Thursday, April 29, 2010

Famous Small Arms: The Brown Bess Musket

The Brown Bess was a famous firearm that has had a very long service history. This ubiquitous weapon officially served various divisions of the British military between 1722 and 1838 and was still used in many parts of the British Empire long after that. American troops used them against British forces in the American War of Independence, Mexican soldiers used them against Americans in the battle of the Alamo and Zulus against the British in the Anglo-Zulu war. Some weapons even saw service during the Great Mutiny of 1857. Many replicas of this weapon may still be found in the various arms bazaars of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This means that this is one of the longest serving small arms in history.

At the time it was introduced, most western armies had a history of using individually purchased firearms. This meant that each firearm was manufactured according to the standards of the gunsmith that made the weapon and the wishes of the purchaser, which meant that often, two firearms could not interchange parts or fire the same bullets, even if the two users were serving in the same regiment. This led to increasing problems for armies to supply ammunition and spare parts to their various units.

In order to rectify the situation, several western military forces began standardizing their small arms. In England, the Royal Board of Ordinance published a standard document dated Sept. 15th, 1714. The standard design that they adopted was a musket called the "Land Pattern Musket". It was called a "Pattern Musket" because a master musket was made and stored in a "pattern room" and any contracted gun-maker could use it as a standard reference and take measurements as needed. The Royal Board of Ordinance was to be in charge of the master patterns and they were in charge of accumulating parts and to inventory them at the Tower of London armory. The firing mechanisms, barrels and other iron components were to be largely supplied by firms in Birmingham, while most of the brass components, wooden stocks and final assembly work were to be done in and around London. The board was also given the responsibility of ensuring that the parts met the quality and tolerances required by the specification.

The majority of opposition to this new standard came from the association of London manufacturers (a union of gunmakers called the "London Gunmakers' Company), that saw this as a change from the traditional control they held over the existing English arms industry. Quite a lot of opposition also came from some of the army officers as well. At that time, many officers were rich and influential people who had bought their commission (i.e.) paid a sum of money to be given an officer's commission rather than being promoted on merit. Officers would be given governmental funds to equip a regiment and any money left over was to be kept by the officer. Prior to the new standard being introduced, the standards were merely vague requirements and as a result, many officers would purchase from a wide range of manufacturers of varying quality and price. In the end, the Board of Ordinance won out and the gun began to spread throughout the world.

At the time that this was introduced, the typical 18th century firearm was a large smoothbore weapon (i.e. no rifling). The height of technology development at this time dictated that the most advanced weapons used a flintlock firing mechanism and muzzleloader loading mechanism. Due to the quality of gunpowder during this era, large amounts of black residue would quickly build up inside the barrel. To cope with this residue, the average bullet (they were spherical balls) was built slightly smaller than the barrel diameter. Unfortunately this meant that upon firing, the ball would bounce off the walls of the barrel and proceed in a direction determined by the last contact with the barrel, which means it wasn't very accurate past 50-75 yards or so. With these limitations, the standard 18th century tactic was to use long lines of men who were trained to load very fast, but not necessarily shoot accurately. Troops would fire at each other at around 50 yard ranges and then follow it up with a charge and hand-to-hand combat.

With these tactics in mind, the new Land Pattern musket was designed to deliver a large, low velocity ball. It also had a bayonet socket so that it could be used as a spear or a pike, when charging upon the enemy. Lastly, the weapon had a very sturdy wooden stock so that it could also double as a club in close combat situations

No one is entirely sure about how the Land Pattern musket acquired the nickname "Brown Bess", but this is what it was known by through a large part of its history. Some say it had to do with the walnut wooden stock that the gun used, others say it is because of the anti-rust treatment of the barrel that made it look brown, still others think it came from the German words "Braun Buss", i.e. the Brown Gun or the Strong Gun. Nevertheless, there exists a newspaper mention from the Connecticut Courant (April 2nd-9th, 1771) that refers to it as the "Brown Bess" which means the name was already in widespread use by then.

There were several variations of the Land Pattern Musket built as the years progressed: Different models had different barrel lengths, different materials and different firing mechanisms, but they all fired the same caliber bullet (0.75 caliber). The basic pattern had a round barrel of .75 caliber with no rifling, This was attached to a walnut stock and held in place by a vertical screw near the back of the barrel and lateral cross-pins that connected to tenons welded on the underside of the barrel. The wooden stock terminated about 4 inches before the front of the barrel, so that a bayonet could be attached. Near the front of the barrel and attached to the top was a rectangular stud that served a dual purpose: it secured the bayonet to the muzzle and also served as the front aiming sight. The weapon did not have a rear-sight. Under the stock were four small brass pipes through which the wooden ramrod could be slid into and stored. Firing mechanism was usually flintlock, though percussion locks were used later in its history.

The first model of this series was the "Long" Land Pattern musket. Introduced in 1722, this weighed 10.5 pounds and had a 46 inch barrel, with an overall length of 62.5 inches. It also had brass furniture, a curved lockplate, a walnut stock with carvings near the firing mechanism and a wooden ramrod. This weapon was called the "King's Pattern" and was the official British Infantry weapon from 1722-1768 and was still in service in some of the divisions of the British Army all the way until 1793. While the prototype was standardized in 1722, resistance from various sources (gunmaker unions and powerful, influential people) ensured that it did not really start large scale production until 1728. Later improvements to this model in 1742 and 1756 slightly altered the shape to the stock, reduced the amount of carvings on the weapon and changed the wooden ramrod to an iron one with a steel button tip.

It was found some years later that shortening the barrel a little bit did not detract from the accuracy of the weapon. This discovery led to the next model in the series, the "Short" Land Pattern musket. Introduced in 1742, it was about the same weight as the "Long" musket above. The name "Short" is a bit of an exaggeration, as it was only 4 inches shorter than the "Long" model. It first entered service in 1740 in the hands of the British mounted infantry forces (Dragoons) who wanted a slightly shorter weapon for easier use. In 1756, the British Marines started to use the shorter version as well and made slightly more changes to the basic design in 1759. Like the "Long" model, this version also featured an iron ramrod with a steel button tip. In 1768, the British Infantry adopted the "Short" as their new standard as well and started to gradually convert all their existing units from using "Long" pattern muskets to the "Short" version. It took up to 1793 before this conversion process was done completely. These weapons lasted until 1797 when they began to be replaced by the next version (the India pattern musket). The "Short" model was also responsible for the entire family of weapons being nicknamed the "Brown Bess".

The third major edition was called the India Pattern. This was the most popular form of the weapon. Originally developed to the specifications of the East India company in 1795, these weapons were later adopted as the standard British infantry musket between 1797 and 1854. The India pattern muskets were a bit lighter (9.7 pounds) and also had a slightly shorter barrel (39 inches) and overall length (55 inches) than the previous "Short" model. Other differences included a more reinforced flintlock and only 3 pipes holding the ramrod instead of four. Throughout the Napoleonic wars, over 3 million of these weapons were manufactured and distributed to various British regiments and this weapon remained in service for a very long time. The East India Company had added a simple spring catch to their bayonets to keep them from slipping around the barrel, but this particular invention was never adopted by the British Army.

There were also specialized New Land Pattern weapons issued only to specific British regiments between 1802-1854. These were very similar in size to the India Pattern musket, but were slightly heavier (approx. 10 pounds). The main differences were a slightly different trigger guard shape, a notched rear-sight (all the previous models had no rear-sight at all) and a browned barrel.

There was also a Sea Service Pattern musket in service between 1778 and 1854. These were only 9 pounds in weight, with a 37 inch barrel and overall length of 54 inches. The ramrod was held in place with only two pipes (instead of 3 or 4 from previous versions) and the butt of the weapon has a flat plate with squared corners. There were two versions of this weapon, one with a bright finish that was issued to the Royal Marines and another with black finish that was used by the seamen.

A Cavalry Carbine variant was also introduced between 1796-1838. Since it was to be used by mounted horsemen, the barrel was much shorter (26 inches) and overall length was 42.5 inches. Due to its smaller size, the weapon weighed around 7.5 pounds only.

Flintlock firing mechanisms were somewhat unreliable in wet weather. Towards the end of the 1830s, with the invention and rising popularity of the percussion lock firing mechanism among civilian hunters, it was decided to replace the flintlock mechanism of the Brown Bess with a percussion lock. The first weapons that were to be replaced with the new locks were the 1839 model. Unfortunately a large fire at the Royal Arsenal destroyed most of these specimens, so a new 1842 pattern was developed. These remained in service until 1854 or so, along with the older models.

The Brown Bess was eventually made obsolete by newer breechloading weapons with rifled barrels. Since the Brown Bess was a muzzleloading weapon, it took longer to load than a breechloading weapon. Also, the smoothbore barrel of the Brown Bess only made it accurate to around 75 yards or so, whereas rifled barrels were accurate over much longer ranges. Rifles had been used by some British troops, as early as 1776, but it was the change in tactics that had a lot to do with making the Brown Bess obsolete. It was no longer considered good practice to line up soldiers 50 yards away from the enemy and fire upon them, hoping to hit someone. The newer tactics called for better marksmanship and therefore a more accurate and longer ranged weapon. Hence the British military stopped using the Brown Bess by 1838. However it continued to be in use by other troops around the world for many more years and saw extensive use in India for years to come.


  1. Para 11 line 2 refers to "these rifles". Should read "these muskets".

  2. Fixed. Thank you very much Adrian.