The British Land Pattern Musket, universally referred to as the Brown Bess by those who carried it, served the English crown as a standard military arm for more than a century from 1722 to 1838. A smoothbore, flintlock .75-caliber gun, service loads for the Brown Bess typically involved .69-caliber lead musket balls. Projectiles were intentionally left undersized to facilitate continued operation in the face of the inevitably extensive fouling that resulted from the filthy black powder of the day.
The smoothbore Brown Bess musket was fairly inaccurate and would have been classified as an “area fire” weapon in today’s parlance. Tactical applications almost always involved disciplined, massed fire at close range, preferably 50 yards or so, to maximize the effect of these imprecise large-caliber weapons.
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The Brown Bess served ably on both sides during the American Revolutionary War and armed English soldiers and sailors throughout their colonial conquests. Brown Bess guns were also employed extensively by the notorious East India Trading Company. They were additionally provided to dozens of entities, both governmental and otherwise, across the British Empire’s sphere of influence.
In 2003 Christian Cranmer of International Military Antiques embarked on a lifelong quest to secure ownership of an enormous trove of antique military weapons rumored to have been left derelict in an abandoned palace in Nepal. Five months and $5 million later, he had purchased more than 55,000 antique muskets and rifles, along with a bewildering array of antique cannons and military support equipment. His quest to purchase this equipment and successfully export it from Nepal in the midst of a civil war would make an excellent screenplay. After untold hours of sorting, cataloging and packaging, the individual pieces from this extraordinary find are available for sale to U.S. collectors.
The kit from International Military Antiques actually consists of a new wood stock with a few replica accouterments. The inlet for the lock is left rough but the rest of the stock is nicely smoothed out of the box. New brass ramrod pipes as well as the brass buttplate and nose cap come pre-installed.
The kit also comes with the remains of an original Brown Bess musket. In my case, the rear portion of the stock is broken off and the wood is friable and rotten. I opted for the hand-select option. The iron parts were badly rusted but in fairly good shape otherwise given their age and provenance.
The lock itself was caked in grime and decay. The hammer was fairly loose in the lock and most of the screws were rusted in place. Enter my secret weapon for this restoration project.
Evapo-Rust is a revolutionary rust removal product that is biodegradable and non-toxic. Once the solution has been used sufficiently to lose its effectiveness, it can be safely and legally disposed of down the drain so long as the particulate iron residue is taken into consideration. To use Evapo-Rust, you simply scrub the major grime off of the parts in question and place them in a plastic container. I disassembled as much of the original lock as I could given its age. I then filled the container with Evapo-Rust solution to a sufficient depth to cover the parts and left them overnight. I removed the parts a couple of times during the process to scrub them a bit with a toothbrush.
Treated parts that were not deeply pitted were thoroughly rust-free after an overnight soak. Deeply corroded areas on the barrel took a little elbow grease with a wire brush to free up the major scale but Evapo-Rust did all of the heavy lifting. The end result looks markedly younger than its two centuries would belie.
The only real limitation to the use of Evapo-Rust is contriving something in which to immerse your parts. Small components like the disassembled lock can drop into a sealable plastic food container. This allows the solution to be stored conveniently for reuse as well. The barrel and ramrod, however, required a bit more ingenuity.
I disassembled the barrel from the old musket carcass and scraped as much of the major filth away as I might conveniently remove. The tang screw was inextricably corroded in place, so a Dremel tool with a cutoff wheel spelled its doom. The kit comes with replacement screws so this was no great loss.
Twelve bucks bought me a stick of 3-inch schedule 40 PVC pipe and a pair of end caps from my local home supply store. I glued the bottom cap in place and dropped the barrel and ramrod into the tube. After filling the tube sufficiently with Evapo-Rust solution to completely submerge these components, I slipped the top cap in place and left it overnight. The following morning was just a bit like Christmas.
A brief bit of attention with a wire brush removed the last of the heavy scale loosened by the overnight soaking. After drying the parts, a thin film of Breakfree CLP ensured that the rust got the memo and left us alone. The resulting natural patina is an aesthetically appealing gray-brown.
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The newly manufactured stock is left intentionally undersized, and it took a little effort to widen the inletting and open the barrel channel sufficiently for a nice smooth fit. However, the wood is fairly soft and the process is not particularly onerous. While most of the shaping could be undertaken by a determined craftsman with a few hand tools and some sandpaper, a Dremel Moto-Tool makes the process easier. Cutoff wheels remove ruined screws and sanding attachments make quick work of the wooden chores. As with most things, just be patient. It is always better to remove too little than too much.
The cross-pin holes must be drilled to secure the barrel, and this is a pain. As tolerances on 200-year-old muskets do not allow for standardization, these holes need to be spotted based upon the architecture of your particular barrel. A hand drill can make these holes; a drill press makes them better. I improvised new pins out some stiff heavy-gauge wire I harvested from an old bed frame. The major lock parts were in decent shape given their age, but some of the screws that retained them were worn, bent or both. I scrounged replacements that tightened the action considerably. The lock would render splendid service in a display gun with just a little cleaning. However, if you want the lock to be operational, you will want to replace the inner parts with modern reproductions. Interestingly, all the antique springs were intact and strong despite their advanced age.
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This brings us to the obvious question—once this classic British military musket has been thoroughly rejuvenated, can you shoot it? The good folks at IMA say not unless the gun is inspected and cleared by an experienced gunsmith. Even then that would be a tough call. Metallurgy in 1790 was not what it is today, and it might be foolish to entrust one’s life to the skills of an artisan who died two centuries ago and whose machines were driven by steam.
That being said, after a generous treatment with Evapo-Rust and a little effort, the barrel assembly on my Brown Bess looks
to be in unnaturally good shape. The lock had to be rebuilt, but overall the end result of this project is simply gorgeous. Even the most seasoned gun collection can benefit from an original 18th century British military musket. At the very least, I would certainly be comfortable firing blank loads out of the refurbished gun.
Like classic cars and real estate, they aren’t making any more original Brown Bess muskets. While they last, this cache from IMA offers the enterprising tinker with access to some basic hand tools the opportunity to build up a genuine 18th century British musket. Pay a premium on the IMA website and you can even get a gun that sports original East India Trading Company markings just like those out of Pirates Of The Caribbean. The project is fun and the end result is something to be proud of. With a little elbow grease and some help from Evapo-Rust you can build one, too. For more information, visit ima-usa.com or call 908-903-1200. Check out EvapoRust online at evapo-rust.com or call 888-329-9877.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.