Next to the Raphael revolver, the Model 1859 Perrin Revolver is probably the least often encountered of all imported handguns of the American Civil War. Like the Raphael, the Perrin was a French designed, self-contained, cartridge revolver with a double action lock work and a 6-shot cylinder. While the Rafael was a “traditional double action” (it could be fired in either single action or double action modes), the Perrin was what would be called a “double action only” revolver today, with the action only being actuated by the long, heavy pull of the trigger, and with no facility to cock the hammer manually.
The Perrin fired a very advanced 12mm (approximately .45 caliber), internally primed, self-contained metallic cartridge. The cartridge had a thick rim and while the primer was not visible from the outside bottom of the casing (as it is with modern center fire cartridges) it was a center fire design. The patent covering the revolver design, but most especially the cartridge design, was granted in France to Perrin & Delmas in 1859. As noted, this gun was strictly a double action design, with a spurless hammer, similar to the Model 1851 Adams patent percussion revolvers. In fact, the earliest version of the gun featured an Adams style safety spring on the left hand side of the frame. By lightly depressing the trigger, and thus slightly lifting the hammer from the rear of the cylinder, the safety spring would automatically make a small extension enter the frame, creating a hammer block that kept the hammer from contacting the cartridges. This also freed the cylinder to rotate freely for loading or unloading. Pulling the trigger to fire the gun automatically released the safety, with it rebounding out of the way of the hammer nose, allowing the falling hammer to strike the cartridge in the cylinder’s chamber.
The Perrin had an interesting hidden ejector rod that was used to eject the empty cases from the cylinder. The rod was stored within the center portion of the cylinder arbor, and could be withdrawn, and then rotated via a cam on the barrel, to align it with a cylinder chamber on the right hand side of the gun. This placed the rod in the correct position to push the empty cases out of the chambers. This storage system protected the slender, and somewhat delicate, rod from damage when it was not in use, and allowed for a more streamlined design without an ejector rod or housing mounted on the frame or barrel of the revolver. The ejector rod also kept the cylinder arbor pin in place when it was being stored and taking the ejector rod out of storage freed the arbor pin to be withdrawn from the frame, allowing the cylinder to be removed. This same system would be employed less than a decade later on several of the early P. Webley & Sons cartridge revolvers, like their Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) and Bull Dog models.
Perrin revolvers were marked with the patentees’ name and with a serial number on the major components. Collectors have separated the Perrin revolvers into three “Types”, which appear to be chronological in their evolution. Both Types I and II have open top frames, while the Type III has a top strap. The variations between these three types is further indicated by the type of loading gate system. Type I gates are rather thin and are hinged at the top, swinging outward and upward. Type II gates are somewhat thicker and are also hinged at the top but swing to the rear of the revolver to open. The Type III gate is thicker and more robust and is hinged at the bottom, swinging down and away from the frame. The Type II and Type III guns also eliminated the external spring safety system, no doubt due to its fragile nature and regular breakage.
It is worth noting that there is little good information about the Perrin revolver in print in English, and sources vary as to the actual model designation: M1859 or M1860, as well as to their actual caliber; 11mm or 12mm. While most sources in the US have long referred to the gun as the M1860, the recent publication French Service Handguns by Eugene Medlin & Jean Huon refers to the pistol as the M1859 and as they seem to be the most definitive word on the subject, I will defer their opinion. The issue of caliber; 11mm versus 12mm, is somewhat more problematic. In this case, Medlin & Huon come down on the 11mm side of things. Measuring extant examples shows that the chamber mouths are typically about 12mm while the bores measure approximately 11.5mm. This suggests the reference to 12mm really establishes the outside diameter of the case, rather than the diameter of the bullet. As this was a common way to establish “caliber” during the period (case diameter versus bullet diameter) I will continue to use the 12mm designation. This system of measuring and naming cartridges is why the “.38 Special” which uses a .357” diameter bullet, is called a “.38”; the name is derived from the case diameter. Over time, we have not seen fit to discontinue calling these .357” caliber revolvers “.38s”. It is further worth noting that according to the Springfield Armory Museum Collection Record, regarding Perrin revolvers:
“We have of this writing five Perrins in the collection. No two are quite alike, having minor variations in rear sights, grips, loading gates and rebating of frame as well as barrel lengths.”
Other authors have noted that barrel lengths tend to vary between 5 ½” and 6 ½” and that the earliest production guns have variations in rifling with 4, 6, 8 and 9 groove examples having been noted. Eventually it appears that the 6-groove system was settled upon as standard. The majority of the revolvers were finished “in the white” with bright polished metal and had smooth one-piece walnut grips. However, some examples are known with special finishes, including blued, nickel plating (a very new technology in the 1860s), as well as gold damascene. Checkered grips are not uncommon either, although smooth wood certainly seem to predominate on extant examples.
We can document the sale of 550 Perrin revolvers, from a contract for 1,000 total revolvers, to the US Government by arms speculator Alexis Godillot. Godillot listed “New York & Paris” as his business addresses and delivered the revolvers at a price of $20.00 each, including 50 rounds of the proprietary Perrin ammunition with each revolver. Godillot made his initial delivery of 350 Perrin revolvers on January 6, 1862, delivered another 100 on March 28, 1862. The final 100 Perrins that he would provide were delivered on May 31, 1862. Interestingly, the Holt-Owens Commission, which had been established in early 1862 “to audit and adjust all contracts, orders, and claims on the War Department in respect to ordnance, arms and ammunition,” actually cancelled Godillot’s contract for Perrin revolvers in April of 1862, due to his inability to deliver them in a timely fashion. However, they did allow the final delivery of 100 guns on May 31, even after the cancellation of the contract, due to the fact that “the arms are needed by the government, and are of good quality, and of reasonable price.” On May 31, he also delivered 1,500 Lefaucheux pin fire revolvers, and no further deliveries of Perrins are noted in US Ordnance documents.
US Ordnance Department documents show that 1 Perrin was in storage at the New York Arsenal on December 31, 1862. An additional 249 Perrins were in storage in at the Ordnance Depot in Louisville, KY on the same date. This indicates that the other 300 pistols that had been delivered were likely in the field and in use during this time frame. Ordnance returns of November 5, 1864 show that the single Perrin at the New York Arsenal was still there, and that 187 Perrin’s were in store at the New York Agency. It is not clear what happened to all of the Perrin revolvers that the Ordnance Department purchased, but on June 19, 1901 the New York Arsenal sold 368 Perrin revolvers to Francis Bannerman and Company for $0.2765 (yes, only 27.65 cents) each. It is likely that the other 182 revolvers were lost or stolen during or after the war, with some likely going home with the soldiers to whom they were issued. Due to their proprietary ammunition, these arms were probably of limited utility in a civilian world where the French made cartridges were not likely to have been readily available. While no specific list of Civil War used examples by serial number is known, from those that have a “Civil War” association it appears most have serial numbers under 1,000 and all are of the open frame, Type I or Type II variants. Much like the Perrin’s contemporary, the Lefaucheux revolver, it appears deliveries were of available guns on hand and no systematic attempt to keep the deliveries within a specific serial number block or range was attempted by the furnishers.
This M1859 Type II Perrin Revolver is in about VERY FINE overall condition. The right side of the frame, forward of the cylinder is crisply and clearly marked in two lines: PERRIN / & Cie Bte, indicating the gun was patented by Perrin & Company. On the left side of the frame is the typical Perrin “sunburst” motif over the location of production, resulting in a marking that reads in two lines: * / PARIS. The cylinder is clearly marked with the serial number 1364 and is otherwise unmarked. The same serial number also appears on the bottom of the barrel, hidden by the ejector rod/cylinder arbor combination. The serial number places the gun just outside the range generally considered to be “Civil War” delivered Perrins. However, there is no definitive serial number list or way to know for sure. Realistically, the gun could have been part of the final delivery of 100 Perrins by Godillot on May 31, 1862. As the revolvers had been in production for at least two years at this point in time, it is certainly reasonable that some 1,300 to 1,400 guns had been produced by that point in time. All of the markings remain quite extremely crisp, sharp and legible. Like most examples of Perrins, this one is finished in the white. The bright metal has dulled slightly with time. The metal shows some scattered flecks and freckled patches of darker, lightly oxidized age discoloration. The metal is almost entirely smooth, with some tiny areas of lightly scattered surface roughness and some scattered flecks of very light pinpricking. There is also a small patch of oxidized surface discoloration on the obverse, on the frame at the barrel junction. The double action mechanism works very well and is quite crisp, even though the trigger pull is rather heavy and slightly gritty. The revolver remains mechanically excellent in every way, and times, indexes and locks up exactly as it should. The original Type II top-hinged loading gate, which is the weakest point of the design of this gun, is present and functions perfectly, snapping securely into position when closed and rotating upward when opened. Amazingly the gate shows no signs of replacement or repair. As this is a Type II revolver, the Adams-style safety spring is eliminated from the design. In order to rotate the cylinder for loading and unloading, the trigger needs to be pulled very lightly, lifting the hammer just a hair and freeing the cylinder bolt stop to allow rotation.
What appears to be the original front sight, which is often damaged or missing, is in place and remains in very good condition. This is a feature that appears to change from revolver to revolver. Much like the variations in Colt Pocket revolver front sight posts, the Perrin appears with either a brass or steel front sight post that has a bead shaped top. The brass sights are typically associated with the earliest production Type I guns. As previously mentioned, Perrin revolvers were manufactured with barrels that varied in length between 5 ½” and 6 ½” in length. The barrel of this one has a barrel that is 5 ¾” long. The bore is rifled with the expected 6-groove rifling system that appears to have become the standard somewhere between serial number 400 and 500. The grooves are wide and deep, roughly twice the width of the narrow lands. The bore is in about FINE condition and is mostly bright with very crisp rifling along its entire length. There is some light to moderate surface oxidation near the muzzle of the gun, with some very light oxidation and some frosting scattered along the length of the bore. The original ejector rod in the center of the cylinder pin is present and the rotating cam allows it to function correctly. Pulling out the rod and rotating it to the right side of the gun allows it to be used to eject the spent cartridge cases. The one-piece smooth walnut grip is in about FINE condition, with no breaks or repairs. Perrin’s appear with both checkered and smooth grips, with no particular rhyme or reason to which variant is encountered, although smooth grips appear to be somewhat more common. The grip shows the expected wear for a gun of its age, with some lightly scattered small bumps, dings and surface mars. There is a minute chip at the rear edge of the upper center of the grip with a very small, tight grain crack at the top of the backstrap area, but this is barely noticeable and only mentioned for exactness. The original, small diameter, lanyard ring is present on the iron butt cap and swivels freely as it should.
Overall this is an extremely nice, very crisp and well-marked example of one of the two rarest of the US import martial revolvers used during the American Civil War. While not commanding the price (or the of the renown) of the LeMat revolver, far fewer of Perrin revolvers exist these days. Like the Raphael, Fredrick Todd’s seminal work American Military Equipage 1851-1872 lists the Perrin as being a possible secondary Confederate purchase, as well as a US purchase. Unfortunately, Todd provides no substantiation for his claim. It is fairly rare to see one of these revolvers on the market, let alone in a collection. Many of the finest collections of Civil War military revolvers simply do not have a Perrin in them. This is a great chance to own a very nice displaying example of a very rare gun. The gun is 100% complete, correct and fully functional. This is a revolver that your collecting friends are quite unlikely to have in their collections and will be a very nice addition your advanced collection of Civil War era secondary martial pistols.