Loading and Firing a Brown Bess Musket in the Eighteenth Century

Brown Bess
Brown Bess (Photo credit: TJJohn12)

The main weapon of choice during the American Revolutionary War was the Long Land Pattern Musket, or smoothbore muzzleloader, used by both the British army and patriotic rebels. This design was developed in the early 1720’s in England and was used by many nations’ infantries throughout the rest of the century until the 1830s. It was nicknamed Brown Bess. The earliest mention of Brown Bess in America was in a Hartford newspaper, the Connecticut Courant in April of 1771. It is believed that the name was  derived from the brown color of the barrel which occurred from russeting, an 18th century treatment of metal. It may also be attributed to the rich color of the dark walnut stock. Some argue that Bess came from a reference to Elizabeth I, though it is more plausible that it was an extraction from the German words “brawn buss” or “braun buss”, meaning strong or brown gun.

The Bess was three feet, eight inches long in the barrel and weighed approximately fourteen pounds. The interior of the barrel was .75 calibers and used a lead ball of .69 calibers. Black powder was the explosive material used which commonly fouled the musket after repeated firing.

Muskets are smoothbore weapons, meaning that the inside of the barrel is smooth, not grooved like a rifle barrel. The musket was notoriously inaccurate – rarely hitting a soldier beyond one hundred yards. It was a flintlock weapon, meaning that a sharpened flint attached to a spring or clocked hammer is pushed into a locking position prior to firing. It was also commonly referred to as a firelock. Major George Hanger, an authority at the time, declared that when ‘firing at a man beyond a hundred and fifty yards one might as well fire at the moon.’ Troops were taught to look along the barrel with the right eye from breech pin to the muzzle. The British soldier was not expected to aim at anything in particular nor use the front sight, as there was no rear sight.

Brown Bess Musket, the British Infantryman's B...
Brown Bess Musket. British Infantryman’s Basic Arms from About 1740 – 1830s

When a soldier pulled the trigger, the hammer sprang forward. The sharpened flint struck a vertical L shaped steel lip (or frizzen), which covered the pan where a small amount of black powder was sprinkled. The blow forced the frizzen back, exposing the black powder to a spark caused when the flint struck the steel lip. The spark ignited the powder in the pan (also called a flash pan) and part of the explosion passed through a tiny hole above the pan (called a touchhole) that lead to the main charge of black powder at the base of the barrel (or breech end). The powder ignited in the barrel and propelled the lead shot.

We’ve all seen movies or read novels where the woodsman or Continental soldier pours black powder down the muzzle of his weapon using a powder horn. Some powder horns were use by riflemen, however, muskets used a cartridge. The cartridge included shot and powder that was previously wrapped individually in paper or ‘wadding.’ A round lead ball of approximately one ounce was at the bottom and above was ninety grams of black powder. The paper had a twisted tail at the top to keep everything together.

Fast, not accurate firing was required of the British soldier standing in long ranks while facing the enemy at a hundred yards over an open field. The average soldier was expected to release three volleys per minute; four was exceptional. After the first volley, troops usually took from twenty to thirty seconds to reload. Upon loosing the second volley, they would reload and the third volley would occur a minute after the first. Defending troops were expected to release two volleys in the twenty-some seconds it would take their enemy to cover a hundred yards at a dead run. The second volley would hopefully be fired at less than thirty yards. The closely packed charging mass of men would have to endure the weight of lead at close range where the musket’s accuracy was greatly increased.muskets firingIt is believed by some that when an 18th century soldier bit off the tail of the cartridge, he held the ball in his mouth. After pouring the black powder from the cartridge down the barrel, he would spit the musket ball into the muzzle, stuff in the wadding and ram it all home. This is myth derived from fictional novels. One problem with this notion is that after the weapon had been fired, the barrel would be so hot that a soldier would have to lay his lips on the muzzle to spit the ball down the bore, burning his lips severely .

This eighteenth century muzzleloader required twelve steps to load and fire; however, many Americans later reduced this number to ten, as follows:

  1. Reach in the cartridge box with leather casing; it had a long flap to make sure the black powder within the cartridges remained dry. Remove one of the cartridges and bite down on the tail of the cartridge to tear it open.
  2. Half cock the musket by pushing back on the hammer with flint attached (called a dogshead). Push the frizzen forward, opening the pan (or flash pan) and pour a small amount of black powder from the cartridge.
  3. Pull the frizzen back, shutting the pan – the metal lip of the frizzen is now vertical. The weapon is now primed and the musket may be turned around without spilling the powder out of the pan.
  4. Hold the musket with the muzzle pointing up.
  5. Pour the rest of the powder from the cartridge into the barrel.
  6. Insert a lead ball into the barrel.
  7. Push the cartridge paper (called wadding) into the barrel.

At this stage – step six and seven could be considered part of step five, especially if the ball were still wrapped in the cartridge and not held separately. This would reduce the steps to ten instead of twelve.

  1. Remove the ramrod from its storage pipe beneath the barrel (called the channel) and ram the wadding and ball down the barrel to the other end (breech) where the spark will take place. The charge is now properly seated.
  2. Replace the ramrod in the channel.
  3. Lift the weapon and pull back on the dogshead, fully cocking it.
  4. Raise the musket to a firing position.
  5. Fire the musket

Step eleven, raising the musket, is readily explained in the drill manual that General Gage’s soldiers used in Boston just prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. At the command ‘Present!’ the soldier was to “step back about six inches with the right foot bringing the left toe to the front. Raise up the butt so high upon the right shoulder that you may not be obliged to stoop too much with the head, the right cheek to be close to the butt and the left eye shut and look along the barrel, with the right eye from the breech pin to the muzzle.”

Soldiers either loaded their weapons individually or as a unit prior to a volley, in which case an officer would bellow something similar to the following orders:

Prime and Load. A quarter turn is made to the right bringing the musket to priming position.

Handle Cartridge. Draw a cartridge from the cartridge box. Rip off the paper or bite it off. Hold the ball and cartridge in the right hand.

Prime. Pull the hammer (or dogshead) back to half cock. Pour a small amount of black powder in the priming pan. Close the frizzen, trapping the priming powder.

About. The butt of the musket was lowered to the ground. Some historians claim that the butt was not placed on the ground but was held firmly in one hand. The rest of the black powder of the cartridge was poured down the muzzle followed by the ball and wadding. The wadding kept the ball firmly in the barrel if the muzzle was declined.

Draw Ramrods. The ramrod is drawn from beneath the barrel and the ball & wadding is firmly seated to the bottom of the barrel or breech. Usually two quick strokes tamped it down. The ramrod was returned to the channel.

Present. The butt was brought back to the shoulder and the cock was fully pulled back. The musket was held firm while waiting for the command to fire. The weapon was held in the general direction of the enemy – rarely sighted, the effect on the enemy depended on the volume of fire to inflict damage.

Fire. The trigger was drawn back and the weapon was fired.

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Tools to clean muskets after firing.

Fleming, Thomas J.  Now We Are Enemies.  1960:  St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY

National Park Service:  http://www.nps.gov/fosc/forteachers/weaponsdrill.htm

Nonte, George C. Firearms Encyclopedia.  1973:  Harper & Row, New York, NY

Wilkinson, Fredrick.  Firearms.  1986: Camden House Books, London, UK.

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