The Dublin Castle ‘Brown Bess’ musket

Published in Artefacts, Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Volume 25

By Lar Joye

Above: Dublin Castle Brown Bess musket. (NMI)

The ‘Brown Bess’ musket was the one used by the British Army from 1720 to 1850. There is no agreement on the origin of the name—maybe from the colour, perhaps a corruption of the German word for gun (buche) or simply a soldier’s nickname. It was not a very effective weapon, firing only three or four times a minute, very inaccurate and liable to foul up. Unlike modern rifles, muskets are loaded from the top of the barrel with a ramrod and rely for firing on a flintlock mechanism which often failed, especially in the rainy conditions of Ireland. While not an effective weapon, it was cheap to manufacture and allowed for the equipping of a large army with very little training. Owing to its limitations, the British Army insisted on their soldiers fighting in ranks and firing volley after volley into the enemy. This may seem strange to us in the 21st century, but the aim was to keep as many bullets in the air as possible while moving towards the enemy, despite the large number of casualties.

In the collections of the National Museum of Ireland there are seven Brown Bess muskets used by the Bank of Ireland supplementary Yeomanry Corps c. 1800 and donated to the Museum in the 1890s. All are stamped ‘Dublin Castle’ but we know very little about them, as the records concerning Dublin-made guns were destroyed in the Four Courts at the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922.

Recent research in the United States by Erik Goldstein and Stuart Mowbray has shown that over 60,000 of these weapons were sent to America during their War of Independence (1775–83). By checking the markings on surviving muskets in America, we can see that local Dublin gun-makers like Lewis Alley, William Power and the Trulock family made over 60,000 muskets for Dublin Castle. In the British Army twenty regiments used Irish-made muskets during the war, and many have survived following capture by American revolutionaries. Like Irish-made duelling pistols, the Irish-made muskets are different from their English cousins, with several distinctive features. While the original records have been lost, through careful analysis of the surviving weapons we can now start to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about these Irish-made muskets.

Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland.

E. Goldstein & S. Mowbray, The Brown Bess: an identification guide and illustrated study of Britain’s most famous musket (Woonsocket, 2010).


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