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Brown Bess Musket

With so much talk about the Second Amendment lately, all of us here at Mercury One thought this would be the perfect time to talk about a few of the guns we keep at our office. We normally try to refrain from being armed at work, but we do make a few exceptions for guns that are over 200 years old! In our collection, we have all sorts of historic weaponry (everything from pirate swords to rat bombs) but you’d be hard-pressed to find a gun with a more rich history than our Revolutionary War era muskets.

The Brown Bess musket, as it was commonly known, was a British musket manufactured in England and stored in the armory at the Tower of London. Its official name was the British Land Pattern Musket, but everyone at the time referred to it as a Brown Bess. Where the nickname “Brown Bess” came from is something that has been debated by historians for a long time. Some have proposed that it must have something to do with the color of the stock made from walnut wood or perhaps the brown tinted varnish occasionally used to seal the gun to make it water repellant. However, the third, and perhaps most likely theory is that the name came from a common slang term used for prostitutes in the early 1700s. Since most of the British soldiers of that era came from the lower classes of England, it isn’t out of the question that they got a kick out of referring to their guns as a Brown Bess. Wherever the nickname came from though, it stuck, and for 200 years any variation of a Land Pattern Musket was simply known as a Brown Bess.

These muskets can be easily identified as British artillery by a few markings on the lock plate just above the trigger. The first, and perhaps most obvious marker, is the crown stamped onto the lock plate with the initials “G.R.” beneath it. “G.R.” stands for George Rex. Rex is the Latin word for king and these initials let the user know that this gun was manufactured under the authority of King George III. The other marker on the lock plate is simply the word “Tower”. In this case “Tower” refers to the Tower of London, which at this time was used as an armory and fortress. If you find a musket from this time period with these two markings on it, there is a very good chance that it is a Brown Bess Musket.

When the American colonies were first settled by the British, 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 was a sitting duck. In fact, it was actually required by law that all male citizens in the colonies own proper arms and ammunition in case they were called for militia duty. The most common weapon owned by the colonists was the Brown Bess Musket. Now it may seem strange that a bunch of Americans only owned British guns, but you have to remember that before 1776 “Americans” didn’t really exist. Although these people were living in America, they were still British citizens who were controlled by and loyal to the monarchy. With this being said, it makes sense that they were still using weapons manufactured in England. Add to the equation that resources for manufacturing arms and ammunition were extremely limited in the early colonies and it becomes clear as to why British muskets were the weapon of choice for most of the colonists.

Even though every colonial household was stocked with a few muskets, this did not mean they were necessarily 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 soldier could load one of these muskets 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 give you an idea of what the colonists were working with, the following 12 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.

When you see all the steps listed out, it begins to make sense why these guns could take up to 45 seconds to load! Luckily no one was expected to defend themselves with just a musket, which is why many of these guns also came with bayonets on the end of the barrel. If you didn’t have time to load and fire your gun at the enemy, a bayonet was literally a lifesaver during close range combat. If you were unlucky enough not to have a bayonet, the last line of defense was to turn the gun around and use the heavy, wooden butt of the gun as a club to hit someone with. The average Brown Bess weighed around 14 lbs. and most of that weight was in the butt of the gun. Using it to club somebody actually wasn’t a bad strategy and this tactic was fairly common. Historians often joke that these muskets were much more useful as clubs than they ever were as guns! However, despite all of the musket’s flaws, the Brown Bess was instrumental in helping the colonists win the Revolutionary War and it’s quite satisfying to know that a weapon made by the British ended up being used to defeat them! That’s historical irony at its finest.

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

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