Do-it-your­self Prim­i­tive Pow­der Horn


Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dar­ryl Quidort

Make your own in six sim­ple steps

As ex­plor­ers, trap­pers and pioneers moved west­ward across the Great Plains, buf­falo—prop­erly named Amer­i­can bi­son— horns be­came read­ily avail­able and were use­ful as pow­der horns. The pow­der horn made a safe, air­tight and mois­ture-proof con­tainer for gun­pow­der un­til the use of the cen­ter­fire car­tridge ended the need to carry loose gun­pow­der.

For 150 years, from the early-1700s to the mid-1800s, the pow­der horn was a nec­es­sary ac­cou­trement for use with muz­zleload­ing firearms. Most early pow­der horns were sim­ple, un­adorned cow horns with a pine plug in the base and a groove filed around the neck to hold a shoul­der strap. How­ever, some were works of art com­plete with in­tri­cate scrimshaw work and fancy base plugs.

To­day, pow­der horns are still used by his­tor­i­cal reen­ac­tors, shoot­ers at muz­zleload­ing events and muz­zleload­ing hunters. Those at­tend­ing a mod­ern ren­dezvous or prim­i­tive event would be his­tor­i­cally cor­rect to carry a buf­falo pow­der horn.

Mak­ing your own horn isn’t dif­fi­cult, and you prob­a­bly al­ready have the tools needed in your shop or garage. So, let’s get started.


A raw bi­son horn looks some­what ugly with a rough, scaly sur­face and cracked, un­even base. How­ever, with some work,

“To­day, pow­der horns are still used by his­tor­i­cal reen­ac­tors, shoot­ers at muz­zleload­ing events and muz­zleload­ing hunters.”

they make a beau­ti­ful and durable fin­ished pow­der horn. Al­though most buf­falo horns are thick enough to al­low re­moval of the sur­face blem­ishes, try to choose a horn with­out ex­cep­tion­ally deep gouges, cracks or im­per­fec­tions. Buf­falo horns usu­ally form a straight curve, al­low­ing the fin­ished pow­der horn to be worn on either the left or right side.


Clamp a piece of scrap wood into a vise, then slide the horn onto it to hold it firm while you work on it. Grab a rasp and be­gin re­mov­ing the sur­face scale and im­per­fec­tions on the raw horn. Turn the horn around, re­duc­ing the thick­ness evenly as you work.

Change from the rasp to a file to smooth out the tool marks on the horn as you con­tinue to thin it down. Then, use a hack­saw to cut the horn base square and re­move any cracked ar­eas.


To cut and drill the horn tip for a spout, first bend a piece of wire to match the horn’s curve. Push the wire in­side the horn to mea­sure the depth of the in­side cav­ity. Re­move the wire, place it along the out­side curve of the horn, and mark the depth of the cav­ity on the out­side of the horn. This shows you how much solid tip you have to work with.

Al­low­ing for 1 inch or more of solid horn past the cav­ity, cut the tip off with a hack­saw. Care­fully drill a hole in the horn from the cen­ter of the cut-off tip into the cen­ter of the in­side cav­ity. Start with a small pi­lot hole, then en­large it with a ¼-inch bit. Slightly ta­per the hole with a small, round file so that it se­curely holds a ta­pered, wooden plug. Smooth any burrs in­side and out so the pow­der will flow freely.


The base of a buf­falo horn is ba­si­cally round and can eas­ily be formed to fit a round base plug. Place the base of the horn into a pan of boil­ing wa­ter for a few min­utes un­til it soft­ens. Then tap a siz­ing cone (a ta­pered cone of wood) into the base as far as it will go. Set the horn aside un­til it cools be­fore re­mov­ing the siz­ing cone. Once cool, the horn will hold its shape.

Trace around the base of the horn on a piece of ¾-inch soft wood (pine or its equiv­a­lent). Cut out the traced cir­cle and file a ta­per on it so that it fits snug­gly into the base of the horn. The pro­trud­ing part can be domed for ap­pear­ance and sanded smooth. The plug will be at­tached per­ma­nently later on as there is still work to be done on the horn.


The neck of the horn can now be re­duced in thick­ness to make the horn lighter and more at­trac­tive, as well as mak­ing a ring to hold the shoul­der strap. Lay out the shape of the neck and spout, and then draw a pen­cil line around the horn where ma­te­rial will be left for the spout. Ap­ply black elec­tri­cal tape ex­actly along the pen­cil line, and use a hack­saw to care­fully cut lightly around the horn at the edge of the tape. This shal­low cut gives you a shoul­der to work against as you rasp and file the un­wanted ma­te­rial in the neck area.

Re­duce and round out the neck area with a rasp, then smooth it out with a fine­toothed mill file. Once the buf­falo horn is shaped to your sat­is­fac­tion, the en­tire horn can be thinned and scraped ex­tremely smooth us­ing a knife blade or cab­i­net scraper held at right an­gles to the work. Fine sand­pa­per and steel wool can also be used to achieve a smooth fin­ish.


To per­ma­nently at­tach the base plug, drill a se­ries of small holes around the base of the horn, and use a cou­ple of wooden tooth­picks to hold it in place while you work. His­tor­i­cally, the base plug was sealed air­tight with melted beeswax. Beeswax will still work, as will epoxy glue. Fix the base plug in place and drive small nails or brass tacks through the holes and into the edge of the wooden base plug. It helps to stand the horn on its base so the glue will fill any gaps.

Af­ter the glue is set, blow a lit­tle pres­sure into the horn to check for any air leaks that must be sealed. Stain the wooden base plug, if de­sired. Put a sta­ple in the base plug to hold the shoul­der strap. The other end of the strap will be tied at the neck of the horn. A carved wooden stop­per for the spout will fin­ish your buf­falo pow­der horn. A light coat­ing of beeswax or paraf­fin will cause the stop­per to stick in the spout bet­ter. Rub a good coat­ing of paste wax over the en­tire horn and buff it out to achieve a smooth, clear and pro­tec­tive fin­ish.

Ta Da!

Your buf­falo pow­der horn is now an air­tight, mois­ture-proof ves­sel for safely car­ry­ing black pow­der. Many orig­i­nal pow­der horns were made in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. Whether you hang your fin­ished pow­der horn on the wall as a dec­o­ra­tion or use it for its in­tended pur­pose, you have a beau­ti­ful item that con­nects you with the early pioneers. And, you can say you made it your­self.

A. The base of this buf­falo horn is cut square, the im­per­fec­tions are rasped away, and the neck ring is es­tab­lished. B. Place the base of the horn in boil­ing wa­ter for a few min­utes to soften it for shap­ing to fit the base plug. C. Rasp the ex­posed...

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