimir died in 1852; and the pinfire’s relation to the European military community.

Casimir got his start as a French gun maker and became interested in a metallic cartridge then on the market that had an external primer. Following the patent on the pinfire system Casimir had numerous marketing problems and sold his operation in late 1835. He was back in business in 1847 and was manufacturing shotguns, pistols and pepperboxes using the pinfire system.

Eugene inherited his father’s business and patents and continued to improve both the cartridge and the design of the weapons. Perhaps one of the best results of Eugene’s work was the Model 1854 revolver. With a variety of new innovations Lefaucheux had at that time produced the most advanced handgun in the world.

The Model 1854 was made in 12mm for the civilian and military market. There was a cavalry and naval model, and at one point Eugene experimented with a larger Dragoon-size revolver. Also there was a Model 1854 single action pinfire revolving rifle, and a “pistol-carbine” with a 16-inch barrel and detachable skeleton shoulder stock. The business produced a double-action and triple-action revolver in 7mm and a 20-shot revolving carbine.

Europe wasted little time in issuing the pinfire revolver to its armies and in 1857 France became the first country to do so. Other countries to arm their troops were Spain, Italy, Russia, Denmark, Egypt, Sweden, Norway and Rumania. While Belgium was the second largest producer of the pinfire, its army never carried the weapon.

The chapter on the use of the pinfire in the American Civil War brings to light a great deal of the information that many in the Civil War community are not aware of. Twenty-five pages are devoted to this subject and there are 14 photographs of soldiers with the pinfire as well as four pages with patent drawings. The U.S. Ordnance Department tested the Model 1854 in 1857, but no orders were placed for the weapon until the outbreak of the war in 1861. Government purchasers ignored a Lefaucheux breech-loading rifle and instead concentrated on the revolver.

On Sept. 28, 1861, the Herman T. Boker Company in New York City became the first agent to sell the pinfire to the government. This initial deal was for 52 revolvers at $20.04 each. Numerous purchases followed, with the largest being 10,000 in October 1861.

Cartridges were imported, but one American company did manufacture them during the war. Ammunition orders were in the hundreds of thousands and one was for a million rounds. Many of the arms went to the Western Theater and most were used by mounted troops. Numerous accounts of combat use throughout the war by the Union are noted in the chapter. At the end of the conflict 11,833 Lefaucheux revolvers were in Federal hands. Confederate agents also purchased the pinfire, but in lesser amounts. It is believed that between 2,000 and 5,000 were brought into the South during the course of the war. One of the best-documented Confederate handguns is the pinfire presented to “Stonewall” Jackson and currently in the Museum of the Confederacy.

There are a number of bogus Confederate pinfires in circulation and Curtis deals with this problem. After the war the pinfires were sold as surplus and can be seen in catalogs such as those put out by Bannerman. An interesting sidelight in this chapter explains the “chimney” adapter which allows the pinfire to be fired as a cap and ball. “Appendages” do not refer to ammunition but to gun tools or certain accessories.

The chapter on commercial shotguns and rifles presents numerous photos and patent plates which show how advanced these weapons actually were. Many of the firearms were made outside France and in countries such as Spain, Germany, England and Belgium. There is a punt with a No. 2 bore, a 16-guage revolving pinfire shotgun and a six-shot 12mm revolving rifle. Poachers might be drawn to a 12-guage pinfire shotgun that broke down into three parts for carrying or concealment.

Commercial revolvers and pistols saw extensive use and were also manufactured in a number of countries. They came in a variety of calibers including 2, 5, 7, 12 and 15mm. There were enclosed trigger, folding trigger and spur trigger variations. Pistols cold be found in double barrel, over and under, and one with a swing-out breechblock. The handgun chapter is filled with more photography and several period ads.

For the collector and historian there is a chapter on identifying and collecting pinfire weapons. Curtis goes into identification, and proof marks with five plates of actual marks. A rarity and desirability chart ranks the weapons on 10 levels. Loading and ejection systems are a separate chapter and the chapter on pinfire pepperboxes covers 15 pages with some outstanding examples including a Spanish 12-shot 7mm.

A chapter on “Peculiar Pinfire Arms” looks at some of the most unusual styles produced. These include revolvers with 8-, 10-, 12-, 18- and 20-shot cylinders. There are “harmonica” pistols, a change purse containing a six-shot 5mm pistol, trap guns, “knucklebusters,” knife and cutlass pistols, combination sword-revolvers and a French-made cane which holds a concealed six-shot 5mm pinfire revolver and dagger. The book concludes with a chapter on cartridges, reloading tools, extraction tools, five pages of cartridge boxes and three pages of headstamps. A bibliography and index follow the chapters.

Chris C. Curtis has done an incredible job with this book on a little-known and often misunderstood subject. The text is well written and the paper of fine quality. Photography is outstanding and there are photos, patents, tables and document copies on almost every page. This book is a must for the arms dealer and collector, historian, museum staff-person and anyone interested in advanced weapons and cartridge systems. While the center-fire system replaced the pinfire, Curtis has assured us with this work that the concepts and results of the Systeme Lefaucheux will be with us for some time to come.

Dale E. Biever

Dale E. Biever received his M.Ed. in American history from Kutztown University. He is past vice president for administration and former member of the Board of Governors of the Company of Military Historians. A retired educa-tor, he was registrar at the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.

A N D M A N Y M O R E!

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