Britain’s Brown Bess flintlock musket is simply one of the most important military arms ever devised. Beginning its life more than 200 years ago, it created one of the greatest empires the word has ever seen and, among other achievements, helped to win the entire continent of India.
That being said, actually the gun wasn’t just one arm but several, and its name wasn’t really Brown Bess. Officially termed King’s Arm or Land Pattern musket, this .75-caliber smoothbore made its first appearance in the second decade of the 18th century. Origins of the nickname “Brown Bess,” which first shows up in 1785, have been lost to antiquity. It has been put forth by some that the term came from a combination of the gun’s browned iron parts and walnut stock.
The only problem with this theory is that it’s based on a fallacy. All steel parts on a Brown Bess were originally polished bright, and while some early musket stocks had been stained black, the natural brown walnut look was no novelty by the mid-1700s.
Others have conjectured that it was named after a pike of the period that was known as a Brown Bill. It could have even been a tribute to some tavern maid or simply an alliterative term of endearment that the common soldier often gives to a trusty sidearm. In any event, by the Napoleonic Wars it was in common-enough usage to merit an entry in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Brown Bess. A soldier’s firelock. To hug Brown Bess; to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier.”
India-Pattern Brown Bess
|BARREL LENGTH:||39 inches|
|OVERALL LENGTH:||55 inches|
|WEIGHT:||9 3/4 pounds|
|FINISH:||Bright steel, brass furniture|
|BULLET weight:||545 grains|
|Muzzle Velocity (100 grain charge):||1,000 fps|
The first King’s Pattern musket, termed “Long Land Service,” appeared between 1710 and 1720. It featured a 46-inch barrel, iron furniture, wooden ramrod and a French-style flintlock (called “firelock” at the time) with a curved lockplate. As well as other cosmetic alterations, eventually the lock assumed a straighter configuration, the furniture was changed to brass, and the fragile wooden ramrod was replaced with a sturdier iron one.
Around 1768 a Short Land Service Musket (New Pattern) with a handier 42-inch barrel appeared, though the earlier Long Land model continued to be manufactured until 1790.
Both of these guns were elegant, virtually handmade examples of the military armorer’s craft. Fitting, style and finish were top-notch, and the guns’ ruggedness and reliability soon became legend.
With the onset of the Napoleonic Wars in the 1790s, the British Board of Ordnance found itself woefully short of the 250,000 muskets it would need to equip its forces. At that time the British East India Company maintained it own troops and had contracted with makers to produce a simplified version of the Brown Bess musket with a 39-inch barrel and less ornate furniture and stockwork. It was generally felt that the standard of these “India pattern” muskets was not up to the standard of the earlier Besses, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and authorities convinced Company officials to turn over their stores to the Crown.
By 1797 the exigencies of war spelled the demise of the Short Pattern, and all manufacture was turned to building the more Spartan India pattern. For the most part, the gun underwent few changes from its introduction until Waterloo, with the exception of the cock, which was altered from the traditional gooseneck style to a sturdier, reinforced version in 1809. In all, more than 1,600,000 India-pattern Brown Bess muskets were manufactured between 1804 and 1815. As well as British usage, some were also carried by King George’s allies, among them the Russians and Prussians.
As mentioned earlier, the Brown Bess employed a flintlock ignition system, whereby a piece of shaped (“knapped”) flint was held between the jaws of a cock, and when the trigger was pulled it was then brought down by the force of a mainspring to scrape against the surface of a combination striker and pan cover to produce a shower of sparks, which would then ignite the priming powder and set off the main charge through a touchhole in the side of the breech.
While seemingly primitive by modern standards, the flintlock was a head-and-shoulders improvement over the earlier matchlock. First appearing in various forms in the early 1600s, it became the preferred form of ignition in less than a century.
Flintlocks had the advantages of reliability and relatively low cost of production. If the flint was changed regularly and adjusted properly, weather conditions appropriate to the use of the gunpowder of the period and the touchhole kept clear, reliability was excellent.
The Brown Bess, as mentioned earlier, was a smoothbore musket, as were most of the military arms of the period. The reason for this was ease of manufacture and simplicity of loading. Rifles, which were still in their fledgling state for military use in the late 18th century, took far too long to load, required specialized training and were more expensive to manufacture. The British did have some rifle troops, but Napoleon eschewed them completely as being not worth the bother.
Tactics of the period called for a soldier to load and fire at massed troop formations as rapidly as possible, the object of the exercise being to get as many balls flying in the direction of the enemy in as short a time as possible. Though styles of deployment (column vs. line, etc.) might vary from country to country, basically a textbook-style battle would go something like this: A large number of troops, spaced just close enough together to be able to manipulate their muskets, faced each other at a given distance–usually between 100 and 200 yards. They would be placed in several ranks. The order to fire would be given, and this having been carried out, soldiers would reload and advance, firing at increasingly closer ranges until the command to fix bayonets would be given and the contest decided by hand-to-hand fighting.
Both the British and French used triangular socket-style bayonets during the Napoleonic Wars. While the French style had a rotating locking ring to hold the bayonet to the barrel, the standard British 17-inch-bladed pattern employed a simple socket with an angular channel that slipped over a lug on the top of the muzzle. While not as secure as the French version, it could be fixed more rapidly and was still more than adequate to its task. In fact, the British infantryman was particularly feared for his ability with the bayonet.
The East India Company added a simple spring catch to its bayonets, which kept them from slipping around on the barrel, but this was never adopted by Crown troops. Over the years, I’ve tried to attach a number of different original bayonets to vintage Brown Bess muskets, with varying results. It seems that, depending upon the maker, period and style of the gun, barrel and socket diameters could vary greatly, and a blade that might be perfect on one musket might not work on another. Basically, it behooved a soldier to make sure he kept his equipment together and intact.
The Brown Bess musket was loaded using a paper cartridge that included about 100 grains of coarse black powder (called, simply, “gunpowder” at the time) and a one-ounce, .71-caliber round lead ball. Caliber of the gun was .75, and the difference in ball and bore diameter, called “windage,” allowed for ease of loading, especially when the musket became fouled.
Various manuals had a different number of commands for loading and firing a musket, but the average involved about a dozen separate steps (see photo sequence).
Infantrymen did not aim their muskets but more or less pointed them in the direction of the enemy. The Brown Bess did not have sights, and the effect of the bullet caroming down the barrel would pretty have much rendered them useless anyway. Green troops had a tendency to point their guns high and would often shoot over their adversaries’ heads at long ranges, so they were constantly being admonished by their sergeants to fire low. Even if they hit the ground in front of the enemy, there was a possibility of skipping a ball into the ranks, causing some damage.
Accuracy of the smoothbore musket was acknowledged, even at the period, to be somewhat lacking. In the 1814 To All Sportsmen, Colonel George Hanger wrote, “A soldier’s musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike a figure of a man at 80 yards; it may even at a hundred; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, providing his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting him. I do maintain and will proveâ€¦that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common musket, by the person who aimed at him.”
ACCURACY TEST, 150 YEARS LATER
I’ve shot Brown Besses informally over the years, but this time I thought I’d try a little accuracy testing. Taking Colonel Hanger’s comments into account, I set up 2×4-foot target boards with central bullseyes at distances of 100, 50 and 25 yards. Firing was done offhand using a period-style British military-issue cartridge box and properly constructed paper cartridges, each containing 100 grains of FFg black powder and a .715 ball. A new flint, secured by a piece of leather (sheet lead was the more common material used in the early 1800s) was clamped into the jaws of the cock.
Our evaluation Brown Bess was an original India pattern from my own collection, which was in virtually unfired shape, having spent the better part of the last 150 years or so as a decoration in a Scottish manor house. It is unlikely the piece saw much, if any, use, and whatever limited service it might have had was probably in the hands of some Gaelic militia unit. It featured a reinforced cock, placing the date of manufacture at post-1809, its condition indicating that there is a good chance that it was produced so late that it never made it to the Continent. The gun was professionally checked out for serviceability–a practice that is imperative if one is going to shoot old, original firearms.
Following original loading techniques, five shots each were fired at the targets, beginning with the furthermost first. One can use the bayonet lug as a sort of crude front sight, and I tried to line it up
with the top of the breech in order to get something of a center hold on the boards. The gun functioned flawlessly, and once you get used to the flash and smoke of the powder in the pan going off just in front of your face and the slight lag between the whoosh of the priming and the boom of the main charge, it’s really easy to manage.
As the gun weighs in at some 93?4 pounds and is well designed with a high comb stock and wide buttplate, it’s actually quite pleasant to shoot. During the day’s adventure, including the range testing and later potting at various targets of opportunity at distances up to 200 yards (hopeless, as noted by Colonel Hanger), I probably put around 40 rounds through the musket without cleaning it, and while ramming a paper-wrapped ball became a bit more difficult toward the end, it was still manageable.
An inspection of the targets produced some surprises. At 100 yards only three balls struck the board at the bottom, with a spread of 11 1/2 inches–a grouping that was caused more by chance than any other factor. At 50 yards we had a 100 percent hit rate with a grouping of 20 inches, and at 25 a deadly eight-inch spread of all five balls. Basically, up to 50 yards, if someone were firing at you with a Brown Bess it looks like you were pretty much toast.
A few years ago I worked on the “Boston Massacre” segment of the Unsolved History television show. We fired a Brown Bess musket at a side of beef from a distance of about 20 feet and photographed it with some sophisticated high-speed equipment. The destruction caused by the ball was jaw-dropping. At that range the bullet ripped right though flesh, gristle and bone, tearing out huge chunks of meat, barely changing direction along the way.
It can only be imagined what damage it could do to a human target, especially when one considers that it would be taking bits and pieces of uniform and equipment along with it into the wound. If a soldier was not killed outright by the trauma, there was a good chance that he would die of infection later on, even if not hit in a vital area.
Given the mayhem caused by this heavy lead ball, coupled with the primitive, haphazard battlefield medical attention of the period, it’s amazing that the survival rate was as high as it was. British surgeon Dr. Adam Neale summed it up well: “[A] simple inspection of their wounds with a few words of consolation or perhaps a little opium, was all that could be recommended; prudence equally forbids the rash interposition of unavailing art, and the useless indulgence of delusive hope.”
After 1815 the British introduced the more sophisticated New Land-pattern smoothbore with a 42-inch barrel. Issued solely to Guards regiments, the New Land, along with the India pattern, still in the hands of most infantry units, was retired in the late 1830s, when the percussion system was introduced into in British service. Many older Besses were relegated to reserve or colonial use, and some were sold surplus to countries like Mexico, which used them against gringos during the Texas War for Independence and in the Mexican War.
Firing an original or replica Brown Bess musket is both an instructional and enjoyable pastime. Perhaps the simple fact that you really don’t expect to get great accuracy out of the thing allows the shooter to relax and become involved more in the techniques and nostalgia of the exercise rather than trying to get minute-of-angle groups. I’ve seen some enthusiasts fire their smoothbores with patched ball, and once one eliminates the windage and effects a tight bullet-to-bore situation, it really is amazing just how well the old warhorses can do. I’d say accuracy increases by at least 25 percent.
Being a purist, though, I’ll stick to the old paper-cartridge method. If it was good enough for Wellington’s troops, I suppose it’s good enough for me. It certainly made the Froggies run.