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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 and profession. Orders for the Nottinghamshire Markman in 1778 highlighted its importance:

"..Such 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 Spirit."

In some 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." One soldier, 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 Royals."

The most common substances used in the 18th century to clean the barrel was brick dust or emery powder mixed with sweet oil. 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. For example, 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 mark".
(2) Other regiments 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:

"The men 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 for it."

However as 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 follows:

1. There was no regulation against it.
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 Regiments. 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. The finish for these muskets was referred to as "black" (likely japanned). British issue rifles from the first in 1776 seemed to have been always browned. 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 Infantry. Each regular regiment had a light company attached to it. It appears that these light companies were issued with black or browned muskets was early as 1787. In an inspection return of the 38th Regiment of that year under the category "arms" it was noted : "the Light Infantry Company have the new black barrels."

During the Napoleonic Wars a number of regiments were designated entirely light infantry. 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 ready. 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 in 1828. Armed with the New Land Musket, the light infantry regiments shared in another practice, the browning of barrels.

By the 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 months later. These orders are taken from General Regulations and Orders for the Army, 1811 (revised 1816):

"Instructions for Browning Gun Barrels

The following Ingredients:

Nitric Acid 1/2 ounce
Sweet Spirit of 1/2 ditto.
Spirits of Wine 1 ditto.
Blue Vitriol 2 ditto
Tincture of Steel 1 ditto.

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 neutralized.

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 1 Quart
Dragon's Blood powder 3 Drams
Shellac bruised 1 Ounce

and after the varnish is perfectly dry upon the Barrel it must be rubbed with the burnisher to give it a smooth and glossy appearance.

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 boiling water.

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 Browning Arms.

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.

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