by Eileen Silva Kindig
The American powder horn is a vital link to the spirit of the 18th century adventurer.
The desire to scratch graffiti on blank surfaces must be innate. Consider lovers gouging their initials on tree trunks and schoolboys scratching on desk tops. Consider too, prehistoric men scraping the walls of their caves, and sailors jack knifing designs on whales teeth to keep at bay the boredom of too much sea and sky. Its no wonder scratched work is the oldest form of surface decoration known to man.
Ever since former president John F. Kennedy made public his passion for scrimshaw, Americas interest in scratched work of all kinds escalated. One form that appeals to American history buffs, colonial artifacts collectors, and shooters of muzzle loading firearms is powder horn engraving. In America, the craft was born during the French and Indian War and later caught the fancy of the Revolutionary soldier who used the lowly cow horn to carry his issue of gunpowder. Today its alive and well, thanks to the interest of contemporary craftsmen like John Plybon of Orrville, Ohio.
Plybon became enamored of engraved powder horns through his interest in early American frontloading firearms. As a high school industrial arts teacher, he brings to his work good manual dexterity, an eye for proportion and the ability to sketch new designs, as well as to reduce and enlarge existing ones. His work has been exhibited in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and Georgia. In 1974 he came to the attention of the National Rifle Association which sent him to its convention in Atlanta to demonstrate his skill with a pocketknife.
Although popular usage of the term scrimshaw permits engraved powder horns to be classed under this heading its not technically correct to do so. Scrimshaw is the art of the whaling men, and as such should be nautical in material, origin and/or motif. Although powder horn engraving and scrimshaw employ the same tools and techniques, scratching on horns is an allied craft and not true scrimshaw at all. But this doesn't detract from either its artistic merit or its popularity.
In the past 15 years Plybon has made nearly 400 horns for an established clientele, primarily people interested in muzzle loading. His designs are the traditional favorites of early engravers and include the American eagle, wild animals, ships, battle scenes, compasses, stylized suns, profiles of Indians and maps. The latter, when found on early horns, generally show northern routes between New York and Pennsylvania. Maps of New England are considered rare.
Ever since its conception in the New World, the powder horn has been the object of as much romance and sentiment as the rifle or musket. In times of war it accompanied the weapon into battle and in times of peace hung with it over the fireplace as a symbol of the struggle for freedom. The fact that the horn was so revered in colonial times is well proven by the common practice of scratching on it names, dates, and even diaries. Today, Plybons customers also view their horns as very personal possessions and generally request that they be inscribed with their names followed by the traditional claimer, "His Horn."
Originally in America, powder horn engraving was a craft of the common people and, as such, a rather homemade affair. Most fine horns of the period were imported from Europe, although a few early colonial gunsmiths did practice the trade using sharp pointed gravers to produce their designs. However, most antique horns available today were scribed with a knife by the very men who used them. Consequently, the sentiments scratched on the sides often reflect homespun philosophies, incorrect spelling and simple rhymes. Typical examples are "Powder and Ball Knokers All" and "Take Not This Horn For Fear of Shame, For On It Stands The Owners Name." When customers request authenticity, Plybon copies these as they were, without trying to improve upon them.
When engraving a powder horn he always seeks the chalkiest white horn available, preferably contrasted with a black or brown tip.
"Im choosy," he admits frankly. "Sometimes Ill look at 150 horns before buying a single one. A lot of them come from farmers and so I have to boil out the cores before I can work on them."
Once thats done, he bores a hole in the small end and fits it with a removable wooden stopper. He also cuts off the large end and then carefully fits the remainder with a stationary hardwood plug secured with small brass nails and sometimes decorated with delicate German silver inlays. Fitting the mouth of the horn with this plug is crucial to the horns performance as a gunpowder receptacle. If there are any gaps left around the edges moisture can easily get into the powder and drastically affect its burning rate. To insure a perfect fit, Plybon softens the horn and molds it around a slightly oversized stopper. Finally an application of sandpaper and steel wool prepares the surface of the horn for engraving.
In the beginning Plybon says he drew his designs directly onto the horn, but estimates that now he can eliminate this step 75 per cent of the time and get on with the actual engraving. Just like the sailor who scratched on whales teeth and baleen, Plybon performs his magic with the squared-off blade of a pocketknife. But while the scrimshander liked to use a sailmakers needle for fine detail, Plybon gets incredible results from the knife alone.
Once completed, the design is enhanced by an application of either black or colored India ink or the soft lead from a pencil rubbed deep into the grooves of the scratched surface. Sailors used lamp black and bottled pigments onboard ship, while colonial powder horn engravers used whatever they could get. Sometimes it was grease, shoemakers wax, soot or gunpowder dust, and other times nothing more than the green verdigris that formed like rust on the bottom of their brass and copper kettles.
Although early horns were sometimes varnished or shellacked to preserve the design, Plybon flatly refuses to have anything to do with such an operation.
"I like them finished natural," he says. "And I like them to be handled a lot too. Theres nothing like constant use to put a nice patina on a horn."
Eighteenth century professional craftsmen also sometimes dipped their horns in yellow dye to give them an "amber" look or used a stain made from butternut bark to bring out the grain on a translucent horn, but again Plybon stays away from artifice. He runs his fingers lightly over a softly glowing horn and explains his own techniques for finishing.
"First I rub the horn with linseed oil and pumice and then again with linseed oil and rotten stone. After that I just keep rubbing with linseed oil til it feels warm to the touch."
Early soldiers and mountain men valued animal horns as receptacles for gunpowder for many practical reasons, including their safety, ease of carrying, durability, moisture resistance, availability and modest price. Cost was an especially big factor since horns could be procured for as little as six or eight pence apiece. During the Revolution large numbers were imported to America from the West Indies, South America and Mexico by a family named Bird, who operated a tannery near Boston and furnished leather for the British Army. Since horns were considered waste material by officials on the docks, they were duty-free and so could be brought into the colonies with a shipment of hides for only a pence each.
Today, a raw horn with only the core boiled out costs between $3 to $5, while one thats polished but not drilled runs between $6 and $30. A finished model without decoration sells for $15 to $100, while an engraved horn goes for $25 to several hundred depending upon the ability of the craftsman. At this point in his career, Plybons at the upper end of the pay scale. As for antiques, a plain horn could be purchased for $25 to $200, but an engraved one can bring $200 to $25,000. Base price for a crude, rather plain example hovers around $75.
Soldiers and mountain men weren't the only ones who appreciated a good horn in the early days. The American Indian with his love for baubles and beautiful decoration was often willing to part with furs and even land for a fancy horn filled with gunpowder. Its been said that Powder Horn Hill in Chelsea, Massachusetts, was acquired by the early settlers through just such a barter. The Woodland Indians of the east often enhanced their horns with bits of cloth decorated with beads in the floral designs typical of their tribes.
Regular powder horns to be used with rifles and muskets measure anywhere from six to sixteen inches. Horns larger than that are fairly uncommon as reproductions, and are produced mainly as novelties, but were needed in the 18th century to carry the main powder supply from which smaller individual horns could be filled on a group expedition. Small horns measuring three to six inches are carried either to load a muzzle loading pistol or to prime a flintlock rifle or musket. Besides the main charge that goes down the barrel, a flintlock requires a small amount of finer, quick-burning powder to be placed in the pan of the lock. The small grains run easily through the touch hole in the barrel to the primary charge where theyre quickly ignited by the spark from the flint and steel. Since Plybons customers still shoot these old-timers, or reproductions of them, hes asked frequently to make and engrave priming horns.
As their early forerunners did, todays muzzle loading shooters carry their powder horns in one of two ways. The simplest is to attach a long leather thong to both ends of the horn and sling it over the shoulder so that it runs diagonally across the body. The other method is to attach it to a hunting bag. Plybon also makes these leather bags, often enhanced by an engraved ivory button and sometimes even equipped with an engraved ivory or bone handled hunting knife.
Of course even in the past not all engraved powder horns were used to carry gunpowder. Miners often carried their explosives in a horn; travelers used them as canteens; and pioneers took advantage of their moisture-proof characteristic for transporting salt, tobacco and snuff. Later, when the horns were no longer needed for transportation purposes, they could be boiled or roasted over a flame and separated into layers for use as sword grips, combs, snuffboxes and even window panes. Today Plybon makes twin salt and pepper horns for hunters and campers who like authentic costumes and gear.
The American powder horn is a vital link to the spirit of the 18th century adventurer. After the 1830s, when the metal powder flask became available, its popularity waned a bit, but neither modern technology nor time could completely suppress its natural appeal. Today it lives on in the hands of muzzle loading shooters who use it, collectors who cherish its individuality, and modern craftsmen like John Plybon who, fortunately, make them.