British Land Pattern Musket (Brown Bess)
Muzzle-Loading Service Musket
The Brown Bess was an important part of British Empire expansion progress and served the British Army from 1722 to 1838.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Brown Bess was the standard musket of the British military during the height of its empirical reach. It went on to be used by a multitude of parties including the Americans during the American Revolution, the Zulu Kingdom in their war against the British Empire and by Mexico in the battles against America during the mid-1800s. Use of the Brown Bess came at a time when armies began to standardize on various weaponry types, allowing manufacturers to produce mass quantities of a single weapon to assist militaries manage their logistics more efficiently. The Brown Bess - known more formally as the "British Land Pattern Musket" - was in service from 1722 well into the 1860s, a testament to its design and sheer global reach. While early forms were of the widely-accepted flintlock action, later forms were eventually converted to the more reliable and efficient percussion cap firing system which was then becoming the standard worldwide. At any rate, the Brown Bess proved the weapon of choice for the standard military serviceman, the revolutionary, the guerilla fighter, the frontiersman, the sport hunter and the backwoods warrior. Origins of the "Brown Bess" name are varied with some believing it to be a reference to Queen Elizabeth I, a reference to the brownish walnut stock color or a translation from the German "Braun Buss" ("Strong Gun"). The title of "Brown Bess" was never formally recognized and historically has gone on to cover all variations of the Land Pattern musket design. Production was undertaken by several concerns including the Tower Armories and H.W. Mortimer & Company of England.
All told, the Brown Bess was revered as a fine long gun design and was conventional in its form and function. Wood was highly used throughout the gun and made up the shoulder stock, receiver and forend. Metal furniture consisting of both iron and (later) brass were used for the heavy-duty portions of the design. Characteristically, the long gun was identified by its long barrel assembly. The flintlock action was all contained in the rear portion of the wooden body. The shoulder stock was used as a third point of stabilization when firing, the other two points being the forward hand hold and the trigger hand braced at the position between the receiver and the shoulder stock. There were no sights fitted to the gun and the bayonet was optional, adding considerable length to the already-long gun. The ramrod was a key piece of accessory and was set within loops under the barrel. Make no mistake, these were large guns and relatively heavy for their collective use of solid wood portions and metal fittings. All Brown Bess forms were chambered for the .705 or .72 caliber ball, a massive cartridge able to affect targets accurately between 50 and 100 yards individually and up to 175 yards when fired in volleys.
As a "flintlock" action musket, the Brown Bess made use of a piece of flint stone clamped within the hold of a "bird's beak-type" assembly (hence the firearm phrase "cocking a gun"). The cocking mechanism sat to the right side of the gun body and would, at the pull of the trigger, release against an awaiting metal surface, creating the sparks needed to ignite the gunpowder in the open pan (hence the phrase "flash in the pan"). This would allow further ignition of available powder within the base of the barrel, the resulting ignition eventually forcing the musket "ball" bullet out of the heavy smoothbore barrel. The smoothbore barrel meant that the ball was anything but accurate at longer ranges for physics took over once the ball had left the barrel, open to changes in wind and other battlefield and environmental conditions. As a "musket" long gun, the Brown Bess was loaded from the muzzle end of the barrel and the contents rammed down by way of a wooden or (later) metal ramrod. A trained musketeer could loose off up to three to four shots in a single minute. A standard ammunition load per soldier was about 24 cartridges.
In a typical firing action, the musket needed to be addressed at both ends. First, the soldier took his paper cartridge and opened it at one end with his teeth. The first supply of gunpowder was added to the open flash pan (or "frizzen"), the pan then being closed to keep the contents from leaking out. The gun was then stood up on its butt end and the rest of the powder was poured down the barrel to rest at its base near the firing action. The paper portion of the cartridge was then shoved into the barrel along with the ball ammunition so all cartridge contents were efficiently used. Both were forced down the barrel by the aforementioned ramrod. The operator could now fully "cock" the weapon and make it ready to fire. Historically, the flintlocked proved a revolutionary design for its time - while it was rather complicated to operate, it was easy to maintain, reliable to an extent and easy to produce in numbers.
Of course the limitations of the flintlock method eventually led to the rise of the "percussion cap" system to which many flintlock firearms of the day were converted to in a cost-effective move. The two methods largely utilized the same pieces in their action which made conversions rather painless and cheap in the short term. The flintlock system was in service for some 200 years before being replaced, however, it was highly influenced by weather conditions which led many to misfire in the heat of battle. Additionally, operators needed to gauge the proper levels of gunpowder being used for internal explosions within the barrel were not uncommon. There was also a noticeable delay between the pull of the trigger and the launching of the bullet from the barrel which affected accuracy and the basic priming method produced a cloud of smoke that only served to alert targets of the firer's position, even if concealed. The percussion cap system changed all this by providing for a sheltered firing action which made operations in damp weather more efficient. It also brought about less smoke in the action and proved quick-reacting once the trigger was pulled. A "hammer" now replaced the "cock" so no flint stone was needed in a clamp. The frizzen was replaced by the cap holder so no exposed gunpowder. This new system was attributed to a variety of persons throughout its development and was essentially born out of the creation of fulminate of mercury (replacing the priming powder), needing persons to develop the percussion system itself which lead to its use with "caps" - hence "percussion cap". Natural teething problems were eventually ironed out to make the percussion cap system a fine replacement for the flintlock. In Britain, the percussion cap gained traction in 1820 and, in America, stocks of flintlock guns were converted to the percussion cap method. The percussion cap was itself eventually replaced by the arrival of the self-contained cartridge to manage the primer, powder and bullet in one unique package.
Accepted British battle doctrine of the day relied on formations of well-trained and highly disciplined infantrymen called to fire volleys of ball ammunition at targets (hopefully they being massed in formation as well). As such, individual accuracy was not as important as group firepower in these confrontations. An officer would bark out the needed commands, ordering the group to a new position or firing direction, call for reloading or to fire. This method of warfare proved highly serviceable for its time and helped to keep the British Empire and ever-expanding force. This concentrated firepower was accurate well out to 175 yards with the musket ball breaking bones, tearing flesh and knocking men out of the fight. Coupled with artillery cannon fire, there was little that lesser foes could do in response to British military might of the day. Seizing the moment, an officer could then call for a bayonet charge to "clean up" any remaining foes and break the enemy, forcing them on the run or to die where they stood. The sheer length of the Brown Bess musket allowed the operator a good fighting distance from his target when engaging with a bayonet - up to several feet in fact. Of course, if surrounded, the musket became rather unwieldy in confined spaces and the charging infantryman could easily become overrun by hacking enemy.
The Brown Bess existed beyond her well-known "long form" as the British (Long) Land Pattern Musket. These were completed originally with a 62 inch length barrel. Many Brown Bess forms shared visual similarities to one another, differentiated mainly by varying barrel lengths. A follow-up long gun form was finished with a 46 inch long barrel after it was found that this shorter barrel did not hinder accuracy. The Long Land Pattern was in service from 1722 to 1793 and served as the standardized British infantry musket from 1722 to 1768. Overall weight was approximately 10.4lbs with an overall length of 62.5 inches.
In 1778, there came the Sea Service Pattern which managed an existence into 1854. This version of the Brown Bess was issued to marine forces of the British Royal Navy and these elements served as the "heavy hand" of the British military when at sea, able to contend with enemy sailors, pirates and marine forces at range or in lethal hand-to-hand fighting. Barrel length was 37 inches with a 53.4 inch overall length. Weight was approximately 9lbs. The Short Land Pattern muskets began operational service in 1740 and ended their tenure around 1797, seeing standardized use in British ranks during that span. Its shortened length allowed it to be fired from horseback which made the "Dragoon" mounted troop all the more feared. Barrel length was 42" with an overall length of 58.5" and a weight of 10.5lbs. The Cavalry Carbine was in use from 1796 to 1838 and, as its name suggests, were issued to cavalry elements of the British military. Barrel length was a handy 26" with an overall length of 42.5". Weight was a rather compact 7.40lbs, making its use from horseback rather ideal. The India Pattern form saw service from 1797 through 1854 and served as a standardized musket during that span. Barrel length was 39" with an overall length of 55.25" and a weight of 9.68lbs. The lighter weight and shorter length once again attributed to a more manageable service musket. Early production was handled out of the British East India Company. The New Long Land Pattern musket form saw service from 1802 to 1854 though its issue was limited. It sported a 39" barrel length with a 55.5" overall length. Weight was just over 10lbs. This was followed into service by the New Light Infantry Land Pattern musket from 1811 to 1854, also with a 39" barrel length and 55.5" overall length. Weight was equal to that of the New Land Pattern. The two weapons were differentiated by minor physical differences including barrel colors. The Pattern 1839 were conversions from flintlock Brown Bess forms to the percussion cap firing system. In 1841, large quantities of these models (awaiting conversion) were destroyed in a fire at the fabled Tower of London, resulting in the production of the Pattern 1842 to replace these losses.
Brass fittings became commonplace in Brown Bess production after 1736. Brass had the benefit over iron of not rusting. Wooden ramrods were still being issued as late as 1765. These were also found on Marine and Royal Navy muskets for their exposure to the corrosive effects of the salty sea.