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Hougoumont 1815: one of the critical engagements in the battle of waterloo, this bloody engagement tested two of the finest flintlock muskets ever designed.

Waterloo was one of the most critical battles ever fought. It resulted in not only the downfall of one of history's most brilliant military dictators, Napoleon Bonaparte, but forever changed the face of Europe and the world.

The campaign, which stretched out over four days, from June 15 to 18,1815, at various spots on the Belgian landscape, culminated in a back-and-forth, nine hour slugfest which could have very easily had a different outcome if were it not for the valiant defense of an elegant walled chateau farm, Hougoumont.

Some 2,600 defenders, comprised largely of British Guards along with some troops from the King's German Legion and numbers of allies from Nassau and Hanover, resisted constant onslaughts of French infantry, possibly numbering as many as 12,700, using musket fire, bayonets, swords and whatever else was at hand. While the Nassauers and Hanoverians had their own issue arms, it was the British Brown Bess and French 1777/An IX (Year Nine) muskets that saw the bulk of the action. Both were the best arms of their time and had proven themselves in countless battles prior to 1815.

THE BROWN BESS

No one really knows the origin of the name "Brown Bess." As far as we can tell it first shows up in print in 1785, and was later described in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as "A soldier's firelock. To hug Brown Bess; to carry a firelock or serve as a private soldier."

Originally called the King's Arm, or Land Pattern musket, it has been surmised that the term "Brown Bess" came from a combination of the gun's browned iron parts and brown walnut stock. The only problem with this theory is that it's based on a fallacy. All steel parts on a Brown Bess were originally polished bright.

There are theories that the "Bess" portion originated from the German "buss," or that it was named after a polearm called "Brown Bill." But no one really knows for sure. My own theory is it may be nothing more than an alliterative name of affection. As many gun stocks up to the time of the introduction of the Land Pattern were black, it's easy enough to see where the "brown" part of the name came from, and "Bess" was a popular diminutive of the common English name Elizabeth. This is only a guess, but it's probably as good as any.

One thing that's known for certain, however, is the effectiveness of this well-made smoothbore. In the hands of highly trained soldiers, it was in a large part responsible for adding huge chunks of real estate to England's colonial holdings--North America, India and portions of the Far East, to name just a few areas. All came under British rule during the lifetime of Brown Bess.

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Until the later patterns, it becomes hard to truly pigeonhole specific models as there was much overlap of features and differences in parts. These were handmade arms, one must remember, so the regularity of appearance and complete interchangeability we are accustomed to in the 21st century was not the norm in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The first of the Land Pattern (as opposed to Sea Service pattern for naval use) Besses appeared in the mid 1720s, and there were further modifications of the gun in 1730, 1746 and 1756. With a 46-inch,.75-caliber bright steel barrel, it was a formidable arm--especially when topped off with a wicked 17-inch-long, triangular-bladed bayonet. Some early guns had all iron fittings, but for the most part Brown Bess furniture (to include buttplate, trigger guard, thumbpiece, sideplate, ramrod pipes and fore-end tip) were fabricated of brass.

Unit markings were often engraved on the barrel, thumbpiece or buttplate tang. Early locks had a pronounced curve to them, but as the gun evolved, they became straighter--looking pretty much like what we think of as a flintlock today. Also the cocks became less graceful and more rugged. Long Land Patterns were officially superseded by the Short Land Pattern in 1769, or thereabouts, but they continued to be manufactured well into the 1780s. The Short Land resembled the earlier musket quite a bit, though there were some cosmetic differences, and the barrel was bobbed to 42 inches.

Both the Long Land (some with shortened barrels) and the Short Land Pattern muskets saw use during the American Revolution, and the Yankees even made copies of them. These "Committee of Safety" muskets rarely exhibit the fine fit and finish of the real article, but they were serviceable, nonetheless.

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With the onset of the Napoleonic Wars, the Brits realized that their elegant Short Land pattern took too much time and effort to build, so in the 1790s the more spartan "India Pattern" with its 39-inch barrel was adopted, initially as a stopgap but ultimately as the standard issue arm manufactured until 1815. Modeled after the shortened muskets being used by the East India Company, it was more utilitarian and cheaper to manufacture. The gun measured 55 inches, overall, and weighed some 9% pounds. In 1809 the gooseneck cock was changed to a reinforced one, as on our evaluation piece.

To be honest, the Brown Bess was probably no better than many other flintlock muskets being used by other countries at the time, but its distinction came in the fact that it was the first really standardized firearm used by British forces and was employed in great numbers over a considerable period of time. Prior to the time of its introduction, Colonels of various regiments could purchase just about anything they wanted for their men, resulting in a logistical nightmare.

As ranges lengthened, the odds of hitting a target a soldier actually aimed at gradually diminished, Tactics of the time emphasized ramming down and firing as many bullets as fast as you could in an effort to get as many them flying in the direction of the enemy as possible. This is not to denigrate the efforts of many commanders who stressed marksmanship and trained their men accordingly. As we will see later on in our shooting evaluation, at various ranges the gun could be both accurate and deadly Except in tactical situations where it was felt prudent to fire with a bare "running ball," it must be remembered that in the standard loading procedure the paper surrounding the bullet was rammed down the barrel, too, providing better obturation and acting as an erstwhile patch. In firing bullets with and without the cartridge paper, I can attest the latter are definitely more accurate than the former. The disadvantage of loading with the paper cartridge is that as the bore becomes increasingly fouled it is more and more difficult to ram the ball home.

The Brown Bess was loaded using a paper cartridge that--depending upon the source--had a powder charge of between 160 and 170 grains of coarse black powder and a 550 grain.717 lead ball. The powder was used for priming and the main charge. Depending upon the fastidiousness of the soldier, the priming charge could decrease the total charge by 10 or more grains. The effect of a ball like this hitting flesh was devastating. It was said that even out to 100 yards a bullet could easily penetrate two soldiers. In my own experience, while working on a television show, I had the opportunity to fire a Bess at a side of beef from, as I remember, around 30 yards. The results, as shown in slow motion, were horrendous, with the ball easily passing through the carcass, barely changing direction and tearing out huge hunks of meat along the way.

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Discipline and practice were paramount if one was to go into battle with one of these muskets. Various manuals had different sequences for loading, but the average was about 12 steps. When in the field, however, the sequence was shortened considerably, and the average soldier could get off as many as four shots a minute.

Tactics of the time called for firing as troops moved forward towards one another. Bayonets would then be fixed and the battle often decided by the use of cold steel. As we will see at Hougoumont, it could also be used very effectively in a fortified position as well. Common Brown Bess bayonets simply slipped over the front sight/lug on the end of the barrel and were held in place by an angular channel.

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FRENCH 1777/YEAR NINE

Most of the French during the Napoleonic Wars were issued with the superb Fusile d'Infanterie Modele 1777 and its variant the Year Nine, so designated because it was adopted in the ninth year after the Revolution, in accordance with the new French calendar. There were also other specialized versions of the 77, but for the purpose of this article we will refer to the standard line infantry musket.

The 1777, which was a follow on to earlier Modele 1763/64/73/74 muskets, is often generically called "Charleville" after one of the sites where it was manufactured. Though also a flintlock in many respects, it was quite unlike the Brown Bess. To begin with, the French gun was completely iron mounted. The barrel was held to the stock by means of three barrel bands, unlike the Bess's, which was pinned to the stock and therefore more difficult to remove. Caliber was 17.48mm (69), barrel length 40 inches, overall length 55 inches and weight 9 4/3 pounds. Though having similar measurements, the 1777 was more slender than the Brown Bess, and the left side of the butt had a curved cutout to allow the soldier to better aim his musket. Too, unlike the British arm, the 1777 had a designated brass front sight blade on the top of the front barrel band. The bayonet lug, which accommodated a 16 inch bladed bayonet, was on the bottom of the barrel at the muzzle. The bayonet itself had a locking ring to secure it in place--a definite improvement over its Brit counterpart.

In 1800 (Year IX) the 1777 was slightly modified and redesignated Fusil Modele 1777 corrige An IX--"corrected Model 1777 Musket Year Nine." The "corrections" were basically little more than a redesigned frizzen, the addition of band springs to all three bands (the 1777 only had a spring on the rear band), a ramrod retaining spring and riveted sling swivels.

The 1777/An IX cartridge had a 15.98mm (.629), 378 grain ball backed by a stout 12.20 grams (188 grains) of powder. Reliability, ruggedness and accuracy were certainly on a par with the Bess, though at the risk of being anecdotal, in examining many examples, I feel the overall quality of workmanship and degree of interchangeability on the French muskets to be a tad better than those of the Bess. When the Americans decided to produce their own line musket (the 1795), they decided to follow the French rather than the British pattern--partly because of the French support during the American Revolution, but also because they recognized the gun's merits.

SHOOTING BY THE NUMBERS

For our shooting evaluation, I rustled up an excellent condition specimen of a post 1809 India Pattern Brown Bess and standard Year Nine. With the exception of the usual scratches, nicks and knocks one can expect to see on a 200 year old gun, the Bess appeared to have seen little use as its action was crisp, the touchhole unworn and bore pristine. The stock sported the usual storekeeper's and contractors' marks.

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Our An IX too was in fine shape. The lock was proofed, but unmarked as to manufacturer--but this is not uncommon. Most metal parts were still bright, and the action, like the Bess's, very good. Though of undoubted Napoleonic manufacture, the stock provided something of an early 19th century timeline showing the vicissitudes of the changing French political scene, having the Imperial crown sharing space with a cockerel from the Louis Phillip period and "PLD" (pour le droit) stamping used by the national guard.

Realizing that shooting smoothbores from a bench was not going to be a true test of their abilities, I opted to run the test standing, shooting offhand, using reconstructed paper cartridges (.715 balls for the Bess and.65 for the Year Nine, both backed with 165 grains of Goex FFg black powder), fresh flints (British and French respectively--we must try and be as authentic as possible, you know) and reproduction cartridge boxes from both sides.

First, I tried rapid firing with both guns using an abbreviated battlefield drill and was able to get off three to four shots a minute with each. Ignition was 100 percent, and both had very crisp trigger pulls, the Year Nine coming in at 31/2 pounds and the Bess at double that.

Next, to approximate the disparity in distances that the soldiers had to fire at during the struggle for Hougoumont, I set up silhouette targets at 25, 50 and 100 yards. Five shots were fired on each board with both guns without cleaning, as there would have been little chance to scrub out one's musket's bore during some of the more frantic exchanges--though guns at Hougoumont were routinely cleaned and flints checked and replaced when the soldiers had any kind of respite.

Both muskets shouldered well and performed admirably, with the Bess's lack of a rear sight not really presenting that much of a problem. All one had to do was sight down the barrel and make sure the top of the front sight/bayonet stud was slightly above the breech.

The Bess, because of its stock configuration, caused one to place their cheek a little higher on the comb, while the Year Nine's cutout brought the shooter's eye and head lower. Frankly, I found the Bess more comfortable to shoot, though there are some I have talked to who swear by the French configuration. Maybe they have short necks.

Recoil using the service loads was stout, no question about it. Both guns smack you pretty good. One has to respect the fortitude of the soldiers, some of whom probably fired their muskets well over 100 times at Hougoumont.

Results were interesting and about what one might expect. At 25 yards both guns got five shots on the board, with the Bess's all on the target, low and to the right, possibly caused by the heavy trigger pull; the Year Nine scored three in the target, more at the center, and two off the target, high and to the right--though probably still within a killing or wounding area.

At 50 yards the Bess kept its rounds on the lower part and just outside of the target, the Year Nine scattered its balls from the top to the bottom of the target, throwing one out high and to the right again, still just fine for combat accuracy.

At 100 yards things came apart. The Bess managed one just outside the right side of the target at midpoint and two almost out of the board at the top right. The Year Nine did even more dismally with only two hits at the bottom right of the board--but, to be fair, these still could have been telling shots hitting a soldier in the legs or groin. If they didn't kill him, they certainly could have taken him out of the battle. Still, with either arm, the soldiers would possibly have been firing at massed formations or fortified positions, so it doesn't necessarily mean they would have been ineffective.

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EVALUATION

Both guns, of their type, are simply superb. If a soldier were issued either one, he would not have been shortchanged. Despite its heavy trigger pull, I preferred the Bess slightly simply because the stock seemed to fit me better, and because of this recoil seemed less punishing. But the Year Nine was one helluva gun, too. But in shooting either, you can see why so many casualties were piled up on both sides at Hougoumont. The men and muskets did their work with deadly precision and helped to defend--and defeat--an empire.

BATTLE BRIEFING

Originally intended as a diversionary action, the fight at the walled chateau farm of Hougoumont increased in importance and ferocity to the point where both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington felt it became one of the key actions of the entire engagement. The Duke himself stated, "the success of the battle turned upon closing the gates at Hougoumont." The chateau was sited on-and protecting-the Allied Army's right flank, though large numbers of British troops never actually were inside the enclosure, Wellington invested considerable resources, including artillery support, to keep the supply lines to the chateau open. Fighting took place within the farmyard and in the woods, gardens and orchards surrounding it. Ultimately the French would breach the enclosure once, though they were forced back in fierce hand-to-hand combat. French artillery fire was telling, as well, ultimately causing all the structures at the farm, with the exception of the chapel, to be burned to the ground. The total number of soldiers, on both sides, engaged in the battle is debated as are casualties. One educated guess is that some 2,600 British and other Allied troops fought up to 12,700 French, with Allied casualties somewhere in the neighborhood of 847 killed and wounded and the French, 5,000.

THEY WERE THERE: James Graham

Called "the bravest man at Waterloo," Corporal James Graham came from Ireland and in 1813 joined the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards. Assigned to a light company, by 1815 he had been promoted to corporal. Ultimately sent to Belgium, along with his brother, Joseph, he ended up at Hougoumont where he continually distinguished himself throughout the battle, first saving his brother (who later died of wounds) from a burning barn, and then assisting his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James McDonnel, in expelling the French from the courtyard, personally slotting the gate's crossbar in place despite vigorous opposition from the enemy. Following the battle he was immediately promoted to sergeant When Reverend John Norcross, Rector of Framlingham, offered to give a 10 pound annuity to "one of his brave countrymen, who fought in the late tremendous but glorious conflict," the Duke of Wellington nominated Graham. Though the annuity ran out after two years, Norcross going bankrup, Upon his death the clergyman had again amassed enough resources to grant another 500 pounds to the "bravest man in England." Wellington named McDonnel, who graciously split the award with Graham. After the war, Graham continued in the Guards, and upon discharge in 1821 joined the 12th Royal Lancers as a private, leaving the service some eight years later because of poor health. He was granted a pension and died at the Kiimainham Royal Hospital in 1845.

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Photos by Lynne McCready
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 21, 2011
Words:3134
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