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  • Winterberry Farm

Powder Horns!

I don't know why but I find early powder horns fascinating in their construction and their use. These ordinary but important containers for gunpowder were also canvases for their owner's art and design. The art on powder horns can range from engraved initials to large and intricate designs. Cow horns were not completely hollow and the larger end was cut off and a wooden plug was added to this end to secure the horn. Tiny nails or tacks were driven into the horn to attach the plug which also gives us a form of dating the powder horns in our collections. Horns with only a few nails used to attach that wood plug were most probably from the 1700's. There was no need to waste nails (quite expensive at this time) because the next step was to soak the horns in warm water so they could be shaved and/or carved with the added advantage of shrinking the areas around the nails. Shaving your horn allowed you to see how much powder was still in the container.

This was a tricky process as you had to know just how far to shave the horn so it didn't become brittle and break. Some horns were only partially shaved down and were then decorated with carved rings or inscribed to accentuate the different colors of the horn and others were then engraved with beautiful designs. Included in the transformation of a cow horn into a beautiful and useful powder horn, is the making of the pouring end of the horn (the small end) and some of the ways this end could be made beautiful. In the 1700's, an applied strap attachment called a 'dog head' strap used to preserve the pouring end and its wooden stopper. I show one of these wonderful strap attachments here and even though it is highly stylized, you can still see the resemblance to a dog's head.

Did you know that there was a reason for that curve in a powder horn other than just the fact that the cow's horn was naturally curved?

It was important, in an age of single shot guns, that you could fire, reload, and fire again as quickly as possible and having a powder horn that could be carried comfortably near your waist was vital to survival. When looking at powder horns, you can see that there are horns that curve to both the right and the left sides. If you were right-handed, you would carry your gunpowder on your right side in a comfortable position so you could quickly access that gunpowder to reload your musket or 'Brown Betty'.

There are also tiny powder horns that are not powder horns at all but are 'priming' horns. These were used to prime the pan with fine black powder not the coarser gunpowder. Is it any wonder that I find these relics of our past so interesting? Check them out on my website today! I know you will be intrigued!

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