March 11, 2021
By Garry James
Sometime in 1863, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, was presented a magnificent sword from an anonymous donor. This ivory-gripped masterpiece had an etched blade and elaborate gold-plated hilt crafted by one of Europe’s premier makers of fine firearms and blades: Parisian Louis-François Devisme. Used by its owner only for special occasions, the sword was eventually proffered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant by Lee during the surrender of his forces at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Grant generously allowed the fine piece to be retained by its owner.
Recognized for their high quality and meticulous craftsmanship, other special-order Devisme arms saw use in the Civil War, most notably a French Model 1822 cavalry officer’s sword employed by Rebel General “Jeb” Stuart, and a fine .74-caliber sporting carbine that fired unique exploding bullets owned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The choice of these arms belonging to such prominent Southern leaders was no accident. Devisme wares, ranging from opulent dueling and target pistols to lavishly-appointed swords, knives and accessories, were sought-after worldwide. The firm’s products were regular award-winners at a large number of international exhibitions and trade shows, also.
Not all of the establishment’s offerings, however, were of Fabergé-like appearance. A good deal of its output, while always of the highest quality, was humbler and more utilitarian. In many cases, items that required greater production were farmed out to others, notably the respected Belgian maker Auguste Francotte. Innovation was a Devisme byword and a number of fascinating items were designed and made by the company, including the principal subject of this article, a unique line of early percussion revolvers.
Born in 1806, Louis François-Devisme (pronounced (“De-Veme”) began his gunsmithing career in 1834 when he opened a shop on 36 Boulevarde des Italiens in Paris. Quickly establishing himself as a purveyor of high-grade goods, his business took off and, in relatively short order, he became one of the most renowned French makers of the mid-19th century. Devisme wares were prized by the aristocracy, military officers and the bourgeoisie.
With Englishman Robert Adams’ successful challenge in 1851 to Samuel Colt’s monopoly on the revolver trade in Europe, Devisme, who had devised an early self-cocking repeater in the 1830s, was encouraged to proceed with his own design. In 1854, he patented a unique six-shot single action, many features of which were considerable departures from the works of Messrs. Colt and Adams.
Possessed of a sleek guise, the rather delicate-appearing silhouette of Devisme’s new arm, termed by modern collectors the “Model 1854/55,” belied a sturdy, well-thought-out mechanism and structure. The checkered walnut grip panels extended over about 50 percent of the gun’s overall length, their style hearkening back to that seen on many of Devisme’s elegant single-shot target pistols. Because the stocks and steel backstrap continued right up to the recoil shield, the hammer was mounted internally, the rounded spur alone protruding from the top of the action. Though it looked strange, in fact it was extremely comfortable in the hand with the single-action being smooth and easy to operate. Additionally, as we will see anon, it employed a loading system unlike any other on the market, one which incorporated a feature inspired by the French military.
The revolver’s action was interesting and innovative. Though incorporating the usual spring-loaded cylinder hand seen on other revolvers, unconventionally the cylinder was locked by a small stud sited on the face of the recoil shield, to the left of the hand, below the fixed cylinder pin. When the hammer was put on full cock, the stud popped out and, in-turn, braced against one of the nipple fences, effecting a snug lock-up. On the forward, inside portion of the frame, a diminutive leaf spring slightly impeded the rotation of the cylinder to prevent it from over-wheeling, and kept it in the proper position for repeated cocking.
One of the main stopgaps plaguing military authorities in the muzzle-loading era, who wished to issue rifles to the rank and file of infantry rather than specialty troops, was the problem of devising a system whereby a smaller-than-bore size projectile could be made to effectively grip the rifling. The common solution of loading a patched ball or bullet was just too time-consuming, taking about three times longer than charging a smoothbore.
In 1844, Louis-Étienne de Thouvenin developed the tige system, whereby a sub-caliber, conical projectile was rammed down on top of a sturdy pillar set on the inside of the breech and then given two or three good raps to expand the soft lead into the rifling. The French military adopted the system two years later, eventually being employed in both muskets and short rifles. This arrangement was a considerable improvement over the earlier Delvigne system, whereby a ball was mashed on top of the circular rim of a reduced sized chamber, but some deformation was still inevitable. While producing better accuracy than a smoothbore, it still had its limitations. The introduction of the hollow-based Minié bullet in 1848 essentially made the Thovenin tige obsolete, but in typical thrifty ordnance fashion the arrangement was kept in the French system well into the 1850s.
The tige was still regarded well enough that Devisme thought it would be just the ticket for his new revolver. Accordingly, each nipple on the pistol’s cylinder was fitted with an integral half-inch-long sturdy tige, which featured dual openings at its base to allow the flash from a percussion cap to ignite the propelling charge.
Because of the tige arrangement, the Devisme revolver lacked the loading lever seen on other, more conventional revolvers. To load the gun, a lever located on the left side of the frame was rotated upward, unlocking the barrel assembly from the action. The barrel was then removed and the cylinder slipped off its arbor pin. Next, a stout seating tool was unscrewed from the butt. The chambers were then loaded in the normal fashion with loose power from a flask, and bullets placed in the chamber mouth. Bullets were individually seated using the seating tool, which was struck sharply with a mallet. This forced the projectile down on top of the pillar, expanding it. Chambers were lubed, nipples capped and the pistol reassembled. It was now ready to fire.
Though this procedure sounds cumbersome, in practice it wasn’t all that complicated. A good chamber seal was effected and this, in turn, reduced chain firing. Both round and conical bullets could be used, though the latter were favored, as the cavity in the seating tool was shaped to accommodate a pointed ogive. Still, like the Thouvenin rifle, some deformation or canting of the bullet was inevitable.
Production on the Devisme revolver was undertaken mostly by Francotte in Liege, Belgium, and then finished in Paris. Two sizes were manufactured: a belt style with an overall length of 13 inches and barrel measuring 61/4 inches; and a pocket model that was 9 inches long and had a 4½-inch barrel. Calibers were 10.5mm (.41) and 7.5 (.29).
Seeking to improve his product, in the late 1850s Devisme patented an upgrade of the 1854/55 revolver, exchanging the more traditional hammer for a striker-fired arrangement. Essentially, the pistol’s lines and loading setup remained the same, though an external cocking lever was added on the left side to manage the internal striker, which was positioned on the inside of the recoil shield in basically the same place where the hammer nose of the previous model protruded.
When metallic self-contained cartridges began to gain traction in France, Devisme was able to adapt his revolver’s mechanics to handle the new system. (Eugene Lefaucheux’s French patent of a bored-through cylinder, predates that of Rollin White’s in America by several months.) It was easy to shift manufacturing to the changes and, as well as creating conversions of 1854/55 patterns, soon “Model 1858/59” purpose-built cartridge Devisme revolvers appeared on the market. Unlike the 1854/55s which, as we have seen, had to have their cylinders removed to load, the 1858/59 had a hinged frame, rounds being loaded into the revolver with the cylinder in situ. Calibers ran in the 11mm-range, though because of a confusing system whereby guns were sometimes measured by bore size and sometimes by chamber diameter, they were sometimes interchangeably referred to as “9mm,” “10.5mm,” “11mm” or “12mm.”
Devisme revolvers were especially popular with French officers, and considerable numbers of them were taken to Mexico during Napoleon III’s brief adventure in that country. As well, Devismes in both percussion and cartridge versions were seen during the Franco-Prussian War alongside many other types of handguns, including many surplus American Civil War arms.
Interestingly, Devisme seems not to have been largely concerned with widespread distribution of his arms in the Americas, so they were not commonly seen in the United States. Despite some Devisme products eventually finding their way to the seat of conflict in the Civil War, the author has been unable to uncover any authenticated account of a Devisme revolver being employed by a combatant on either side. Still, France had a respectable representation in that conflict, handgun-wise, with the appearance of Perrin and Raphael centerfire and Lefaucheux pinfire revolvers, as well as some Paris-made percussion LeMat “grapeshot” repeaters.
Shooting the Devisme For my hands-on evaluation of the Devisme, I was able to rustle up a very nice condition first-style 1854/55 belt model. Some 13.5 grains of FFFg Goex blackpowder ended up being the chosen charge, as that was all I could load into the chamber area surrounding the tige without covering up its tip. Bullets were 93-grain .395 round balls and 120-grain modified .40 conicals, both cast from original molds I had used in the past for other projects. The chambers miked out at .41, and the bore at .39. Water pump grease was used as a lubricant, injected over the bullets using a period British brass medical irrigation syringe. Loading was performed as previously described and found to be relatively easy to accomplish, though if the mallet was laid on too enthusiastically, some powder grains worked their way out through the nipple, which slightly reduced the already anemic charge. The revolver cocked easily, indexed well and had a relatively wobble-free lockup. The trigger pull was measured at a crisp 5.2 pounds.
Initial testing was done using round balls at 25 yards, the only handgun distance available at the facility I was using. While the revolver functioned perfectly and recoil slight, the groups, such as they were, were abysmal. Rounds were scattered in a random fashion high on the target board. Also, sights, consisting of a high front beaded blade and open-top aperture rear, were not particularly conducive to long-range shooting.
In a later session at a different location, I reduced the range to 15 yards. Round ball accuracy was better, but still not great. At least this time I managed to get a few shots on the target. Switching to conicals, groups improved a bit, and I was able to achieve regular, but-not-wonderful 8- to 11-inch spreads, which still impacted somewhat high.
As the bullet seater was intended for conical bullets, I’m inclined to think the round balls were unduly deformed during the loading process. Too, if a mallet strike was on the light side, the bullet undoubtedly would not have obturated properly. The conicals — as in the musket version — could additionally be compromised if they were not seated straight. They performed well enough for close-combat work, though the light powder charge resulted in a rather anemic performance, which is probably a good reason why the Devisme was never considered as a viable service arm among Yankee and Rebel procurement officers. Though a nicely-engineered, comfortable and obviously very reliable revolver, the Devisme would not have been a personal favorite as a sidearm during the American Civil War period. My particular choices in the belt style would be either the .44-caliber Colt 1860 Army or .442-cal. Beaumont-Adams revolver.
Still, the Devisme revolver system was well thought out and effective. Unothodox to American eyes, it remained in vogue well into the cartridge era where it competed favorably with the wares of Colt, Adams and Webley. Louis-François Devisme passed away in 1873, two years after the death of his son Jean Baptiste. With the passing of Devisme’s pere, the firm languished. Its wares remain a stellar tribute to the art of fine arms making.
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