July 15, 2021
By Seth Isaacson
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If you watch a frontier or military movie set in the mid-19th century or earlier, look at historical paintings, visit a fur trade rendezvous or reenactment event, or attend a muzzle loading match, you are bound to see a lot of people with a fair amount of gear hanging off across their chests, and one of the items pretty universally present up to the Civil War era and still used during that war and beyond is a powder horn. It is part of the character alongside his trusty American longrifle (aka Kentucky rifle) and often tomahawk or Bowie knife.
Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye from the Leatherstocking Tales in The Last of the Mohicans. Note his carved powder horn tucked under his right arm. The film is set in the French & Indian War, the era when many of the attractive Powder horns that come through Rock Island auction were crafted.
Before these horns were enshrouded in frontier myth, they were part of everyday life for those who depended on their firearms to feed their family, to wage war, and to create our nation. Due to their historical use both in the colonial era and on the frontier, powder horns have remained popular collectibles. They are available at a variety of price points for collectors of all levels as well as recreational shooters.
Revolutionary War era Peter Resor signed and engraved flintlock American Long Rifle with hunting pouch, powder horns, and accessories sold for $138,000 in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 2021 Premier Auction.
A plain antique or modern powder horn might set a collector or shooter back less than $100 depending on the source and overall style. A modern horn by a well-respected artisan can set you back anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the specifics, and high end original 18th century horns can cost a few thousand to over $20,000 depending on the horn and its historical connections. Rock Island Auction Company has had the pleasure of bringing many of these fascinating artifacts as well as some beautiful contemporary pieces to auction over the years and has several in our September Premier Firearms Auction, so let’s take a look at where this tradition originated and where it is today.
This horn was carved by Samuel Davis at Fort Ontario in northwest New York on Lake Ontario per noted horn authority Walter O'connor. Davis served in the 2nd New York regiment during The French & Indian War. Available in the September 2021 Premier Auction.
For millennia, human beings have been making use of animal horns and antlers to create wide array useful items and tools. Horn is relatively easy to work, can be made into water tight vessels, lightweight, and is harder and more durable than most other organic materials, and it was also available as a byproduct of hunting wild game and raising cattle. Thus, before the advent of plastics, horn was used to make a wide array of products, including buttons, musical instruments, drinking cups, handles for weapons, and much more, and with the spread of agriculture and domestic cattle, cow and ox horns became widely available and some of the dominant sources of animal horns for making a wide array of goods. One of the most famous early uses of horns before firearms became widely used was drinking horns. They can often be seen in films about the middle ages and ancient history, particularly Vikings, as well as in fantasy films, video games, and other media. Horns were also used to carry salt and other items that needed to be kept contained and dry.
The jump to using horns to carry gunpowder would have required little imagination since they had already been used for generations for other purposes. As Stephen Granscay wrote, “A cow’s or ox’s horn was admirably suited for carrying powder. It was light and durable, and its curved and tapering shape conformed to the figure, thus making it comfortable to wear; it facilitated pouring of powder into the end of a long gun barrel; and it was easily filled by means of a funnel.” Horn was also not flammable and would not spark which was especially important when carrying gunpowder since powder igniting would both cause the loss of the valuable gunpowder and severe injury.
With a properly fitted and sealed base plug and tight fitting spout stopper, a powder horn is also nearly waterproof which was important since wet powder was unusable. If it was dropped in the water, the horn would even float. (1) Traditionally, only one horn was carried. The use of a second, generally smaller, horn is largely not regarded as supported by evidence for earlier periods, particularly the 18th century, but many modern shooters carry two horns: a larger horn with 3f or 2f black powder for the main charge in the barrel and a second smaller horn with finer granulated 4f black powder for priming their flintlocks to try to speed up ignition.
Daniel Boone’s powder horn is clearly visible on his right.
Other horns, including buffalo horns on the American frontier, as well as turtle shells and other containers were used to carry gunpowder, but a hollowed out cow or ox horn with a wooden plug on the wide base and a small stopper in the thin spout end was one of the most widely used containers for carrying gunpowder from the colonial era through the 19th century. Like most of the accoutrements from the era when muzzle-loading firearms reigned supreme on the battlefields and with hunters in the forest, relatively few powder horns have survived until the present. However, those that do can be important, highly valuable historical artifacts and collector items and many are as much works of art as they were tools.
The horns were selected based on their shape, size, and also attractiveness. While most would have been the natural byproducts of raising cattle for meat, there are recorded examples of specific cattle being selected for slaughter because their horns were specifically noted as well-suited for powder horns. For example, American frontier folk hero Daniel Boone pointed out a cow with a set of horns he desired during his travels and had the animal slaughtered so he could make a powder horn. He gave it to his son when it was finished as a memento from their travels. The meat of course also didn’t go to waste, but when I first heard that story I thought it was very interesting that in this case, the horn was not a byproduct but the main product desired at the time of slaughter. Boone also worked on a horn by hand when he was old and nearly blind, but not wanting to give up his hunts.(2)
Many powder horns were made by soldiers and hunters in their spare time and sometimes crudely carved if decorated at all, but there were also horn makers and engravers, also known as horners, who were incredibly talented at shaping and engraving horns. The identity of most of these artisans have been lost to time since they rarely signed their work, but some are known to collectors based on particular attributes that are emblematic of their work such as the “Pointed Tree Carver” aptly named after the pointed trees found on their horns. In addition to passing time while at sea or stuck in a garrison, simply enjoying artwork, wanting to carry something fancier than a plain horn, and pride of ownership there were practical reasons for having a horn decorated.
John S. duMont theorized that part of the reason for the rise of engraved horns was how powder was distributed to soldiers in the 18th century: a soldier would have their own personal powder horn that they carried, but the gunpowder itself would be supplied by the government in bulk. The powder would be stored in kegs or in larger horns in wagons when travelling, or powder magazines at forts, and soldiers would bring their personal powder horns to be refilled. In order to get your own horn back, you needed to have something on it that was identifiable.(3) Since many men could not read and write, other designs were helpful in making a horn identifiable, but there are examples with their owner’s names inscribed on them. Their name followed by “his horn” is a style often copied by those making horns in that style today.
There are a variety of styles and designs to the shaping of the horns themselves, the type of base plugs use, the engraving, and even tinting used in various periods and by various artisans. Some of the designs seen on 18th century horns from the French & Indian War and American Revolution include maps of New York, the British coat of arms, game animals (particularly deer), sailing ships, scenes of battles with Native Americans, simpler floral and geometric designs, writing indicating the name of the owner and sometimes when and where the horn was made and used, and even poems. One poem repeated in different variations on several horns reads: “I powder, with my brother ball, most hero-like doth conquer all.” Another theme was “See how the dread terrific ball makes Indians bleed and Toreys fall. You with powder I’ll supply for to defend your liberty.” (4) The wide variety has made powder horns a fascinating group of accoutrements for collectors.
Though they have remained in use up to the present, by the time of the American Revolution there were signs that the heyday of the powder horn was coming to its end, especially in military service. A regular soldier in the Revolution would have had a cartridge box containing premade paper cartridges to speed up the loading of their smoothbore muskets, and the same was prescribed for American militia following the Revolution. During the war, many of the American militiamen still relied on their powder horns, and riflemen on both sides certainly primarily relied on their horns to charge and prime their specialized weapons which were not suited for paper cartridges since they relied on properly sized balls and patches that fit snug to the bore of their rifles to ensure accuracy.
These two hunters from DeWitt, Iowa, c. 1870s show the crossover from powder horns to powder flasks.
Horns continued to be widely used in 19th century America, but by this time they were generally less ornate than their 18th century predecessors. As the country moved into the industrial revolution, manufactured brass/bronze powder flask steadily became more and more popular. These were very wide spread by the time of the Mexican-American War, both large flasks for long guns and smaller flasks for handguns. Cased sets of revolvers and other handguns by the 1850s frequently included a powder flask, and makers like Samuel Colt had flasks specially made for their weapons. During the Civil War, mass produced rifle-muskets in fairly uniform calibers were the predominant weapon, and soldiers carried premade cartridges with conical bullets that expanded into the rifling when fired (Minie balls) unlike the more difficult to load and often individually sized patched round balls widely used previously. Despite the widespread use of flasks and premeasured cartridges, powder horns still hung on, and they remained heavily associated with the very sort of men that led to them remaining fixtures in popular culture: sharpshooters.
The rifle of Private Robert John May of the 2nd Bucktails Regiment is accompanied by his powder horn which he discusses working on in his diary (also pictured and included in the lot available in the September 2021 Premier Auction.).
A great example of this is the powder horn that accompanies Union sharpshooter R.J. May’s rifle in our upcoming sale. It is an interesting design with an American Flask & Cap Company powder flask lid on the spout, a flattened base section with grooved wood base plug that rather resembles the sole of a boot, and has crosshatching around the staple on the heel and "R.J. May" inscribed below on the “toe” section. May’s work on the horn is recorded in his included diaries. He made the horn to accompany his “telescope rifle” that he ordered when he was assigned to the sharpshooter battalion. He, and no doubt many others, clearly saw a powder horn as part of the proper accoutrements for a marksman. Unlike the men using rifle-muskets, sharpshooters would have focused on accurate fire rather than volume of fire. To do so, they had to identify what powder charge, bullet, and patch combination fired best from their rifles. This would vary from rifle to rifle even if the caliber, barrel length, and other variables were the same. They might also up the powder charge for longer range shots. This made paper cartridge unsuitable, but a powder horn would have been excellent.
Our muzzle loading rifle traditions have never ended. Even with the widespread adoption of metallic cartridge firing, breech loading firearms in the late 19th century, muzzle loading firearms remained in use among civilians, and powder horns remained in use alongside them. For example, there are excellent photographs from the Appalachians in the in the 1920s and 1930s of hunters with their trusty muzzle loaders, shooting pouches, and powder horns. These men helped keep the muzzle loading tradition alive. Shooting muzzle loaders was certainly less common by the 1950s, but it was revived heavily in the 1960s and 1970s with the centennial of the Civil War and bicentennial of the American Revolution.
Old timers George Lamons of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Solomon Day of Kentucky both still relied on their powder horns for their muzzleloading rifles in the 1920s and 1930s.
In recent years, there has been another resurgence in popularity as many try to get in touch both with our past and with nature. Both hobbyists and full-time artisans continue to make and use powder horns. In short, the powder horn is not going anywhere. We will see future generations of Americans continue to rely on their trusty powder horns to keep their powder dry and ready for use, and the original powder horns of the past will continue to be fascinating and valuable historical artifacts.
Click here for more information on matchlocks and flintlocks and how to operate and fire these fascinating early weapons, and keep an eye on our blog for more in depth articles on the evolution of early firearms.
2. John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992).
3. John S. duMont, American Engraved Powder Horns: The Golden Age, 1755 to 1783 (Canaan: Phoenix Publishing, 1978), 4.
4. W.M. Beauchamp, “Rhymes from Old Powder-Horns,” The Journal of American Folklore, Oct.-Dec. 1892, Vol. 5, No. 19, 284-290.
watched the making of a powder horn, very interesting and a lot of skill. want to thank you for showing it. I have a horn made over 150 years ago. I how appreciate the effort in making it. WOW
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