If you shoot muzzleloading firearms you need something to carry your gunpowder. The most traditional container for gunpowder is the powder horn. Powder horns didn’t originate here in North America, but this is arguably where they reached their greatest artistic expression.
During the colonial wars of the 18th century, soldiers and militiamen with time on their hands took to decorating their powder horns, and by the end of King George’s War in 1748, highly decorated, engraved horns had developed into a legitimate folk art. But it was during the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763) that highly decorated powder horns really came into their own. Popular horn motifs included intricate maps, personal mottos, coats of arms and the owner’s name.
Decorated horns remained popular through the War of 1812, but then they faded from the scene. Modern living-history reenactors brought them back in a big way. I’m a firm believer in having a different shooting bag and powder horn for every muzzleloader you own, so I’ve spent my fair share of time shopping for powder horns. Whenever I go to a reenacting event or a rendezvous, I always check out what’s on offer from the custom horn makers in attendance. The level of craftsmanship on display in the powder horns and other horn items these artists produce always fascinates me.
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Tooling My Own Horn
For quite a while now, I’ve wanted to make my own horn: to shape it and decorate it in a historically proper manner. This year I decided it was time to get off the fence and get to work. So I bought Scott and Cathy Sibley’s book, Recreating the 18th Century Powder Horn. This book is a good resource, clearly written in simple language that does a good job of explaining what is going on in the excellent step-by-step photo illustrations.
I decided not to use a raw horn for this project. I had a very plain, inexpensive horn with a nice shape and good color. I decided I would shape and decorate that horn. Using an existing horn saved me the work of fashioning a plug and boiling the base of the horn in hot oil to soften it enough to shape it to the plug.
To follow are some observations that you won’t find in the book that may help you if you try to tackle this project.
Sizing It Up
Basically, making a horn can be divided into four major tasks. The first, fitting a base plug, we’ll be skipping. So that leaves shaping and dying the neck, decorating the body and antiquing the horn. Of the three steps, shaping the neck is the crucial step. If you do that well, even if you lose your nerve and take a pass on doing any scrimshaw or antiquing, you can still have a good-looking, custom horn.
The first thing is to determine how much of your horn is going to be neck and how much is going to be body. I did this by measuring the neck on a professionally made horn that I owned, and then applying that length to the horn I was working on. I marked the shoulder of the neck with a ring of duct tape. I then ran another ring of duct tape where the groove goes around the horn to attach the forward end of the strap, and I put a final ring of tape around the very end of the horn. I used a hacksaw to cut shallow lines right around the horn. These will be the borders of the work.
The neck of the horn is typically shaped into a tapered octagon. This is much easier to do than you might think. I drew the lines for the octagon freehand, with no measuring. I just drew a line on the top surface of the neck and another on the bottom surface. Then I just eyeballed it and drew lines halfway between those two lines, and I drew another set halfway between those lines. Then I took a heavy file and made my flats between those lines.
My only tip in this area is to realize that a horn has a natural curve. In fact, it probably curves in two directions. Don’t try to fight those curves; work with them. The lines of your octagon won’t be straight. They should follow the horn’s natural curve. The important thing is that the angles of the octagon are sharp.
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After I had the neck shaped with rings cut for the string groove and for a lip at the mouth of the horn, the next step was to do the engrailing. That is the scalloped area at the shoulder of the horn. The Sibley book has you doing that after the neck is shaped, so that’s what I did—what a disaster. There is a much better way to do this, as you’ll see in a few minutes.
The next step is to dye the neck of the horn. The typical color is dark brown, but my horn tip had a lot of natural black in it, so I opted to dye the neck black. When it comes to dying there are basically two camps—those who use water-based dyes like Rit and those who use alcohol-based leather dyes like Fiebing’s. Alcohol-based dies are easier to apply. You can use daubers. But they tend to fade faster. I used Rit dye.
During this step you will end up dying some of the body of the horn. It’s unavoidable. Most people tell you to sand off the dyed areas, but in my experience that takes forever. I use scrapers. They work fast and smooth. The ones I use are made by Flexcut—a good investment.
If you stop right here, you will have a beautiful powder horn that will look 10 times better than what you started with. In my case, I wanted to try my hand at scrimshaw. So, I carved my name on one side of the horn and a fleur de lis on the other. I did all my engraving with an X-Acto knife. It looks like a three-year-old did it, but I’m still pretty happy with it for a first effort.
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The last step is antiquing the body of the horn. This is an area where everyone has his or her own opinion on what to use, from Rit dye to ferric nitrate. I followed the Sibley book and used Rit dye. I used a whole bottle of yellow dye and a teaspoon of orange dye. The result looked like the Great Pumpkin. So out came the scrapers, and I brought the horn down to a white surface again. The second time around I used a weak mixture of yellow and tan dye with two drops of orange dye added. The results were something that I could live with.
After giving my first horn work an honest appraisal, I realized that what I didn’t know about horn making would fill a bigger book than the Sibley tome. So I called John DeWald and asked for help. John is a professional horn maker who I had met several times at 18th century events. I admired his horn work and, since he only lives a couple of hours north of me, I figured, if he was game, I could run up for some quick instruction.
John is a member of the Honourable Company of Horners (HCH). There are some skilled artisans who jealously guard the secrets of their craft, but you won’t find any of them in the ranks of the Honourable Company of Horners. The HCH is essentially the horn-makers’ guild and members go out of their way to teach their craft to others. The HCH’s mission is to educate its members and the public about horn working and its history.
The HCH was established in 1996 by 11 men led by founder Roland Cadle in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Today the guild has 450 members from across the nation, and even some international members. Of those guild members, 26 of them are rated as journeymen by the guild, nine of them are master horners, and the balance of the membership are ranked as freemen by the HCH. To advance from freeman to journeyman, a horner has to meet a number of membership-related requirements, and the potential journeyman has to demonstrate their proficiency in carving, heating and pressing, turning and engraving horns in a traditional, historical manner. They need to demonstrate that proficiency by submitting five horn objects that they have made to the guild’s awards committee for evaluation. The requirements to reach the rank of master horner are even more daunting. John DeWald is a journeyman who is working on his master horner submission pieces.
John showed me the first horn he ever made. It is beautiful. It was obvious that I needed help, and John was kind enough to give me a crash course in horn shaping. I wish I’d known some of the things John shared with me before I’d worked on my horn. But, to be honest, I think I needed to have had at least one horn-building experience behind me to get the full value of the techniques John showed me.
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The first thing he showed me was how to determine the length of the neck. John starts by eyeballing the approximate mid-point between the base and tip of the horn, and he pencils a line there. Then he locates the mid-point between that line and the horn tip and he draws another line. That line will be the shoulder of the neck. This method uses a concept known as the “golden mean,” which had been used for 2,400 years to design visually attractive buildings and objects.
John thought I did a good job of shaping the neck into an octagon, but he showed me a much easier way of cutting the engrailing. The Sibley book says to do it after the neck is shaped, but John does it first, right after he saws in the boundary lines. It is much easier to do it John’s way, and it prevents you from gouging up the flats of the octagon with your engrailing chisel.
Time didn’t permit John to teach me how to scrimshaw, but he did recommend that I get a tungsten-carbide scratch awl to use in addition to the X-Acto knife. He knows what he’s talking about. I’ve been practicing with that tool and the results are much better.
I spent three hours with John in his shop, drinking coffee, shooting the breeze and learning tip after tip of the horn maker’s craft from a true expert, and the time flew by. Now I need to start on another powder horn to put his instruction to use.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.