FIREARMS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION - Muskets Of The English
The Brown Bess. — The principal arm of the British was the flintlock musket, then and later variously called Brown Bess, King's Arm, and Queen's Arm. Of these names Brown Bess is the oldest, and dates from Queen Elizabeth (Queen Bess), whose reign was 1558-1603. Long bows and cross-bows, not muskets, were the arms of the greater part of her soldiery, but she had one regiment equipped with matchlock guns with browned barrels and fittings; and as the custom of the times sanctioned giving familiar names to weapons the brown guns were named for the donor. King's Arm dates from William III (1689-1702), who at the Battle of the Boyne found flint muskets superior to other guns and caused their adoption in 1690 as the only regulation English military guns. The name was renewed under George I. Queen's Arm dates from Queen Anne's War (1702-1714). Although a matchlock, , wheellock or snaphance British musket was in its day a Brown Bess, in Revolutionary times the name was applied only to one with a flintlock.
The individuality of this arm is so strong that once it is recognized it is not easily confounded with another arm. Its characteristics cannot, however, be made thoroughly plain by verbal description only; they are more for the eye than the ear; the pictures will show some of them, but the arm itself would be better. In words there is possible only the broad statement that a Brown Bess differed from other flintlock muskets in these particulars: first, the barrel was fastened to the fore stock by pins, not by bands; second, the arm was mounted with brass; third and more important, the arm was marked by the British government.
Because this kind of gun was in use for more than 150 years; because different branches of the service were armed with different sizes of it; because through lack of machinery for making arms alike the hundreds of gun makers who made these muskets varied them a little to suit their tastes; because the early ones, the middle period ones, and the late ones were slightly unlike; and because so little is known about them, it is difficult for any but the most expert firearm antiquarian to judge whether or not a certain Brown Bess could have been used in the Revolutionary War. Illustration No. 10, a shows a perfect specimen of a Revolutionary War one, grenadier size, and b, c, and d show three perfect specimens of the smaller size used by light infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and preferred for sea service. Such small arms are occasionally mentioned in Revolutionary documents as carbines.
What the present owner of such an arm wants to know is not so much whether it was made before the Revolution as after it. As to the latter, when lacking a date or the maker's name, there is one certain proof, and only one: if the barrel has for a proof-mark a pair of crossed scepters with B G P in the angles the gun could not have been in the Revolution because the mark was first used in 1813. The BGP is the 1813 part of this mark; the crossed scepters without the letters were old. These were Birmingham proof house stamps. Other Revolution-time proof stamps were the London one, G P interlaced with a crown over, and also the private ones of such large manufacturers as Sharpe, Edge, D. Egg, Grice, H. Nock, the Ketlands, etc. The English laws regarding the proof of arms were lax, and private proofs were in some cases allowed instead of government ones.
In Revolutionary days all metal parts of a musket were kept polished bright. The wood of a Brown Bess was usually black walnut — occasionally maple finished with oil, never with varnish. The greater part of these guns was not made in great arms factories, for there were only a few shops in London or Birmingham where muskets were made complete. As a rule a gun maker who had a government contract sub-let it to a number of journeyman workmen, each of whom made only one kind of part; thus, one man made stocks only, one made barrels only, one made locks only, etc., and each did his work at his cottage or in his little private shop in his yard. There were in Birmingham hundreds of these workmen, each of whom carried his manufactures to the shop of the contractor, where the assembling was done.
The soldier, to load his gun, half cocked it, and opened the pan by throwing forward the frizzen. Then he bit off the end of the cartridge, pouredthe pan full of powder, closed it by snapping back the frizzen, dropped the butt to the ground, poured the rest of the powder down the barrel, struck the gun to jar some of the powder into the touch-hole, dropped in the ball, crumpled the paper and rammed it down to keep the loose ball in place. The piece was then ready to cock and fire. When the trigger was pressed, the cock in falling struck its flint against the frizzen, which caused the frizzen to fall forward and expose the powder in the pan, into which fell (perhaps) a shower of sparks. The priming powder flashed, the flash ran through the touch-hole and ignited the powder in the barrel, a jet of flame squirted out of the touch-hole and the charge went out of the barrel at the same moment. All this did not happen instantly, but occupied an appreciable interval of time during which the various operations could be observed. If a man was shooting towards the wind he had to take precautions against getting his face scorched and his eyes injured by the back-blown flare from the touch-hole.
These guns were very unreliable from two causes: First, the flint frequently failed to make sparks, or the touch-hole became stopped, or the fog or rain spoiled the powder. The second cause of unreliability was the total inability of the weapon to shoot accurately. And this again was from two causes: First, the barrel being made by wrapping a sheet of iron around a mandril and welding the edges, which were sometimes butted and sometimes lapped, the interior of the barrel even after boring was anything but true. There was no desire on the part of the makers to put out accurately made barrels such as the famous Henry Nock was already furnishing on his double-barreled shotguns, because infantry regulations condoned inaccurate shooting. The soldier was merely required to hold his musket horizontal, point it — not sight it — towards the enemy, and fire at command. The execution of the enemy was entirely entrusted to volley-shooting at ranges not exceeding 1oo yards. The other cause of inaccuracy was the bullet itself, which, wobbling loosely in the barrel or rolling along the bore as it was fired out, never, except by accident, went just where the shooter wished it to go.
Sawyer, Charles. Firearms in American History. Boston: The Author,
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