means brown barrel. The barrels were browned to keep them from
rusting. (Dutch, bus, a gun-barrel; Low German, büsse;
Swedish, byssa. Our arquebus, blunderbuss.) In 1808 a
process of browning was introduced, but this has, of course, nothing to
do with the distinctive epithet. Probably Bess is a companion
word to Bill. (See below.)
A kind of halbert used by English foot-soldiers before muskets
were employed. We find in the mediæval ballads the expressions, “brown
brand,” “brown sword,” “brown blade,” etc. Sometimes the word rusty
is substituted for brown, as in Chaucer: “And in his side he had a
rousty blade”; which, being the god Mars, cannot mean a bad one.
Keeping the weapons bright
is a modern fashion; our forefathers
preferred the honour of blood stains. Some say thè weapons were
varnished with a brown varnish to prevent rust, and some affirm that
one Brown was a famous maker of these instruments, and that Brown Bill
is a phrase similar to Armstrong gun and Colt's revolver. (See above.
So, with a band of bowmen and of pikes,
Brown bills and targetiers.
Marlowe: Edward II.
Brown also means shining (Dutch, brun), hence, “My bonnie
brown sword,” “brown as glass,” etc., so that a “brown bill” might
refer to the shining steel, and “brown Bess” to the bright barrel.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894