Brown Bess Musket

Grade Range: K-12
Resource Type(s): Artifacts, Primary Sources, Artifacts
Date Posted: 12/30/2009

The British Long Land pattern musket was the standard arm of the British infantry soldier during the American Revolution. The muzzle-loading musket was slow to load, inaccurate, and often unreliable. It fired round lead balls, some the diameter of a nickel. The smooth interior of the barrel made it an inaccurate gun, so soldiers massed tightly together, firing a volley of lead balls at the enemy. For charges and fighting at close quarters, soldiers fixed deadly, spear-like bayonets to the ends of their muskets.

The musket was known as a “Brown Bess,” and there is much conjecture as to how it came by the nickname. The walnut stock may be an explanation for the brown. Another explanation is the browning of the barrel, a process used to prevent corrosion which also gave it a rich brown color. The origins of “Bess” are more varied. Some believe it was a reference to Queen Elizabeth I, though she had been dead more than 100 years before the musket was standard issue. Some believe it is an allusion to a notorious highwayman whose horse was named “Black Bess.” It may have been the mispronunciation of two foreign words. The Dutch word for gun barrel is “buss” while the German for gun is “Buchse.” It could be a simple case of poetic alliteration. In the 1785 Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue--a vernacular dictionary of the time--the following entry appears: “Brown Bess, a soldier’s firelock”.

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