Brown Bess

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Brown Bess

BROWN BESS. The term "brown bess" refers to various models of smooth-bore, muzzle-loading, flintlock muskets of .75 caliber (their diameter in inches) first issued to British troops in 1730. Before 1722, the colonels of each regiment contracted individually for the firearms issued to their soldiers. In an effort to remedy this lack of standardization, the Board of Ordnance established specifications to which all colonels were directed to adhere. The Board also established a new system of manufacture whereby lock mechanisms, barrels, and other metal parts were manufactured (generally in Birmingham), inspected, stored in the royal armory in the Tower of London, and issued as needed to London gunsmiths to assemble into complete muskets. Full production of muskets to the new pattern began in 1728, and the first Long Land Service Pattern 1730 muskets were issued two years later. The firearm had a forty-six-inch long-rounded barrel attached to the walnut stock by four pins and a screw through the tang, a wooden ramrod held beneath the barrel by four short brass cylinders called pipes, a lug at the muzzle of the barrel to hold a four-inch socket that carried a seventeen-inch bayonet; a flintlock firing mechanism with a lock plate shaped like a banana, and assorted furniture also made of brass.

The origin of the nickname "brown bess" for this firearm and successive models, first used in print in 1785, is obscure. "Brown" may derive from the acid-pickling process that gave the barrel a brown color. Or it may come from the natural dark brown color of the walnut stock; previously, the stocks of English muskets were painted black. "Bess" may refer to a different form of firearm previously used, or be the feminine counterpart of a pole arm called the "brownbill." Or soldiers may have coined this term of affection to honor the only companion a fighting man ought, or could expect, to have.

Various modifications were made in successive models of the Land Service musket in 1742 and 1756, the most important of which was the introduction of the steel ramrod in 1756. Following the successful introduction of the Sea Service Pattern 1757 muskets that were manufactured with shorter barrels (thirty-seven inches and forty-two inches), the Board approved a new forty-two-inch-long barrel for the Short Land Service Pattern 1768 musket, first issued as the standard British infantry arm in 1769. Long land service muskets, which continued in limited production until 1790, were the principal firearms used by the British army in North America through 1777 and in Loyalist units until the end of the war. Without the one-pound, fourteen-inch bayonet, the land service musket weighed ten or eleven pounds. The round lead projectile remained standardized at .75 caliber throughout the life of the long land design. The bullet weighed about one ounce, or so that there were fourteen and one-half bullets to the pound. (The Land Service Pattern was copied by the East India Company for muskets to arm its troops in India, with a barrel shortened to thirty-nine inches, but this weapon was not a true brown bess.)

A total of 218,000 land service muskets were manufactured in Britain over the course of the war. At least 100,000 more were made by contractors in Liège and various German cities after 1778, when Britain went to war against France and the demand for firearms increased dramatically.

SEE ALSO Muskets and Musketry.


Darling, Anthony D. Red Coat and Brown Bess. Ottawa: Museum Restoration Service, 1970.

Neumann, George C. Battle Weapons of the American Revolution. Texarkana, Tex.: Scurlock, 1998.

Peterson, Harold L. Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526–1783. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1956.

                                   revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Brown Bess

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Brown Bess