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Brown Bess Musket
National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Brown Bess Musket

Catalog #: 70924M    Accession #: 278301
Credit: Armed Forces History, Division of History of Technology, National Museum of American History

Dimensions / Weight

Dimensions: 61.25" H x 7" W x 3" D

Physical Description

The British made flintlock, .71 caliber smooth bore design.

Specific History

British Short Land Pattern musket

General History

Brown Bess is the nickname of the British Short Land Pattern musket. It was the standard arm of the British soldier during the American Revolution. Unlike modern weapons, the musket was slow to load, inaccurate and frequently unreliable. The Brown Bess fired round lead balls, some the size of a quarter. With such an inaccurate gun, soldiers were often massed tightly together, firing a shower 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. There has been much conjecture as to how the “Brown Bess” came by her nickname. The walnut stock may have been an explanation for the brown. Another explanation is the russeting of the barrel, a process used to prevent corrosion which also left the barrel a rich brown color. The origins of “Bess” are much more varied. Some believe it was a reference to Queen Elizabeth I, though she had been dead more than 100 years before the rifle was standard issue. Some feel it was 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 have been a simple case of poetic alliteration. In 1785 in the Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue a vernacular dictionary of the time the following entry appears: “Brown Bess, a soldier’s firelock”.


Country: Great Britain
Era: Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
Service: Militia
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