What’s in a Name?
By Joe Wagner
(The Army Musket – 1700-1815)
In the days of lace ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none would despise.
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men strait in the eyes.
At Blenheim and Ramilles fops would confess,
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.
Though her sight was not long, and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess
If you go to Museums–there’s one in Whitehall–
Where old weapons are shown with their names writ beneath,
You will find her, upstanding, her back to the wall,
As stiff as a ramrod, the flint in her teeth.
And if ever we English had reason to bless
Any arm save our mothers’, that arm is Brown Bess!
When it comes to the arms we carry as reenactors, there is one historical mystery in need of a solution which would help our interpretive discussion immensely, and that is the origin and meaning of the term “Brown Bess”. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer that has been unearthed and accepted by the military history community. But there are a lot of clues and contemporaneous information that gives us something to chew on when considering the subject. Among considerations for an open-minded discussion is that the term may not have applied only to the English long and short land pattern King’s musket, as implied by Kipling’s poem. Another is that one obvious clue, the word Bess, being connected to Queen Elizabeth I (reign from 1558 to 1603) is probably not correct.
Taking each of the words in the identifying name, brown and bess, separately, we can associate each individually with terms and usages of the period during which the weapon was carried and used by the English. This can get us to a reasonable set of meanings that might be very close to the truth. Let look at some historical references associated with each.
There is commonly accepted information among reenactors on the use of the terms “arms” and “firelock” in the drill commands handed down through the history of the flint weapon. Both drill terms were used at a time when infantry formations consisted of both musketmen and pikemen, who worked cooperatively in formations of infantry. The two terms allowed for commands to be given for each weapon, or both, depending on the movement required. The pike plays a role in our discussion, and provides supporting evidence of the contemporary definition of the word “brown”. We know that soldiers have strong traditions and associations with their craft that tend to carry on in song and slang. The English soldier of the 17th and early 18th centuries was no different. In a Christopher Marlowe work (Edward II), written in 1622, there is the following line:
“So, with a band of pikes and bowmen, brown bills and targetiers”
The phrase provides a Rosetta’s stone of translation for the 17th century slang terms for the pike man and archers. “Bill” was a common term for a pike, halbard, or other shafted weapon. “Brown bills” as a military slang term for pikes? How uncannily close to a parallel term for the companion weapon of the infantry – the musket? “Brown bill” did not mean browned in color, likely for neither the pike nor the musket. There was commonly used a Dutch word – brun – which means “bright” that had been carried over to the Scotch and English language. Ballads in both languages contain phrases such as “My bonnie brown sword” and “brown as glass” meaning a bright finish or appearance. Up until the mid-twentieth century, there was still in use a slang term for the English half penny, which is a bright copper color, called a “brown”. If the bright metal pike was a “brown bill” to its users, how likely is it that the musket would also come to be described as “brown” among the same musket-bearing infantrymen fighting together with their pike-bearing brethren?
Like the term “brown”, the word “bess” in this context may also originate with the Dutch language. In Dutch, “bus” (Middle Dutch: busse) means pipe or tube, and at the time, a gun barrel. There is little doubt that the term carried over to the English language as a firearm in the 17th and 18th centuries, as we see in words like “blunderbuss” and “arquebus”, which are English language variations of contemporary firearms from that same period. It is not hard to get from “busse” to “bess” in military slang. While the pike man was calling his weapon a bill, his fellow infantryman was calling his firearm a bess. Both were “brown” – bright.