J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Birth of “Brown Bess”

Last month the Royal Armouries blog posted curator Johnathan Ferguson’s detailed article about the term “Brown Bess” as slang for a British infantryman’s musket.

The article cited three appearances of the term before its first entry in a slang dictionary.
  • John Grose, letter dated 17 Oct 1763: on joining the militia he received a “Coat, Pair of Breeches and musket (alias Brown Bess).”
  • The Adventures of a Kidnapped Orphan, 1767: “he began to handle Brown Bess with tolerable dexterity.”
And the 1771 article about Hannah Snell that I quoted yesterday, which portrays her as saying, “if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march.”

All those items show that the term “Brown Bess” was established in British society during the Revolutionary War. And there’s no indication it applied to some types of army firelocks and not others; it meant a soldier’s musket.

As for the origin of the phrase, Ferguson neatly disposes of several guesses: that “Bess” alluded to Queen Elizabeth, that “brown” referred to browning the musket barrel to protect it, that the whole phrase comes from German.

Instead, English authors were using “Brown Bess” by the late 1500s and early 1600s to mean a common woman or prostitute. In this context, “brown” meant ordinary, nothing special. That adjective was also applied to regular soldiers’ muskets by the early 1700s. So when people started to use “Brown Bess” in the context of the army, they implied that a soldier and his gun were a couple linked for life.


rfuller said...

I'd be curious to see if there were evidence of the soldiers themselves referring to their muskets as "Brown Bess". So far, all I have seen is references to "King's muskets"and "firelocks".

J. L. Bell said...

Direct quotations from British soldiers of this period are hard to come by, as you know. But two of the three earliest written uses of the phrase come from individuals discussing their own military service: John Grose in the British militia and Hannah Snell as a veteran marine.