Powder Horn Safety

By Joseph Ruckman — 1st Virginia Regt.

There seems to be a lot of controversy going on in the re-enacting world regarding the use of powder horns. Not from an historical standpoint, because that is hardly debatable (particularly for riflemen), but from one of safety. I find this odd, because a properly made and used powder horn is far and away safer than a cartridge box.

First of all, a powder horn is air tight, which means it is waterproof, leak proof, and, most important, spark proof. Even with the flap secured, a cartridge box can hardly be considered any of these. And of course, the flap of a cartridge box is almost never secured during a battle . . . In fact, while I have personally observed two accidents involving cartridges, (one haversack of cartridges and one belly box, each of which blew up on the field), I know of no powder horn related accidents. (I should add that while I have been reenacting for about fifteen years, the bulk of my experience with black powder firearms is at live shoots, and I have seen literally hundreds of thousands of rounds fired, almost all of which were loaded with some form of powder horn.)

Secondly, it is not uncommon to find the field after a battle to be littered with full cartridges, apparently dropped in the confusion of battle, which could be picked up by visitors. It's much more difficult to lose a powder horn and not be aware of the fact almost immediately.

Then there is the matter of safety in actual use. Personally, I still get nervous pouring powder down the barrel of a firearm that has its lock already primed, notwithstanding the fact that I did a Continental Line interpretation for several years. As for live firing with cartridges, I simply will not do it, and know of no National Muzzleloading Rifle Association certified Range Officer that will tolerate the practice. But that's another topic. Re-enacting, like just about anything in life, has certain dangers associated with it. We accept those dangers because we can mitigate them by (1) following established safety procedures; (2) using our heads; and (3) looking out for one another. Which brings us to the proper use of a powder horn.

  1. Established Safety Procedures. The following are two simple rules which, if strictly adhered to, will virtually eliminate any danger associated with a powder horn.

    1. Always use a separate measure. If the stupidity of loading directly from the horn isn't intuitively obvious to you, you have no place in this hobby. The type of charger that has a self-contained measure with a cut off valve is almost as bad and is not acceptable for use without a separate measure. In fact, I would personally discourage these things entirely, as they are far from waterproof and are questionable historically for use by the common soldier of the Revolution. How large a charge depends on what kind of gun you're shooting. For muskets, whatever your unit loads into cartridges is fine. For rifles, your hunting charge should be perfectly safe. I use one half of the ball weight as a hunting charge — for my .50 caliber, with a 177 grain ball, that works out to about 85 grains.
    2. Ensure the stopper is securely in place before pouring powder into the barrel. It's hard to control loose powder if both ends of the horn aren't shut. Check periodically to ensure that the stopper hasn't come loose. If this happens, particularly if it happens more than once in a blue moon, do whatever is necessary to ensure the stopper fits properly. If it can't be made to stay in place, replace the horn.
  2. Using Our Heads. The above rules, like most safety rules, are simple common sense. Black power is designed to blow up, so it's blatantly obvious that you want to keep it away from sparks and flame. In the same vein, horns should be checked periodically to ensure that they haven't developed cracks and that the buttplug hasn't come loose. There is no danger so small that carelessness can't multiply it a hundredfold.
  3. Looking Out for One Another. Note that when describing these rules I say "adhered to" not "enforced." Enforcement is a last resort to protect the rest of us from those who don't adhere to the rules. As such, safety is not only the responsibility of the safety officer(s), but that of everyone on the field.

We not only need to adhere to the rules ourselves, but we need to be aware of those around us and call an immediate halt to unsafe practices. This may take a little of the fun and spontaneity out of the game, but if we don't police ourselves, rest assured there are plenty of politicians and lawyers out there ready to do it for us.

Copyright © 1995 Joseph Ruckman. All rights reserved.