Brown Bess – Musket of the American Revolution

Brown Bess

The preferred choice of musket, (also labeled as flintlock, firelock, or smoothbore) in the British Army and subsequently in the American Army during the American Revolution was the Brown Bess. “Rugged, simple, sturdy, and terrible at close quarters”, when fired (if it fired), this smooth bore (grove bored were ‘rifled muskets’, later simply called rifles), hurtled a round ball weighing about fourteen to the pound. For all the legends and discussion on the musket’s firing power, it was basically a handle for a bayonet – its’ most destructive and fearful advantage on the battlefield

The ‘Bessy’ flintlock first made its appearance at about 1690. It dominated military use throughout Europe and America until the introduction of the percussion lock in the mid to late 1830’s. This article will examine the source of its name, the two main types used during the Revolution, origin and manufacturing facilities, use and accuracy, and the mechanics of how it works.

Name

The first question that arises in any discussion on the Brown Bess is how the musket or flintlock got its name. Bess is a flintlock (more on that later) and took the place of the matchlock that was first introduced from the time of Edward the IV, approximately 1471.

Bess with fixed bayonet

Some logically believe the answer for ‘Brown’ has to do with the flintlock’s brown-colored barrel as separate from the former matchlock barrels that had been a bright metal. They attribute this to the stock’s black walnut and a process of metal treatment against rusting known as ‘russeting’: a combination of nitric acid, sweet spirit nitre, blue vitriol (copper sulfate), tincture of steel (iron chloride), potash, and water when applied browned the metal. This is not to be confused with ‘browning’ that is a 19th century process of varnishing.

One theory attributed the name Bess in reference to Queen Elizabeth. But since Elizabeth died in 1603, over eighty years before the Bess flintlock, this explanation is highly unlikely. However, some stress that the usage of Bess was in honor of the previous queen.

A plausible reason for Brown Bess comes from the German ‘brawn buss’ or ‘braun buss’, meaning strong or brown gun. Brown Bess could be a corruption of this.

However, taking all this into consideration, one may only have to understand who the soldiers were who carried this weapon. The name ‘Brown Bess’, during the 1700’s, was a low vernacular for a prostitute. Since rank and file was mainly from the lower classes of England, they spoke of their muskets as ‘hugging a Brown Bess.’ According to the 1785, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the definition of Brown Bess means to ‘hug a Brown Bess,’ or carry a firelock.

Two types used during the Revolution

Continental Soldiers firing Brown Bess.

In the early 1700’s, most flintlocks were individually procured by officers and regiments as there was no set standard of design or caliber. This led to difficulties with ammunition and replacement parts. To address this problem, armies began to adopt standard patterns.

The earlier standard of flintlock was the Long Land Pattern musket. It was in use from 1722 to 1793 with minor versions in the designs for 1742, 1756, and 1763. The 1742 version was the first of British muskets to adopt brass hardware. The barrel was 46 inches with an overall length of 62.5 inches. The weight was 10.4 pounds. It had a barrel bore of .75 caliber. The typical round or shot in use was around .69 caliber. The Bess was fitted with a 17 inch triangular cross-section bayonet. It did not have sights, for the musket’s concept was not to aim prior to firing, but rely on volleying.

The 1742 Long Land Pattern was found throughout the British infantry right up to and including the American Revolution. It was this weapon that was widely used during the French and Indian War. A 1756 version was also shipped over to the Americas. Many of these rifles were stored in British armories in the colonies. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, these armories were raided supplying the American forces with much needed weapons until French muskets began to appear. It was the 1763 Long Land Pattern Brown Bess that was mainly used by Washington’s Army.

African American in Rhode Island First carrying a Bess.

The Short Land Pattern Brown Bess was developed shortly after the Long Land Pattern, from 1740 – 1797, and was in use during the Revolutionary War. This slightly shorter version of Bess was the preferred weapon of much of the British Army. They discovered that by shortening the barrel, it did not affect the weapon’s accuracy and made it easier to handle. The barrel was 42 inches (four smaller than the Long Land Pattern) with an overall length of 58.5 inches. The weight was slightly heavier than the Long Land, 10.5 pounds. The caliber of barrel and shot remained the same, .75 and .69 respectively.

Origin and manufacturing facilities

Famed Black Watch with Brown Bess

The principals of what is considered the true flintlock, found in the earlier snaphaunce and the Spanish miquelet, was developed in France about 1610. German sources credit the French in developing the ‘batterie’, known in England and America as the ‘frizzen.’ As previously mentioned, there was no standard design early on. By 1717, the French established arms factories at Charleville, Maubege, and St. Etinenne. These ‘Bess’ flintlocks had minor variations right up until 1842 with the introduction of the percussion lock. British manufacturers included the Tower Armories, H. W. Mortimer Company, and the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, however the last did not begin production until 1818.

In early America, European governments and wealthy merchants supplied the settlers with cheap and obsolete matchlocks. The records of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1628 listed the importation of snaphaunce arms (matchlocks). Short-barreled, large bore arms were popular in Europe in the early 1700’s, flintlocks in which the bullet was started with a mallet and which then had to be driven down on top of the powder charge by ramrod. American arms were developed by small manufacturers who emigrated from Europe, especially Germans who brought their natural interest in weapons as target and hunting arms. Because the weapon was not used in the military, but for hunting, it demanded better accuracy. They adopted the flintlock that suited the rough wilderness of American woods

Among the first recorded of these emigrates were German bothers Heinrtich and Peter Leman who by 1732, were making rifled weapons. The need for a lighter and quicker loading arm for the pioneers who were leaving the coastal towns and pushing into the wilderness brought an evolution in the European design. The barrel was lengthened; giving more complete combustion with a lighter ball, a longer sight radius, and better balance. The stock of maple or walnut was extended along the full length of the barrel to protect it from wilderness hardships. The ramrod was fitted and there was no bayonet. The bored design included a blade or bead front and fine notch rear sights which greatly increased its accuracy over a longer distance. The average velocity of a smooth-bore musket ball leaving the muzzle was approximately 1,000 fps (feet per second). Whereas the round shot in these bored muskets were lighter and reached velocities up to 1,600 fps. This meant that the trajectory did not drop in distance as much as the smooth-bore giving it greater accuracy. It was this weapon, fired by many in Colonel Stark’s New Hampshire regiment, that helped create such havoc in decimating British ranks before the rail fence and on the beach at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

40th Foot Grenadier with a Bess.

The earliest arms factories in America were those authorized by colonial Committees of Safety which were the first formal American governments not recognized by the British authorities. They began issuing money to manufacture weapons for colonial militia units. Two hundred gunsmiths were employed throughout Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

The first official military musket in use by the American forces during the Revolution was the Charleville flintlock, the official weapon of the French Army. The Marquis de Lafayette arranged for the shipment of large stocks of these weapons to America. The 1763 model was used as a basic model for the manufacture of these smooth-bore muskets in America. The Springfield Armory was officially established by the US government in 1795, and an improved pattern was put into producing in 1797 that remained, for many years, the standard.

Use and accuracy

Attacking British grenadier with Brown Bess muskets at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The musket was most effective when fired in a massed volley against a tightly lined opponent. The sheer volume of metal unleashed would no doubt result in some of the shot hitting a target. The Bess had no sights. Soldiers were seldom trained to aim, but to load quickly to respond in time to the next order to fire in volley. They were instructed to aim for the horizon since the shot would begin to drop as soon as it left the muzzle. However, size of charge and weight of metal varied as did the yardage of their target and therefore much of the time British infantry’s shot went high. During the Revolution, Americans would commonly claim that British soldiers always fired too high. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, few Americans were casualties during the first two initial British assaults. The rail fence that ran to the beach behind which many of the defenders were positioned was hardly touched by shot. However, the upper branches of the trees just behind the line were riddled with lead. Most of the Americans fell after the British swarmed over the redoubt and routed them.

The best period source for describing the smoothbore flintlock’s accuracy and most popular passage was written by Colonel George Hanger in a letter to Lord Castlerragh, first published in London in 1808. He was a colorful character; a soldier, Irish Peer (the Baron of Colraine), ambitious, a womanizer, flamboyant in dress, and renowned for his total lack of modesty. He was also an outspoken authority on everything military. During the American Revolution, when a junior officer purchased a commission above his, he resigned his British commission and enlisted with the German Jaeger. Later he returned to the British army and served as one of the henchmen under Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, renowned for his brutality against both soldier and civilian. His quote on the accuracy of the Brown Bess has been mistaken by many as a comment on the effective range of the musket. Instead he was referring to the effectiveness when the musket was aimed. He wrote, “A soldier’s musket is not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards, perhaps even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him; and as for firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you might just as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting your object. I do maintain and will prove, whenever called on, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier’s musket by the person who aimed at him.” History does not record anyone taking Hanger at his word to offer this boasted proof.

As mentioned, a lead shot will begin to drop as soon as it leaves the bore. Many modern tests have been conducted to determine the effective range and effect such a shot would have. Problem arises in the amount and quality of black powder used at the time (interesting the term black powder did not exist in the 18th century), the weight of ball, and individual manufacture of weapons. The basic rule of point blank, then as now remains pretty much the same, ‘the distance between a firearm and a target of a given size such that the bullet in flight is expected to strike the target without adjusting the elevation of the firearm.

Modern tests show a musket ball fired at a muzzle velocity of 1,000 fps, at 300 yards, will drop 20 feet. The smaller the target fired at with a given charge, the closer the point blank range. The point blank range of a musket ball fired at 1,000 fps to hit a six foot man anywhere from his head to his feet is less than 150 yards. This assumes the musket is fired on level ground and 5 feet above the ground.

Cartridges of shot and powder pre-wrapped and stored in hip-type cartridge boxes were in common use by the American Revolution. An average of thirty to forty cartridges was made from a pound of powder at 175 – 230 grains per cartridge.

In the early 1800’s, the British government conducted tests on the effectiveness of the Brown Bess. The Reverend Alexander John Forsyth (1768-1843) of Scotland, in 1807, patented fulminating powder made of fulminate of mercury, chlorate of potash, sulphur and charcoal which was ignited by concussion: the birth of the percussion cap. At Forsyth’s request, a series of flintlock vs. percussion cap tests were conducted in 1834. Six thousand rounds were fired under all kinds of weather from six of each type of musket. Results for the flintlock; 922 misfires (1 in 6.5 attempts), and for the percussion cap; 36 misfires (1 in 166 attempts). The flintlock hit its target (unfortunately the size and range of the target was not recorded or lost to history) 3,680 times and the percussion cap 4,047.

Another test of the Brown Bess’s effectiveness was made in 1841 by the Royal Engineers. Depending on the elevation of the weapon, they found that the musket ball might carry anywhere from 100 to 700 yards. Interesting, they found the carrying distance of two muskets at the same elevation might vary as much as 300 yards. At 150 yards, they could “by very careful shooting” hit a target “twice as high and twice as broad as a man,” three times out of four shots. Beyond that distance, the target could not be hit. “The mark was then made twice as wide as before, but of 10 shots at 250 yards, not one struck.” Hopefully the individual shooting did not have his eyes closed.

Mechanics – How flintlock muskets works

A firearm needs a mechanism that, at the touch of a trigger, ignites gun powder that forces a projectile out a long narrow tube. By keeping the explosive powder contained in a small enclosure, the force exerted ejects the shot or bullet out of the barrel at incredible speeds that hurl it several hundred yards.

Lock is the mechanism to light the powder. Prior to the flintlock, there was the matchlock which was basically a slow burning rope. Once lit, the rope was moved and ignited the powder, difficult if not impossible to keep lit in the rain. Gunsmiths sought different systems that would be somewhat more reliable in any kind of weather. The solution was to use a spark to light the powder. What better way of achieving this spark than employing a stone that had been used to light fires for thousands of years – the flint. Therefore its name, flintlock.

Simply put, the necessary components of the flintlock (or firelock) are a piece of flint, steel upon which the flint strikes and sparks, and a place for the spark to ‘touch’ the gunpowder. This flash of powder in the pan ignites the gun powder in the barrel (and or cartridge) through a small bore in the side of the barrel or ‘touchhole’. The flint has to move at a high speed and strike the steel so that the spark ‘falls’ into the powder. Four components achieve this: 1. Hammer – holds the flint and strikes it against the steel. 2. Mainspring – powers the hammer. 3. Frizzen – the small steel plate that the flint strikes. 4. Pan – Where the gun powder is placed for ignition.

However, the pan needed to be loaded and protected until ignited and the hammer needed to be triggered. This was accomplished with the addition of three additional parts. 1. The tumbler – holds and releases the mainspring which powers the hammer to strike. 2. The sear and sear spring – which engages the tumbler and releases it when the trigger is pulled. 3. The frizzen spring – which holds a cover over the pan to keep the powder dry; the cover being attached to the frizzen. The sear engages the tumbler when the gun is cocked and holds the force of the mainspring. When the trigger is pulled, it pushes the sear just enough to release the tumbler and allows the hammer to drive the flint forward, striking the frizzen and sending the spark into the pan igniting the powder.

A flintlock positions the hammer three ways: uncocked, half-cocked, and fully cocked. When the firelock is fully cocked, the gun is ready to fire. Pull the trigger and it moves the sear, releasing the tumbler that forces the hammer to strike. When the gun is half-cocked, it may be loaded because the trigger is locked and cannot release the tumbler. After the gun is fired, it is in the uncocked position.

The frizzen is designed to move and can snap over the pan, protecting the gun powder from the elements. In the cocked position, the frizzen is down, covering the pan. When the flint strikes the frizzen, it shaves iron to create sparks. The hammer blow also snaps the frizzen back out of the way, exposing the pan that is ignited by the spark. It flashes through a small hole in the side of the barrel to ignite the powder in the barrel thereby firing the gun.

Basic steps to fire: 1. The gun is half cocked to assure it will not fire. 2. A predetermined amount of gunpowder is poured down the muzzle of the barrel. 3. A lead ball is wrapped with a cloth remnant and pushed down the muzzle. A cartridge of powder and ball may be used instead. 4. A ramrod presses the shot down the barrel and sets the ball or charge. 5. A small amount of gun powder is sprinkled in the pan. 6. Snap the frizzen over the pan 7. Fully cock the hammer. 8. Trigger pulled and the pan flashes and fires the gun.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES

Angier, R. H. Firearm Blueing and Browning. 1936: Arms & Armour Press, London, UK.

Bixby, Lawrence B.   Flint Chipping. American Antiquity, Vol. 10, No. 4, (April 1945) pp 353-361.

Darling, Anthony D. Redcoat and Brown Bess. 1978: Museum Restoration Service, Historical Arms Series No. 12. Ottawa, Canada.

Ducke  s, Peter. British Military Rifles. 2005: Shire Publications Ltd., Buckinghamshire, UK.

Grose, Francis. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 1788: S. Hooper, London, UK.

Gruber, Ira D. Of Arms & Men, “Arming America” and Military History. William & Mary Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1, (Jan. 2002) pp 217-222.

How Flintlock Guns Work. http://science.howstuffworks.com/flintlock2.htm

Journal of the American Revolution, Inaccuracy of Muskets. allthingsliberty.com

Lochee, Lewis. Elements of Field Fortification. 1783: T. Cadell in the Strand & T. Egerton, Charing Cross, London, UK.

Smith, W. H. B., Joseph E. Smith. The Book of Rifles. 1948: The Stackpole Company, Harrisburg, PA.

Comments 1

  • The “Brown Bess” was much more accurate than historians give it credit for. The British Regulars trained to fire quick volleys, advance, repeat and then utilize their bayonets when ordered to do so. The American Colonial Militia, at the beginning of the struggle for Independence were armed with both privately owned “fowling” pieces and other sporting arms. Many of them also had “Committee of Safety” muskets, copied from the Brown Bess and even actual captured Brown Besses, if they could get ahold of them. The Americans, in the months before April of 1775 trained to fire at individual “marks”, what we would today call target practice. A well trained militia man who was familiar with his “piece” could consistently hit targets at up to 70 yards away. At Bunker Hill (Breeds Hill, in reality), the American Officers left their men to fire as they pleased, fully trusting in their ability to take aim and hit their targets. Later in the conflict, a Prussian soldier (you may have heard of him), showed up at Valley Forge and showed the Continental Army how to beat the British at their own game, but the American soldier’s reputation for marksmanship endured.

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