Some historical context concerning the Brown Bess musket

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Hi,

I am glad to see there is a lot of interest in British Brown Bess muskets on this forum. The interest is well deserved because Brown Besses were very important to the imperial history of Britain and our own American story. I believe it was the most beautiful military musket ever made and a testament to the skill and quality workmanship of British tradesmen during the 18th century. I think the history of the gun is fairly well known among many forum members but there are contextual factors and influences that I rarely see discussed or understood that explain a great deal about how the musket developed and was issued. Searching the internet for the history of Brown Besses offers some useful information but is fraught with misinformation. For serious discussions of the pattern development of the Bess you must read Bailey's books on British small arms and Goldstein and Mowbray's book on the Brown Bess. However, neither of those sources explain much of the socio-economic context that actually governed the production of Besses. And that context explains why we don't refer to different Bess models, and why the musket changed so little during its operational period.



Unlike the almost feudal control the French king and ministers had on arms production, the British ordnance system during the 18th century was a government/private industry partnership. The government declared a set of specifications and issued warrants, then negotiations with the gun makers supplying the components began. Although "setter uppers" in the Tower of London assembled muskets the parts came from private gun makers who acted more like contractors coordinating a network of tradesmen who actually did the work, and then pocketed profits. The gun makers negotiated over price, quality, and even design of components to maintain their profit margins as well as keeping faith with their workers concerning wages. They could not abuse their work force too much because many skilled workmen could migrate to other businesses and follow the money. That was particularly true of barrel forgers and lock makers, who were always the bottleneck in the arms making pipeline. Their continued employment in the gun industry was a matter of national security to Britain. In addition, the government was in mortal fear of a population of unemployed workers because they often rioted and destroyed property in their despair for work. There was no real safety net for workers other than brutal workhouses and pathetic church run charities. Yet Britain had a population of these tradesmen much larger than their domestic needs and had to export goods to their colonies and other countries to keep them employed and docile. The national protectionism of their trade, or mercantilism, suppressed value added industries in their colonies, relegating them to suppliers of raw materials and consumers of the finished goods.



The partnership with private industry tended to suppress any radical technical innovation and change in the Brown Bess. The retooling was costly to the contractors and meant they might be stuck with useless surplus parts from older patterns. That was a major issue because the Brown Bess was not popular for anything other than military service. It was too clumsy and heavy as a sporting gun, and even the African slave traders refused it because it had too large a bore and was not popular with their customers who were selling gold, ivory, and slaves for guns. So because of the negotiations and influence of the gun making contractors, the Bess evolved slowly with relatively minor "pattern" changes such that the last pattern Bess from the early 19th century was still very similar to the first pattern of the 1730s. That is also why British ordnance insisted on using up older Brown Bess components and muskets before issuing newer patterns. They simply could not sell, other than for scrap, the older parts and muskets so they made sure they were eventually issued to the British army, provincial, or colonial troops. This is in contrast to the major model changes that happened to French muskets. The French government simply ordered the changes and either absorbed the surplus or sold it off to other countries, like the fledgling US, because the designs were light and popular for many purposes. The British system and musket design made that difficult if not impossible.



dave
 
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Hi RHI,
Arming colonial troops in America during the F&I war was problematical and piecemeal for much of the war. Colonial militia mustered early in the war usually brought their own firearms with them or were issued government owned arms. The personal arms likely were civilian fowlers. The colonial government issued arms might be older patterns of the Brown Bess (patterns 1730, 1730/40 and maybe a few pattern 1742s), commercially purchased muskets that were basically cheaper Brown Bess clones, and earlier model French muskets captured at Louisburg or other engagements prior to the F&I war. When British ordnance armed colonially raised troops, they issued older patterns of the Brown Bess because the newest and most up to date muskets went to British troops fighting in Europe not those sent to America. The workhorse of the F&I war was the pattern 1742 long land musket.

dave
 
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It’s so refreshing to have good, scholarly information to discuss and inform. For most folks, yeah, the internet is the main ( if not sole) font of information. Kind of like shared ignorance in many ways.
It is fascinating to try to conceptualise (sp) the world and forces that bore on the development of the Bess. I have often wondered and sometimes asked about the production methods of this gun and Dave was there to provide great and accurate information. Just reading the cursory overview between British and French arms designing and use is so interesting. This should be a great conversation. Thanks.
 
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Hi,
Thanks Bob. We should always remember that these historical objects of our affection were not produced in a vacuum and were subject to the social, economic, and political forces at play during their time. The principal changes in the Bess over a century can be generalized as shorter and simpler, both are attributes of cutting costs. The contractors were the driving forces behind some of those changes such as simpler side plates, butt plates, and locks. They also occasionally forced the government to spend more. For example, during the American Revolution, musket production in Britain could not keep up with demand. One problem was the scarcity of walnut. Eventually most of the "English" walnut was being imported from Italy. In an effort to cut costs and increase production, the ordnance authorized the use of beech to make stocks. The rough stockers out right refused to accept the wood even though the government offered to supply some of it at government cost. The stockers and other tradesmen were always nervous that government contracts would dry up at any time and with little warning so they did not want to risk being stuck with surplus supplies of beech wood that no one wanted except for tool handles and firewood.

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Great educational posts, Dave. I see a thread in what you say that tells us there seldom was just one style BB. Variations were rampant.
We often see criticism of the Italian made Pedersoli replica BBs. I had one for many years and understand the critiques that it "ain't authentic". However, I always felt it was a good representation of a BB. I gave talks and presentation about the Rev. Rifleman for many years. I used a BB in the presentation to show the difference between a musket of the day and a rifle. Unlikely it ever would have made a difference to any in my many audiences if the drop of the stock or stamp on the lock was a tiny bit different. They saw and had an opportunity to understand the arms of the time.
 
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For some insights into the cultural, social, economic and state policies that affected gunmaking in Great Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Priya Satia's "Empire of Guns" traces several generations of the Galton family, prominent quaker gunmakers in Birmingham, England. Not the easiest of reads and not much detail about the guns themselves, but lots of background material about guns for the "Africa trade" and the HEICo. as well as government contracts.
 
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Hi,

I am glad to see there is a lot of interest in British Brown Bess muskets on this forum. The interest is well deserved because Brown Besses were very important to the imperial history of Britain and our own American story. I believe it was the most beautiful military musket ever made and a testament to the skill and quality workmanship of British tradesmen during the 18th century. I think the history of the gun is fairly well known among many forum members but there are contextual factors and influences that I rarely see discussed or understood that explain a great deal about how the musket developed and was issued. Searching the internet for the history of Brown Besses offers some useful information but is fraught with misinformation. For serious discussions of the pattern development of the Bess you must read Bailey's books on British small arms and Goldstein and Mowbray's book on the Brown Bess. However, neither of those sources explain much of the socio-economic context that actually governed the production of Besses. And that context explains why we don't refer to different Bess models, and why the musket changed so little during its operational period.



Unlike the almost feudal control the French king and ministers had on arms production, the British ordnance system during the 18th century was a government/private industry partnership. The government declared a set of specifications and issued warrants, then negotiations with the gun makers supplying the components began. Although "setter uppers" in the Tower of London assembled muskets the parts came from private gun makers who acted more like contractors coordinating a network of tradesmen who actually did the work, and then pocketed profits. The gun makers negotiated over price, quality, and even design of components to maintain their profit margins as well as keeping faith with their workers concerning wages. They could not abuse their work force too much because many skilled workmen could migrate to other businesses and follow the money. That was particularly true of barrel forgers and lock makers, who were always the bottleneck in the arms making pipeline. Their continued employment in the gun industry was a matter of national security to Britain. In addition, the government was in mortal fear of a population of unemployed workers because they often rioted and destroyed property in their despair for work. There was no real safety net for workers other than brutal workhouses and pathetic church run charities. Yet Britain had a population of these tradesmen much larger than their domestic needs and had to export goods to their colonies and other countries to keep them employed and docile. The national protectionism of their trade, or mercantilism, suppressed value added industries in their colonies, relegating them to suppliers of raw materials and consumers of the finished goods.



The partnership with private industry tended to suppress any radical technical innovation and change in the Brown Bess. The retooling was costly to the contractors and meant they might be stuck with useless surplus parts from older patterns. That was a major issue because the Brown Bess was not popular for anything other than military service. It was too clumsy and heavy as a sporting gun, and even the African slave traders refused it because it had too large a bore and was not popular with their customers who were selling gold, ivory, and slaves for guns. So because of the negotiations and influence of the gun making contractors, the Bess evolved slowly with relatively minor "pattern" changes such that the last pattern Bess from the early 19th century was still very similar to the first pattern of the 1730s. That is also why British ordnance insisted on using up older Brown Bess components and muskets before issuing newer patterns. They simply could not sell, other than for scrap, the older parts and muskets so they made sure they were eventually issued to the British army, provincial, or colonial troops. This is in contrast to the major model changes that happened to French muskets. The French government simply ordered the changes and either absorbed the surplus or sold it off to other countries, like the fledgling US, because the designs were light and popular for many purposes. The British system and musket design made that difficult if not impossible.



dave
I'm gonna print this out to read later. Of course many know about a site just for Besses, I think it's the Brown Bess Shooters & Collectors forum or something similar. Thanks for posting about a musket used for 150 years! and still popular!!
 
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For some insights into the cultural, social, economic and state policies that affected gunmaking in Great Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Priya Satia's "Empire of Guns" traces several generations of the Galton family, prominent quaker gunmakers in Birmingham, England. Not the easiest of reads and not much detail about the guns themselves, but lots of background material about guns for the "Africa trade" and the HEICo. as well as government contracts.
Hi Coot,
Thank you for bringing up Satia's book. It is a difficult but good read. She discusses the British gun trade as a socio-economic force influencing much of the history of imperial Britain. She provides a perspective that moves between macro-economic and political issues and their influence on the trade but also how the trade influenced those factors. She brings it down to earth by focusing on gun maker and contractor, Samuel Galton. However, my interest is more how those forces created the patterns of Brown Besses that we admire. Blackmore, Bailey, Goldstein, and Mowbray focus on the details of the different patterns of Brown Besses and the history of the ordnance system, Satia focuses on the social, political. and economic forces that governed the orders for muskets and demand for other arms, but what I am interested in is how those forces actually produced the gun and its patterns. In other words, the missing link between Satia and Blackmore, Bailey, Goldstein, and Mowbray. There is much detail in that subject that Satia hints at but never explores in detail. The Brown Bess evolved slowly and incrementally (compared with the French line of muskets) because that process was an amalgam of the top-down political and economic forces governing the actions of ordnance and the gun making contractors with the bottom up social and economic needs of the tradesmen actually doing the work. To their credit, many (not all) gun makers were responsive to the needs of their subcontracted tradesmen, perhaps because the workers were critical to their success as well.

dave
 
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There may be cultural or governmental structural factors at work to help explain the slow but steady evolution in the case of 18th - early 19th c British arms. I am most familiar with naval cutlasses. The British naval cutlass patterns show a slow but steady evolution of (sometimes minor) details with a clear lineage from the mid 1700s to the 1900. Sort of like Mercedes in automobiles from the 1950s to the 2000s, each new pattern or model can be looked upon as a minor adjustment or improvement on the previous one. US patterns on the other hand show radical changes in thinking/design over the span of 1770s to 1917 with no trace that one model owed anything to the previous one in line.
 

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I agree; steeped in history, the Brown Bess is the world's most beautiful musket. I'm fortunate to own two 'Besses, a Pattern 1769 Short Land and this, an untampered-with Pattern 1756, a Grice 1759 product. It's engraved on the barrel as being issued to the British 40th Regiment of Foot. They fought at the violent 3 January, 1777 Battle of Princeton, New Jersey, some finally surrendering their extemporized fortress of the college's Nassau Hall. This piece came out of New Jersey so could have been surrendered after that engagement. Also have an early shield-shanked 'Bess bayonet and recovered 40th Regiment button.
 

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Dave, was there any standard position for the bayonet lug on a Brown Bess?

I had the chance to visit a friends collection and they’re all over the place on three third models and a second model, some were even off center.
 
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Dave Fox

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Yes. From the earliest 'Long Land Besses birthed circa 1727 through the last India Pattern assembled after Napoleon was finally caged in 1815, all would fit any of the four distinct bayonet patterns evolved in that time; in other words, all 'Besses and all 'Bess bayonets are or should be pretty-much interchangeable. All sported the lug/foresight on top. i cannot explain why 'Bess-like muskets may have lugs elsewhere unless, perhaps, they're from the Napalese horde or otherwise not of original British configuration. Do purchase the superb study on this musket by Erik Goldstein and Stuart Mowbray, "The Brown Bess", Mowbray Publishing, 2010. It's available for $39.99 on Amazon. Clearly organized, well written (and with humor), beautifully illustrated, I read it again and again. Attached photo is my "other' 'Bess, a P.1769 Short Land Pattern in my little museum.
 

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Hi David,
I was about to write the same thing. Were those bayonet lugs all over the place on India pattern and new land muskets made in places other than Britain? Much of the stuff IMA sells from those Nepalese hordes are not representative of the work done in Britain. When I first set up shop in Braintree, Vermont, there was a group of locals who bought some inexpensive Martini-Henrys from IMA Nepalese stock. They had fun shooting them but they asked me to help fix the sights. What a mess! Most front sights were off center and even brazed on at an angle.

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There is something else extremely important about the British not making major changes over the course of many decades with the flintlock Land Patterns of Muskets. That was Logistics, even though the term did not become commonly used until WWI, and it was more important to Great Britain than any other country on earth. This due to the vastness of their Empire all around the world from India to the Caribbean and North American Continent. No other country came close to having so many Soldiers and Sailors stationed all over the world. In the age of Sailing Ships, that meant the next supply ship might take 3 to 5 months each way to get to you.


We must also consider the “service life” of the Brown Bess was considered at most to be 10-12 years in peace time before they were worn out. In the many wars Great Britain fought in those years, it was shortened to 6-8 years or less during war. So, every time Great Britain got into a new conflict, a huge number of new arms had to be made in addition to the older arms that were wearing or worn out in service. Huge changes could not be made because along with the new arms, they were still using older pattern arms going back at least two or three patterns in each conflict.


For example, interchangeable repair parts were still decades in the future. It would have been a nightmare keeping arms repaired, if the lock parts changed much over two or three patterns of Muskets that were around in most every conflict. Even so when many of the parts were made of Iron, rather than steel, that meant parts wore out faster. So, the lists of quantities of repair parts (that had to be hand fitted to each arm) coming to America in the FIW and AWI were much greater than we modern folks are used to seeing per weapon. The Artificers/Armorers tool kits also were much greater in the kinds and quantities of tools needed to keep the arms in repair.


Now once a country chose a caliber of musket in this period, they were pretty much stuck with it for the entire period the flintlock muskets were used. This because British Ordnance also had to provide gang molds for bullets for the different calibers of musket, carbine and pistol, along with everything else needed to make the ammunition. This also meant cartridge formers, string and something we take pretty much for granted today, but was very different in the 18th century. Paper was “hand laid” or hand made and was not nearly as uniform as we buy today.


The paper used to make cartridges had to be thick and strong enough, but not too thick that would keep a wrapped ball from going down the barrel. I have to admit even I never thought about this until about 15 years ago and I’ve been using and studying the Brown Bess since the mid 1970’s. DUH. So, much if not most of the paper available in the 18th century would not work. Once I figured it out, I began researching and found British Ordnance had to contract for and supply special cartridge paper to be sent all over the world, because they couldn’t count on proper paper being available in the quality or quantity needed. I found documentation they were supplying “cartouche paper” as far back as before the FIW, but it probably went further back than that.


Other things that impacted Logistics. The outer diameter of the barrels had to be at least somewhat uniform or hand fitting bayonets to each musket would have been a nightmare, especially when spare bayonets would have been required to fit two or three patterns of muskets. Since British Ordnance was also required to supply a “cartouche box” (what we call a cartridge belly box) for each musket, the HOLES in them had to be large enough to accept the cartridges. (Another reason to maintain caliber size for so long.) They also had to supply slings and by keeping the distance between the sling swivels and the width of the sling swivels fairly consistent, new slings would fit muskets going back two to four patterns.


I spent 26 years in Ordnance in the Marine Corps, most of that time in Small Arms. As such, I’m downright amazed British Ordnance didn’t break down much more often than they did.


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Hi Gus,
Great post! France also had an empire that spanned much of the globe in the 18th century but they never took it as seriously as the British. Until India became a focus, the primary interest for both countries were the "sugar" islands of the Caribbean, where serious fortunes were made if you survived the heat and diseases. The colonies in North America were lower priorities for both countries. Regardless, the British considered their colonies an important market for manufactured goods, which the home islands produced in much larger quantities than could be consumed at home. They had to keep thousands of workers employed to assure domestic tranquility and maintain the capacity for arms production even during times of peace. Their government/private partnership made that process cumbersome. The Brown Bess was an 11lb gorilla that had little value outside of its military mission, so the government had to dance with the gun makers to keep an arms system working. Prior to the Rev War, the British army numbered barely 40,000 men but during the Napoleonic wars it grew to over 250,000 plus the navy. British Ordnance struggled to keep up with arms supplies and introducing radically new designs was very difficult despite efforts by some gun makers like Henry Nock and his "screwless" lock.

dave
 
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