So, we had this event in Littiz, Celebrate America, and I set my tents to represent Fort Mifflin. Part of our display was the gear of a Revolutionary Soldier and, naturally, I brought my Brown Bess. Now, you have to understand the nature of this event. It was not a reenactment nor a living history event, per se. There were companies of reenactors (mostly Civil War) and LOTS of veterans’ groups. I have never been comfortable with those who, long after separation, continue to brag about their service but this was the sort of crowd we were dealing with. That said, we put on a good show.
I met the crowd in kit and proceeded to explain the gear I carried and how a soldier’s life was quite different in the 18th Century from what our troops experience today. For the most part, we had a great crowd and were really teaching folks, and then… we met THAT GUY.
You all know THAT GUY. He is the person who, without any real knowledge of the subject nor any real interest in learning or teaching, they must comment and demand that you agree with everything they say. For the record, I hate THAT GUY.
Well, I was teaching a group of scouts about my gear and the conversation went something like this:
Bystander: “That’s a cool gun, what is it?”
Me: “It’s a standard issue 77 caliber, Brown Bess musket, the longest serving assault rifle in the history of the British Army, used in active service from 1705 to 1825….”
THAT GUY: “That’s B#&&sh!@! The Brown Bess as only a 75 caliber gun! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Me: “Well, this one is American made, see the lock here says ‘Stowe’, and its actually a 77 caliber which is not unusual for the Brown Bess.
At this point a couple of Army Corp engineers who had a table behind me produced a set of calipers (Army/Air Force cooperation at its finest!). Just like at home, the bore measures 0.7734 inches – TECHNICALLY a 78 caliber but closer to 77. Now we are off to the races!
For those of you who think, THAT GUY is correct, lets set the record straight. In the 20th Century (especially around the US Bicentennial), there were a fair number of modern reproduction muskets made with modern materials and machining standards. Since these are essentially factory made (some are had finished as kits but the parts are mass produced) they have a standard size and fit. Pedersoli Brown Bess muskets have a 0.751 bore, most of the Indian muskets have a 0.745 bore, and my Mirakou has a 0.773 bore. Of these, the Indian muskets and the Pedersoli are muskets are by far the most commonly seen models so it is reasonable to think that 0.75 is standard. This uniformity, however, is an anachronism.
Prior to Eli Whitney and the Springfield musket, firearms (even those produced in mass quantities like the Brown Bess) were largely hand made with zero interchangeable parts. Forging and machining in the 18th Century was not a precision operation and huge variations in the physical dimensions and other properties of guns issued to soldiers was common. In fact, the British Brown Bess was accepted to have a bore ranging from 0.725 to 0.79 inches. Most original muskets we see in museums and collections today are actually 0.77 to 0.78 caliber. Of course, this problem was not restricted to the Brown Bess. The French Charleville is not always a 69 caliber gun and pistols have all sorts of variation in their bores.
This presented all sorts of problems for the army. Firstly, the fact that parts could not be easily salvaged from one unit to another meant that lots of guns were rendered unusable when damaged and could only be returned to service by a master gunsmith. Secondly, the large variation in bore size meant that soldiers needed to know their weapons well and often adjust the bullets they were issued so that they fit the gun, often pounding them out of round so that the fit the barrel better. Finally, because the compression in each gun was different, when volleys were fired, the bullets left the barrels at slightly different velocities meaning that the shockwave alignment normally created by many guns firing together was not as pronounced as experienced by modern reenacts engaged in live volley fire (ONLY do this at the gun range!!!).
One universal truth exists, however. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen all know there weapons (the ones issued to them) far better than even the manufacturers and designers. They know the quirks and the nature of all the repairs and changes that were made. Armchair “experts” should really be careful what they comment upon. Like all reenactors, there is a lot of stuff I don’t know (yet) but there are also facts that I know well. Ask me a question that I am not sure of the answer and I will gladly acknowledge that “I don’t know” but never be THAT GUY.