Don N. Hagist
© 1998, 2002
Originally published in The Brigade Dispatch,
Volume XXVIII, No. 2, (Summer 1998), p. 19.
The standard British firearm of the Revolutionary War era is almost universally called the “Brown Bess.” Most secondary sources tell us that this nickname does not date from our period, but had its origins some time in the 19th Century. Most period documents refer to the weapons simply as “firelocks.”
There are two published instances of the term “brown bess” from the Revolutionary War period, but the way that the term is used is not what we might expect. A story in the Connecticut Courant of 2-9 April 1771 (#328) tells of the infamous Hannah Snell, a woman who had served in the British Army disguised as a man. According to the story, she railed at an English naval press gang that roamed through her town kidnapping men to serve as crew. Amongst the wails and cries of wives and children, Hannah
...challenged to fight any of the gang with fists, sticks, or quarter staff, only let her be permitted to pull off her stays, gown and petticoat and put on breeches, declaring she had sailed more leagues than any of them, and if they were seamen they ought to be on board and not sneak about as kidnappers; “but if you are afraid of the sea take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march through Germany as I have done, ye dogs; I have more wounds about me than you have fingers. By G-d, this is no false attack; I'll have my man.”
While the story may be apocryphal, and there is no way to know whether an individual actually uttered the words, the report nonetheless was written in 1771 and used “brown bess” as a slang for a firelock.
In 1785, Sir Francis Grose published his famous “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” which remains the premier source for period vernacular terms. The book was reprinted with additions twice in the 18th Century; in 1811 an edition identical to the 1796 edition was published with a slightly different title. This 1811 edition is widely reproduced today, and the date gives the incorrect impression that it dates from the 19th Century; in fact, most of the entries can also be found in the 1785 edition. Among these entries is the following definition:
BROWN BESS. A soldier’s firelock. To hug brown Bess; to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier.
A 1992 annotated version of the dictionary notes that a similar term, “brown musket,” appears in 1708. A possible origin of “bess” is from the Dutch “bus”, for gun barrel, as in “arquebus” and “blunderbuss,” but this origin is not certain and is disputed. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue also gives “BROWN GEORGE, ” which means, “An ammunition loaf,” that is, bread supplied by contract to the military. With this in mind, “Bess” and “George” probably refer to the kings and queens of England.
The significant thing about these two period mentions of “brown bess” is the specific usage of the term. In both cases, the definition focues on the action, via “take brown bess” or “hug brown bess.” Without other examples, we must assume that this is the only context in which the term makes sense as slang. Many slang terms are highly dependant upon specific usage. Consider a modern phrase like “toss the pigskin.” While most people would recognize this as meaning “throw a football,” we would never say “I’m going to buy a new pigskin” and expect to be understood. The information that we have indicates that a soldier might “be wed to Brown Bess,” but would never “be issued a brown bess.” Further research might turn up different types of usage, but until it does we must assume that “brown bess” was used only in the manner for which we have examples.
This may sound like a trivial semantic matter, but there is value in attempting to better understand period terminology, both scholarly and vernacular. In this case, we see that there is more to slang than individual words; the way that terminology is used, the context in which it is placed, can make the difference between making sense and sounding silly.
“A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Francis Grose, edited with a Biographical and Critical Sketch and an Extensive Commentary by Eric Partridge, M.A., B. Litt. (Oxon.). New York: Dorset Press, 1992.