Brown Bess

Brown Bess is a nickname of unknown origin for the British Army's Land Pattern Musket and its derivatives. This musket was used in the era of the expansion of the British Empire and acquired symbolic importance at least as significant as its physical importance. It was in use for over a hundred years with many incremental changes in its design. These versions include the Long Land Pattern, Short Land Pattern, India Pattern, New Land Pattern Musket, Sea Service Musket and others.

The Long Land Pattern musket and its derivatives, all .75 caliber flintlock muskets, were the standard long guns of the British Empire's land forces from 1722 until 1838 when they were superseded by a big percussion cap smoothbore musket. The British Ordnance System did convert many Flintlocks into the new Percussion system and were known as the Pattern 1839 Musket. A fire in 1841 at the Tower of London destroyed many muskets before they could be converted. Still, the Brown Bess saw service until the middle of the nineteenth century. Some were still in service during the Indian rebellion of 1857, and some were sold to Mexico where troops used them during the Texas Revolution of 1836 and the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. One was even used in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.

Most male citizens of the American Colonies were required by law to own arms and ammunition for militia duty; the Long Land Pattern was a common firearm in use by both sides at the commencement of the American Revolution.

Origins of the name

One hypothesis states that the "Brown Bess" was named after Elizabeth I of England, however this lacks backing. It is not believed that this name was used contemporaneously with the early Long Pattern Land musket but that the name arose in late years of the eighteenth century when the Short Pattern and India Pattern were in wide use.

Early uses of the term include the newspaper, the Connecticut Courant in April 1771, which said "...but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulder and march." This familiar use must indicate widespread use of the term by that time. The 1785 Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue, a contemporary work which defined vernacular and slang terms, contained this entry: "Brown Bess: A soldier's firelock. To hug Brown Bess; to carry a fire-lock, or serve as a private soldier."

Military and government records of the time do not use this poetical name but refer to firelocks, flintlock, muskets or by the weapon's model designations.

Popular explanations of the use of the word "Brown" include that it was a reference to either the color of the walnut stocks or to the characteristic brown color that was produced by russeting, an early form of metal treatment. Others argue that mass-produced weapons of the time were coated in brown varnish on metal parts as a rust preventative and on wood as a sealer (or in the case of unscrupulous contractors, to disguise inferior or non-regulation types of wood). However, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that "browning" was only introduced in the early 19th century, well after the term had come into general use.

Similarly, the word "Bess" is commonly held to either derive from the word arquebus or blunderbuss (predecessors of the musket) or to be a reference to Elizabeth I of England, considered is likely after to commemorate her death. More plausible is that the term Brown Bess could have been derived from the German words "brawn buss" or "braun buss", meaning "strong gun" or "brown gun"; King George I who commissioned its use was from Germany. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to "brown musket" dating back to the early 18th century to refer to the same weapon.

In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes, and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise -
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes -
At Blenheim and Ramillies, fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.
|4=Rudyard Kipling, 1911

The Land Pattern Muskets

From the seventeenth to the early years of the eighteenth century, most nations did not specify standards for the firearms of their militaries. Firearms were individually procured by officers or regiments as late as the 1740s, and were often custom made to the tastes of the purchaser. As the firearm gained ascendancy on the battlefield, this lack of standardization led to increasing difficulties in the supply of ammunition and repair materials. To address these difficulties, the standardization of "patterns" began. Stored by the military in a "pattern room", a pattern musket served as a reference by which arms maker could make comparisons and take measurements to insure that they could produce firearms that would achieve some level of standardization.

Stress-bearing parts of the Brown Bess, such as the barrel, lockwork, and sling-swivels, were customarily made of iron; while other furniture pieces such as the butt plate, trigger guard and ramrod pipe were found in both iron and brass. It weighed around 10 pounds (5 kg). It could be fitted with a 17-inch (430 mm) triangular cross-section bayonet. There were no sights on the weapon although the bayonet lug on the barrel may have been used in that manner, similar to the bead on a shotgun.

The earliest models had iron fittings but these were replaced by brass in later models after 1736. Wooden ramrods were used with the first guns but were replaced by iron ones although guns with wooden ramrods were still issued to troops on American service until 1765 and later to loyalist units in the Revolution. Wooden ramrods were also used in the Dragoon version produced from 1744 to 1771 and for Navy/Marine use.

Accuracy of the Brown Bess was, as with most other muskets, low, primarily due to the lack of sights and the use of undersized military ammunition meant for ease of loading. The effective range is often quoted as 100 yards (meters) but was often fired en masse at 50 m to inflict the greatest damage upon the enemy. The combination of large caliber of the projectile, the heavy weight of its lead construction contributed to its low effective range. Military tactics of the period stressed mass volleys and massed bayonet charges, instead of individual marksmanship. The large soft projectile could inflict a great deal of damage when accurate. The great length of the weapon allowed longer reach in bayonet engagements.

Field Tests

Field tests of smoothbore muskets in the late 18th and early 19th centuries reported widely variable expectations of accuracy and speed of fire. Estimations of rate of fire ranged from " one shot every fifteen seconds" to "two to two and a half shots per minute." This was with the standard military loading procedure from prepared paper cartridges containing ball and powder in an elongated envelop: 1. Tear cartridge with teeth and prime the pan directly from the cartridge; 2. Stand the musket and pour the bulk of the powder down the barrel; 3. Reverse the cartridge and use the ramrod to seat the ball and paper envelop onto the powder charge (note that modern shooters prime the pan as the final stage in keeping with maximum safety).

Standard European targets included strips as long as fifty yards to represent an opposing line of infantry with the target height being six feet for infantry and eight feet, three inches for cavalry. Estimations of hit probability at one hundred yards ranged from just over fifty percent to seventy five and over eighty percent for the shorter and taller targets. No allowances were made for the overly tall targets, gaps in an opposing line or the realities of the battle field. Modern testers shooting from rigid rests, using optimum loads and fast priming powder, report groups of circa five inches at fifty yards (Cumpston 2008). From sixty yards using a tree for a brace. Three shot group measures nine and one half inches.


Many variations and modifications of the standard pattern musket were found over its long history. The earliest version was the Long Land Pattern of 1722, 62-inch long (without bayonet) and with a 46-inch barrel. It was later found that shortening the barrel did not detract from its accuracy but made handling the musket easier. This resulted in the Militia (or Marine) Pattern of 1756 and the Short Land Pattern of 1768, both of which had a 42-inch (1,067 mm) barrel.

Another notable version with a 39-inch (991 mm) barrel was manufactured for the British East India Company, and eventually adopted by the British Army in 1790 as the India Pattern.

Towards the end of the life of the weapon, there was a change in the system of ignition. The flintlock mechanism, which was prone to misfiring, especially in wet weather, was replaced by the more reliable percussion cap. The last flintlock pattern manufactured was selected for conversion to the new system as the Pattern 1839. A fire at the Royal Arsenal destroyed large stocks of these in 1841, so a new Pattern 1842 musket was manufactured. These remained in service until the outbreak of the Crimean War when they were replaced by the Minie or the P53 Enfield rifled musket.


See also

Other references

  • Cumpston, Mike, The Guns of Empire,18th Century Martial Muskets, Guns Magazine, August 2008 p60. San Diego, CA FMG Publications

External links

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