Browning of the Musket Barrel

In this forum we will discuss various period methods and techniques for day to day tasks.
Post Reply
User avatar
Official historian
Posts: 370
Joined: Fri Sep 01, 2006 11:48 pm
Location: Upper Canada

Browning of the Musket Barrel

Post by pud » Sun Nov 19, 2006 12:54 pm

**This one is for you Don! :^)

It became common practice by the late 1700s that barrels of one's rifle or muskets were to be kept in a highly polished state. The barrels were actually rubbed with a very fine abrasive material called 'slurry' (a mixture of brick dust and crude oil). Once this was done the soldier continued to burnish the barrel until it reached a very brilliant lustre.

Their were terms that were used at the time to describe the state of the barrels. They were:
'... as bright as silver.'
'... as bright as hands can make them.'

Consider the following, as described by Cuthbertson in his book entitled: A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry. Dublin, 1768.

"It should be insisted on, that a soldier at all times keep his arms in such a state of perfection, as never to be ashamed to shew them; by having the inside of the lock well oiled, the outside of it (even to the smallest screw-pin) with the barrel, brasses and bayonet, not only clean and bright, but highly polished; the ramrod also must feel the attention of the soldier, as the smoother and more polished it is, the easier will it return through the pipes, in the performance of the firings: the inside of the barrel, though not expected to be absolutely polished, should yet be bright, as must the inside of the socket of the bayonet, else it will be impossible either to fix or unfix it with the necessary quickness: to complete the whole, the stock (after scraping it extremely smooth) must be brought to as clear a polish, as the nature of the wood will possibly allow; a little beeswax joined to the labour of the soldier to rub it on, will soon accomplish a point, which, if executed with due attention through the whole, will produce a most pleasing effect, in the appearance of a Battalion under arms: capitulating soldiers to such remarkable neatness, about every part of their appointments, not only gives employment for many of those idle hours they otherwise must have (a circumstance in itself alone quite worthy of consideration) but beyond all doubt, encourages in them a kind of liking for those arms, etc. which they are taught to take such care of.

*By going to some little expense, it will not be difficult to bring the stocks of the firelock to one uniform colour, by staining them either black, red, or yellow; and then by laying on the varnish, to preserve them always in a glossy, shining condition."

Although this became the norm in the late 18th century it also led to some unfavourable situations. During the early Napoleonic years there were several incidences where because of the highly polished weapon the soldier found it difficult to conceal himself. In fact this first became evident during the American Rebellion. In several situations, on bright sunny days, the glint off of a Battalion of British soldiers, due to their highly polished musket barrels, acted like a reflector or a mirror and they were, of course, easily spotted by their enemy. The results was that the browning of the barrel became more of a standard practice during the years of war. In fact, when the British Army started raising rifle corps the barrels of their weapons were actually browned on purpose.

Consider the following from Barber's manual, 1803. It states:

"The outside of the barrel should never be rubbed with anything that can impair the Brown."

However, regardless of this new practice most Line Infantry continued to polish and burnish their musket barrels until the end of the Napoleonic era.

But, due to the practice of browning the barrel many of the soldiers at the time referred to their musket as their ' Brown Bess'.

In Canada having a browned barrel was accepted, particularly for light infantry due to the nature of their work. However, it seems that there was at least one Regiment that maintained the old practice, standard practice, of keeping their barrels gleamingly clean regardless of it being a threat to their personal health and well-being. Consider the following statement made by Shadrack Byfield of the 41st Regiment in Canada during the War of 1812:

"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."

As a final thought on the subject, we need to understand that the browning of the barrel did not become a standard order until 1815, in fact the Horse-Guards General Order of 22 July, 1815, is one which actually ordered the Arms of the Infantry of the Army to be browned.

Post Reply