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powder horn / powder-horn

An animal horn in which gunpowder is carried by a sportsman. — Webster, 1882

And there he saw some great big guns big as a log of maple and every time they turned it round it took 2 yoke of cattle + every time they fired ’em off it took a horn of powder. It made a noise like father’s gun only a nation louder. — Yankee Doodle, from Pioneer Girl manuscript

Charles Ingalls carried gunpowder for priming and shooting his muzzle-loading shotgun in a powder horn, a hollowed-out animal horn with wooden (or other material) base attached to the large end, and a measuring cap attached to the small end, which had been cut off to allow the gunpowder to pour freely. The horn kept the powder dry.

In Little House in the Big Woods (Chapter 3, “The Long Rifle”), Laura Ingalls Wilder writes that Pa’s powder horn was made from a cow’s horn that had been polished, and that the cap was made of metal.



How to make a powder horn. There are many websites and videos online explaining in detail the mechanics – and art – of converting a cow horn into a vessel for storing and pouring gunpowder. The following is from J.L. Sticht’s “Historical Military Powder-Horns” in St. Nicholas (October, 1896), 993-997.

In order to make a good powder-horn, a new and suitably-curved (to fit against the body on the side the horn was carried) horn was chosen. Chipped or cracked horns were discarded. The inside pith was removed by soaking or boiling the horn in water with a little potash added, then it was scraped and cleaned. A wooden bottom was fitted inside the large opening, and the point was shortened by sawing off the end, then boring to secure an opening. Afterwards, the outside was cleaned and polished, and the horn was decorated with carving or engraving. Even if no decoration was added, the owner’s name was typically carved somewhere on the horn itself. Carvings and decorations could be simple or elaborate, the most simply done were by means of a sharp pocket-knife. Sometimes carved horns were soaked in orange die or brown paint was applied to make the markings stand out. Craftsmen employed an engraver’s tool; decorated powder horns are a highly collectible item.



Gunpowder / powder. A mixture of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal separately pulverized, then granulated and dried. — Webster, 1882

One of our mighty hunters went out after a goose the other day, but the rifle he carried gave up this life at the first shot and the hunter brought home most of the powder in his face; his complexion is rather dark now. — 1879 newspaper

Almanzo Wilder apparently wasn’t the only hunter to shoot at a goose but not quite kill it! (see The First Four Years, “The Second Year”.) Gunpowder, also known as black powder, was the explosive propellant used in shotguns and firecrackers during the Little House years. It is a mixture of sodium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur and charcoal. In an open container, it will burn, but in a closed container – such as a gun barrel – it generates pressure which propels the ammunition forcefully outward.

You don’t need me to warn you about the dangers of gunpowder, but the following is a story not told in any Little House book, involving Willie Owens, the historical counterpart of fictional Willie Oleson from On the Banks of Plum Creek (the family did not settle in De Smet in real life). It appeared in a Redwood County, Minnesota, newspaper in 1880. This accident took place the year after the Ingallses went west to Dakota Territory, and young Willie was blinded as a result of his folly.

A terrible accident occurred at Walnut Grove, in which two little boys came near losing their lives. About one o’clock in the afternoon a number of little boys obtained some powder unknown to their parents and were engaged in putting it in an oyster can, throwing in a firecracker and then placing a stone over the top of the can and waiting for the explosion. Although seen at this work by a number of men who warned them of the danger, no one thought seriously enough of the matter to take the powder from them, until Dr. Hoyt was informed of it and started for the place. He had gone a few steps when the fatal explosion took place. The boys had placed the powder in the can, wrapped in paper, and thrown in their lighted firecracker, which died out, and when they found that was the case, Willie Owens a little boy of W.H. Owens, aged ten and a half years, lit a match and bent over the can to light the firecracker. The powder of course ignited instantly and he received the contents in his face. Thus in a moment of time a dear little boy was changed to a most pitiful sight, with hardly one feature of a human creature visible in his face. The injuries are confined to his face, left ear, his neck, extending down on the left side of his breast a short distance. The flesh was not torn away only burnt and swollen… The Dr. cannot tell yet in what condition the little sufferer’s eyes are, but thinks the sight is not destroyed. The swelling is going down so fast that the worst will soon be known… The people of this village show their deep sympathy for the sorrowing family by rendering all the assistance they possibly can for which Mr. and Mrs. Owens feel very grateful. We trust this terrible accident may prove a warning to all children who hear of it, and that it may hinder them from engaging in such dangerous sport.


gunpowder / powder (BW 3; LTP 8; PG) – A mixture of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal separately pulverized, then granulated and dried.
     powder (BW 2-3, 6; LHP 12, 25; FB 16; PG), see also baking powder – The fine particles into which any substance is pounded or ground, or into which it falls by decay; dust. Especially, a composition of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, mixed and granulated; gunpowder.

powder horn / powder-horn (BW 3, 7; LHP 1, 4, 12, 26; PG)