“Brown Bess” – Musket Misconception

(The Army Musket – 1700-1815)
by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

“In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes, and brocade,
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise-
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes-
At Blenheim and Ramillies, fops would confess,
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.”

By the time Kipling wrote this ode to the British soldier’s flintlock companion, the musket itself had passed into history. It had vanished from service in the British army by the 1850s. Yet the charms of the name Brown Bess live on. Attend an American Revolution re enactment, speak with an historical interpreter, or even consult The Encyclopedia Britannica and you will be told that the firearm carried on both sides during the War for Independence was known to the soldiers as “the Brown Bess.”

But that is not exactly right. And the source of the error is itself an interesting story that takes us back in history.

In 1722, a British Ordnance Office decree established a standard army musket, known as the Long Land Pattern Service Musket. It was a full 62 inches long, while the minimum height requirement for soldiers was only 67 inches. In time, it was discovered that a shorter barrel was just as accurate (or inaccurate), and so some British regiments adopted a smaller, less cumbersome version. After the French and Indian War, the British army sought to reduce the weight carried by all its soldiers and improve their mobility, so in 1768, it introduced the Short Land Musket (New Pattern), with the barrel reduced by four inches. British soldiers during the American Revolution carried this model. Since under British law, all men in the colonies had to belong to the local militia and own a musket, some colonists would also have carried such muskets, while others would have been armed with a mix of hunting rifles, fowling pieces, or Dutch or French muskets. At the Revolution’s inception, colonial gunsmiths were producing a simple, less expensive copy of the Short Land weapon, often called a Provincial or Committee of Safety musket.

The names we find for these weapons in historical documents, British and American military records, personal diaries, and other writings at the time vary: firelock, flintlock, the King’s Arm, Long Land Musket, Short Land Musket, or simply musket. Rarely, if ever, is the term “Brown Bess ” found. From where, then, comes the contemporary use of this name for 18th century firearms?

Although the origin of the term is obscure, there is no shortage of conjecture or myth. The phrase “brown musket” appeared as early as 1708. It may have referred to the color of the walnut wood from which gun stocks were made. It may have derived from a chemical treatment of gun barrels dating to the 1630s, which helped prevent rust and inhibited corrosion. Known as russeting, this process made the barrel a rich brown. However, at the time of the Revolution, the British army preferred a bright metal appearance to its weapons, so chemical browning was not used, and some sources suggest that the gun stocks may also have been painted various colors.

Speculation on the origins of “Bess ”are equally varied. Some believe it to be associated with Queen Elizabeth, who reigned from 1558 to 1603. Such is not likely, as she had been dead for over a hundred years before the Long Land Musket entered service, and soldiers would have had no obvious reason to honor her. Soldiers might, however, have used artful alliteration to coin a name, since Brown Bess flows easily in speech, in a way that Brown Lydia or Brown Peg does not. One folk tale attributes the name to a notorious (but popular) highwayman of the time whose house was named “Black Bess.” Further speculation focuses on the possible corruption of two foreign words: the Dutch “buss” for gun barrel (as in blunderbuss), and the German “Büchse” for gun.

Whatever the origin of the term, the more important point is that there is no solid documentation to support the modern habit of referring to the musket carried by British soldiers as The Brown Bess. This does not appear to be the way British or American soldiers ever used the term. Yet if we listen with a sharper ear to Kipling’s poem, we can understand how the modern confusion and error arose.

One of the earliest references to Brown Bess can be found in The Connecticut Courant of April 1771, which carried a story with the line, “but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulder and march.” And in 1785, the Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue, which listed vernacular terms of the period, contained this entry: “Brown Bess: A soldier’s firelock. To hug Brown Bess: to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier.” A generation later, a character in Thackeray’s novel, Barry Lyndon, would echo an English drinking song in which “married to Brown Bess” was the soldiers’ phrase for being in the King’s army. So in its original use, Brown Bess was slang and a term of poetic endearment, much in the way people today give names of endearment to their boats or cars. And just as we would find it strange if a historian a hundred years from now were to point at an automobile from our era and tell an audience that we called all such objects “The Old Betsy,” so too a soldier from the Revolution would find strange the modern reference to all muskets as The Brown Bess.

So how did modern confusion in the use of the term Brown Bess arise? According to the National Army Museum in London, when flintlocks finally were taken out of service in the British military, the term became popular among gun collectors in the mid-1800s as a generic name for the wide variety of firelocks that included the Long Land, the Short Land, and the even-shorter India Pattern models. The collectors’ misuse of the term carried into the 1960s when fledgling re-enactors, who were recreating colonial minute and militia companies and British regiments for the American Bicentennial, adopted the term. While looking for authentic period weapons, they found collectors and others referring to firelocks as “Brown Besses,” and the name was soon attached to all muskets and attributed to the soldiers of the Revolution.

The difference between the authentic use of Brown Bess by soldiers and our modern, confused use may seem rather subtle, perhaps even trivial. Yet getting the details exactly right is an important matter for historical re-enactors and interpreters. As the poet A.E. Housman remarked, accuracy is a duty, not a virtue. Brown Bess, with all her charms, remains an authentic figure in the American Revolution. But she needs to be treated with historical respect. Today, just as it was back then, when the soldier’s duty calls, and his musket is his closest companion, then well he may “shoulder Brown Bess and march”!

• Anthony D. Darling, Red Coats and Brown Bess, 1971.
• Howard L. Blackmore, British Military Firearms 1650-1850, 1961.
• D. F. Harding, Small Arms of the East India Company 1600-1856.
• Brigade of the American Revolution, Brigade Dispatch, XXVIII No. 2, Summer 1998.

Author Bio

Donald L. Hafner is Drum Major of the Lincoln Minute Men. When he is not serving as a fifer in the ranks of the Minute Men, he is a Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His scholarly work has been principally in the fields of arms control and U.S. foreign policy.

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