The Brown Bess: The Standard of Weaponry in the Napoleonic Wars

As I said yesterday, my research for my Work in Progress (Book 6 of the Realm Series, A Touch of Love) has led me to explore weaponry during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Below, one find information on the British standard, the Brown Bess.

800px-Brown_Bess Brown Bess is a nickname of uncertain origin for the British Army’s muzzle-loading smoothbore 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flintlock muskets, were the standard long guns of the British Empire’s land forces from 1722 until 1838 when they were superseded by a percussion cap smoothbore musket. The British Ordnance System converted many flintlocks into the new percussion system 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 used by Maori warriors during the Musket Wars 1820s-1830s, having purchased them from European traders at the time, some were still in service during the Indian rebellion of 1857, and also by Zulu warriors, who had purchased them from European traders during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, and some were sold to the Mexican Army who 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 in the American Revolutionary War.

Origins of the Name
One hypothesis is that the “Brown Bess” was named after Elizabeth I of England, but this lacks support. It is not believed this name was used contemporaneously with the early Long Pattern Land musket, but that the name arose in late years of the 18th 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 passage indicates widespread use of the term by that time. The 1785 Dictionary of the 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.

Soldiers of the Black Watch armed with a musket (Brown Bess) and a halberd, c. 1790.

Soldiers of the Black Watch armed with a musket (Brown Bess) and a halberd, c. 1790.

Popular explanations of the use of the word “Brown” include that it was a reference to either the colour of the walnut stocks, or to the characteristic brown colour 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 (OED) 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, possibly given to commemorate her death. More plausible is that the term Brown Bess 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 OED has citations for “brown musket” dating back to the early 18th century, which refer to the same weapon. Another suggestion is that the name is simply the counterpart to the earlier Brown Bill.

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.
—Rudyard Kipling, “Brown Bess,” 1911

The Land Pattern Muskets
From the 17th to the early years of the 18th century, most nations did not specify standards for military firearms. 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 standardisation led to increasing difficulties in the supply of ammunition and repair materials. To address these difficulties, armies began to adopt standardised “patterns.” A military service selected a “pattern musket” to be stored in a “pattern room”, There it served as a reference for arms makers, who could make comparisons and take measurements to ensure that their products matched the standard.

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 (4.5 kg) and it could be fitted with a 17 inches (430 mm) triangular cross-section bayonet. The weapon did not have sights, though it could be aimed using the bayonet lug as a crude sight.

The earliest models had iron fittings but these were replaced by brass in models built 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 American Revolution. Wooden ramrods were also used in the Dragoon version produced from 1744 to 1771 and for Navy and Marine use.
Accuracy of the Brown Bess was fair, as with most other muskets. The effective range is often quoted as 175 yards (160 m), but the Brown Bess was often fired en masse at 50 yards (46 m) to inflict the greatest damage upon the enemy. 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 it hit and the great length of the weapon allowed longer reach in bayonet engagements.

As with all similar smooth bore muskets, it was possible to improve the accuracy of the weapon by using musket balls that fit more tightly into the barrel. The black powder used at the time would quickly foul the barrel, making it more and more difficult to reload a tighter-fitting round after each shot and increasing the risk of the round jamming in the barrel during loading. Since tactics at the time favored close range battles and speed over accuracy, smaller and more loosely fitting musket balls were much more commonly used. The Brown Bess had a barrel bore of .75 caliber, and the typical round used was around .69 caliber. Modern re-enactors and musket enthusiasts often use .715 or even .735 caliber balls for increased accuracy. Modern powders which reduce fouling and cleaning patches run down the barrel between shots are used to avoid problems caused by barrel fouling.
While the looser-fitting musket ball reduced the effective range of a single musketeer firing at a single man-sized target to around 50 yards (46 m) to 75 yards (69 m), the Brown Bess was rarely used in single combat. Since individual soldiers are not aimed at in mass volleys, the effective range of the Brown Bess when fired en masse was easily 100 yards (91 m) or more. The black powder used at the time created a lot of smoke which quickly obscured the battlefield, making battles at these longer ranges impractical due to limited visibility.

Field Tests
Field tests of smoothbore muskets in the late 18th and early 19th centuries reported widely reliable expectations of accuracy and speed of fire. The rate of fire ranged from one shot every fifteen to twenty seconds (3-4 shots per minute) with highly trained troops, to two shots per minute (one shot every 30 seconds) for inexperienced recruits.

The standard military loading procedure from prepared paper cartridges containing ball and gunpowder in an elongated envelope is:
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 envelope onto the powder charge.

Standard European targets included strips of cloth 50 yards long 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 175 yards could be as high as 75% in volley fire. This however was without allowances for the gaps between the soldiers in an opposing line, for overly tall targets or the confusing and distracting realities of the battlefield. Modern testers shooting from rigid rests, using optimum loads and fast priming powder, report groups of circa five inches at 50 yards (Cumpston 2008).

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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