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May 1996      Volume 1, Number 1
Past Issues Index

Product Review:  The Officer's Model Brown Bess
by Robin Walsh

North Star West Brown Bess

The Officer's Model Brown Bess musket currently being offered by North Star West Traders was the last gun designed and built by Robert ``Curly'' Gostomski, longtime NMLRA director and avid rendezvouser and gunsmith. Curly's guns are well known for being historically accurate, and this firearm is no exception. This musket pattern isn't common, but there are a few extant originals around in America today, and Curly based his on a specimen held in the Smithsonian collection.

What North Star West calls the Officer's Model Brown Bess is also known as the Light Dragoon Pattern Brown Bess. Royal warrants of 1740 to 1750 suggest that, while fighting in North America, officers might replace pole arms with fusils of their own preference. This gun, originally developed in 1750 and sent into service by 1753, was usually owned by officers. Some surviving examples have period-appropriate checkering in the wrist or mild carving in certain areas; thse may have been decorated either expressly for the officer when issued or simply embellished as a peacetime hunting arm. It differs from standard issue Brown Bess muskets in many ways, the most noticeable of which is the caliber. Whereas most Besses are .75 caliber, the Officer's Model sports a .65 caliber barrel. The 37 1/4 inch-long barrel is also pinned to the stock, as are the more common Besses; some contemporary muskets utilized barrel bands for the same purpose. Finally, the lock uses a cam-action system rather than the traditional-styled Bess lock. This means that the Officer's Model Brown Bess has about a four-pound trigger pull versus the standard issue Bess' 10 pounds or so.

The current incarnation of the Light Dragoon Bess is the last gun designed and built by Curly before his death in 1994. Bob Rathbun, who with Bill Wescombe owns North Star West, had purchased several of Curly's patterns and guns in the past, including the Standard Pattern English (Northwest) gun and his Trade Pistol. Rathbun purchased the production rights on the Officer's Model from Irma Gostomski, Curly's widow, early in 1995. Although rumours abound that North Star West will have a limited edition run of these muskets, Rathbun assured me at the '95 NMLRA Winter National Shoot in Phoenix that his company will indeed make as many Besses as the market allows.

The Brown Bess Musket has a reputation for being a brutal, monstrous firearm to shoot. The heavy balls and nonergonomic stock design work together to punish the competitor almost as much as the target. However, when I tested the Officer's Model Brown Bess, I found the gun to be less than intimidating. The .65 caliber smoothbore, loaded with 65 grains of GOEX 2Fg blackpowder, proved to be an accurate load at 25 yards and didn't inflict any more discomfort than a squirrel rifle. Recoil was a firm push, and the wide buttplate distributed the force of the shot well. Regular issue Besses might be punishing, but this gun isn't.

Bob Rathbun had finished only one gun by the time of the '95 Winter National Shoot, and that musket had never been fired. Bob and I fully expected to spend the better part of a day trying to find a good combination of patch, ball, and powder to see the gun do its best. We got lucky, however; the load mentioned above produced a more-than-respectable 2.25 inch group at 25 yards right off the bat. (For the record, this group included a ``called'' flyer that wasn't counted in the measurement.) Another target gave similar results. Indeed, I felt that, if future firearms designed under this pattern exhibit the same characteristics, this musket will be the gun of choice for smoothbore competitiors of all types.

I must say, however, that not everything went perfect on the line. I experienced several hangfires and misfires during one round of shooting. The flint was still very good, as evidenced by a shower of sparks every time it hit the frizzen. There seemed to be some problem with the touchhole. Sometimes it didn't matter if I picked the hole or not - the gun wasn't going to fire. One load had to be expelled via CO2 ball discharger and the gun cleaned with an alcohol-soaked patch before the problem cleared up for a few shots. When the problem repeated itself, I began priming closer to the touchhole. That eliminated the misfires, but a hangfire or two still snuck in. I though there might be a problem with the touchhole. Rathbun assured me that he'd look into it and would fix the problem on future production models.

North Star West Brown Bess The little irritations, however, were offset by the fantastic performance of the gun. Groups were consistent, and the huge, blocky front sight (which doubles as a bayonet locking lug) gave my bad eyes a good, clear sight picture. Every flyer was called out before the smoke cleared; the gun could do the job even when this shooter couldn't.

Fit and finish were acceptable, though I would've fiddled with the gun a little more to fit my particular preferences, especially by applying more Tru-Oil to darken the stock and by dulling up some of that too-bright brasswork. Most people interested in guns of this nature for period reenactment and rendezvous will fool with the looks of the musket, anyway. Inletting was very good, tight around the tang and trigger guard, and the lock looked like it grew out of the wood. The button-tipped steel ramrod was extremely attractive and well made, as was most all the metal and brasswork.

All in all, the Officer's Model Brown Bess is a good gun for any smoothbore competition. It is an aesthetically pleasing gun, as well. Coupled with the accessories and bullet mold, it's a ready-to-wear set for a reenactor of the Roger's Rangers time period.

North Star West's Officer's Model Brown Bess is available as a finished gun, ``in the white,'' or as a kit. It also can be purchased with all the accoutrements, including a period-appropriate H&B tomahawk and a bayonet that will fit only this particular model of Bess. The gun is American made; Master Craft Foundry in Arkansas is molding the lock and the stocks are from Redbrush Stocks in Jackson, Ohio. For more information about the Officer's Model Brown Bess contact:

North Star West Brown Bess
North Star West
P.O. Box 488
Glencoe, CA 95232
Phone: (209) 293-7010
(702) 463-3888

Specifications
Model: Officer's Model Brown Bess
Manufacturer: North Star West
P.O. Box 488
Glencoe, CA 95232
(209) 293-7010
(702) 463-3888
Length: 53 1/2" overall
Weight: 8 1/2 pounds
Caliber: .65 caliber
Barrel: The steel barrel is 37 1/4" long, is a smoothbore, and is pinned into the stock.
Sights: Front sight is square and doubles as a bayonet lug; no rear sight.
Lock: Cam-action spring lock using a V-spring; no fly in tumbler.
Stock: Walnut finished with Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil to duplicate the British varnish finish of the original.
Trigger: Traditional single Brown Bess-type trigger with a 14" pull.
Breech: Flint-type breech, 3/4" x 16 threads.
Furniture: Bright-finished steel lock and barrel; trigger guard, side-plate, thumb-plate, buttplate, trigger plate, and ramrod pipes are polished brass.
Accesories: The firearm is available with all accessories, including a belt, H&R tomahawk, a bayonet, and a paper cartridge box.
Price: Varies from a kit with no accoutrements ($550) to a finished gun with accoutrements ($1,100).

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