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Brown Bess: The AR-15 of 1776
Yes, there were effective, efficient, and deadly military-specific weapons at the time the 2nd Amendment was written. I’d like to introduce you to the Brown Bess Musket.
AR-15s are a hotly debated topic in American politics. Despite variations of the AR-15 being the most popular firearms in the country, it is often target #1 for gun control advocates.
Typical arguments for banning the manufacture and sale of AR-15s for the civilian market include pointing to its origin as a weapon designed specifically for military use. Proponents of this argument also assert that the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution is an outdated law crafted by a society that did not have such devastating weaponry available to its population.
To this argument, I’m perfectly willing to concede the AR-15 was indeed designed for military application. It is an effective, efficient, and deadly firearm. However, the idea that the American founding fathers would not have crafted the 2nd Amendment as they did if effective, efficient, and deadly military-specific firearms had been available is provably false. In this article, I’d like to introduce you to the Brown Bess Musket.
But First, Let’s talk M16
The ArmaLite AR-10 and its direct derivative, the ArmaLite AR-15, were designed by Eugene Stoner and created to compete with US Army standard-issue rifles to obtain military contracts. The ArmaLite AR-10 lost out to the Springfield M14 in replacing the M1 Garand, but the ArmaLite AR-15 subsequently replaced the Springfield M14 and was designated the M16.
The M16 was designed as a light, rugged, and easily maintained assault rifle firing a small-caliber rifle cartridge (known as intermediate ammunition). It was among the first popular designs to use polymer for its construction, and it popularized the use of small-caliber rifle cartridges in standard-issue weapons.
The strategic and tactical applications of the M16 were numerous. The lighter weight aided in transport costs and lessened the load of the average rifleman. Its cheap polymer construction significantly reduced the cost of arming soldiers and also made surpluses more easily obtainable for arming allies. The smaller caliber lowered costs and also allowed the individual soldier to carry more ammunition. As an assault rifle, capable of selective fire, the M16 proved capable for longer range engagements as well as affording effective sweeping and close-quarter fire.
Since its adoption by the US Military, the M16 has become the most widely manufactured rifle in the world. It’s used by most NATO countries and by over eighty countries worldwide. There are estimates that over eight million have been produced.
Due to its cheap construction, wide distribution, and the familiarization of the weapon by multiple generations of military veterans and military enthusiasts, it should be no surprise that civilian versions of the AR-15 (demilitarized to have no selector switch, and therefore not an assault rifle) are available in various configurations for sporting, competition, and personal defense.
Now, for the Brown Bess
Activists who think the 18th Century didn’t have effective, efficient, and deadly military-specific firearms either don’t know the history of warfare or look at that history through the lens of modern technological development. The wars of that century saw newer and more deadly weapons and tactics utilized in a way that created whole new schools of military doctrine.
There were many types of firearms and weapons used in the Revolutionary War that I could point to as “the AR-15 of 1776.” But I chose the Brown Bess for several specific reasons. First, it was the standard-issue weapon of the British Army, an organized and modern military (by the standards of the time). Second, it was designed specifically for military use and was not generally desirable for hunting and other applications. And third, despite it being a chiefly military weapon and explicitly designed for military application, it was commonly owned by many Americans. More than a few of those who were involved in crafting the language of the Bill of Rights personally owned a Brown Bess.
The British officially designated the Brown Bess as the Land Pattern Musket. It was first introduced to the military of the British Empire in 1722. It saw constant usage all the way through to 1838. It had multiple variations designed for different unit applications. These options ranged from the original Long Land Pattern which measured over sixty inches to the Cavalry Carbine, measuring a little over forty inches. It was a .75 Caliber smoothbore flintlock musket that utilized one-ounce .69 caliber balls and weighed overall about ten pounds.
But, Why Not a Long Rifle?
The Brown Bess is often compared negatively to the Colonial Long Rifles utilized by most American Militia units. Much of this is due to the romanticizing of guerilla-type tactics used in the Battles of Lexington and Concorde and several other engagements. In these moments of the war, the militias put the Long Rifles into effective use. But, no unit armed primarily with Long Rifles ever “took the field” in a major engagement.
The Long Rifles were designed for hunting. They had extremely long barrels, making the overall length as long as seventy inches. And, they fired much smaller projectiles through much tighter barrels (the rifling would have no effect if the ball was not snug).
Hunting game or shooting targets, the Long Rifle would win out every time. However, put a soldier in formation, repeatedly firing at an organized enemy, and the situation changes.
A Long Rifle had to have its projectile rammed into the muzzle with much more force due to the tight fit. This added considerable time to the process of reloading. Also, rifling tended to expand with repetitive and consistent fire. This led some Long Rifles to become unusable in the middle of battle. The length of a Long Rifle could also become a concern when moving in formation and could also further slow down reloading.
Finally, the smaller size of the projectile was less casualty producing and less effective at the tactic of “forcing the gap.” This tactic entailed shredding segments of the enemy line and creating a hole through which a charge could be led to collapse the enemy formation.
The combat superiority of the Brown Bess, and the tactics explicitly designed to utilize the weapon’s strong points, played out in many of the worst defeats faced by the Continental Army, including the disastrous Battle of Long Island.
All of the factors that made the Brown Bess an effective military weapon essentially made it a horrible civilian weapon. In hunting, competition, and personal defense, the Brown Bess was not desirable for individual use.
Despite this, many Americans owned and trained with the Brown Bess. Most, if not all, of Congress would have been aware of the Brown Bress. Most of them would have likely handled one at some point and been read into its effectiveness as a military-specific applied weapon.
The existence of this effective, efficient, and deadly military-specific firearm did not lead any of the proponents of the Bill of Rights to hesitate in their support of the people’s right to bear arms. In fact, the individual ownership of military-style weaponry was the chief reason for the strong impulse to include a right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights.
After all, the Revolutionary War began when the British military attempted to seize caches of weapons from local militias, caches that included…Brown Bess muskets.