What is probably the longest serving shoulder arm of all time was the British .75-caliber* Long and Short Land Pattern Muskets, popularly known as the “Brown Bess.” It soldiered in regular British frontline service from 1722 to 1836—114years—in upgraded versions and some were still in use during the Crimean War (1853-56) and Indian Mutiny (1857-58). It was used across the Empire by regular, colonial, and militia troops as well as by American revolutionaries (1775–83) and even the Mexican Army during the Texas Revolution (1835-36) and the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Small numbers of late-pattern Brown Bess muskets, converted from flintlocks to percussion cap†, were used by the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65). These were converted at the Tower of London Royal Armories in 1839 and referred to as “Tower muskets.” “Tower” was not the designer or manufacturer. There is no telling how long Brown Besses remained in use in some capacity, probably at least into the 1870s—that’s over 150 years.
Some argue the term Brown Bess was seldom if ever used by soldiers of the era being embraced more by historians and collectors. However, the Connecticut Courant (1771) contained a line, “...but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulder and march.” The Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue (1785) listing vernacular terms described, “Brown Bess: A soldier’s firelock. To hug the Brown Bess; to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier.” (The term “vulgar” in those days referred to slang and rustic or simple everyday language.) Brown Bess appears not to have been picked up as the weapon’s nickname until late in the 1700s and was earlier simply called the “brown musket.” There is no substantiated explanation as to the origin of “Brown Bess.” The “Brown” is variously said to refer to the brown walnut stock, the brown “russeting” metal treatment, or the brown varnish applied to protect metal and wooden parts. Regardless, the weapon appeared very brown. It is probably any or all of these depending on the beholder’s perception. “Bess” is said to refer Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), colloquially known as “Good Queen Bess,” but she died over a hundred years before the musket’s adoption. It is also suggested to have been derived from blunderbuss or arquebus, 16th and 17th century firearms. Another theory is that it was derived from the German brawn Büchse or braun Büchse (strong gun or brown gun), possibly from Hessian mercenaries in British employ. Or “Bess” could have come from the Dutch Buss in the same context. The Queen Bess theory is the most plausible, the Virgin Queen being known as a hard and demanding woman. Too, Bess could have been a common nickname for a soldier’s girl during the Brown Bess’s reign; as Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) said of the Crown’s enemies, “They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.” He also compared the Bess to “An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade, with a habit of looking men straight in the eyes.” Will we ever know the true origin and meaning of the term? As Post-Captain Jack Aubrey says, “Never in life you scrub.”
* The smoothbore was .75-caliber (19mm), but the 1-ounce lead ball was .71-caliber (18mm) to allow for the tallow-dipped paper cartridge containing the ball and black powder charge and serving as a patch. In shotgun terms this would be about 11-gauge.