Deadly Brown Bess

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The video above is taken from Sharpe’s Eagle and depicts the battle of Talavera.  It illustrates the impact of massed British volleys of “Brown Bess”, as the British troops affectionately named their musket,  musket fire on French columns.  (The redcoats are armed with muskets;  Sharpe and his green jacketed men are armed with rifles.)

During the American Revolution the RedCoats , the Continentals and the American militia were armed with the Brown Bess musket.  For its time the Brown Bess was a formidable weapon.

“To meet these combat conditions, the new British Brown Bess standard musket was designed to deliver a large bullet at low velocity.  It employed a sturdy stock for use as a club in close fighting and had an overall length that combined with a long, socket bayonet to create a spear or pike for impacting an enemy’s line.  It was also designed to be durable and to withstand the rigors of years of active campaigning.  The Brown Bess was to successfully fulfill all of these demands.”

Here is a paean to the Brown Bess by Rudyard Kipling:

 In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise–
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes–
At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess.

When ruffles were turned into stiff leather stocks,
And people wore pigtails instead of perukes,
Brown Bess never altered her iron-grey locks.
She knew she was valued for more than her looks.
“Oh, powder and patches was always my dress,
And I think am killing enough,” said Brown Bess.

So she followed her red-coats, whatever they did,
From the heights of Quebec to the plains of Assaye,
From Gibraltar to Acre, Cape Town and Madrid,
And nothing about her was changed on the way;
(But most of the Empire which now we possess
Was won through those years by old-fashioned Brown Bess.)

In stubborn retreat or in stately advance,
From the Portugal coast to the cork-woods of Spain,
She had puzzled some excellent Marshals of France
Till none of them wanted to meet her again:
But later, near Brussels, Napoleon–no less–
Arranged for a Waterloo ball with Brown Bess.

She had danced till the dawn of that terrible day–
She danced till the dusk of more terrible night,
And before her linked squares his battalions gave way,
And her long fierce quadrilles put his lancers to flight:
And when his gilt carriage drove off in the press,
“I have danced my last dance for the world!” said Brown Bess.

If you go to Museums–there’s one in Whitehall–
Where old weapons are shown with their names writ beneath,
You will find her, upstanding, her back to the wall,
As stiff as a ramrod, the flint in her teeth.
And if ever we English had reason to bless
Any arm save our mothers’, that arm is Brown Bess!

Rudyard Kipling

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3 Comments

  1. Rifling a barrel was first done successfully in the gun shops of Augsburg, Germany, in 1498…
    It’s amazing how long it took for rifles to become commonplace.
    My understanding the problem was “cartridge” reloads.(?)
    And perhaps the military’s penchant for fighting in an open field in line.(?)

  2. This is one historical series that you should watch. I watched the first Sharpe series years ago and it was fantastic.

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