“The Brown Bess is recognizable as one of the world’s first modern firearms.”
By Sam Bocetta
THE BRITISH Brown Bess flintlock musket is quite simply one of the most important firearms ever made. It represented a huge technological advance when it was designed, more than 200 years ago now, and influenced almost every military long gun that came after it.
The history of this gun is long and illustrious, and full of surprising stories. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
1. It was in service for more than a century
The “Long Land Pattern Musket,” the official name for the Brown Bess, became the standard gun of the British Empire’s land forces way back in 1722. Over the next 116 years, the original design would be continually altered, modified and improved. The Brown Bess was only superseded in 1838, when it was officially replaced by a percussion cap smoothbore musket.
There were still plenty around, however, with the gun being particularly popular among civilians long after it was officially retired, and there are reports of the Brown Bess seeing service as late as the mid-nineteenth century.
2. Nobody knows how it got its name
There are many, many theories about the gun came by its nickname of “Brown Bess.” By 1785, it is common to see the weapon referred to by this name, but nobody is quite sure why. It was common practice in those days for weapons manufacturers to varnish the entirety of their firearms, including the barrel and other metal parts, and some have said that this brown coloration led to the nickname. The problem is that in 1785, a lot of muskets had this same coloration, so the “Brown” of the “Brown Bess” was hardly unusual.
Others have said that the gun might have been named after a pike of the period that was known as a “Brown Bill.” Or, of course, it could have been a tribute to some unknown tavern maid, or just a creative term of endearment that the soldier often gives to his weapon, even today.
Yet another theory holds that the weapon was named for Elizabeth I, one of the most beloved monarchs in British history.
3. It revolutionized military logistics
When the Brown Bess was introduced, most nations did not specify standards for military weapons. Instead, officers and regiments were charged with procuring their own guns, with the result that even in an otherwise well-organized army there might exist dozens of different types of long arms. This led to great difficulties with ammunition re-supply and maintenance of weapons.
Militaryhistorynow.com visited Canada’s Fort George, and took in this musket drill.
The Brown Bess was one of the first weapons to adopt a new idea – standardization. This meant that the “pattern” of the gun was established by the British military. All arms manufacturers supplying the king’s forces were required to base their weapons on these given specifications. This is the basis of the standardization we see today, where, for instance, you can buy many versions of the AR-15, but know that they are all compatible with the same ammunition.
4. It was one of the first flintlocks
The Brown Bess was a flintlock musket. Unlike matchlocks, which were fired by way of a slow-burning twin fuse igniting the powder when the trigger was pulled, flintlocks featured a piece of shaped (“knapped”) flint that was held in a spring-loaded vice-like mechanism. When the trigger was pulled, the flint this was brought down against a steel striker. This produced a shower of sparks, which ignited the priming powder. Ignition then proceeded through a touchhole in the side of the breech, to set off the main charge.
Though primitive by today’s standards, it is difficult to overstate how much of an improvement this system was over the earlier matchlocks. Flintlocks like the Brown Bess were much more reliable, especially in poor weather conditions, and cheaper to produce. These advantages made the technology the dominant form of ignition in less than a century.
5. It conquered India
The Brown Bess came into service at a critical juncture in the history of the British Empire. It contributed to a wave of expansion in the 18th Century that saw the empire conquer the huge sub-continent of India.
In doing so, the weapons gained an enviable reputation for reliability, so much so that many soldiers refused to give up their Brown Bess even when more advanced firearms were available. On a broader level, this led to the Brown Bess gaining a huge symbolic significance in Britain.
6. It helped Britain win the Napoleonic Wars
Almost half a century later, the Brown Bess was again the hero of the day at the Battle of Waterloo. Though, being a smoothbore musket rather than a rifle, it was quite inaccurate. Yet when many muskets were fired as part of a synchronized volley, the results could be devastating, as Napoleon’s troops learned.
The tactics of the time were for musket troops to fire as many volleys as possible into advancing cavalry. The 10.5-pound Brown Bess could propel a one-ounce lead shot to a maximum effective range of 175 yards. Since the weapon was hopelessly inaccurate at such distances, in practice most engagements took place at the range of 50 yards or less. Still, an experienced shooter could unload three shots a minute.
7. It played a role in America’s independence
The Brown Bess also made significant contributions during the American War of Independence. Its role in this conflict is a little more complicated, of course, because in fact it was employed by both sides. By the start of hostilities in 1775, the musket had been produced in such numbers, and had become so popular, that many civilians possessed one, and these were pressed into service in the name of American freedom.
8. It’s influenced almost every gun made since
Because of its extremely long service life, the Brown Bess became the test bed for many advances in the technology of firearms. It was one of the first guns, for instance, to use percussion caps, which replaced the flintlock mechanism of earlier muskets. It was produced in both short and long forms, and models were made that were specifically suited to sea and land warfare.
Experience with these various types of Brown Bess helped to codify the way in which long guns were designed and made, and by the end of its service life the Brown Bess is recognizable as one of the world’s first modern firearms.
Sam Bocetta is a writer at Gun News Daily where he covers US gun news and reviews the latest firearm products and gear.