Iconic Weapons: Brown Bess

Brown Bess Musket

The “Brown Bess” was the common name for the Land Pattern Musket, as well as other flintlock muskets in the same family. It was the weapon of choice of both the British Army and the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and was also prominently used in other significant conflicts such as the Texas Revolution and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It was the official service weapon of the British Army from 1722-1838.

Brown Bess Musket
The Brown Bess was widely used around the world.

The Long Land Pattern – one of the early standardized patterns – was about 62 inches with a 42-inch barrel. It was made of wood and brass, and the metal was treated with a process to protect it against rusting which tinted it brown. The Brown Bess had a .75 caliber barrel and weighed approximately 10 pounds. Additionally, the weapon could be fitted with a bayonet. The common bayonet used with the Brown Bess was said to be 17 inches in length and arguably the most dangerous part of the weapon.

The Brown Bess incorporated the flintlock ignition system, which was a revolutionary upgrade from the matchlock system. The matchlock system on previous weapons required an external ignition device such as a match to light the powder. The flintlock system ignited the powder with a hammer that would strike a piece of flint and create sparks when the trigger was pulled. This greatly increased the rate of fire and made weapons safer to use. It also allowed for more shooters to stand next to each other, allowing for more heavily concentrated volley fire.

Flintlock Mechanism
Flintlock Mechanism of the Brown Bess

The rationale for the name of the “Brown Bess” is uncertain. The “Brown” term is obvious. The weapon was colored brown. However, there is uncertainty surrounding the origin of the term “Bess.” Some say it was to honor the late Queen Elizabeth who had died decades earlier. Others theorize “Bess” was a slang term for a prostitute and the British soldiers would joke about holding their musket like they would a “Bess.”

There were several standardized patterns designed which were known as the Brown Bess. At first, the weapons were not standardized, and it was difficult to get ammunition and replacement parts which worked universally. There was a need for a standardized pattern which could be mass-produced, easily repaired, and allow for standardized ammunition. This led to the Long Land Pattern, and eventually the Short Land Patter, the India Pattern, the New Land Pattern, and the Sea Service Pattern.

As a smoothbore rifle, the Brown Bess was not known for its accuracy. It was essentially a canon due to the lack of conventional rifling in the barrel. The bullet accelerated without any stabilizing effect and would go off in random directions once leaving the barrel. The Brown Bess did not have any sights on it since aiming at a target was not a significant consideration. The weapon was made to be fired in large volleys which would blanket a target area with bullets, ensuring that something was hit. In fact, it is said that training with the Brown Bess did not focus on aiming at all, but rather on reloading as quickly as possible so as to be prepared for the next volley. The Brown Bess is said to have been joked of as a glorified handle for a bayonet.

Continental Army solders
The Continental Army also used the Brown Bess.

During the American Revolution, the weapon was common among the colonists as male citizens in the Thirteen Colonies were required to keep and maintain a Brown Bess for militia duty. Life in the Colonies was harsh, and colonists were expected to be able to defend settlements in place of the British Army. With the bulk of their forces stationed thousands of miles away overseas, it was impossible for the British Army to provide meaningful defense to the Thirteen Colonies. Inevitably, as a rift between the Colonies and the Empire grew, the weapons which citizens were required to keep and maintain became a flashpoint on April 19, 1775.

At the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British Army attempted to cease a stockpile of weapons from the Colonies. British soldiers marched toward Concord but were intercepted at Lexington by colonial militia. A standoff ensued which led to the infamous “shot heard round the world.” The British soldiers and colonists exchanged volley fire after the unknown shot first rang off. Two opposing walls of Brown Bess muskets were unloaded, causing casualties on both sides. Then, a melee ensued since the weapon took an impractically long amount of time to reload. The surviving British soldiers continued on to Concord where they encountered more armed resistance and suffered further casualties before retreating.

Battle of Lexington
Depiction of the Battle of Lexington

The Brown Bess symbolizes the importance of gun ownership; of knowing how to use a weapon; and of being prepared to use a weapon when the need arises. As every male citizen in the Thirteen Colonies was responsible for maintaining and caring for a Brown Bess since they could be needed to use it to defend themselves and their fellow citizens. They had to learn about the weapon; how to use it; and how to keep it in working order. Then, when duty called upon them to defend themselves and their fellow citizens from threats made by the very entity which was supposed to keep them safe, they were prepared to answer that call.

The Brown Bess reminds me that we never know if or when we will be called upon to defend ourselves, our homes, or our fellow citizens. We also never know who we will be called upon to defend against. Sometimes, circumstances may require us to defend against those who we thought were charged with defending us. Life is full of surprises and is rarely kind. It often seeks to test our resolve and challenge us in ways which force us to adapt, improvise, and overcome great adversity.

Have you ever heard of the Brown Bess? What do you think of when you see the weapon? What kind of images or ideas does it symbolize to you? Feel free to share your thoughts and share this article with others.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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