Brown Bess (UK), small arms of the Napoleonic Wars

The Brown Bess is the name for a long-serving series of flintlock smoothbore muskets that saw action with the British Army from the early 1700s through to the end of the Napoleonic Wars (early 1800s) and while traditionally associated with the campaigns in Portugal, Spain and Europe, also saw action in North America. The name 'Brown Bess' was used at the time as a term of poetic endearment, rather than a proper name, just as we might call a car an 'Old Banger' or a 'Dagenham Dustbin'. While the exact origins of this nickname have been obscured over the years, it may have been due to the colour of the walnut stock as prior to this weapon, stocks were generally painted black. The widespread use of the name seems to have arisen in the mid-1800s when large numbers of flintlocks were retired from active service and bought by gun collectors who used the term as a generic name for a variety of weapons such as the long land, short land and the even shorter India pattern models. This misuse continued into the 1960s when re-enactors were collecting weapons in preparation for the Bicentennial Anniversary of the American War of Independence.

Doglock MusketDog Lock Musket

Long Land 1742 Long Land Musket 1742

During the Seven Years War at the start of the 18th Century, the British Army's standard firearm was the Doglock Musket. This was superseded by the Long Land Pattern Flintlock Musket that was developed during the late 1720s and was the first British musket to fully adopt Brass hardware. It went through a number of design changes, the main ones being in 1742 (including an addition of a double bridle to the lock) and 1756 (including a new straight lock design, a brass nose cap on the end of the stock, new pipes for the rammer and the standard issue of a steel ramrod).

Long Land 1756 Long Land Musket 1756

The primary differences between the Long Land and Short Land were the length of the barrel (42in verses 46in) and the metal ramrod as opposed to a wooden one. Even though production of the Long Land Pattern Flintlock Musket did not stop until 1790, the majority of muskets in use by the start of the Napoleonic Wars were of the Short Land variety.

Shortland Musket Short Land Musket

The Short Land Pattern Flintlock Musket was issued to the British Army as a result of the 1768 Clothing Warrant, which was an attempt to decrease the load the individual soldier had to carry around. In so doing, the overall musket length was shortened, the swords carried by private soldiers (except in the Highland and Grenadier units) were abolished and the uniforms were trimmed so as to be less bulky.

Shortland India India Pattern Short Land Musket

Shortland Musket India Carbine India Pattern Short Land Carbine

During the mid-1790s, a third pattern of flintlock musket arrived, the India Pattern, which differed from the Short Land by being slightly lighter (just under 9lbs) and shorter (39in) as well as having no thumb plate and only three pipes for the ramrod. It had been developed and adopted by the forces of the East India Company (hence the name) in 1795 and was accepted by the Board of Ordnance of the British Army in 1797. Over 3 million of these were built and the only major change was the replacement of the original swan-necked cock for a reinforced version in 1809. With so many being made, examples of this weapon were still in use by the British Army and the militia in 1850. Both the Royal Navy and Royal Marines had their own muskets which evolved in parallel to the weapons used by the British Army, although they had the common elements of being shorter, having two ramrod pipes and a flat butt-plate with a square-cornered butt. They came with either a bright finish or a blackened ('japanned') finish, the former more likely to have been Royal Marine firearms. There was also a carbine version of the India pattern rifle.

Sea Musket Sea Musket 1778

Brown Bess Bayonet Brown Bess Bayonet

Soldiers were constantly drilled in formation firing and tactical movement but only fired their weapons a few times a year. The range and accuracy of the musket, as with all muskets, was not particularly impressive. British soldiers were expected to be able to fire one shot on command every fifteen seconds and while the better units managed this, in many cases one shot every twenty to thirty seconds was more realistic. Given the limited range and accuracy, firing tended to be in formation, where a volley of musket balls would be unleashed upon a target in the hope of inflicting casualties. The 14in bayonet was used in close quarter fighting and was, most of the time, the deciding factor in encounters. Ammunition came in the form of rolled paper cartridges containing six to eight drams of powder and a one ounce lead ball. Each end was sealed with pack thread, so when loading, the rear end was bitten off, some powder placed as a priming charge in the pan with the remaining power poured into the barrel followed by the ball. The paper was then used as wadding and packed down the barrel with the ramrod. If after loading the musket was not to be fired immediately, it would be carried half-cocked for safety, however if the soldier suddenly had a fight on his hands, he will have had to fully cock the weapon, otherwise it would not fire (hence the term 'going off half-cocked'). Given the variables that could affect such weapons, they often misfired (hence the term 'a flash in the pan' if only the priming charge ignited), especially if the powder was damp or the flint was worn. Soldiers had to regularly maintain the flints, especially if they could not afford to buy new ones, by chipping, or skinning the flint (hence the term 'a skin flint').

Furniture (fittings): Brass;
Calibre of bore: .75in;
Calibre of projectile .71in;
Projectile: One ounce lead ball;
Maximum range: circa 250 yards;
Maximum effective range (100 round volley): 150 - 200 yards;
Effective maximum range (Single round): 100 - 150 yards;
Optimum range: 75 - 100 yards;
Weight: 9lbs, 11oz (Small Land);
Optimum effect: At 30 yards, will penetrate 3/8" of iron or 5 inches of oak;
Rate of fire (Optimum): 4 - 5 rounds per minute;
Rate of fire (actual): 2 - 3 rounds per minute;
Rate of misfire: 20 - 40%.

Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936) even penned a poem dedicated to this famous 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.

Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed when she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess.

When ruffles were turned into stiff leather stocks,
And people wore pigtails instead of perukes,
Brown Bess never altered her iron-grey locks.
She knew she was valued for more than her looks.
"Oh, powder and patches was always my dress,
And I think I am killing enough," said Brown Bess.

So she followed her red-coats, whatever they did,
From the heights of Quebec to the plains of Assaye,
From Gibraltar to Acre, Cape Town and Madrid,
And nothing about her was changed on the way;
(But most of the Empire which now we possess
Was won through those years by old-fashioned Brown Bess.)

In stubborn retreat or stately advance,
From the Portugal coast to the cork-woods of Spain,
She had puzzled some excellent Marshals of France
Till none of them wanted to meet her again:
But later, near Brussels, Napoleon - no less -
Arranged for a Waterloo ball with Brown Bess.

She had danced till the dawn of that terrible day -
She danced till the dusk of more terrible night,
And before her linked squares his battalions gave way,
And her long fierce quadrilles put his lancers to flight:
And when his gilt carriage drove off in the press,
"I have danced my last dance with the world!" said Brown Bess.

If you go to Museums - there's one in Whitehall -
Where old weapons are shown with their names writ beneath,
You will find her upstanding, her back to the wall,
As stiff as a ramrod, her flint in her teeth.
And if ever we English had reason to bless
Any arm save our mothers', that arm is Brown Bess.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

Bibliography

Militaryheritage.com Website. Replica arms and equipment retail site, currently located at http://www.militaryheritage.com/muskets.htm, as of 22 January 2006.

Ryan, D. Michael. 'Brown Bess Musket Misconception', located at http://www.concordma.com/magazine/janfeb02/brownbessmusket.html, part of the Concord, Massachusetts Website, as of 22 January 2006.

Ryan, D. Michael. 'Colonial Phrase to Modern Idiom: It's Pot Luck' Webpage, located at http://www.concordma.com/magazine/octnov99/potluck.html, part of the Concord, Massachusetts Website, as of 22 January 2006.

The 'Brown Bess' Webpage on His Majesty's 64th Regiment of Foot Website, located at http://freenet.vcu.edu/sigs/reg64/bess.html as of 21 January 2006.

The 'Brown Bess' Webpage on the First Foot Guards Website, located at http://footguards.tripod.com/01ABOUT/01_weapons/01_WpBess.htm, as of 19 January 2006.

Photos courtesy of the Militaryheritage.com Website.

How to cite this article: Antill, P (4 February 2006) Baker Rifle, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapon_brown_bess.html

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