What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

By Joe Wagner


“Brown Bess”
(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!


Rudyard Kipling
January 1911

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  Let look at some historical references associated with each.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.

Cuthbertson’s System for a Battalion of Infantry

Cuthbertson’s System for a Battalion of Infantry

Compiled by Joe Wagner

As a new reenactor learns the use and care of their musket, they likely hear many stories and advice passed down from reenactor to reenactor.  The use of leather verses lead grips for our flints, the protection of the lock and use of frizzen covers, relieving the mainspring when on the rack, and the history of other tools and devices we acquire to care for our weapon, are all subject to various opinions on the authenticity and value of each.

What we need is a truly authentic view from the ground level of soldierly operations.  The original and authentic source of information on how the original musketman cared for his weapon – the British Brown Bess.

Enter Cuthbertson’s System for the Complete Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry – New Edition with Corrections, printed by Rouths and Nelson, Bristol, England, in 1776.


A Short Primer on the Patterns of Bess

Bess 1

A Short Primer on the Patterns of Bess

by Joe Wagner

Only slightly less popular than reenactor Question #1 – “Aren’t those clothes hot?” is Question #2 – “What kind of gun is that?” While rifle persons can provide an infinity of answers, those of the Line persuasion have mostly two popular options – British Brown Bess or French Charleville.

Saving the French for another day, the following information largely comes from an article in the National Rifle Association American Rifleman magazine, April 2001 issue.  It provides some basic facts to use when next you face Question #2.  To answer the first subset of the question – there’s still no definitive answer to the origin of the nickname “Brown Bess”.


Advices From the Front

Advices From the Front

to the Williamsburg Gazette

Published July 16, 1776

Airborne Soldiers

 New Jersey – July 6, 1776

 On Saturday last, the brig Nancy, with six 3-pndrs, under Capt. Montgomery of Wilmington, loaded on Congress’ account with 400 barrels of powder and 50 stands of small arms was drove on shore by the Kingfisher at Cape May.  They got out of her first 260 barrels of powder but the fog clearing away, the ships came within shot and five barges full of men were sent towards her.  When the brig’s people, finding they could not hold her, started afire about 140 cakes of powder in the cabin wrapped in sail and then quitted her.  One or two of the boats then boarded her and others close under her stern.  Those coming on board had given three cheers and fired their arms at our people, when the fire took effect on the powder, and sent 30 or 40 of them into the air, who soon returned to the water.  They have taken up 11 bodies, and a leg wrapped in a white splatter dash, supposed to be that of an officer.  The water was covered with legs, heads, arms, and entrails.  Thus did they huzza for a Scotch prize.*

*-18th century slang for no prize at all or not worth the price.


Williamsburg, VA – July 20, 1776

 Stolen from my company of marines, at Fredericksburg, a RIFLE GUN 3 feet 8 inches barrel, about a half inch bore, with a brass box, marked on the top square of the barrel Fredericksburg, and the maker’s name, which I do not remember.  Whoever brings the said gun to me in Hobbs’s Hole**, or to Col. Fielding Lewis in Fredericksburg shall have 20s. reward paid by GABRIEL JONES, captain.

** – Present day Tappahannock, VA

The Three Weapons of War

Three Weapons of War:

Excerpts from “Patriot Battles – How the War of Independence was Fought” By Michael Stephenson

By Joe Wagner

 This piece discusses some relevant excerpts from a thought-provoking book on the hardware and tactics of the American Revolution, and takes a look at the three way relationship between the military musket, its bayonet, and the hand-crafted rifle as seen by the participants of the 18th century.

The musket was the linchpin in defining the effectiveness and functionality of the 18th century army.  We are aware how the inaccurate and short ranged musket determined the infantry tactics of the time.  Volley fire, linear alignments, constant repetition of a rigid drill, the en masse movement of formations, all reflect the nature of the musket as the infantry weapon of choice.  Its performance was key in dealing with the other two members of this triad in battle.

The musket of the 1770’s as an instrument for battle drove the tactics, as noted above.   Using 600-800 FPS of muzzle velocity (25-30% that of a modern rifle) in sending off a  round ball that could drop 5 feet in elevation over the first 150 yards of flight, and diverge by just as much in any direction from the point of aim, it did not represent an individual weapon so much as a part of a mass shooting machine – the infantry line.