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The British Empire has a long and storied history full of triumphs and atrocities, a history that is indelibly linked with that of the United States. Throughout this history, British troops have flexed their muscle around the globe using numerous iconic firearms, many of which will be discussed below. For the purposes of this quick crash course, we will be covering the standard infantry long guns carried by British troops from the early 18th century until the end of the Second World War and the downward slide of the empire.
The true origin of the term “Brown Bess” sadly may be lost to history, but one of the leading theories seems fairly logical, and the nomenclature appears to have been widely used in contemporary sources. Said theory states that “Bess," was a slang term adopted during the 18th century for women of ill-repute such as mistresses or prostitutes. Combining this with “brown,” to mean plain, led to one of the most recognizable names in firearms history. The Brown Bess was a muzzle loading flintlock smoothbore musket that fired a round .75 caliber ball with a fire rate of 3-5 shots per minute, dependent upon the user. There were three main patterns of the musket carried by infantry on land, these being the Long Land, Short Land, and India Pattern. There are multiple small variations within these three types, but the most easily recognizable difference is their length. With a clear trend towards a shorter overall weapon, the Long Land measured a hefty 62.5-inches overall and the India Pattern was 55.25-inches in length. There were also less common patterns, such as the New Light Infantry Pattern and the Sea Service Pattern, whose names are fairly self explanatory. Muskets of these various patterns were in service for over 100 years, from 1722 until they began to be phased out in the early 1830s. However, with a total of approximately 4.3 million of these old workhorses manufactured, they continued in use by rear echelon troops (and countries throughout the world that couldn’t acquire more advanced weapons) until the late 1800s. Many of the India Pattern muskets were updated to the percussion Pattern 1839 musket, which was in service for a short time before the introduction of the Pattern 1853.
Even the mighty Brown Bess could not conquer the slow advance of technology, and after being phased out by the Pattern 1839 for a short time, it was replaced by another iconic arm more familiar to our American readers. The Pattern 1853 Enfield was developed by William Pritchett in the early 1850s, and in its most widespread form was 55 inches overall and fired a .577 caliber minié-ball. Like the Brown Bess, the P1853 was manufactured in multiple patterns, but what came to be known as the “three-band” was by far the most widespread. The approximately 1.5 million P1853 rifle-muskets were carried by British troops in numerous conflicts throughout the empire between 1853 to 1867, and as alluded to earlier, is probably well-known to those in the U.S. for their widespread use during the American Civil War (1861-1865). During the deadliest war in American history, the P1853 was the second most widely carried infantry weapon, with only the Springfield Model 1861 being issued in larger numbers. The largest conflict in which British troops carried it was the Crimean War (1853-1856), where it was present for iconic moments such as the “thin red line” of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders repelling a Russian cavalry charge at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. During both of these wars the P1853 gained a widespread reputation for its accuracy and reliability. Though the service life of this rifle was about 80 years shorter than that of the Brown Bess, its impact on history cannot be overlooked as rifled infantry weapons had irreversibly changed the trajectory of warfare. Much like the Brown Bess, many of these rifles were destined to be converted into their replacements, in this case the breech loading Snider-Enfield.
Though mainly a stopgap measure, the Snider-Enfield is certainly worth mentioning when discussing the evolution of infantry longarms of the British Empire. The Snider-Enfield was developed in 1866 as a conversion of the previously discussed Pattern 1853 from a muzzle loading percussion configuration to a breech loading conversion using a self-contained cartridge. In trials the benefits of this system were initially evident as it took the average infantryman’s rate of fire from 3-5 rounds per minute to approximately 10 rounds per minute. Just like its predecessors, the Snider-Enfield saw use in various conflicts throughout the empire including the Anglo-Ashanti Wars and the New Zealand Wars. The Snider-Enfield also introduced the brass-cased .577 Snider cartridge that would continue in service in various forms until near the end of the 19th century when it was finally supplanted by the well-known .303 cartridge. Approximately 870,000 Pattern 1853 rifles were converted to the Snider-Enfield pattern by the time they began to be widely phased out in 1874. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British preferred to keep the Indian troops armed with weapons a generation behind, so these conversions would continue in the service of the British Indian Army until the mid-1890s.
The Martini-Henry rifle was a combination of a Peabody developed, lever-actuated, dropping block action, its subsequent improvements by Friedrich von Martini, and polygonal rifling developed by Scotsman, Alexander Henry. It began to be issued to British troops in 1871 and by 1874 was widespread. The rifle continued to be chambered in .577, however it was slightly different than that of the Snider. The Martini-Henry fired the .577/450 Boxer-Henry cartridge which initially had a brass foil casing that proved to cause issues in the field. This casing was later replaced by a stronger drawn brass cartridge that proved more reliable. This innovative rifle saw service in various colonial wars including the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Second Boer War, and most famously, the Anglo-Zulu War. Martini-Henry rifles can be seen carried by the troops defending Rorke’s Drift in the Hollywood film “Zulu," a favorite of many a military historian. The standard infantry Martini-Henry was produced in four major patterns, the Mk I, Mk II, Mk III, and Mk IV, which is usually marked on the side of the action. Production was ended in 1889 to be replaced by the Lee-Metford bolt action but they continued to be carried by second line troops until after World War I.
After roughly nine years of development the Lee-Metford, Britain’s first widely issued bolt action rifle, first entered service in 1888. Like its predecessor, this rifle was a combination of innovations from two different inventors, those being James Paris Lee’s action and detachable magazine and William Ellis Metford’s seven groove barrel. Besides being the first British military bolt action, the Lee-Metford was also the first rifle chambered in the new .303 British cartridge that would be their standard cartridge until well into the post-World War II era. Like the Snider-Enfield, this rifle was only in service for a short time, but brought forth irreversible changes to the way the British military conducted warfare. Even with its short career, the Lee-Metford managed to take part in a number of different conflicts including the Second Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion.
This military mainstay was initially introduced in 1895 as the “Magazine Lee-Enfield” or MLE, an early variation that wouldn’t last long. This rifle, and those to follow, continued the use of the .303 British cartridge until the adoption of the 7.62x51 NATO cartridge in the Cold War era. In 1904, the more commonly known “Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I” or SMLE Mk I was introduced. By 1907, the Mk III took the stage and was the most widely carried rifle by British/Commonwealth troops during World War I. Early in the war the Mk III was found to be too complicated to mass produce and was replaced by the slightly simplified variant called the Mk III*. Between the First and Second World Wars development continued and by the early 1930s the British military settled on the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk I, which would be again simplified for mass production in 1942 and called the No. 4 Mk I*. These rifles were carried throughout World War II and into the post-war era by frontline troops of the British Empire.
At the height of its power the British empire included 23% of the world’s population and 24% of the world’s land area. With the end of World War II however, the British empire began to decline. Successive decolonisation and independence movements throughout their colonies would lead to only a few British overseas territories by the 1980s. These were the long arms that allowed a small island nation to enforce their will upon a large part of the globe, and create an empire upon which “the sun never set."
The British Soldiers Firearm, 1850-1864 From Smooth-bore to Small-bore by C. H. Roads
Red Coat and Brown Bess by Anthony D. Darling
British Military Longarms 1815-1865by D. W. Bailey
British Military Firearms 1650-1850by Howard L. Blackmore
The British Service Lee: Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles and Carbines 1880-1980 by Ian Skennerton
Following his stinging defeat in the 1912 election, President Theodore Roosevelt planned a trip to South America with a lecture tour and river
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