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.
'Brown Bess', Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
'Brown Bess musket' is the name that contemporary historians/reenacters use to refer to the type of musket that was used in the British (and therefore American revolutionary) forces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now it seems a bit weird of me to be noding something which is actually a slight misconception. The Brown Bess musket never actually existed in any official way. But it is easier to see the varying patterns (styles) of musket being broadly encorporated into this title.
So why the name then? Well there are many possible suggestions. It appears as if the name is more a colloquial term used to refer to the various patterns of musket by people in general. Rudyard Kipling refers to the Brown Bess and there are many instances of soldiers being tied to "Brown Bess". The name could possibly of been a derivation of the Dutch word 'buss' meaning 'barrel' or the German 'Büchse' meaning 'gun' (the 'Brown' because the gun is brown...). It has even been suggested that the name occured through a pop name. For example, from a shortening of [Queen] Elizabeth (though she had died a good while before so probably not this one) or from the name of a popular highway man's horse, 'Black Bess'.
Or maybe people just thought that the name flowed well and was "cool".
Initially the Brown Bess pattern that was adopted by the British army was a relatively long firearm called the Long Land pattern (1722) being approximately 62 inches long. This was only 5 inches shorter than the minmum height requirement of an infantryman. This was soon shortened to the Marine/Militia pattern (1756) and Short Land pattern (1768) at 42 inches long. This shortening was introduced because a.) after the French and Indian war the British military wanted to reduce the weight the soldiers had to carry and b.) it was realised that the muskets were just as inaccurate when you lopped off a good portion of the barrel.
The most popular (and commonly used pattern) was the East India pattern musket. This style was approximately 39 inches long and was built for the East India Company (hence the name). It was cheaper making it easier to mass produce and became the predominant musket pattern from 1790. They remained in service until the mid nineteenth century when the percussion cap and rifles started to replace it (Wellesley was particularly fond of rifles).
Use of the Brown Bess Musket
The flintlock musket replaced the pike as the main weapon of the infantry in 1705 because, when it had a socket bayonet affixed to the muzzle, it could be used like a pike to ward off cavalry and defeat other infantry units. The advancement from the old, matchlock firing mechanism to the flintlock was a revolutionary adaptation for the musket. Infantry no longer needed a glowing match to light the priming in the flash pan; instead the spark from flint and frizzen ignited the gunpowder. This allowed the weapon to be fired more reliably in worse weather conditions as well as making it quicker and safer to fire. The Brown Bess also had a shorter barrel allowing the musket to be wielded with the same efficiency as a pike. By affixing a bayonet, the musket can be used to thrust at the enemy and, with the butt of the weapon on the ground with a boot holding it in place, could still be used in a similar fashion as a pike to hold off cavalry.
The Brown Bess was a smooth bore musket meaning that the bore of the barrel was a totally flat cylinder with no riflings down the inside. This restricted the maximum firing range to between 50-65 yards but it allowed relatively fast loading. The design of the weapon designated the fighting style. Generals usually arranged their men in a fashion which allowed the highest number of weapons to bear on the target as possible, therefore increasing the probability of hitting people. There were many different styles to using infantry and they didn't all rely on this method. The French in the Napoleonic Wars used a column to attack with; relying more on greater numbers, physical impact of the colomn and psychological effects. The sight of a great colomn of men, shouting 'Vive l'emperor!' to the rallying roll of drummer boys was something to fear and only disciplined troops could stand it. The British adopted the method of arraying their soldiers in a line, usually only two to three men deep, to release a constant flow of fire on the enemy. Often only a few volleys were fired before a charge was ordered to break the enemy.
The musket was a muzzle loaded weapon and the soldiers were issued with cartridges which contained ball and gunpowder. They were made from paper with pig fat rubbed into it to attempt to keep it damp proof. It also aided the ramming of the wadding down the barrel. It was this pig fat which made Muslim soldiers complain about having to bite the bullet. Another important note about the cartridges were that they could be replaced using French cartridges. Though British powder was superior (their control over India afforded them great saltpetre which was superior and in larger quantities than the French) the French musket balls were smaller and so, at a pinch, could be used in British muskets if the need arose.
The musket had problems which were not easily overcome. The weather played a detrimental effect on the weapon. Though the use of a frizzen covering the flashing pan stopped the primer from blowing away, it still interfered with the spark. Rain was the worst enemy to the musket. If the powder got damp it woud not ignite and would need to be scooped out. Rain also made the frizzen sliperier and therefore more difficult to get a spark.
Another frequent problem with the musket was after prolonged use, the inside of the barrel would get caked in the remnants of the powder. This would build up, slowly making the gun more difficult to use, until finally it would block the weapon. To rid the blockage either the regulartory drill of cleaning the weapon with the relevant supplied tools had to occur or, as was often used in battle, the soldier stepped back from the line and relieved himself into the muzzle of the musket. The warm urine would remove the worst build ups of powder leaving both the weapon clean and the soldier relieved. The latter was a much quicker procedure.
There was then another problem in relation to the socket bayonet. When the bayonet was fitted on the end of the muzzle, loading was impaired. Soldiers had to graze their knuckles down the blade while they rammed the charge home.
On a related note, the powder that was used in the muskets used saltpetre which dried out the mouth excessively. Coupled with the work of using a weapon, sweating from heat/anxiety/exersion and any blood loss would lead to seriously dehydrated soldiers. It became a very vital job to have boys supplying water to the fighting battalions so that the soldiers didn't collapse on the field.
Because of the tactics enforced by the musket's design strict drills were created to allow the army to use the weapon efficiently. The smooth bore allowed a trained man to reload his weapon up to four times a minute. This depended on the method used. If the army's regulation operating manual was followed to the letter it was more realistic for only two shots to be fired every minute. However, on the field of battle shortcuts were used more often.
The strict training and drill led to an army which could face down French columns, cannon fire and the ubiquitous smoke that was created from the musket. The fact that the powder made it almost impossible for you to see far in front of you and the other distorted sights and sounds of the battle field were quite terrifying. If the soldiers were trained to a high enough degree then they could continue to carry out their drill without needing to think too consciously of it.
Loading and Firing the Brown Bess Musket
To load the musket from a non-firing state to a firing state the following steps need to be taken. This assumes the use of the standard cartridge
that was supplied to soldiers in the Napoleonic War
- Bite the cartridge with the bullet in your mouth.
- Push the frizzen forward to reveal the pan and pour a small amount of gunpowder into the flash pan.
- Snap the frizzen back to position covering the flash pan.
- Hold the musket vertically so that the muzzle is near the face.
- Pour the remaining powder down the barrel.
- Spit the bullet down the barrel.
- Push the catridge paper into the barrel (used as wadding)
- Remove ramrod from hoops under the barrel and use to push wadding and bullet down the barrel.
- Replace the ramrod in the hoops under the barrel. A very important step which is not always followed in the heat of battle!
- Hold musket in firing position with the butt against the sholder.
- Pull back the hammer.
- Aim and pull the trigger.
Now as has already been mentioned, there are differing ways to load the weapon though they all follow a similar procedure. The main areas where there are differences are:
The filling of the flash pan was sometimes carried out with a powder horn (usually filled with powder of a better quality than in the catridges). However this occured most often with fowling pieces and rifles since muskets were inaccurate at the best of times and the use of decent powder was not going to help this much.
If one was in a hurry, or just didn't care, then wadding was often discarded. This meant that the musket ball could just roll out the barrel if it wasn't held at the correct angle. It also reduced the strength of the shot as the flash of the powder was not initially contained (pressure couldn't build up behind the bullet).
In the heat of battle when individual firing is taking place it was relatively common for the ramrod not to be used. Instead the butt of the musket was tapped against the ground to get the bullet sitting on the powder properly-ish and the wadding relatively over the bullet. This aided speed greatly but also reduced the punch of the bullet. This was good in some respects since it stopped the kick of the musket being too harsh on the shoulder (which after a prolonged time would be very painful). However, it also reduced the stopping power and range of the weapon.
This is the step which was most commonly not followed. Often a soldier would forget to remove the ramrod from the barrel after loading and priming the gun. Whether induced through fear or just stupidity it left the soldier without a ramrod and possibly a damaged gun.
The Sharpe series of books, Bernard Cornwell.
Sharpe's Companion, Mark Adkin.
BBC History Trail - War & Conflict - From Musket to Breech Loader - Professor Richard Holmes, March 2002.
The Concord Magazine, "Brown Bess" - Musket Misconception, D. Michael Ryan, Historian with the Concord and Lincoln Minute Men,