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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Keep yer powder dry!

by C. F. Eckhardt

Black gunpowder is extremely hygroscopic. That’s a five-dollar word scientists use to mean stuff that gets wet real easy. In fact, black gunpowder will absorb enough moisture from very humid air to make it unusable. ‘Keepin’ yer powder dry’ was of the utmost importance in the early West.

Black powder—it was called ‘gunpowder’ on the frontier, because until the mid- 1890s it was the only gunpowder there was—is a simple mechanical mixture of three fairly common materials. They are potassium nitrate, also called ‘niter,’ ‘nitre,’ and ‘saltpeter;’ sulfur, and powdered charcoal.

Potassium nitrate is a salt-like material produced, primarily, by the decomposition of animal feces. Bat guano is extremely rich in it, and bat caves were regularly raided for guano, which was then leached to produce potassium nitrate. Not only was it an ingredient in making gunpowder, it was—and still is, believe it or not--very important in food preservation. In fact, that ham you had on Easter wouldn’t have had that pretty red color had potassium nitrate not been used in the cure. Virginia hams—true Virginia hams—are cured without potassium nitrate, and they’re gray, not red.

Sulfur was obtained, mostly, from water that smelled like rotten eggs. The water was put into a shallow pan, then slowly evaporated over a very weak fire. As the water evaporated, a rock hard, bright yellow substance began to form on the brim of the pan. That’s where sulfur gets the alternate name ‘brimstone.’ There’s less sulfur than anything else in gunpowder, and that’s good, because the stuff was very time-consuming to gather.

- The best charcoal for gunpowder was made from willow or alder wood, but if willows or alders didn’t grow in your area you substituted. Any fairly soft wood would do.

Gunpowder was mixed by volume, not by weight. The best formula for gunpowder, and the one that’s still in use, is—by volume, not weight—75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. The problem with just throwing the three ingredients into a can and shaking it up lies in the fact that of the three, potassium nitrate is the heaviest. If the powder is not shaken regularly, it tends to descend to the bottom of the container and until you shake it up the powder's no good. Such powder was called ‘meal powder’ because it was fine as meal.

There needed to be a way to make sure the powder, once mixed, stayed mixed. The best way to do that, as it turned out, was what was normally the worst thing you could do to the stuff. You had to get it wet.

Plain old creek water would do fine, but back in the very earliest days of gunpowder there was a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the stuff. One old formula I found for gunpowder said the liquid had to be “ye pysse of ye mayden notte yette knoweng ye manne,” which, all things considered, might have been sort of hard to find, depending on the neighborhood.

Water was added to the mixture to make a dough, which was then sun-dried in wooden or copper molds. Once it was dry it was turned out of the molds and ground to various degrees of coarseness in mortars that wouldn’t strike a spark—brass or bronze, copper, crockery, or very hard wood. Powder for small pistols was about as fine as cornmeal, while powder for large cannons might be in grains as large as the last joint of a man’s thumb.

Once it had been dried and ground, it had to be kept dry. Usually it was kept in metal kegs which might hold from five to fifty pounds. The kegs were tightly capped, and the cap sealed with beeswax or pitch, later with asphalt tar.

Fire was a common hazard in homes and barns, and storing five to fifty pounds of gunpowder around fire wasn’t a really good idea. If the house caught fire and you had a keg of powder inside your best bet was to make a break for the tall and uncut, because when the fire heated up that keg there were going to be some spectacular fireworks. Most folks stored the powder keg in the root cellar, which was normally separate from the house. Being mostly made of sod, it wasn’t a good prospect for causing fireworks no matter what happened to the rest of the homestead.

If you had a fancy metal powder-flask, all well and good—but most people didn’t have ‘em. All the same, they had to carry powder—and to carry it in something that was waterproof. The most common personal container for powder on the frontier was not the storied powderhorn, but a simple gourd.

Gourds were some of the most useful things around. You could make a water container from one, a powder flask from another just like it, a spoon from another, a drinking cup from yet another.

To make a powder flask from a gourd, you chose one with a neck. You dried the gourd, cut the small end open, and shook and scraped out the seeds and strings inside. Then you coated the outside with a moisture-resistant substance, which might be shellac or lacquer if you could get it, beeswax or asphalt tar if you couldn’t. You went to the nearest saloon and got a cork from a large bottle, which you worked down with an abrasive until it would fit snugly into the small end of the gourd’s neck. You put a pin of some sort in the end of the cork and attached a leather string to it. Then, using leather strings, you wove a carrier for your powder gourd, tied the cork to the carrier, and put a strap on it so you could sling it over your shoulder.

That done, you carved a small container that would hold just the right charge for your rifle, another to hold the right charge for your pistols. These you also tied to your gourd’s leather-string carrier. They were your measures, to insure, first, that you always got exactly the right amount of powder in your weapons, and second, to insure that if there was a spark left in the barrel when you reloaded, all that happened was a poof rather than a BOOM, which could happen if you poured powder directly from the gourd down the barrel and atop the spark.

If you could get a cow’s horn you could make a powder horn, which was sturdier than a gourd. You almost had to make a new powder-gourd every year, but horns were often passed from father to son.

Horns are hollow up to a point, but the tips aren’t. They’re solid and very hard. Horns are made of keratin, which is the same stuff hair’s made of, and if you’ve ever smelled burning hair, you know how it stinks. When you made a powderhorn you wanted to make it outside and downwind of the house.

First you sawed the tip off the horn, almost but not quite to where the horn was hollow. Since most horns are curved, finding that spot could be tricky. You took a piece of thin iron rod, bent it to correspond to the bend in the horn, and ran it inside the horn until it hit solid matter. Then you marked your rod, laid it along the horn, and marked that spot on the horn. Measuring about the width of a man’s thumb toward the tip from that mark, you cut the tip off the horn—but you didn’t throw it away. Then you heated your iron rod until it was red hot and pressed it into the solid end of the horn from the inside. There was a hissing sound and some awful-smelling smoke, and then you did it again. You kept doing it until the rod came out the end of the horn. Then, using the heated iron rod, you enlarged the hole in the horn until it was perhaps a quarter-inch in diameter.

Now you put the open end of the horn on a flat board of hard wood—maple was preferred, but oak, pecan, or even mesquite would do—and traced around it. You cut out this circle, chamfered it slightly, and you were ready for job #2 in making your horn.

You stuck the open end of the horn in boiling water until it softened slightly. Then, using a mallet or maul but not a metal hammer, you placed the chamfered side of the board in the open end of the horn and forced it into place, being careful not to split the horn as you did so. Once the plug was in the horn, you attached it permanently by driving brass tacks through the horn and into the plug. Finally you carved a peg that would fit snugly into the small hole in the other end of the horn and it would hold powder. You attached a strap to carry it and you had a powder horn. That tip you sawed off you could hollow out for a measure.

Most people eventually carried powder in horns, and most people decorated their powder horns. Decoration might be simply “John Smith, His Horn” carved into the outside of the horn, but others made some very elaborately decorated horns.

On the cover of TEXAS SMOKE— MUZZLE-LOADERS ON THE FRONTIER from Texas Tech University Press, you’ll see an example of an elaborately-decorated horn. Wes Williams, the illustrator, produced for the cover of the book an example of a map-horn, which was a common way of decorating powderhorns. Usually the carving was done with a small, very sharp knife or chisel, to a depth of perhaps 1/32nd of an inch. Then soot, mixed with linseed oil or a similar carrier, perhaps with a little gum arabic added, was rubbed into the grooves. The result was a black substance in the grooves which stood out boldly from the lighter color of the horn. People carved mottoes, patriotic motifs, floral designs—anything that suited the owner’s fancy—into powder horns.

And that’s how you kept your powder dry.


© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
June 1, 2008 column


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