Late artist Paul Calle’s “The Winter Hunter” piece shows a mountain man who knew how to keep his power dry when waterfowling.
The tools the author used.
Power tools really speed up your work but can just as quickly ruin it if you aren’t careful.
This typical, unadorned, frontier horn took a day to make.
Mark and saw to length.
Square up the cut end.
Measure depth of cavity.
Mark and cut spout.
Drill into horn cavity.
Trace base plug shape.
Saw out base plug squarely.
Rough shape plug taper.
Hand file to final shape.
Check plug fit often.
Hollow out plug interior.
Form staple for strap.
Locate staple toward plug top.
Drill pilot holes.
Epoxy staple in place.
Use epoxy for airtight plug seal.
Seat plug on index line.
File strap groove by tip.
Carve spout plug.
Horn tip epoxied to spout plug.
Today, muzzleloading hunters may have easier and more secure ways to carry their blackpowder than those available to the likes of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, but none of them are even remotely as old-school cool as a traditional powder horn. Here’s how you can make one of your own in a day.
The first step is to obtain a horn suitable for your project. You can buy them from mail-order retailers like Dixie Gun Works or in person from vendors at primitives shows. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might just find some laying around on garbage day like I did. The horn I used for my project came off a piece of campy Western decor. After briefly considering installing them on the front of my truck, I decided to employ them in a loftier purpose. At least one of them anyway. Bovine horns are distinctly right and left sided. If you are right-handed like me, you will need the right-side horn so its curve will fit against your hip with the point up.
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Since my horn was already cleaned up and smoothed on the outside, I was spared a lot of scraping and sanding and went right to cutting it to length. The horn is quite thin and ragged edged where it attaches to the animal’s skull. This area is useless and must be cut off. I like to have a horn thickness of between 3/32 and 1/8 of an inch in the back after cutting. You can use a power chop saw or a hand coping saw, but before you cut anything, study the horn’s geometry carefully and determine the correct angle of the cut.
The back plug needs to fit squarely. This can be tricky to judge since the horn is both tapered and twisted. Mark the cut line around the circumference with tape and look it over to make sure it has the right aesthetic. If it doesn’t, adjust the tape line until it does. Once you cut, you can only correct a mistake by re-cutting or sanding, which leads to a progressively small horn. I typically smooth the saw marks out on my cut line with a disc sander. Have a light touch or you’ll end up taking off too much and causing yourself more problems than you fix. It is very likely that the opening at the back of the horn will not be round, so don’t be alarmed by this.
The next step is drilling the spout hole. More horns are ruined at this stage than any other, so it’s prudent to do this early rather than wreck the horn after you’ve done a lot of work on it. Measure inside the horn with some wire to discern the point where the horn turns solid. Mark with tape a cut line near the tip that will allow you 1/8 to 3/16 inches of wall thickness around a 1/4-inch pouring hole. You could go thinner if you dare, but keep in mind, the thinner the spout, the greater possibility of it cracking in use.
After you cut off the horn tip, smooth out the saw lines with sandpaper and mark your center hole for drilling. I used the point of my utility knife. You need to give the drill point something to get a bite on or it will walk all over the surface and greatly reduce your chances of getting the hole where you need it. You’ll be better off if you drill a pilot hole first.
Mark a small drill bit (3/32) with tape so you have just enough length to get into the horn’s center cavity, then brace the horn solidly against your boot and aim the drill bit for the center of the cavity. Take the time to study the curvature of the horn so you don’t end up drilling through the side. A lot of people seem to have a really hard time doing this. Check and recheck the angle before you drill in case you are one of them.
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After you have the pilot hole drilled, go back with the full-size bit. Make sure you again mark the drill depth with tape on the bigger bit. It is probably much longer than the small pilot hole drill bit and could easily penetrate the side if you run it too far down the spout. Once you have a nice spout hole, you can taper it slightly with a small, round file by carefully rotating the bit in the hole while drilling, or by using a tapered hand reamer. I just rotated the drill.
Base Plug It
The next step is to make your base plug. There are lots of ways to do this. A lathe-turned base plug is perfectly round, but chances are the opening in the back of your horn is not. Frontier and commercial horners solved this problem by heating and softening the horn (usually in hot water or oil) and forcing the pliable horn over the plug. Rather than be caught by my wife cooking a horn in the kitchen, I chose a very basic method that was common on the frontier in the 1700s. I traced the shape of the base of the horn on a 1-inch pine board, cut it out with a coping saw and then carefully sanded a taper onto it so it would fit the horn near perfectly. A base plug needs to be airtight to protect the powder from rain and humidity.
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Many early plugs were fitted flush with the base of the horn, but I was concerned that would leave the horn edges exposed to damage, so I designed my plug with a protective shoulder that covered the back edge of the horn completely. After getting the initial fitting of the base plug right, I took it out and laid it on the table next to a CD case. I braced my pencil point on top of the CD case and drew a line evenly all the way around the plug, about 3/8 inches from the bottom.
I used my utility knife to deeply inscribe that line to a depth that matched the thickness of the back of my horn, then I began whittling away the taper below it. I checked the fit often and finished it off using a file to take down the high spots for a perfect fit. Once I had it lined up properly, I made a witness line on the horn and plug so I could line them up more easily later.
After fitting the horn base snugly against the plug shoulder, I removed the plug and used the disc and belt sander to square up the sides as well as shape the top into a gentle dome. Once I had a pleasing geometry, I radiused the upper edge slightly and then sanded it smooth with 150 sandpaper. To increase powder capacity, I hollowed out the inside of the base plug with a ball-shaped grinding stone attached to my electric drill. Then I put it aside to make the “staple” to attach the carrying strap to.
I didn’t use square stock to make the staple because I think the sharp edges tend to abrade the cloth or leather carry strap. I spent a whole day making this horn and I certainly don’t want to lose it because the strap wore out. Instead, I made a round staple by bending a common, bright finishing nail in my vise after cutting off and sharpening the head. This made a fine staple.
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I marked the spots to drill the pilot holes by eye after carefully considering the orientation of the horn while being carried. The staple should be horizontal to the ground and must be placed above the center line or the horn is liable to flip upside down on the march. Before installing the staple with a wooden mallet, I put a little epoxy in the holes to make sure it stayed put. It is important to install the staple before you install the plug. You really don’t want to be hammering on your horn, and if your staple splits the base plug because your pilot hole was too small, you’ll be a lot less ticked off if you haven’t installed it yet.
Coat the inside edge of the horn base with a thick layer of epoxy and insert the plug being sure the witness lines match up. In the olden times, they used bee’s wax and lard to seal the base plug. Trust me, epoxy is better. It’s so good you don’t even need to drill and nail the base plug in if you don’t want to. It’s not going anywhere, ever.
Top It Off
Now you need a front attachment point for your powder horn’s strap. I again used masking tape to correctly locate and mark the channel I intended to file away near the tip. First I used a square file with one side ground smooth to cut a 1/16-inch-deep channel around the horn and clean up its edges. I might have gone deeper, but since this horn was already sanded when I got it, I didn’t know exactly how thick it was and I didn’t want to ruin all my good work.
For the stopper, I drilled a hole in the little horn tip to match the tapered oak stopper point I had already whittled, glued them together with epoxy and drilled a retaining-cord hole after it dried. My horn is plain and practical, like most originals were, with the stopper attached to the carrying strap, rather than a carved channel on the horn body.
To help the horn resist moisture, I soaked both the base plug and stopper point in boiled linseed oil. After a few applications, and ample time to dry, I buffed them with a soft cloth and waxed the entire thing to protect it. The total work time for the project, exclusive of waiting for the oil to dry, was a single Saturday at the workbench.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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