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Brown Bess Musket

When the American colonies were first founded having a gun or two per household was a must. Between hostile Native Americans and the lack of a proper army, any homestead without some kind of weaponry, be it musket or sword, was a sitting duck. In fact, it was actually required by law in each of the thirteen original colonies for all adult male citizens to own proper arms and ammunition in case they were called to serve in the militia. In the 17th century Connecticut passed a law on this subject, stating:

It is ordered, and by this courte [sic] declared, That all persons that are above the age of sixteene [sic] years, except magistrates and church officers, shall beare [sic] arms. unless they have, uppon [sic] just occassion [sic], exemption graunted [sic] by the courte [sic]; and every male person within this jurissdiction [sic], above the said age, shall have in continuall [sic] readines [sic], a good muskitt [sic] or other gunn [sic], fit for service…”[1]

Although each colony’s iteration of this law differed slightly, they all more or less stated something along these lines. At this point in time, the most common weapon owned by the colonists were muskets, specifically Brown Bess muskets. The Brown Bess musket, as it was commonly known, was a British musket manufactured in England. Its official name was the British Land Pattern Musket, but everyone at the time referred to it by the nickname “Brown Bess”. Where this nickname originated is something that has been hotly debated by historians for decades. These muskets can be identified as British by a few markings on the metal lock plate just above the trigger. The first, and perhaps most recognizable marker, is the crown stamped onto the lock plate with the initials “G.R.” beneath it. “G.R.” stands for Georgius Rex. Rex is the Latin word meaning king, and the initials let the owner know that this gun was manufactured under the authority of King George III. The other marker on the lock plate is the word “Tower”. In this case “Tower” refers to the Tower of London, which was responsible for manufacturing, testing, and storing weapons for the British king until the 1800s.[2]

Even though nearly every colonial household was stocked with a few muskets, this did not necessarily mean the colonists were well-armed or well-prepared to deal with threats due to the nature of these muskets. Although it probably goes without saying, Brown Bess muskets didn’t operate quite as well as modern day rifles. The Brown Bess musket was a muzzle-loading, flint-lock gun with an accurate firing range of about 40 yards, or 120 feet. The very short accuracy range was due to the fact that the muskets had smooth barrels with no rifling, so any round being fired out of the barrel followed a path similar to that of a reckless roman-candle.  A highly trained solider could load a musket in about 15 to 20 seconds, but the average militia-man with little training might take up to 45 seconds to load one round. To get an idea of what the colonists were working with, the following steps had to occur just to fire the musket one time:

  1. Reach in the cartridge box (this was usually a leather satchel-type bag carried on your shoulder), remove one of the cartridges, and bite down on the paper tail of the cartridge to tear it open.
  2. Half cock the musket by pulling back on the hammer. Open the flash pan and pour a small amount of gunpowder from the cartridge into the pan.
  3. Shut the flash pan. The weapon is now primed and the musket may be tilted without spilling the gunpowder out of the pan.
  4. Place the butt of the musket on the ground, 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 into the barrel.
  8. Remove the ramrod from its storage channel beneath the barrel and ram the wadding and ball down to the bottom of the barrel where the spark will take place. The charge is now properly seated in the musket.
  9. Put the ramrod back in its storage channel.
  10. Lift the weapon and pull back on the hammer, fully cocking it.
  11. Raise the musket to a firing position and aim.
  12. Fire the musket.[3]

When all the steps are listed out it becomes apparent why these guns could take up to 45 seconds to load, and is also why many of these guns came with bayonets on the end of the barrel. If there was not enough time to load a musket and fire at the enemy, a bayonet was a literal lifesaver during close range combat.

Despite all of the musket’s flaws, the Brown Bess was instrumental in helping the colonists win the Revolutionary War. The sheer will and determination of the early Americans to defeat the British is something that cannot easily be conveyed through words. These courageous men of all ages, races, and social classes did not let anything stop their progress or hold them back. They fought for their freedom with whatever weapon they could get their hands on to secure the foundation of the United States of America for their posterity, and we will always be in debt to them for their service to our fledgling nation.

Below are photos of the Brown Bess Musket in Mercury One’s collection!

Sources:

[1]The Code of 1650, being a compilation of the earliest laws and orders of the General Court of Connecticut: also, the constitution, or civil compact, entered into and adopted by the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield in 1638-9. To which is added some extracts from the laws and judicial proceedings of New-Haven Colony commonly called Blue laws. Connecticut. Silas Andrus. 1822. p. 72.

[2]Tower of London. Historic Royal Palaces. https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/the-story-of-the-tower-of-london/#gs.HTGBYvQ

[3] Schenawolf, Harry. Loading and Firing a Brown Bess Musket in the Eighteenth Century. Revolutionary War Journal. October 1, 2014. http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/brown-bess/

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