Black powder has the property that when it is dry, it stays in powder form and can be poured out easily. If it gets damp, then it forms cakes and wetness also prevents it from burning at all. Hence we have the American saying, "keep your powder dry", which means "be prepared for action". This saying allegedly originated in England with Oliver Cromwell, who allegedly said "Trust in God and keep your powder dry". Whatever the origin, there was a need for firearm users to keep their powder dry and this is why powder horns were invented.
The use of animal horns to carry black powder was mainly due to a few reasons:
- Animal horns are naturally waterproof.
- Animal horns are naturally hollow inside.
- Animal horns are durable and cheaply available (especially cattle and buffalo horn).
- Animal horns are non-sparking, unlike iron containers which have the risk of creating a spark when two metal parts strike each other.
Powder Horns. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.
The powder horn simply consists of a cattle or buffalo horn with wooden plugs on both ends. The horn is hollow and filled with black powder. To dispense some powder, the user merely removes the plug on the narrow end and pours some powder out into a measuring flask. The horn usually has a rope attached to it so that it may be hung from the user's waist. In some cases, the user would decorate their powder horns with attractive artwork (such as the topmost powder horn in the image above).
Cattle and buffalo horns were used to make powder horns, because they were cheap and readily available. However, these were not the only materials used to make powder horns.
Indian made powder horn. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.
In the above image, we see a fine powder horn from Northern India dating back to the 17th century Mughal period. It has high quality carvings depicting various animals on its outside surface. This should strictly not be called a "powder horn", since the material used is not a horn at all. Strictly speaking, this is a powder flask, which we will study about more in the next post. The above container is actually made from elephant ivory, with some amber and brass parts. When the brass spanner handle is depressed, it opens the mouth of the antelope at the end and dispenses powder. The brass spanner also has a loop so that the hunter can easily carry this on his belt.
Once the cartridge was invented, people did not need to carry powder horns any more, as it was more convenient to carry cartridges which already had the powder pre-measured, along with a ball wrapped in it. Hence, the use of powder horns started to decline during the 18th century. These days, the only users of powder horns are history enthusiasts who like to hunt the way that their ancestors did.