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Brown Bess

NOTES AND QUERIES, 27 MARCH 1858

Brown Bess - When was the musket first so called? As the musket was always kept bright until a recent period, was it called Bess before? - A. Holt White

Brown Bess in its primary meaning, is equivalent to brown barrel. Bus, in Dutch, is the barrel of a gun; in Low Germ. büsse, in Swed. byssa. Hence our English Bess, as applied to a gun-barrel. (Conf. in Med. Latin, bus-bas, Fragor scloporum et certaminis.) The Dutch bus appears often in composition. Hand-bus, a pistol; literally, a hand-barrel. Bus-schieter, a gunner; literally a barrel-shooter. We have the Dutch bus (a barrel) in three English names of fire-arms: viz. arquebus, obus, blunderbuss. At the first of these three, arquebus, we must look a little more closely, would we trace the term Brown Bess to its primaeval source. The most formidable of cross-bows, before fire-arms came into general use, was one which shot a ball, or pellet, from a barrel. Specimens may yet be seen. Now this was the original arquebuse (i.e. arc-bus, or arc-et-bus, bow and barrel). In process of time, as gunpowder came into use, the arc disappeared, and the buss, or barrel, remained. Hence arquebuse, though it properly implies a bow fitted with a tube or barrel, came into use as the old appellation of a soldier's firelock. And hence the name of Bess (Bus, Büsse, or byssa), which the musket has borne more recently. Bess, or bus, is the last syllable of the old arquebuse or harquebus, cut off for seperate use, just as in the more recent instance of bus from omnibus. The barrels of firelocks were sometimes browned. Sometimes, however, they were required to be kept bright. Could we ascertain who first in mercy obtained the browning of the barrel, we might have some prospect of ascertaining the first introduction of the term "Brown Bess." Doubtless it was some hero of the fight, not the field-day. For a further illustration of the term Brown Bess it may be proper to remark, that in Northumberland, according to Halliwell, a gun is known by the not very elegant title of black bitch. Now, like bus in Dutch, büchse is in German a gun-barrel. ("Büchse, 2. ein eisernes Rohr zum schiessen:" an iron tube for shooting.) May we not infer, therefore, that black bitch was originally "black büchse," i.e. black barrel, in conformity with brown barrel, or Brown Bess? "Formerly," says Zedler, "and before the invention of gunpowder, arquebuse signified a bow with a barrel (Bogen-Büchse), which is the literal meaning of the word."


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