From Bright Steel to Brown: Colour of Brown Bess Barrels, 1757-1815
by Robert Henderson
One of the first persons to
address the topic of the the barrel appearance in the British during the Napoleonic period
was William Henry, a former staff member at Fort George NHS.
In a manual for the
site's Animation program, Mr Henry challenged the notion that
muskets for regular
regiments were browned at the time of the War of 1812 by illustrating a
document from one regiment.
I would like to expand
on this work here to outline the evolution from bright to brown.
Muskets issued to regular regiments prior to the American Revolution
were expected to be brightly polished.
Cuthbertson in 1768, writing on
the British Army considered the polished musket as a sign of pride
Orders for the Nottinghamshire Markman in 1778
highlighted its importance:
being the importance of his Arms, no wonder that a soldier should shew his
attachment to his Firelock, by keeping it as bright as the Sun, and looking
upon it with a kind of veneration. A glittering Firelock is a prime ornament
of a Soldier and gives to every movement an appearance of double Life and
instances bright arms had unexpected results.
During the American
Revolution just before the Battle of Guildford Courthouse, the American
General Lee was thrown from his startled
mount caused by the sun reflecting off the bright arms of
the opposing British troops.(1)
The preference for bright barrels
continued amongst line regiments throughout the Napoleonic Wars.
James wrote in his
Military Dictionary in 1805:
"the private soldier familiarly calls his firelock
brown bess; although the term is little applicable to the weapon, considering that it is
absurdly polished in almost every Regiment in the British Army."
Shadrack Byfield of the 41st Regiment, used this to identify friend from foe in the night
after the capture of Fort Niagara in 1813: "A short time after, we saw another man,
with polished arms, by which I knew he must be one of our men...He belonged to the
The most common substances used in the 18th
century to clean the barrel was brick dust or emery powder mixed with sweet
After cleaning, the soldier then buffed the barrel to a high
polished state by burnishing it with his ramrod or rubbing it with a
wooden buffing stick.
The obsession with maintaining a mirror finish
on the barrel did have a negative impact on its state.
in 1775, the 62nd Regiment's arms were reported as being "so Abus'd
to keep them bright, that there is not the least appearance of the Kings
during the Napoleonic wars reported weak and worn barrels.
Efforts were made by army officials to deter this wear - caused mostly by
the practice of burnishing.
In 1795 the 43rd Regiment ordered:
must keep their arms... in the highest possible order with respect to
polish and cleanliness.... Every man must be supplied with a buff-stick
and other necessary articles for the purpose, and any man caught
polishing his barrel with his ramrod, or piece of iron, will be punished
illustrated below these orders were mostly ignored.
In addition to wear, bright barrels had other disadvantages.
Mr Henry in A Media Plan for Military Animation at Fort George quoted an
interesting document on the subject.
In 1812, the colonel of the 102nd Regiment
ordered muskets of the regiment to be browned. An inspecting officer order the colonel to
submit a written explanation on why had done this.
His reasons for this were as
1. There was no regulation
2. The barrels could be made bright again with sand paper.
3. An order against burnishing the arms with the ramrods was seldom obeyed by other
Thus, if the 102nd (who presumably did not burnish their arms in
compliance with the order) were compared to other Regiments their arms would appear dirty,
thus hurting the pride of the 102nd.
4. Browning preserves the arms and they are cleaned with bees wax once or twice
every six months, thus, preventing rust and making it unnecessary to remove the barrel as
is so frequently done now.
5. The dazzle of bright arms prevents aim being taken in the sun - proof of this is
that brown barrels are universally used by sportsmen.
The colonel concluded his
explanation by stating that the men were pleased with the browning and that it helped to
get recruits from the Militia.
However the 102nd was far from the first to carry browned or "black" muskets in
the British service.
Over 50 years earlier in 1757 less expensive brown bess was
introduced for Marine and Militia service that was not required to be polished.
finish for these muskets was referred to as "black" (likely
British issue rifles from the first in 1776 seemed to have been
The regulations for the Experimental Rifle Corps (later 95th
Regiment) in 1803 cautioned its men about not injuring the browning.
This echoed in
Barber's work in 1803: "The outside of the barrel should never be rubbed with
anything than can impair the brown."
But did regular regiments brown their
muskets prior to 1812?
The American Revolution had brought a number of innovations
and improvements to the British Army.
One area that saw a lot of activity was Light
Each regular regiment had a light company attached to it.
that these light companies were issued with black or browned muskets was early as
In an inspection return of the 38th Regiment of that year under the
"arms" it was noted : "the Light Infantry Company have the new black
During the Napoleonic Wars a number of regiments were designated entirely light
The first were the 43rd and 52nd Regiments followed by the 51st, 68th,
71st and 85th Regiments along with a number of Fencible corps.
All were influenced
by the innovations of the 52nd's colonel, Sir John Moore.
Moore altered the light
infantry drill was altered to be more efficent.
For example instead of making ready
at the recover position, Moore had his men come back to the prime position to make
This change allowed greater accuracy when presenting because the soldier no
longer had to struggle against the weight of a falling musket from the recover position
when presenting and aiming.
This innovation (and others) were adopted by the
other light infantry regiments and by 1812 the light company of at least one line
regiment, the 7th Regiment.
This practice was formally adopted for the entire army
Armed with the New Land Musket, the light infantry regiments shared in
another practice, the browning of barrels.
end of the Napoleonic Wars, the tide had turned against bright steel.
On 22nd June
1815, four days after the Battle of Waterloo, orders were issued with instructions from
Horse Guards for all British Army muskets to be browned.
For those who are
interested in the browning and blueing process adopted by the British the following are
the instructions for browning issued in 1815 along with additional instructions a few
These orders are taken from General Regulations and Orders for the
Army, 1811 (revised 1816):
Browning Gun Barrels
The following Ingredients:
Sweet Spirit of
Spirits of Wine
Tincture of Steel
are to be mixed together,
the vitriol having been previously dissolved in a sufficient quantity of water to make
with the other ingredients, one quart of mixture.
Previous to commencing the
operation of Browning the Barrel, it is necessary that it be well cleaned from all
greasiness and other impurities, and that a plug of wood be put into its muzzle, and the
vent well stopped; the mixture is then to be applied with a clean sponge or rag, taking
care that every part of the Barrel be covered with the mixture, which must then be exposed
to the air for twenty-four hours, after which exposure the Barrel must be rubbed with a
hard brush and rag, to remove the oxid from the surface. This operation must be performed
a second and a third time (if necessary), by which the Barrel will be made of a perfectly
brown colour: it must then be carefully brushed and wiped, and immersed in boiling water,
in which a small quantity of alkaline matter has been put, in order that the action of the
Acid upon the Barrel may be destroyed, and the impregnation of the water by the Acid
The Barrel when taken from
the Water must, after being perfectly dry, be rubbed smooth with a burnisher of hard wood,
and then heated to about the temperature of boiling water; it then will be ready to
receive a varnish made of the following materials;
Spirits of Wine
Dragon's Blood powder 3 Drams
and after the varnish is
perfectly dry upon the Barrel it must be rubbed with the burnisher to give it a smooth and
To repair and retain the
Brown upon Barrels.
When the Barrel is much
rubbed from use, a little vitriolic Acid may be applied to it, and then it must receive
the treatment that Barrels undergo in Browning, care being taken to deaden the action of
the Acid by means of boiling water.
When Brown Barrels are in
constant use tile Brown might be continually kept perfect by means of the application of
vinegar, which should remain upon the surface for a Day, and then be washed well with
If this operation be
repeated monthly, a Barrel which has been properly Browned in the first instance will
continue in a perfect state for many years.
Office of Ordnance,
16th July, 1815.
Additional Instructions for
The Barrel, with the Socket
and Neck of the Bayonet only, are to be Browned; they should he rubbed over either with a
fine File, or with coarse Emery Paper, previous to their receiving the Browning Liquid, in
order that its effect may be the greater.
In removing the Oxid from
the Surface of the Barrel, &c a Steel Scratch Brush will be found more
effectual than the hard Hair Brush; the use of the Steel Scratch Brush is therefere to be
adopted. This part of the operation must be done with great care, as upon it depends the
proper Browning of the Barrel.
In moist Weather the
operation of Browning must be performed in as dry a situation as possible, for humidity
upon the Oxid weakens its effect, which must be carefulIy guarded against.
The Locks are on no account
to be made of the Hardening Colour, as the repetition of the operation of hardening has a
very injurious tendency.
Office of Ordnance,
29th December, 1815"
1. Special thanks to Jay
Callaham for this reference.
2. Special thanks to Eric Schnitzer for this reference.