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Rare 20-Shot Lefaucheux "High Capacity" Pin Fire Revolver

Rare 20-Shot Lefaucheux "High Capacity" Pin Fire Revolver

  • Product Code: FHG-2310-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $1.00

In 1835, Casimir Lefaucheux developed what would become the first truly successful self-contained cartridge system, which would become known world-wide by its method of ignition; the “Pin Fire”. Lefaucheux was a French gunsmith and inventor who had been born in 1802, only a year before the Napoleonic Wars would plunge Europe into a dozen years of nearly constant conflict. Lefaucheux was not the first to experiment with combining the powder, projectile and ignition source into a single, easy to handle cartridge. In fact, Swiss-born French gunmaker Samuel Joannes Pauly probably created the first workable system about a decade after Lefaucheux’s birth. It was to Pauly that young Casimir was apprenticed to at the age of 12, and where he learned the gun-building trade. In fact, by 1827 Lefaucheux was the manager of Pauly’s Paris establishment and very soon thereafter, Casimir became the owner of the company. What Lefaucheux can be credited with was that he was the first to come up with a broadly successful and reliable self-contained cartridge system. Although the pin fire cartridges that we think of today are metallic, Lefaucheux’s new cartridge used a cardboard tube to contain the black powder, lead bullet and pin fire primer. It would not be until more than a decade later that improvements in Lefaucheux’s revolutionary design by Benjamin Houllier would result in the metallic cartridge that we think of today as a “pin fire”. Due to a French government that felt military arms production was strictly for their national armories and not for private contractors, Casimir concentrated on the manufacture of sporting arms. He applied his cartridge design to arms for that market, including breechloading shotguns and single shot pistols. It was Casimir’s son Eugene who would put the Lefaucheux name indelibly on the map with his revolutionary revolver design.


Eugene had an interest in applying the pin fire concept to a revolving pistol, and in 1851 he exhibited such a handgun at the London Exhibition. The revolver was revolutionary in that the cartridges loaded from the rear of the cylinder, which had bored through chambers. Any student of firearms history will immediately note that in America, the concept of the “bored through” cylinder is attributed Rollin White. White’s US patents #12,648 and #12649, granted on April 3, 1855, granted him sole control of this essential design element for any metallic cartridge revolver until the patent expired in 1869. White subsequently entered into an agreement with Smith & Wesson, granting them the right to produce revolvers that incorporated his patent in exchange for a .25 cent per gun royalty payment. By so doing, White essentially granted Smith & Wesson a monopoly on the most efficient cartridge revolver design and kept major manufacturers like Colt and Remington from being able to compete in the cartridge revolver market while the patent restrictions were in effect. However, Lefaucheux’s design pre-dated White’s patent by at least four years, and Lefaucheux received a French patent for the concept (#19,380) on April 15, 1854, almost exactly a year prior to White receiving his American patent for the same principle. Had Lefaucheux the younger been forward thinking enough to register his patent in America, the history of American cartridge handgun design would have been very different, and it is arguable that Smith & Wesson might not have become the industry leader that they remain today. In fact, Smith & Wesson might even have failed financially during their first decade in business.


Eugene Lefaucheux’s design, that would become known as the Model 1854 Pin Fire Revolver, was based upon his original April 15, 1854 patent, but also on additional modifications to the original patent, which he registered on June 10 and November 9 of the same year. The revolver depicted in Lefaucheux’s patent application bore a strong resemblance to the Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver, including the open-top frame, octagonal barrel and single action lock work. His patent drawing even included the square-backed triggerguard of the earliest production Colt M1851. The primary differences between the Colt and Lefaucheux’s design were the inclusion of a hinged loading gate where the Colt had the frame cut out for capping, the inclusion of an ejector rod along the lower right hand side of the barrel to push the spent cases out of the cylinder and of course the inclusion of the six bored-through chambers in the cylinder for metallic cartridges. Interestingly, the patent drawing looks very much like a Richards-Mason cartridge alteration of a square-backed Colt Navy revolver, almost two decades before Colt produced these conversions!


The following year, Lefaucheux submitted his new revolver design to the French military for testing. The French Navy wanted to replace the single-shot percussion muzzleloading pistols then in service, and the pistols selected for evaluation were the Colt M1851 Navy, the M1854 Beaumont-Adams and the Lefaucheux design. Whether it was nationalism or simple practicality is hard to know, but from the outset the French Navy had determined that the only acceptable pistol would be one that used self-contained metallic cartridge ammunition, so by default the percussion ignition designs from Colt and Adams never had a chance of acceptance. The Lefaucheux design was officially chosen as the winner in 1857 and entered service with the French Navy the following year as the Model 1858. It is interesting to note that the one area of testing where the Colt revolver was clearly superior to the Lefaucheux was in the actual power of the cartridge. The cap and ball Colt fired a round lead ball of .36 caliber at about 750 feet per second, generating a muzzle energy of about 152 ft/lbs. In terms of modern ammunition, this amount of muzzle energy is about the same as the .32 ACP, not exactly known as a “man stopping” round. However, the 12mm cartridge fired by the Lefaucheux had a woefully slow muzzle velocity of about 330 ft/s, and a muzzle energy of about 52 ft/lbs; about one third the power of the Colt Navy’s projectile and slightly less muzzle energy than the modern .25 ACP, a cartridge that is certainly ridiculed in terms of stopping power. This lack of power was likely a combination of many factors, including the limited amount of space in the cartridge case for the black powder propellant and the inherent weakness in metallurgy of the copper cases of the time, which would severely limit the pressures the cartridge cases could be exposed to without rupturing. 


Despite the woefully underpowered cartridge, Lefaucheux’s design would be the most widely issued martial cartridge revolver of the American Civil War. Thousands of these pinfire revolvers were imported for use by US troops, and at least a few hundred saw service with Confederate troops as well. The typical “Civil War” used pin fire revolver was the military pattern M1854 in 12mm. Most these guns had octagon to round barrels that measured between about 5.75” and 6.25”, although some wider variation has been noted. Most had a spurred triggerguard and a lanyard ring in the butt. Lefaucheux revolvers were produced with both blued and bright finishes, and it appears that the guns that were imported were a mixture of both finishes. Some 12,333 M-1854 Lefaucheux patent pin fire revolvers are recorded as having been officially purchased by the US government during the America Civil War, with 11,833 being delivered. Additionally, more than 2.2 million pin fire cartridges were acquired by the Federal Ordnance Department, primarily from domestic sources. However, surviving examples and regimental records indicate that more than the “official” number were probably imported, especially when southern use is considered. 


With Eugene’s military pattern revolver accepted by the French Navy and in use in a conflict on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, he had proved that design was a successful military one. With that market firmly in his grasp for the time being, Eugene started to more adequately explore the civilian arms market. This meant introducing pin fire revolvers for the general public in a variety of sizes and calibers for different purposes. Most of these guns were produced in 7mm, 9mm and the earlier 12mm caliber and in sizes ranging from palm-sized, folding trigger 7mm pocket guns through mid-sized (sometimes referred to as belt sized) 7mm and 9mm revolvers and larger 12mm holster sized revolvers. Many of the guns utilized a double action lock work, with the guns designed for pocket carry often employing a folding trigger and no triggerguard; for ease of concealment and drawing from a coat pocket. Lefaucheux found strong success in the sale of these civilian handguns and the pin fire became wildly popular in Europe and Great Britain with many more of the guns being produced by the Liège gun trade in Belgium, as well as the Birmingham trade in England.


Eugene soon started experimenting with new ways to apply the self-contained ammunition to higher capacity guns. By the mid-19th century, the standard revolver capacity had been established as five of six, with most pocket pistols being chambered the former number of rounds and the larger guns being chambered for the latter. Lefaucheux was soon offering much higher capacity revolvers for sale on a limited basis, with cylinders that could contain 8, 12 or as many as 20 rounds! Normally these guns were in the smaller 7mm and 9mm chamberings to keep the cylinder size manageable, but even in those calibers a 20-round cylinder was really extraordinarily large and unwieldy. To resolve that problem Lefaucheux introduced a variant revolver with the chambers in two concentric rings, rather than a single row. Since the inner row of chambers did not align with the barrel, Lefaucheux added a second barrel under the first to accommodate the second row of chambers. The chambers were off-set, so that the action of the revolver only appeared to rotate half of an index with each pull of the trigger. The hammer had a second firing pin on its neck, the strike the pin on the inner row of chambers. The outer row was fired in the usual manner with the normal hammer nose striking over the top of the cylinder. By boring the cylinder with the two concentric rows of chambers it was possible to keep the 20-round cylinder much smaller than the version with a single row, but it was still large when compared to the balance of the gun. In the long run the concept appears to have been more of a curiosity or specialty item as surviving examples of either type of high-capacity pin fire are quite scarce, suggesting very low production.


Offered here is a NEAR VERY GOOD example of a scarce high capacity 20-Shot Lefaucheux Pin Fire Revolver. This is the more practical variation with two concentric rows of chambers and chambered for the smaller 7mm cartridge to keep the overall size more manageable. Despite this, the cylinder is still 2 ¼” across a pistol that is only 9 ¾” in overall length. The revolver has a pair of superposed barrels that measure 4 13/16” in length. The gun is a double-action only, folding trigger design. The hammer can be placed on half-cock which unlocks the cylinder for rotation to facilitate loading and unloading. Firing is only accomplished by pulling the trigger and operating the gun in double action mode, as there is no full-cock notch. Like most Lefaucheux designs, a hinged loading gate is present in the rear of the right side of the recoil shield and an ejector rod is present along the right side of the barrel. The grip has a humpback profile, common on many English and Continental double action revolvers of the period. The gun has smooth, semi-bag shaped grips, no triggerguard and a lanyard ring in the butt. A typical triangular-shaped front sight base supports a barely corn style front sight bead. The left side of the frame is weakly marked with the {CROWN}/LF Lefaucheux trademark followed by the serial number 802 forward of the cylinder. The top of the barrel is weakly engraved in script:


E Lefaucheux Brevete Paris


The matching assembly number 56 is found on the lower rear face of the barrel web and on the lower edge of the loading gate door. The slot of the screw that secures the grips is too worn to allow its removal, so I cannot determine if this same number is present on the frame under the grips or in the grips themselves, however I would assume that it is. 


As noted, the gun remains in about NEAR VERY GOOD condition. The gun has a thickly oxidized brown patina with some evenly distributed minor surface roughness. The markings are soft on the frame and barrel, likely due age and wear. While the metal is essentially smooth, there is scattered roughness here and there and some lightly scattered pitting. The rich brown patina is thick and untouched and is quite attractive. The revolver remains mechanically functional and can be placed on half-cock for loading and unloading. The double action trigger mechanism operates correctly as well. As noted above, the design was not intended for single action use. Pulling the trigger correctly indexes the cylinder a “half index” to alternate between the outer and inner row of chambers in the cylinder. The folding trigger is not spring-tensioned, so it falls due to gravity and does not remain in an upright location like other folding trigger designs. It is not clear if the trigger was supposed to be tensioned into the up position or not. The loading gate remains in place and functions correctly.  The original ejector rod is also present and remains fully functional as well. The frame to barrel fit is a little loose, which is not uncommon as the two parts are screwed together and wear in the threads can result in looseness. The barrel can actually be turned about a quarter turn past the correctly indexed location if the stop screw is removed, indicative of worn threads. The bores of the pistol are in about GOOD condition. They are also heavily oxidized, like the exterior, and are quite dark. The bore shows some brighter orange oxidation as well as scattered pitting along its length but retains visible rifling. The original front sight is in place at the end of the barrel and a lanyard ring is in place in the butt, which is a modern replacement. The grips are in about GOOD condition as well. They fit the revolver perfectly but have been sanded and do show wear. The grips have some chips missing, along the lower rear edge of the grips at the frame junction and around the screw escutcheons. Otherwise, they show some scattered bumps and dings from handling and use.


Overall, this is a solid example of a very scarce, high capacity 20-Shot Lefaucheux Pin Fire Revolver. The gun shows wear, use and age but has a pleasing, untouched patina. It remains functional and displays very well. These rare 20-shot revolvers do not regularly appear on the market and would be a great addition to any collection of Lefaucheux revolvers and would also be a great addition to a collection of firearms curiosities.


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Tags: Rare, 20-Shot, Lefaucheux, High, Capacity, Pin, Fire, Revolver