Pedersoli Brown Bess
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- Last updated: 27/01/2017
The Brown Bess
Quite often the success of a firearm’s design can be judged by its longevity, particularly in the field of military arms where, not too long ago, progress was often stifled by the attitude of the top brass, whose resistance to change left the soldier in the field with less than perfect weaponry.
So when we see the British army using what was essentially the same musket, albeit with minor variations, for over one hundred years then that gun can be deemed, by the military leaders at least, to be successful. Earning the affectionate nickname of ‘Brown Bess’, the Land Pattern flintlock musket served the Army from the early 18th century until well into the 19th century, when the mechanism was changed to the “new” percussion system. The example we have here is Pedersoli’s recreation of the Short Land Pattern musket with a 42” barrel.
What’s In a Name?
Origins of the nickname are a little vague with suggestions such as a commemoration of the death of Elizabeth I or the colour of the woodwork or metal, although “browning” of metal was not universally introduced until the early 19th century, and mention of ‘Brown Bess’ was made as early as 1771 in the American Connecticut Courant newspaper. Possibly the most plausible explanation comes from the German “brawn buss” or “braun buss” meaning strong gun or brown gun, as the weapon was commissioned by King George I who was of German origin. The term does not appear to have been used by the military during the gun’s lifetime but was confined to those with a poetic interpretation of Army life. Whatever the source of the name, the Brown Bess musket became a universal favourite, not only with British troops, but with soldiers and civilians all around the world.
Because of some minor variations in the dimensions of parts made by different manufacturers, the Army often ran into problems with ammunition and spare parts for their weapons. To combat this it was decided to have a “pattern” gun available to the gun makers, enabling them all to make a piece with interchangeable parts and using the same size ball. Hence the Brown Bess had the official name of the Land Pattern Musket. First manufactured in the third decade of the 18th century, this was a .75” calibre, smooth bore flintlock weapon, available in various barrel lengths throughout its long life. Initially with a 46” barrel it became known as the Long Land Pattern; the Short Land Pattern, a reproduction of which we have here, had a 42” barrel and was introduced around 1740. Other options were the India Pattern (39” barrel in 1797), Sea Service Pattern (37”) and Cavalry Carbine (26”). Throughout its life all of the stress bearing parts – barrel, lock and sling swivels – were made of iron with the rest of the metal parts also of iron up to the mid-1730’s, when they were changed to brass. Originally supplied with a wooden ramrod, this was later changed to iron for most applications although the wooden version was continued, among others, for the Sea Service guns. With its full length walnut stock the 46” barrelled version weighed in at around ten pounds.
Accuracy En Masse
For infantry use a 17” long bayonet with a triangular cross section blade was provided, which, when added to the 62.5” musket gave the soldier a very long ‘bayoneting’ reach. The Brown Bess was not fitted with any sights but the bayonet lug on top of the barrel made a rudimentary front sight. As with most smooth bore guns accuracy was not brilliant, although distances of up to 175 yards have been quoted. The gun was better employed at ranges of around fifty yards when it was fired in volleys, causing maximum damage to an advancing line of troops. In 1814, one Major George Hanger spoke of the Brown Bess thus: “A soldier’s musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many of them are), will strike the figure of a man at eighty yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, providing his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your object”.
With modern reproductions (such as the one being reviewed) and using a rest, proficient shooters can hit a four-inch target with reasonable consistency at fifty yards, a feat I was unable to match although I did put four shots into a six-inch circle once I had discovered where the Pedersoli was shooting, using that lug as a front sight. On the battle field the use of a rest would have been considered a luxury and rapidity of fire was probably deemed more important. Using a paper cartridge, the procedure was to tear the paper, prime the pan, pour the rest of the powder into the muzzle, turn the paper around and ram the ball and paper into the barrel. A cool-headed, experienced soldier could manage between three and four shots per minute – a not inconsiderable feat in the face of enemy fire. This would have been even more remarkable for some infantrymen when you consider that, at its inception with a 46” barrel (62.5” overall), the minimum height requirement for a British soldier was only five feet seven inches (67”)!
End Of An Era
As the benefits of the percussion system became obvious, not least of which was its performance in inclement weather, large numbers of the Brown Bess muskets were converted to this system and designated the Pattern 1839 Musket. A fire at the Tower of London in 1841 destroyed a lot of these and a new model, the Pattern 1842, was introduced. The long and illustrious career of the Brown Bess came to an end with the introduction of the Minie ball and the 1853 Enfield rifled musket, which ave much greater accuracy over longer distances.
Big Is Beautiful
The Pedersoli Brown Bess, in its Short Land Pattern configuration with a 42” barrel, is an imposing weapon, measuring a couple of inches short of five feet in overall length and with its oiled walnut stock, which is nicely figured, polished steel hardware and brass furniture it is also very easy on the eye. At first the butt stock looks too short, but this is an illusion due to the long barrel and the pull length is a comfortable 14¼”. The brass butt plate is roughly 4.5” by 2”, a large enough area to help spread the felt recoil from a seventy-
five grain powder charge. The barrel, along with the majority of the brass furniture, is fixed firmly into the stock with twelve pins, a fact which caused me to resist the urge to strip it. The brass butt plate is fastened with two screws and there is one screw in the extended lower tang behind the trigger guard. The lock is held in place by two screws which enter from the left side of the stock through a large brass escutcheon. The lock face is engraved with a crown over ‘GR’, the maker’s mark ‘GRICE’ and the date of 1762. All of the edges are clean and smooth and the wood to metal fit is generally first class, the exception being minor flaws in the fitting of the brass escutcheon on the left side of the stock. There is a decorative brass inlay on top of the wrist, perhaps used on originals to engrave regiment or company details?
At the Range
Despite its length the musket feels well balanced and is not too difficult to shoot without a rest, although accuracy suffers somewhat in this position. The mainspring is quite strong, necessary to cause a spark and push the frizzen clear of the pan, and needs more than the effort used on later ignition systems to cock the hammer. The resulting trigger pull is also heavier than later guns. Compared to the soldiers using these muskets in their heyday I was granted the comfort of a seat and a rest and was not pressurised into having to fire as rapidly as possible. I also did not have to worry about the paper targets shooting back! Nevertheless it initially took some concentration to hit a torso-sized target at fifty metres. The advantage of the aforementioned volley fire into an advancing crowd, rather than trying to pick out individual targets, suddenly made sense. With a little practice and the use of that bayonet lug as an aid to aiming I was eventually able to put most shots into a dinner plate-size target and I’m sure this could easily be improved upon by a more proficient shooter and more practice. Given today’s improvements in manufacturing tolerances I do not think I’d like to stand in front of a competent shooter using this musket at 150 yards, despite Major Hanger’s above comments!
A couple of shooters who had not tried flintlock before were almost caught out by the slight delay between the ignition of the priming charge and the main charge. There is just about enough time for you to begin relaxing your grip after the initial detonation with the result that the 75-grain charge catches you a little off guard causing a wild shot. Fortunately we did not have a proverbial “flash in the pan” and the gun performed well. I enjoyed shooting this Pedersoli and intend to re-acquaint myself with the flintlock system in the near future. GM