Brown Bess


I’m not fascinated by weapons. Especially the new ones. They do have their uses, even on civvie street. Firearms can be used to hunt, or to defend one’s person and home. When I was a boy, I enjoyed hunting. Not anymore. It’d have to be pretty desperate times around here for me to shoot an animal, at the moment it’s a lot easier to go to the grocery store. If I never hunt again it’ll be fine.

I’m going to duck the whole discussion about the 2nd Amendment, etc. Suffice it to say that most US citizens have the right to buy anything short of a machine gun or grenade launchers, etc, and the law changes from state to state and even in different cities.

As a civilian, I’ve personally seen weapons used for the good as well as the bad.

The sword cuts both ways. I made a living by handling and using firearms, they are merely tools to me. If I pick up an M4 carbine or an M9 pistol, it feels like work. Nothing more.

But some weapons are different. They feel like history.

I’m a bit of a history buff, so I’m a sucker for this type of thing. Well, over the course of this long and boring winter, I came across an ad on a website, International Military Antiques.

It seems they bought a mountain of antique weapons from the Government of Nepal, to the tune of 50,000 antique firearms and edged weapons.

Nepal is where the famed Gurkha Regiments come from, some of the best soldiers on the planet.

So I was interested on two fronts- here was some serious military history, and some honest-to-God historical weaponry. Most of the stuff didn’t interest me, but the Brown Bess, more properly known as the Land Pattern Musket, did.

Why? When I was a kid my dad took me to a Revolution era re-enactment, I was fascinated by all of the 18th century stuff. Especially the long muskets, and the billowing clouds of smoke that drifted across the fields during battle reenactments. For an eight year old, pretty cool. I really wanted one of those muskets, but my dad laughed. Those things were expensive, and he wasn’t about to spend that kind of dough.

Later on I received a surplus Lee-Enfield to hunt with, but what I really wanted was a Bess. I grew up, went into the service, handled an endless series of firearms, but I never forgot the Brown Bess.

One problem. A reproduction costs over a grand, and the real thing in piss-poor shape about eight.

So I forgot about it. Kind of.

And then I saw the ad from IMA while web surfing one day this winter. A real, no-kidding Bess, in relic condition. Expensive still, but barely doable.

I said the hell with it and whipped out the credit card. One week later and a very long box was on my porch while the snow drifted down. Unboxed it, and it was a pile of rust, just like the ad stated. Came with a new stock because the old one had turned to dust. I looked at what I had, a two hundred odd year old pile of apparent junk, breathed deeply, refused to be intimidated, and went to work after watching about a million YouTube videos. (NOTE: It seems that it’s legal to own a Bess in Australia and the UK, and a lot of enthusiasts live there.)

Soaked the rusty steel in white vinegar, scrubbed and scrubbed at the rust. Slowly but surely the old honest steel came through and I learned a few things.

One thing that was immediately clear was that this ancient piece had seen a lot of hard use. It was probably retired when it couldn’t be reliably fired anymore. Also, the original wood (a few dry-rotted chunks were still stuck to the barrel) was walnut. Not a tree that grows in Nepal, so at least some of the weapon once upon a time was English.

It was a mystery, and now that the project is complete, it still is.

But by God, it’s a Brown Bess, of a similar type to what my ancestors used on whatever side they fought. It’s a connection with history, real and tangible in my hands. My first thought upon completing it and feeling its weight (heavy) was “hey, it’s a pirate gun!”

It was a fun project to tinker with while the snow fell.

Would I ever shoot it? No, nor do I think it could be reliably fired.

I’m happy with the Bess as a historical artifact, an echo of the distant past, preserved for the future.

Shame they can’t all be relics. But they’re not, and it does no good to wish otherwise.


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