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 the 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 arms industry.
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.
The real problem, however, was the blackpowder quality. Follow-ing 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 yards, 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 yards away. The typical battle was decided by a disciplined bayonet charge ending in a hand-to-hand melee.
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.
Brown Bess Photo Gallery
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 inches 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 pounds.
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 century 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 war-time, 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 American colonies.
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-inch “Long Land” and the 42-inch “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-inch-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”):
Long Land Pattern 1730: