In no country in the world is there so much interest to guns by August Lebeau as in Russia. The only explanation for this interest is the way this maker is covered by Russian gun writers.
Let’s look at the literary sources. The second edition of Sabaneev’s Hunting Calendar (1892), doesn’t say a word about Lebeau. It states, however, that «in Belgium the best gunmaker is said to be Bodson (and not Francotte, as it is considered here), and many Belgian pigeon shots use his guns». But in 1905 the price-current of A. Bitkov’s gun shop proclaims that «August Lebeau is the newest star in the sky of artistic gunmaking, and takes place next to such great names as Purdey, Galan a Galan (the writer must have meant Holland&Holland) as their equal; his genius has been fully appreciated by the Emperors of Russia, Germany, Spain, as well as other members of Imperial and Royal families who hunt with guns made by Lebeau. Higher glory was hardly ever achieved by any other gunmaker. August Lebeau is gunmaker by appointment to the afore-mentioned royalty, and this is his best recommendation».
That’s some strong claim, but there was a little problem: «the newest star» had passed away in 1896. By 1910 many a catalogue of gun shops that dealt in August Lebeau guns — and there were a lot of them in Russia — sang praise to the «Belgian Purdey» and «famous gunmaker». The influential book Modern hunting shotguns, published in 1913, says «In all fairness Lebeau has to be considered the first maker in Liege». By then, «the first maker» had been dead for 17 years. Sergei Buturlin wrote in 1927 that «the expensive Belgian guns most loved by our hunters are (mainly pigeon guns) made by Defourney, Bodson and Lebeau». The interest to Lebeau as «gunmaker to ruling monarchs» never completely died out among Soviet shotgun lovers, and was further fueled in 1985 by V. Shostakovsky’s article in the country’s only hunting magazine. I regret to say that even though we have since gained access to international archives and libraries, no new information on the maker has been published in all these 30 years.
August Lebeau «well deserved the respect he enjoyed among gunmakers of Liege». These words, attributed to Jules Grivolat, once the Secretary of the City Chamber of Gunmakers’ Union and the Director of the Museum of Arms in St Etienne, are quoted by Ferdinand Courally in his book. I have found no other references. According to M. Nobili, the author of the only book about Lebeau-Courally, the authority of August Lebeau was as high as that of Jules Poland, manager of the Liege Proofhouse, or Charles Francotte, President of Liege Gunmakers’ Union. The same author says that Lebeau was elected Vice-President of the Liege Proofhouse Administrative Commission (the post of the President was traditionally reserved for the Mayor of Liege), and was employed by the Ministry of Labor.
His birth date and place are unknown. The company catalogues from the days of Philippe Reeves claim that the firm existed since 1865. The first evidence regarding the Lebeau brothers that has been found so far dates back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. The Bordeaux defense committee commissioned one Lemoyne to purchase weapons in Belgium. Lemoyne was a small-scale merchant who traded with Senegal in items such as silk and coral, and got the job by chance — through a friend of his. He went to Liege with a huge sum of money at his disposal, and there someone recommended him the Lebeau brothers, entrepreneurs in arms. On October 6, 1870 they signed an agreement to supply Chassepot, Peabody and Snider rifles and ammunition for the total of 972,000 Franc. The Lebeau brothers claimed they were the agents of the «Peabody’s Tool» company. They received the money but failed to supply the full amount of rifles; besides, there were quality issues. On March 1, 1871, the Civil Tribunal heard a case of Lebeau Brothers Partnership to a company called Cahen-Lyon et Cie. The brothers claimed that the defendant made and sold in Belgium counterfeit Chassepot rifles. Since the Cahen-Lyon company had some sort of agreement with the French Government, the Tribunal decided for them. On February 18, 1873 the case of Lemoyne was heard by the French National Assembly’s Subcommittee for Weapons. It turned out that the Lebeaus obtained some of the rifles for the Lemoyne’s contract from the Malherbe arms company, which was being liquidated. They purchased rifles from the liquidator at 80 Franc apiece, and sold them to Lemoyne at 118 Franc. There were also some problems with ammunition supplies from the USA. Finally, the Belgian government intervened with the deal, because Belgium was supposed to remain neutral. Lebeau denied all accusations, saying Lemoyne was a dilettante who had to be thankful he came across honest people. If they meant to cheat on him, they would have simply collected the money, gone to Italy and lived happily ever after, because the contract did not specify an execution date and the payment was made in advance. Whatever happened, the Lemoyne contract seemed to be extremely profitable for the Lebeaus, because afterwards they moved from Rue Barrieau 80 to a much more prestigious Rue D’Archis, 34 address in the center of Liege. There are also a few notary records, from which it follows that a partnership between brothers Jules and Auguste Lebeau, located at Rue D’Archis 34 (modern spelling «Darchis») was discontinued on November 23, 1876. On February 10, 1876, the same notary registered, at the same address, a limited partnership agreement between the Lebeau brothers and an investor named Charles Minette. The partnership was to exist for 15 years (from November 23, 1876 to November 23, 1890) and engage in manufacture of and trade in firearms, both luxury and military, along with «any related items».
Minette invested 100,000 Francs, and the brothers had in their disposal sums not exceeding 10,000 Francs. The agreement contained clauses that allowed the investor to discontinue the partnership under certain condition, for instance regular loss. According to Madame Moermanns’s data, the company did not have any manufacturing machinery and employed not more than 15 people. On November 8, 1873, the Lebeau brothers were granted a French patent № 101082 for a revolver. In 1879 they registered «The PUPPY» as a trademark. In 1881, a patent for a pocket revolver with a folding trigger was granted under this trademark, and in 1882 — a Belgian patent for a revolver and extractor. Lebeau-Courally later offered a pocket revolver with an original extracting system and a folding trigger.
Auguste Lebeau had two patent granted to his name: for a hammerless gun, and for an ejector. Lebeau price-currents mention the First Prize awarded to Lebeau at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876, a Gold Medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, 1878, and the Grand Prix at the Universal Exhibition in Antwerp, 1894. The catalogues of these exibitions are available, but the name of Auguste Lebeau can be found among Belgian participants and prize winners only once: at Antwerp, where he is styled as a hunting gun and revolver maker. The Paris Exhibition catalogue features a company called Lebeau Freres et Cie, which was indeed awarded the Gold Medal. However, there is no mention of Lebeau in the catalogue of the Philadelphia Exhibition. Here are the copies of the documents as evidence.
On June 12, 1879 at the suit of creditor with name Laroque began the bankruptcy process of partnership. In 1880 the Lebeau Brothers company went bankrupt. Apparently, in 1887 Jules died, after which Augustee Lebeau founded a new company — Armes Fines. Augustee Lebeau (Augustee Lebeau Fine Guns). In 1894 it was located in a small house near St Jacques Cathedral, on Rue Vertbois 52. In the same year Guillaume Defourny quitted Lebeau’s company, to start two years later his own firm, Defourny-Sevrin. Why did this gunmaker, who was to rise to fame in future, leave Auguste Lebeau’s employment, we will probably never know. Courally writes that Lebeau developed «his own method of gun production which had its followers and was studied at the gun school”. Very few guns by the maker survived. M. Nobily claims that Lebeau’s side-by-sides were mostly boxlocks, with or without side plates, some featured Greener’s crossbolt.
Auguste Lebeau died on July 23, 1896; it is said that he was childless and single. On January 2, 1897 a «Credit Union» cooperative filed a suit against the heirs to Lebeau Brothers company, regarding a debt of 14766 Franc 22 Santimes. The list of heirs included Marie Lebeau, who was possibly the wife or daughter of Jules Lebeau — provided that Augustee was really single and childless.
After Augustee Lebeau’s death the company passed over to Ferdinand Courally. Considering what was said above, it is likely that he bought the company from the heirs or the creditors, because so far no evidence has been found that any connection existed between Courally and Lebeau while the latter was still alive. According to the Liege Proofhouse, from 1896 to 1902 Courally was recorded as a maker of guns at Rue Fond des Tawes, 17-21. Interestingly, the Proofhouse itself (BANC D’EPREUVES DES ARMES A FEU) was and still is located on that street. From 1897 to 1904 Courally was listed at one more address: Rue Mosselman, 51-53. By contrast with the residential house at Rue de Vertbois 52, both addresses referred to real manufacturing premises.
It looks like Courally, as he started his business after moving from St. Etennes to Lieges, used Lebeau’s name as a promotional tool. When was the Armes de Grand Lux. Aug. Lebeau-Courally Company founded — in 1896, 1897 or at a later date? Nobody can answer this question with certainty. The catalogue for the 1900 Paris World Expo features a Ferd. Courally Sr d`Aug. Lebeau (Ferdinand Courally, successor to August Lebeau), but there’s no sign of Lebeau-Courally. How can this be explained? According to Ferdinand Courally’s book, brand names Lebeau and Courally were property of the Webley-Lebeau-Courally Company, established in 1902 as a joint venture with The Webley and Scott Revolver and Arms Company Ltd. The new company was listed at Rue Fond des Tawes 17-21. The cooperation with Webley, which seemed to stem from the desire to find a partner to help break into the military weapons market during Belgium’s colonial expansion, lasted until the beginning of the First World War. In 1919 Ferdinand Courally left the company and settled in France, where he had been staying in 1914-1918 when Belgium was occupied by the Germans. Here enter Philippe Reeve and the SA Continentale Auguste Lebeau-Courally Company, but that’s another story.
Almost as little is known about Joseph Claude Ferdinand Courally as about August Lebeau. His father, who was also called Ferdinand, traded in silk and was a broker at the St. Etienne Goods Exchange. The trade reference books for 1862, 1864 and 1870 list his two offices at the city’s prime locations: Place St. Charles 5, and Place Hotel de Ville 8. Since 1890, St. Etienne records show a company called Ferdinand Courally & Cie, dealing in hunting guns. The records don’t show if the firm made its own guns or had them made by the trade, but it is listed at the same Hotel de Ville address as Courally Sr.’s office.
From 1889 to 1890 Courally Jr. obtained three French patents: for «a new system of hammerless gun» (№ 204896 of 03.04.1890), «a system for ejecting cartridges» (№ 208864 of 15.10.1890) and «improvements in a hammerless gun» (№ 193174 of 21.09.1889). Another French patent was granted in 1922, for «a hammerless gun with ejectors and triple bolting» (№ 552946 of 15.06.1922). Apart from that, Courally had a few Belgian patents registered in his name: for a single trigger, for a simple ejector for a double barreled gun, for an ejector mechanism mounted on a single base, for an ejector housing, etc. Courally owned a large gunmaking business with numerous employees, and it’s impossible to tell now whether they, or him, were behind the real or imaginary inventions.
Ferdinand Courally was married to Elisa Rensen, of Liege. In 1904 he and his wife were involved in a detective story widely covered by all French papers. Elisa had a sister, whose second husband was a Messier Syveton, member of Paris City Council. He was either murdered or committed a suicide. The widow accused the late husband of sexual harassment to her daughter from her first marriage. Courally gave testimony supporting M-me Syveton’s involvement in the murder of her husband. In 1911 he divorced his wife.
More confusion is caused by Courally’s 1931 book Les Armes de Chasse et Leur Tir (hunting guns and shooting). In the signature to the foreword he styles himself as «firearms expert to the Civil Tribunal in Seine, former gun maker of Liege». It’s clear that this book was Courally’s last word in his 40-years career, and understanding it as the last ticket to eternity, he was possibly trying to be as honest and unbiased as possible. He writes in the foreword that the only thing he can do is to add his experience to the works of his predecessors. The book, however, is nothing special in terms of technical knowledge. The works of the Russian writer Sergei Buturlin are much deeper, and he wasn’t even a gunmaker. All Courally has to say about his supposed predecessor Lebeau is a brief characteristic, not in his own words, in the «Additions» section of the book, one of a long list of people who had something to do with gunmaking since 1807. What was that, blatant ingratitude? Maybe, but all pieces fit the puzzle as soon as you assume that the two gunmakers barely knew each other, or were complete strangers. This is only a hypothesis, but it is at least as well supported by evidence as the claim that Courally entered Lebeau’s firm as early as 1894.
Courally’s inventions as he lists them in his book come down to the following: principles of barrel polishing machine (machines built on this principle were used by the Clair brothers, inventors of an autoloading gun, and in August Francotte’s shop); an apparatus for drying black powder, a device for counting shot pellets, a pressure gun with replaceable firing pins for experiments with the shape and length of the striker and force of the strike, a «percudinagraph» (device for measuring the force of the strike of the firing pin), a system of a hammerless gun (Patent № 204896). But there’s nothing about «Courally’s ejector», which figures prominently in the company catalogues next to Deeley ejector. The numbers in an oval with inscription «eject. Courally brevete», stamped on the fore-end of Lebeau-Courally guns, fit into a system. These are certainly not patent numbers, and are most likely the ejectors’ serial numbers. This assumption may not explain everything, but together with observations on the ejector design it does allow to come to certain conclusions. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to see the inside of the mechanism, and so the exterior is in most cases all that one can go by. Here’s what we get if we set the ejector numbers against the gun numbers and the years they were made:
Ejector № — Gun № — Mfg Year:
384 — 34962 — 1904,
430 — 34548 — 1903,
647 — 35863 — 1907,
1407 — 37222 — 1909,
1688 — 37639 — 1910,
2010 — 38201 — 1912,
2721 — 39264 — 1913,
2896 — 40066 — 1920.
To begin with, there seem to be a few variants of the ejector, so it is not clear which one of them is the «Courally’s patent» that, if you believe some writers, was used by all makers of Liege. Then, as far as I can judge from the exterior, all these ejectors were variants of well-known designs. Courally is said to be the inventor of the modification Deeley`s ejector (1884 patent) in which both springs are cocked by a single slider which moves forward by pressure of the shoulder of the action as the gun is opened. This may really be a Belgian invention, but so far no evidence has been found that Courally had anything to do with it. In his book Courally lists ejectors of Holland, Needham, Greener, Deeley and Purdey, but never writes a word about his own.
Why weren’t numerous Belgian «brevetes» (patents), including Courally’s own, mentioned in his book? The answer to the question lies in the history of industrial and intellectual copyright protection. In the beginning there was the 1883 Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. Before WWI it was amended twice: in 1900 and in 1911. In Belgium and France there was a widespread practice of the so-called «S.G.D.G» patents, which meant «without government’s guarantee». The text of the law was drawn by Napoleon and said: «without selection, at the risk of patentees, and without guarantee of existence, novelty of invention, or truthfulness of description». This law made it possible to claim a patent for any design, on declarative principle, no matter if there were or weren’t similar patents in, say, Britain. During his cooperation with The Webley and Scott Revolver and Arms Company Ltd., and being interested in export of his guns, Courally could have become more careful with his «brevetes». It shouldn’t have been different to revise them, as there already existed not only patent laws but also patent lawyers.
Courally’s company never produced steel. All metal was purchased from John Cockerill & Cie. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop Ferdinand Courally from patenting his own trade marks for steel: «Wahlreyne compressed steel» (the most expensive) and «Leugrann steel» (the cheapest) in 1896, and in addition «Metal Van’t Horn» (middle price) in September 1897. The price difference between barrel sets made of these brands was 50 Franks. Probably this marketing gimmick allowed Courally to gain some additional profit. In June 1913 these trade marks were registered by the International Union for the Protection of Industrial Property in Bern, Switzerland.
Many people who try to identify a Lebeau-Courally gun are lost in the maze of catalogue models and trading houses’ price-currants, because they don’t know how the company operated and how orders were taken. The only thing that was positively decided on when a customer chose a model from a catalogue was whether the gun would be a sidelock, a boxlock or a droplock. Everything else was negotiated: gauge, barrel steel brand, barrel length, chamber length, chokes, shape of the frame (four different options for a boxlock), top fastener, stock shape and dimensions, ejector type and finish.
In addition to barrels made of Sir J. Whitworth’s Fluid Compressed Steel, one could order «wings» (side clips) on the action, single trigger, «regulated» chokes, Greener’s side safety, «folding» (hinged) front trigger, and even replace the Greener’s crossbolt with Webley’s Screw Grip, a top fastener patented by Webley in 1882. All these options except single trigger and «regulated» chokes were specified for various base models. The result was often a combination of features very remote from the catalogue description and images. It was the careful consideration of the client’s wishes and a wide variety of choices that made Lebeau-Courally different from most other makers.
Courally successfully used a variety of marketing tricks, but his most efficient advertising weapon were perhaps the guns made for various royal families of Europe. This, I believe, is one of the explanations for the never-ending interest to August Lebeau’s guns. To be fair, August Lebeau was making guns for the royalty long before Courally entered the scene. The Gatchina Arsenal collection includes a small-bore five-barrel volley gun and a single-barrel rifle (kipplauf) that belonged to Great Prince Mikhail Alexandrovich Romanoff (1878-1918). These guns were ordered through Jean Adolph Larderet. I think it was Jean Adolph, because his father, Jean Mary, died in 1888, and it’s hard to assume that this rifle, a kipplauf in modern terms, could have been ordered for a child. Remember the rifle’s serial number — 3482, we’re going to need it later. In 1897, a number of Lebeau guns, with serial numbers 31047, 31292, 31418, 31440, 31848, 31873, 31880 and 500, entered the trials that took place as part of the Second Firearms Exhibition held by the Imperial Technical Society. The protocols list the maker’s name as Lebeau, which confirms the fact that Courally preferred to stay in his predecessor’s shadow at first. The trials were won by Feodor Matska, and Courally’s guns were awarded the Great Silver Medal. I believe the capability of Courally’s two premises allowed him to make up to 1000 guns a year. The Great Prince’s gun could have been made from 1892 (when the Prince was 14) to 1896 (when Lebeau died). Let us assume it was made at the earliest date, in 1892. If Courally continued Lebeau’s serial numbers, then in four years the company made 27500 guns or so, nearly 7000 guns a year. I don’t find this figure realistic, as it is some 10 to 20 times higher than the average yearly production from 1900 to 1914. Therefore, Courally introduced his own serial number sequence. Following this logic, only one gun made by Lebeau took part in the trials, the one with the serial number 500. I venture to suggest that Courally started his sequence with some arbitrary number, for example, 30,000. The Prince’s rifle featured a mark «L&C, Bilg(s?)». The same stamp can be seen on a hunting single shot gun with a removable barrel. It is known that «Lebeau freres&Cie» patented a hunting gun with «canon mobile» — «removable barrel».
Lebau-Courally Model 98 is called «The Great Russian» in honor of the Emperor Nicolas II, who allegedly ordered from Larderet a pair of 20-gauge boxlocks with serial numbers 31831 and 31832. Many, including Madame Moermanns, tried to trace down these guns, but did not succeed. Let’s try to get it straight. The documents from the State Historical Archive testify that all business with the Larderet was handled by bureaucrats from the Ministry of Imperial Court, and definitely not by the Emperor or the Great Princes directly. Nobody was obliged to tell the supplier, even the appointed maker to the court, for whom this or that order was meant. All we know about guns №31831 and №31832 comes from Lebeau-Courally catalogues. Evidently, Larderet placed the order before the 1897 St. Peterburg Expo. The whole Courally’s case rests on one photograph showing the Czar with the Lebeau in his hands. The photograph was made in 1899 in the Spala estate (Skernevice, Poland), where Nicolas II hunted red deer. We can see the royal couple «on the peg». The same photograph in the Lebeau-Courally catalogue is captioned «H.I.M. Nicolas II, Emperor of Russia, hunts with his pair of Lebeau-Courally guns». It is difficult to identify the gun from a photograph, especially a retouched one. But if you look close, you’ll see dramatic difference between the original and the catalogue images. In the latter case the gun was substantially retouched to show the shape of the frame and even the pins of the lock. Nicolas II could have actually hunted with his Lebeaus, but the only evidence for it is this single photograph. So far, no trace of these guns was found in the Court’s property lists, or in any other documents.
Jean Mary Larderet was the first of the family of St. Petersburg gun dealers to get the Royal Warrant. But who came up with the «Russian» names for Lebeau-Courally’s models, which first appear in the 1910 catalogue? It is possible that the names were styled by «the young Larderet», who was also called Jean Mary, like his father. Here is the list of these models.
Модель № 95 Prince Gorchakoff (His Highness the Prince Konstantin Alexandrovich Gorchakov (1841 -1926), Master of the Horse to the Imperial Court (presumably)).
A few words about «other royalty». In 1910, Nicolas II and Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany, had a «diplomatic» hunt together at the Czar’s Spala estate. Prior to this event, owing to the effort of Courally’s German agent Max Barella, Wilhelm received a gun, Model 97, which was later called «The Kaiser». The catalogue for the 1900 World Expo mentions «The King of Italy». This has to be Umberto I, who was assassinated in July 1900, while the Expo opened in April, and not his successor, Victor Emmanuel III, who was known as a passionate hunter and shot with Nicolas II in Italy in the autumn of 1900. The 1910 catalogue features an image of Alphonse XIII, King of Spain, who presumably holds in his hands a Lebeau-Courally gun № 33108. However, this image is actually a postcard! Who says that Alphonse XIII holds a Lebeau and no other gun? It could have been Edward Schilling of Barselona, a German-born gunmaker, senior partner of the D. Eduardo Schilling y Monfort Company, and Courally’s agent. Through him Courally supplied Alphonse XIII with a gun, Model 100, which was later dubbed «Grand d`Espagne». In 1907 Schilling took an order from Prince Charles of Aragon. There were no other orders from any European sovereigns until Charles, Prince-Regent of Belgium, bought a 1940-made gun as a gift to General Charles de Gaulle.
So much for gunmaking by appointment to the royal courts of Europe, but Courally managed to use this fact to maximum. Advertising his product, agents in various European cities never ceased to remind their prospective customers that Lebeau-Courally made guns for kings and emperors. To be fair, the quality of Lebeau-Courally guns was high enough for this status, but it was not higher than the work of other Liege houses, and definitely not above the best gun makers of West London.
To sum it up: August Lebeau had nothing to do with the rise of Lebeau-Courally company, as he died in 1896. Ferdinand Courally used his name for promotion, and achieved almost unbelievable success in record short time. No other gunmaker before or after him could match this performance. I’m afraid we’ll never know whether Courally was a great gunmaker or engineer, but that he was an extraordinary businessman is beyond any doubt. It’s no accident that Claude Gaier, a renowned expert in Belgian guns, writes that «the firm of Lebeau-Courally was formed as a partnership between a lock-maker and a commercial traveller».
With firsthand knowledge of Lebeau-Courally weapons, I never cease to be amazed how stereotypes prevail over reason in many people. The notorious phrase «August Lebeau is gunmaker by appointment to the afore-mentioned royalty, and this is his best recommendation » has placed the Lebeau-Courally company above all criticism and a notch above any other Belgian gunmaker. Perhaps it’s the right time to reconsider this evaluation.