Today, I shall be writing about the muskets used by the British army in the 18th and early 19th century. Muskets were generally inaccurate, caused as much harm to the user as to the enemy, and took a long time to reload. The Brown Bess muskets were no exemption, yet they remained in service until the 1830s. It is hard to show you in this blog the specific types of Musket, changes that were made to weapons were small or are very hard to show, so I do apologise for not going into the design aspects of the weapons. However I hope you’ll agree by the end of this just how important this weapon was, and in a certain way its beauty. From previous blog posts, you would have seen how weapons were used in both warfare but also in society. They were hunting weapons or the like, but this changes in modern history. Musket weapons weren’t so regularly seen in public. Pistols were common, and in the USA, muskets were common place, but in general these weapons were mainly found in armies, it was a weapon of war. That being said, weapons were decorated in the past, with ornate handles and inscriptions on the blades, so were these weapons. Pistols and Muskets have been found to be ornate and crafted. Some of them have even been heirlooms! So having that being said, please read on, and let me guide you through the weapon of the British army, the Brown Bess Musket.
It would be understandable to think the name Brown Bess to be that of a horse or something similar and not a gun. The nickname Brown Bess only came around during the latter part of the 19th century, when the guns had been retired from service. There actual names were as follows: Dog Lock Musket, Long Land Musket, Short Land Musket, and the Sea Musket. Each was superseded by the one before it, as improvements were made.
To fire a musket, there had to be an order to things. Otherwise it would not fire, saying that even loading it correctly, could still cause you to go blind as it misfired. Firstly, you have to ensure the weapon is clean, if not then a misfire can happen. After you are sure it’s clean, you half cock it. You then bring out a paper charge from your cartridge box, you bite the top of the paper off, spit it out, you keep the musket ball in your mouth, and then sprinkle some of the gunpowder into the pan and then lock it. You then pour down gunpowder down the barrel, followed by the musket ball that was in your teeth. You then take out your ram rod (which varied from different models) and push the charge down to bottom. You then bring it up, lock it, and then fire. When you fired, you closed your eyes, the smoke and the flash could make a soldier go blind, therefore the common infantryman closed his eyes when he discharged this weapon. This didn’t do accuracy any favours, but the men relied on volley fire so they weren’t punished for missing their target. You didn’t usually fire the musket on your own, but when the officer (of noble rank) issued the order. A British soldier could fire 2-3 rounds a minute. If you could fire in 3 minutes, then you were usually put into the riffles, as they were the best shots.
So what was the tactics used with the musket I hear you ask? Well basically, men lined up facing each other and just shot each other. The Musket produced a lot of smoke, so much that it looked as though the battle was being fought in smoke; it made it hard to issue orders when you couldn’t see what was going on! Notice on this picture how you can see the smoke resting on the battlefield. This was only created by a handful of Brown Bess Muskets and Cannon, if a full army was firing, then you probably wouldn’t be able to see those men in the background
The range of the musket was not great, and you certainly couldn’t shoot across the battlefield with one. The side that could load faster and have more luck was the side that would have a better chance at winning. Of course cavalry and cannons could have a large effect on a battlefield, but with the advent of the square, cavalry were made less of a threat than before. There is one case during the Napoleonic wars, where a regiment of infantry, managed to repulse a cavalry charge just with musket fire. This was unheard of, as the charge should have broken through the ranks of men. However the speed of reload and skill with the weapon ensured that the men stood against the cavalry and won. These muskets nonetheless could be equipped with a bayonet, which would allow them to engage in close combat, as was needed. This bayonet during the 17th and early 18th century was usually the ‘plug bayonet’. The bayonet had a round handle that slid directly into the musket barrel. Therefore it could no longer fire. However later developments fitted on the outside of the barrel, ensured it could still fire. These types are called the ‘sword bayonet’ or he ‘socket bayonet’. The battle of Waterloo is a very good example of the use of the Brown Bess Muskets and there may be a post on Waterloo coming down the line so stay tuned for that!
So what wars did the Brown Bess muskets contribute to? Well any military campaign that the British army was involved in, so was the musket. Let me name a few, so you can get an idea of how vastly used this weapon was. The Seven years’ War against the French, which was known for fighting taking place all across the world; the American War of Independence (or revolutionary war if you are an American); the Jacobite rebellions, especially in 1745 at the battle of Culloden, or the War of Austrian Succession, or the many wars against Spain and the Napoleonic wars. Yes this weapon was used by the British in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. It was the weapon that helped defeat the French, which managed to drive back the French Old Guard. So you can see it was a weapon that was associated with the British army.
The Musket was eventually replaced by riffles. Weapons that could be fired quicker, with greater accuracy and with less chance of killing its user. Riffles and Muskets coexisted, and were used at battles such as Waterloo. In American Civil war, the confederates still used Brown Bess muskets, supplied by the British of course, and the Union used riffles, again supplied by the British and other European nations. This gave the Union a massive advantage, as the riffle was a far superior weapon. You may ask that if riffles were a lot better than muskets, then why did they coexist? Why did the British and other European armies use both? Well riffles cost a lot, and muskets were cheap. The British army had the Green Jackets and the riffle regiment, who fought like skirmishers. They went in front of the army to pick of men, usually captains and the like, or the carrier of the flag. But they were never used in the main force. Human life was cheap, it was replaceable, however riffles were not and therefore soldiers were not as well equipped as they could have been which reminds me of a similar scenario recently!
To conclude, the Brown Bess Musket was awful compared to its successors, however it won the British army countless victories and was in service for over a hundred years. It ensured armies would march in line (or in column as some European nations did), face each other and shoot at each other, hoping that their shot would hit and that they would survive. We have to thank the Swedish for this style of warfare, marching in line and such. The Brown Bess is a beautiful style of weapon, weapons nonetheless and many flintlock loaded muskets and pistols that have survived have ornate carvings on them, personalised for show. Each man looked after his own weapon and grew quite attached to it. It was the only item that could realistically save him. The Bess is an iconic weapon, one that will always be associated with the British army, or visa versa. The musket was truly a horrific weapon.
If you want to see one fire, there are many videos on YouTube, just type Brown Bess into the search bar. Or if you want to see one live fired. Then go to re-enactment shows, such as the Military Odyssey or War and Peace. You will see how loud one really is too fire!