Do-it-yourself Primitive Powder Horn
MAKE YOUR OWN IN SIX SIMPLE STEPS
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.
01: CHOOSING A HORN.
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.
02: GET TO WORK.
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.
03: MAKE THE SPOUT.
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.
04: PLUG THE BASE.
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.
05: FINAL SHAPING.
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.
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 base plug to a dome shape. Then sand it smooth to be stained and finished. D. The stained and finished base plug is secured by brass tacks with a staple for the shoulder strap and can be used for its intended purpose or hung on the wall.