31. The Brown Bess

You might say this firearm was the workhorse weapon for both sides in the War for Independence. In thinking about how to frame this discussion, I thought my best shot (forget I said that) would be to rely on the following excerpts from my last book, John Haslet’s World.

Flintlock muskets and pistols were used globally during the Revolutionary War era, and the Brown Bess, which dated from the beginning of the eighteenth century, provided the template for most other flintlock muskets then in use. It was the best-known of these weapons—a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading gun that discharged a lead ball along an uncertain path. This firearm had an unwieldy length of almost five feet and weighed about eleven pounds if equipped with a bayonet. At a time when the average soldier’s height was five-and-a-half-feet, handling the Brown Bess represented a physical challenge to many.

Getting off a single shot involved a hurried series of actions under intense battlefield conditions: first pulling a paper cartridge from a black leather cartridge box, then biting open the end, dribbling some powder grains into the musket’s flash pan, and pouring the remaining amount—nearly half an ounce—down the muzzle, followed by the musket ball and cartridge wadding, which were forced down the barrel by use of a steel ramrod….Pulling the trigger caused flint in the falling hammer to strike a glancing blow against the steel frizzen—an L-shaped piece of steel hinged at the front and held in one of two positions, opened or closed, by a leaf spring. This in turn created a sprinkle of sparks to ignite powder in the flash pan, setting off the main charge through a touchhole in the side of the breech or back part of the musket. Then a yellow flame sprang from the muzzle, accompanied by a bang and belching smoke, and a heavy lead slug was unleashed at the speed of a thousand feet per second. Ideally, that projectile would head in the general direction of the enemy.

The Crown’s men relied on the same Brown Bess musket that was carried by many American soldiers in units other than rifle companies. Although it was highly unreliable because of its limited range, deployment of this weapon facilitated the use of the bayonet charge, the redcoats’ favorite tactic, which was certain to have a fearsome effect on their foe, however experienced they might be. Indeed, their generals fully appreciated the extent to which an assault with these blades induced terror in the rebel soldiers, especially the militia, and were convinced they would flee at the sight of glinting steel. 

The lead ball discharged by a Brown Bess—about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and weighing just over an ounce—was able to smash and penetrate human bones, organs, and tissue. This firearm could kill or injure at distances of up to three hundred yards; however, because of inherent inaccuracy and unreliable loading, its effective range was limited to between fifty and eighty yards, and shooting at anything more than a hundred yards away was a waste of ammunition. Given the limitations on its useful distance, a soldier who was wounded by a musket at a range significantly beyond a hundred yards was considered to be most unfortunate. In addition, the guns failed to fire in rain or damp conditions. Ultimately, only five percent of all musket balls fired at another soldier hit their mark. But those that did could bring down a charging bull. In contrast with the smaller rifle bullet that tended to pass through its target, a musket ball generally remained inside the body—enveloped by the torn flesh or organs that halted its momentum.

The smooth-bore musket had certain advantages and disadvantages relative to its small-arms counterpart that featured a rifled barrel (one with spiral grooves) and which was known as, well, a rifle. But that’s for another blog post, and hopefully this one will (here it comes) trigger your interest in that. That’s my aim, anyway.