Thursday, January 13, 2011

Brown Bess

NEW ORLEANS --"Unless I miss my guess," I told the Lady Friend as we looked in the window of James H. Cohen & Sons, an antique firearms, swords, currency and coins establishment at 437 Royal Street in the Vieux Carre, "that's a genuine Brown Bess."

I was captivated because a Brown Bess -- the flintlock muzzle-loading musket that was the standard British infantry long arm from 1722 to 1838 -- is an important furnishing in my fourth Steve Martinez novel. I'd seen replicas, but never the real thing.

So in the interest of research we entered the shop. Upon being told that I was a novelist and had written about the weapon, the saleslady took the Bess down from its honored place in a long rack of scores upon scores of antique muzzle-loaders, and handed it to me while the Lady Friend captured the event with her camera. It was like grasping a piece of history.

The .75 caliber Bess was to both Redcoats and Continental soldiers in the Revolutionary War what the tommy gun was to Al Capone and the M-1 to the GIs of World War II. Like those weapons, the Bess was more than a tool; it was also a symbol -- in this case a symbol of Empire.

This particular Brown Bess was dated 1805, and it did not take much of a leap of imagination to think the weapon might have served on either side at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

The musket even has figured in literary history. Rudyard Kipling dedicated a long poem, "Brown Bess," to it. Here are the first three stanzas:

In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise--
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes--
At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess.

When ruffles were turned into stiff leather stocks,
And people wore pigtails instead of perukes,
Brown Bess never altered her iron-grey locks.
She knew she was valued for more than her looks.
"Oh, powder and patches was always my dress,
And I think I am killing enough," said Brown Bess . . .

For a long moment I considered adding this Bess to my arsenal of whodunit artifacts, but one look at the price tag -- $8,650 -- squelched that thought.

It was enough just to caress the patina of the 206-year-old brown steel.

There are some closeup views of the Cohens' Bess here.


  1. Your mother would have been appalled at that photo!

  2. Maybe not, Sis. Our mom may have been as antiwar as they come, but she was not ahistorical. What's more, she grew up with guns, being the daughter of an OSS and CIA spook, and in her youth was a fair shot with a .22. She probably would have yelled at me for the pose but then would have asked about the musket's provenance.