A blast from the past

If someone asked if you’d like to “fire Brown Bess”, you might wonder exactly who Brown Bess is and what she did to  deserve being fired…especially since she’s such a big shot. That’s right; Brown Bess is a firearm. Specifically, the famous Tower musket, a muzzle loading flintlock that was the standard weapon of the British armed forces from 1722 to 1838.  It was simple, rugged, and deadly. At .75 caliber, it threw a chunk of lead almost the size of a marble, and woe to anyone who got in front of it. So what was it like to actually fire one of these cannons? Well, now you can find out.

At Colonial Williamsburg, you can now fire one of these historical monsters yourself  instead of just watching reinactors do it. For a fee, instructors will take you to the range and instruct you on the loading, handling, and firing of the Brown Bess, along with a somewhat smaller hunting piece. You get about 10 shots at paper targets, and the right to brag that you are one of the few modern day people to have fired a flintlock.

Of course, it’s not quite the same experience that the old  British redcoat had. Aside from the fact that no one was shooting back, you have to wear eye protection, sound deadening “Micky Mouse ears”, plus a very baggy and garish colonial overshirt to protect against sparks and black powder residue. These babies are messy. The instructors all had small holes burned in their sleeves.

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The modern shooter with eye protection, and ear protection. The very ugly shirt is supposed to protect against sparks and black powder burns, but the way I shot, I think it was so no one would recognize me.

The first thing you notice is just how heavy the blasted thing is, and how long. Once the musket is loaded, primed, and cocked, you aim and fire. There is a slight delay, then the powder in the pan goes off in a blinding flash and a puff of smoke, then the slug is on its way. For such a big caliber, there isn’t much of a kick, possibly because of the weight. Accuracy, however, proves elusive, thanks to the smooth bore of the barrel,the time delay between trigger pull and firing, and my no-longer-young eyes.

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the musket is firing or exploding.

Anyway, it was a great experience for anyone who wants to feel a little closer to history. So how did I do? Well, if I am ever attacked by paper targets, I will be in big trouble.

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About johnreisinger

retired engineer and author of historical fiction and non fiction. My current book is Master Detective, the story of America's Sherlock Holmes and his involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping investigation.
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