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Origins of the Term Sideburns

History Police


Written by Helmut Watterott

The name sideburn or sideburns refers to a beard, a type of facial hair or ‘lamb chops’ is often attributed to General Burnside who sported the unique looking beard. It is believed that they changed the name to sideburns in the early 1800’s and it became a popular beard style in the era.


It is actually also well documented among the forts and regimental museums of the British military. The claim is that when the flintlock was developed the soldiers needed some protection from the gunpowder burn when fired. Soldiers or users would get burns on their face at the side of the musket or flintlock and were therefore allowed to grow beards to offer some protection to the burns and to hide the scars. This was unique especially among the Redcoats as they had to be well groomed and neatly dressed.

It seems a much more plausible explanation to the origin of the loved or hated facial hair style. It also does not require any swapping of words.

It is worth knowing that in this period soldiers did not really aim at a specific target because the muskets were not accurate anyway (not until rifling was invented anyway). They would aim towards the enemy and volume of fire was more important. Burns could also come from the person to your left as the gunpowder sprayed upward and outward.

It is also mentioned that soldiers would turn their heads in reaction to the flame when firing to protect their faces. This would be consistent with the burns on the side of the face too. This is still widely debated as people who have fired replica muskets claim there is no need to turn your face away. The counter argument is that soldiers fired thousands of rounds, did not really aim and in the heat of battle filled the caps with different loads making bad ignitions much more likely than someone who fires a musket once or twice.

Info about Ambrose Burnside from the great and all knowing wikipedia:
Former Governor of Rhode Island
Ambrose Everett Burnside was an American soldier, railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician from Rhode Island, serving as governor and a United States Senator.
Born: May 23, 1824, Liberty, Indiana, United States
Died: September 13, 1881, Bristol, Rhode Island, United States
Education: United States Military Academy
Political party: Republican Party
Previous office: Governor of Rhode Island (1866-1869)
Battles and wars: First Battle of Bull Run, Battle of Fredericksburg, Knoxville Campaign, Mexican/American War, Morgan’s Raid

He was rumoured to be a quite poor General and got his troops into many a difficulty. From reading a few sources it seems as if people forgave him because he was a ‘bit of a character’.