Redcoats' Brown Bess, The
American Rifleman, Apr 2001 by Neumann, George C
Brown Bess muskets were issued to "Redcoats" for nearly
a century and served on both sides during the American Revolution.
It began with a contract by Britain's Royal Board of Ordnance
dated September 15, 1714. The document's purpose was not to authorize
additional arms, but to develop a system of manufacture and control.
The board would accumulate components of a new standard longarm
pattern and inventory them at the Tower of London armory for release
to private contractors in time of need. They, in turn would provide
the stocking and finishing of the final arms in conformity with
a prototype musket (usually bearing an official wax seal). Locks,
barrels and other iron components were to originate largely from
Birmingham, while most brass furniture, stocking and assembly
would be centered in London. All of the parts would then be subjected
to close quality and tolerance inspections by the Board of Ordnance.
The new procedure was a brave attempt to remedy the chaos of arms
diversity that England faced at conclusion of the war of the Spanish
Succession in 1713. Unfortunately, it challenged some of the most
powerful groups in highly stratified English society. The majority
of army regiments were controlled by colonels who were important
private individuals with established economic and political power.
Each would be given governmental funds to recruit, equip and maintain
a regiment. Any money remaining was considered his to keep. Prior
to this date, the colonel was constrained only by vague requirements
limiting barrel length and bore size for his regiment's longarms.
As a result, he arbitrarily chose among a wide range of domestic
and foreign patterns of varying quality and price.
Further opposition came from the entrenched, private London Gunmakers'
Company that saw this change as a threat to its traditional control
of the design, specification and production of England's existing
As might be expected, the new system was strongly opposed and
then deliberately ignored. Nevertheless, the board's patient yet
focused efforts finally resulted in a new musket design in 1722
called the "King's Pattern." Resistance to the new discipline
along with the absence of wartime pressures delayed its production
until 1728. The new standard musket that ushered in England's
organized ordnance control was first issued in 1730 as the "Long
Land" pattern. It was the beginning of the famed "Brown
Bess" series that would become a legend through its contribution
to the winning of Britain's empire and to America's eventual freedom.
FIREARMS CAPABILITIES: The 18th century musket was essentially
a large smoothbore shotgun. After loading from the muzzle with
loose blackpowder and a round lead bullet from a cylindrical,
paper-- wrapped cartridge, the musket was fired by the flintlock
action above the trigger. A rotating cock holding a piece of flint
snapped forward to strike a pivoting L-shaped frizzen or "steel."
That action created sparks that ignited a small portion of priming
powder in a projecting flashpan sending flame through the barrel's
touch hole to reach the main charge. Obviously, it would not perform
in the rain and depended upon a sharpened flint and properly hardened
steel frizzen for reliability.
The real problem, however, was the blackpowder quality. Following
each firing, roughly 55 percent would remain as a black sludge
that built up inside the barrel clogging the touch hole and coating
the lock. To cope with this fouling residue, the average ball
was four to six hundreds of an inch smaller than bore
size. Upon ignition, the undersized ball bounced and skidded up
the barrel and proceeded in a direction determined by its last
contact with the bore. Beyond 60 yds., the ball would lose its
reliability to hit a man-size target.
These limitations determined 18th century battle tactics, which
employed long lines of men trained for speed of loading rather
than accuracy. They were expected to average four rounds per minute.
The soldiers typically pointed their arms and fired in controlled
volleys at enemy troops positioned 50 to 60 yds. away. The typical
battle was decided by a disciplined bayonet charge ending in a
To meet these combat conditions, the new British Brown Bess standard
musket was designed to deliver a large bullet at low velocity.
It employed a sturdy stock for use as a club in close fighting
and had an overall length that combined with a long, socket bayonet
to create a spear or pike for impacting an enemy's line. It was
also designed to be durable and to withstand the rigors of years
of active campaigning. The Brown Bess was to successfully fulfill
all of these demands.
THE BROWN BESS PATTERN: Britain's military long arms during the
18th century were officially considered in two groups: Land Service
and Sea Service. We are concerned with the former. The unofficial
term, "Brown Bess," has various claims for its origin,
but a mention in the April 2-9, 1771 issue of the Connecticut
Courant verifies the name's acceptance in America preceding our
War for Independence.
The basic Brown Bess musket mounted a round, smoothbore, .75-cal.
barrel on a walnut "heart wood" stock held by a vertical
screw through the breech plug tang plus lateral cross-pins that
pierced tenons brazed to its underside. The upper stock terminated
4" below the muzzle to permit attaching a bayonet. A rectangular
top stud behind the muzzle secured the bayonet after sliding through
slots in the socket and also functioned as an aiming guide. There
was no rear sight.
Its butt included a round wrist extending back to a handrail form
beneath the comb. The ramrod, in turn, slid into a bottom stock
channel and was retained by four pipes. Just below the bottom
pipe was a stock swell intended as a forward "hand hold."
All of the attached accessories (or "furniture") were
of cast brass. The two-screw lock had a rounded base plate that
mounted a swansneck cock. Two swivels for a shoulder sling were
also included. Its weight totaled 10 to 11 lbs.
Like the soldiers who fired them, traditional British arms designs
were known for their consistency. These fundamental features would
persist until the late years of the 18th centry despite an interim
reduction in length and a gradual simplification of the lock and
furniture. Official control and proofing sources for the King's
arms were the Board of Ordnance at the Tower of London and the
less disciplined Dublin Castle armory supplying troops in the
"Irish Establishment." During wartime, supplementary
contracts were often made with continental European manufacturers.
Similar muskets approximating this design were also ordered directly
from private contractors in England by some British regimental
colonels, local militias, private trade organizations and various
The Brown Bess patterns employed in the Revolutionary War are
best considered in two categories that are most easily identified
by their barrel lengths: the 46" "Long Land" and
the 42" "Short Land" muskets. They are also named
by some modern collectors as the "First" and "Second"
patterns. (A "Third" pattern is often included, but
refers to a 39"-barreled musket privately produced in England
for the East India Co. Army in India. It did not officially reach
America during the Revolution, but it was finally adopted by the
British government in the 1790s.)
LONG LAND BROWN BESS ("FIRST PATTERN"): There were three
fundamental variations of this first category: the 1730, 1742
and 1756 patterns.
LONG LAND PATTERN 1730: Considered the first of the Brown Bess
series, it included a 46" barrel (.75 cal.) with a baluster-shaped
breech pinned to a walnut stock, a curved banana-shaped, rounded
lock bearing a single (internal) bridle, heavy brass furniture,
a wooden ramrod, plus raised stock carving around the lock and
sideplate. The arm was issued without a nosecap, although some
regiments added a brass end band. Its total length was approximately
62". After the War of Jenkins Ear commenced in 1739, a special
effort was made to replace most of the remaining non-conforming
"colonel's" muskets with this 1730 design.
LONG LAND PATTERN 1742: As the fighting expanded into the War
of the Austrian Succession (ending in 1748), this updated version
added an exterior bridle joining the lock's flashpan and frizzen
screw, introduced a new trigger guard, reduced the raised stock
carving, and defined the final beavertail shape carved around
the barrel tang. Its basic form remained unchanged. These 1730
and 1742 Patterns were the primary British infantry firearms used
in America during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
LONG LAND PATTERN 1756: In the late 1740s, further improvements
were initiated based upon wartime experience. They were incorporated
into this last of the three Long Land Brown Besses and included:
a steel button-head ramrod now accompanied by a lengthened 4"
upper rammer pipe having a flared front opening; the former banana-shaped
lock was straightened along its bottom edge; and the raised stock
carvings (including the forward hand hold) were further reduced.
A cast brass nose cap at the end of the fore-end was also adopted.
The 1756 Long Land musket experienced most of its North American
usage in the Revolutionary War.
SHORT LAND BROWN BESS ("SECOND PATTERN"); This second
and shorter of the two Land Pattern categories is best defined
in three stages: The Marine or Militia, 1768 and 1777 patterns.
MARINE OR MILITIA PATTERN 1756 AND 1759: The need for a lower
cost musket to arm the Marines and English militia led to the
adoption of this arm in 1756. It retained the Brown Bess form,
but reduced the barrel to 42" (still in .75 cal.), used a
wooden ramrod and economized further by omitting the nose cap,
tail pipe and escutcheon. Moreover, the rounded sideplate shape
of the Long Land design was now flattened while the prior 6"
long brass butt tang was shortened to 3 3/4" and included
a distinctive upper screw head.
In 1759, it was upgraded by replacing the earlier version's wooden
ramrod with a steel button-head form and adding a tailpipe, nose
cap and lengthened upper pipe.
SHORT LAND PATTERN 1768: The British infantry was already leaning
toward a shorter arm. (Many 4" sections of sawedoff Long
Land barrels have been excavated from French and Indian War sites.)
Impressed with the success of the Marine or Militia musket, they
adopted the 42" barrel to create a new Short Land standard
infantry Brown Bess in 1768. This configuration retained many
features of the previous Long Land Pattern 1756 design, but with
the reduced 42" barrel length, flattened side plate, shortened
butt tang (no top screw) and reduced stock carving.
SHORT LAND PATTERN 1777: As an adjustment to wartime demands,
two changes were authorized for the Short Land Brown Bess in 1777.
A less expensive lock then specified for the private East India
Co. was adopted and the second ramrod pipe was changed from the
previous barrel shape to a straight sloping profile with an expanded
front opening ("Pratt's Improvement") already in use.
THE BROWN BESS'S ROLE IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION:
As with any country suddenly involved in a war, the American Colonies
in 1775 had to acquire a great number of arms quickly. Their immediate
supply was already in the militia system of each state that required
men from 16 to 60 years of age to own a longarm plus a bladed
secondary arm such as a sword, bayonet or belt axe. Those and
other flintlocks they pressed into service included a broad mixture
of various locally made hunting and military designs using assorted
old and new parts, commercial arms contracted from private makers,
inventories of provincial arsenals, confiscated Loyalist arms,
state purchases of spare guns from civilians, surplus supplies
from European dealers and muskets issued here by the British during
prior wars. These latter arms were largely obsolete and repaired
arms, and in many cases were vintage Dutch, Liege and other European
cast-offs. Thus, the few Brown Besses initially in American hands
were usually worn versions of the early Long Land 1730 and 1742
designs, which were later supplemented by at least 17,000 more
recent patterns captured during the conflict (Moller, Ref. 5).
The majority of locally manufactured rebel arms followed the English
pinned barrel format prior to the heavy import of French and other
European military aid beginning in 1777, which supplied most of
the Continental Line for the remainder of the war. Yet the Brown
Bess remained a major share of the arms carried by provincial
forces through 1783-both as complete muskets and as surviving
components remounted on the large number of locally assembled
At the beginning of hostilities, the Royal forces had at least
5,200 muskets in storage mostly in New York and Quebec (Bailey,
Ref. 1,2). They were primarily wooden ramrod Long Land 1730s and
1742s. Most active British regiments here were equipped with the
later 1756 version having the steel ramrod. Through the war's
first two years, the Long Land remained the primary British arm
in America, and earlier wooden ramrod patterns were normally given
to Loyalist units or as replacements to Hessian troops. Some Short
Land muskets arrived early with a few of the new regiments from
Britain, and they became the British army's principal arm after
1777. The English carbines and fusils, although not covered in
this article, usually adopted the Brown Bess configuration in
During the American Revolution's eight years, England produced
more than 218,000 Land Service longarms and contracted for another
100,000 of the Short Land Pattern 1777 from Liege and German sources
after France entered the hostilities in 1778 (Bailey, Ref, 1,2).
Created as the beginning of a new system for standardization and
quality control, these venerable Brown Bess muskets became the
workhorse that was instrumental in determining the future of North
America and much of the world. Today, they remain as icons reminding
us as collectors and historians of the courage and sacrifices
during those formative years of our heritage.
Special appreciation is extended to Joseph C. Devine for his generosity
in photographing the arms for this article at his JC. Devine,
1. Bailey, DeWitt, "British Military Small Arms in North
America 1755-1783," Bulletin of the American Society of Arms
2. Bailey, DeWitt, British Ordnance SmallArms 1718-1783, Thomas
Publications, Gettysburg, Pa., 1997
3. Blackmore, Howard L., British Military Firearms 1650-1850,
Arco Publishing Co., NewY ork, N.Y., 1962
4. Darling, Anthony D., Redcoat and Brown Bess, Museum Restoration
Service, Bloomfield, Ontario, Canada, 1970
5. Moller, George D., American Military Shoulder Arms, Vol. I
, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, Colo., 1993
6. Neumann, George C., Battle Weapons of the American Revolution,
Scurlock Publishing Co., Texarkana, Texas, 1998
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Apr 2001
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights