sunset from behind the wire

sunset from behind the wire

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hunting and Warfare with Brown Bess

LL with granddaughter, Alyssa, and Long Land Pattern Brown Bess musket
Fellow blogger, CW Swanson of The Daily Timewaster asked for a blog on the Brown Bess Musket. 

Here you go.

The Princess wants to go hunting with grandpa when she's old enough.

The Brown Bess Musket won the world for the British Empire, and was  the most widely used firearm in history until the advent of the Russian AK-47. Though it went out of issue in both the American and British Armies (1722-1838), they were common in American households through the 1800's in private use. 

Short Land Pattern, referred to as a Fusil. Often issued to artillery, dragoon
and Fusileers (light infantry) units. Note the lack of a bayonet lug.
The Brown Bess (British Pattern Musket) was built and issued in several variants: Long Land Pattern, Short Land Pattern, India Pattern, New Land Pattern Musket, Sea Service Musket and others. Usually the differences had to do with the barrel length. The locks were always the Tower series. The name Brown Bess is derived from the German "brawn buss" (strong firearm).

The Brown Bess was not intended to be used as an aimed weapon. It was designed to be volley-fired by one formation of massed infantry against another formation of infantry on an open European field where men fought according to set down rules of war. There were no sights on a Brown Bess, though you can aim it over the rear tang screw and the bayonet lug.

Brown Bess Musket with "lunger" bayonet
I bought my Brown Bess about thirty years ago and have hunted deer with it. It's less effective than modern archery for a number of reasons:

1. Modern compound bows and even modern recurve bows have synthetic bowstrings that are not effected by rain and moisture. The pan of the Brown Bess contains black powder that turns into "black sludge" when wet.  I hunted with a peace of tanned deerskin over the lock in inclement weather or even when there was 'heavy dew or mist'. During the "age of Brown Bess", archery relied on hemp or twine type string that stretched when wet. Thus the archery during that time suffered from some of the same limitations as black powder weapons.

2. Modern compound bows have longer range than the Brown Bess and a hunting arrowhead puts just about the same size wound channel through the target. The Brown Bess fires a .70 caliber patched lead round ball through the .75 caliber smooth bore barrel. An arrowhead going through a target will not smash bone usually. A 550 grain .735 caliber ball will simply shatter a bone (requiring an amputation - even if such a wound was suffered today because the bone is pulped) and mushroom out to about 100 caliber or one inch in diameter for the remainder of its journey through the target.

photo from the internet of a person holding a
.75 cal musket ball
3. A Brown Bess loads more quickly than a black powder muzzle loading rifle. However, I can fire three or four aimed arrows in the time it takes to load and prime a musket for a second shot. There is a way to "cheat" when loading a Brown Bess. Using a paper cartridge, pour the powder down the muzzle, drop the undersized .69 caliber bullet in (wrapped in greased paper) and simply stamp the butstock on the ground. The bullet usually drops down the barrel and seats itself on or close to the powder charge. The shooter would have to prime the pan, cock the musket and it would be ready for a "snapshot". It's safer to use the ramrod to seat the bullet but in combat, there might be no time for that luxury.

Thoughts on Hunting with Brown Bess

Brown Bess is not a high tolerance weapon and the ball more or less bounces through its barrel on its way out the muzzle toward the target. Thus, hitting a  running deer-sized target reliably at more than 50 meters (at most) is simply a matter of luck. (wise to bring a .44 magnum handgun to finish the work if you have to track a wounded deer)
However, it's important to note that the weapon was never intended by its designers to be used for hunting. In England, the deer belonged to the King. Maybe one day Barack Obama will claim that he owns all of the deer in the US but he hasn't as of this writing. 
Because the Brown Bess has a smooth bore it's not a bad shotgun because it can easily fire three + ounces of shot through a long barrel, giving it an open choke pattern with the effect of a full choke. Thus you can take higher flying birds such as geese with it, using #4 shot.

My motive in selecting this ancient pattern flintlock weapon for hunting deer was simply to give the deer a sporting chance. Though I've had .50 caliber rifled (percussion cap) black powder weapons as long as I've had Brown Bess, and I've hunted with them too, their accuracy made them lethal at three times the range...still not quite fair to the deer.

Most hunting shots in the Rocky Mountain terrain that I hunted were 100+ meters, thus I had to change my tactics to hunt with Brown Bess. It's a very different hunt than one undertaken with a .270 rifle blended with a Schmidt and Bender Police Marksman 2 scope (my rifle scope of choice). 

The Brown Bess in Combat

Since Brown Bess has a smooth bore, there were a number of loads that were used in combat -- generally for a first shot. Follow-up shots were inevitably one ball, because of the time involved. You can double-shot a Brown Bess and since the gas does escape around the balls, the danger of a barrel explosion due to pressure is reduced. With a double shot load you would use something like a 2F powder because you want a slower burn. The standard powder charge is 3F.  With a double shot load you achieve what modern shooters would call a "substantive double tap" with wound channel dispersion for maximum effect. (Two spaced holes instead of one)

Buck and Ball was popular with the colonists during the War for American Independence. There are a number of buck and ball variations, but usually it involved 3 or 4 buckshot (.38-.45 caliber) and a .70 caliber ball. At close range, it was devastating, pushing about 1000 grains of lead out of the barrel. Then or now, it's completely lethal.

The British, French, Austrians, Dutch, Germans and Spanish who fought land wars in Europe usually fought with regiments of 200 men, firing 200 musket balls per unaimed volley at a generally equal numbers of opponents at roughly 100-50 meters. Based on what I've read, the casualty count per volley (keeping in mind that every hit turns out to be a kill because they bled to death) was 3-5. The closer the formations were, the higher the effectiveness of volley fire. Drilled Americans during the Revolution - who ALWAYS fought in the European pattern despite myths furthered by modern education - occasionally managed to bring down 6-10 per volley because drilled  and trained Continentals tended to aim. After a few volleys, hopefully the enemy was demoralized enough that a successful bayonet attack could be launched, and the infantry closed for the kill. Once a bayonet was fixed on the musket, it couldn't be reloaded in combat and effectively became a spear.

There is no way to treat a lunger bayonet injury even today. It's a triangular bayonet that inflicts a horrible wound. World War 1 trench knives were in the lunger pattern for that reason.


During the Siege of Boston, George Washington armed most of the Continental Army with pikes/spears because he had a shortage of muskets. At first blush, a spear would seem to be an inferior weapon to a musket, however there isn't much difference between a hand spear and a Musket at close range.

Through the American Revolution, British sergeants often carried pikes in lieu of muskets because they handled more easily in hand-to-hand combat than the musket did. In a regimental formation the youngest officer, an ensign, usually held the colors and on one side you'd find a sergeant with a pike, a sergeant with a blunderbuss on the other.  The blunderbuss (short shotgun - something like 6 gauge) was also used by grenadier flanking companies (who carried hand grenades and a blunderbuss). The Brown Bess was large and unwieldy for men throwing hand grenades.

Example of Drill
The Movie, "Barry Lyndon" by Stanley Kubric


Example of Combat

An Irish/British regiment advances (with unloaded muskets) with fixed bayonets on a French regiment that is firing muskets during The Seven Years War. It's a very well executed and realistic combat sequence. The French used the Charleville Musket (similar to the Brown Bess).


During combat the musicians followed the main formation and acted as stretcher bearers. In both sequences, above, they are playing "The British Grenadiers".

Example of Close Combat with Irregular Forces
(Last of the Mohicans by Michael Mann)

If you were to buy this DVD, I recommend the "Director's Cut".


Tomahawk and war club at close range don't need a lengthy reload when action is close and hot.


During the French and Indian War, the British (35th and 60th Regiments of Foot) surrendered Fort William Henry to the French and were allowed to leave with the honors of war (they kept their colors, muskets and one piece of artillery). As they left the area, the Ottawa and Huron attacked the British and a few Mohawks.
Historians disagree on the number killed, but of 2,300 who left the fort, modern reconstructions of actual events suggest that as many as 1,500 British died in the encounter. Other historians hold that only a couple hundred died, but it was the last time in that war that the British accepted surrender terms from the French. General Montcalm, commanding the French forces tried to restrain his Indian allies but failed in the effort. Montcalm was killed while commanding the defense of Quebec later in that war.
Both of these movies reflect the use of muskets in a very realistic and compelling way, illustrating their strengths and weaknesses in the period they were used in combat.

In the Americas during the French and Indian War, British Major Robert Rogers (Roger's Rangers) and others realized the need to adapt tactics to the situations they were presented with, which didn't aways mirror those found in Europe. Many regular officers looked down on Rogers for adopting unconventional (but) effective tactics in which men under his command wore buckskin or green uniforms, cut off about 2 feet from the barrels of their Brown Bess Muskets, didn't use bayonets and traded them in for tomahawks.

The Rifle

Though the rifle was used by the Americans during the Revolution (and later by the British in other campaigns when the musket was king of the battlefield), they took a long time to load and were prone to fouling, which meant that after half a dozen shots, the shooter needed to clean the bore. Their range made them effective sniping weapons but undesirable main formation weapons. The patched round ball was "effective" to around 150 meters. The were accurate further than that but the velocity of the projectile dropped.

The Percussion Cap replaced the flintlock, making ignition of the powder charge almost a sure thing (if you kept the weapon clean) even in wet conditions and the era of the flintlock weapon for military applications ended. As mentioned above, many remained in service in private homes.

The rifled muskets of the American Civil War (100 years after the French and Indian War) combined a percussion cap, rifling and a conical mini-ball (which replaced the round ball). Those weapons were accurate to two or three hundred meters in the hands of a crack shot, but the tactics of the American Revolution had not changed. This accounted for some of vast casualties of that war.
However, in wars of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, disease killed many more men than gunshots did.
The change in the effectiveness of rifled artillery, and the weapons employed by infantry soldiers during the American Civil War/Crimean War saw the introduction of trench warfare as typified by the battle of Petersburg, Virginia, which was very different than anything seen previously.