Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Powder Horns:

The Frontiersman and Mountain Men carried a supply of black powder in a horn.  Generally a cow horn or buffalo horn was hollowed to a thin shell.  The large end was permanently closed with a wooden plug.  Grooves were often carved near the spout of the horn to take a carrying strap although sometimes rings were screwed into the horn to attach the carrying strap.  A hole was drilled in the cut-off

small end of the horn, and a wooden dowel or plug fitted to retain the powder in the horn.  
With only limited forms of entertainment available during the long winter nights, the Mountain Men often carved elaborate designs and/or maps of their travels on their powder horns.  

The powder horn did not provide any means of measuring out a charge of powder. In many instances powder was poured directly from the horn into the barrel of the gun, which sometimes lead to disastrous results.  One common method of measuring a charge was to place the lead ball in the palm of the hand and pour powder over the ball until a conical pile of powder just hid the ball.  Another method involved determining the optimal amount of powder for the gun or rifle through accuracy tests and then constructing a measure which held precisely that amount of powder.  Powder measures were often constructed of a deer antler which had been hollowed out.

A Mountain Man who was shooting a flintlock might carry two powder horns, a smaller horn for carrying very fine grained FFFFpowder to prime the pan and a second larger horn to carry FFF or FF powder for use as the main charge.  It was not unusual however, for a man to carry only FFFF or FFF and use it for both the main charge and for priming the pan.

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