Priming Horns?

Muzzleloading Season
Guns & Recreation
Priming Horns?
Editing History
Craft Apprenticeship
Wallace Gusler Retires
Written for the Bevel Brothers column in Muzzle Blasts in 2002
Several years ago at Friendship, in an informal “Stump the Experts” session behind Gunmaker’s Hall, I asked the Bevel Brothers what I hoped was a tricky question. “If you traveled back in time to 1770 and encountered a deer hunter in the Appalachian Mountains what kind of powder is he carrying in his priming horn?” As you fans of this column know, those boys are smarter than they like to let on. My question was immediately answered. “From everything we have seen we don’t believe he would have a priming horn.” In my opinion that was exactly the right answer.

Now a reader has sent in a question about priming horns and the Bevel Brothers have asked me to come up with my own answer to why I think there should be no priming horn in an 18th-century shooting kit. Here goes.

There are two basic kinds of documentary evidence—positive and negative. In the October issue John Curry wrote an article documenting the positive evidence he had found that some men on the frontier wore beards. This article caused a lot of discussion but it all came down to having to agree that beards, however rare, were not unknown. Negative evidence is a lot harder to deal with. Just because in thirty years of research on rifles and their use neither I nor the other historians who have worked for the Colonial Williamsburg Gunshop ever found a single colonial period reference to either priming horns or priming powder doesn’t prove they didn’t exist. To me it does prove that, if they existed, they were not common. Certainly not as common as beards.

One way to validate negative historical evidence is to explain where the search that didn’t find anything was conducted. There are several kinds of public documents that list objects. Probate inventories are common in Virginia will books. We have read literally thousands of these documents and never found a priming horn mentioned. Horns, bags, bullet molds and wipers are fairly common. But no priming horns.

In merchant’s records we have searched inventories, account books and newspaper advertisements. Stores usually list simply gunpowder but some carry FFG and FG powder. None seem to mention any finer grades. Other store records list their powder as rifle, musket or, rarely, cannon powder. I belief there is ample evidence that FFG was “rifle powder.” For example, in a 1758 letter to General Forbes, Col. Henry Bouquet requested “fine” powder for the riflemen and clarifies that by adding “FF.”

During the Seven Years War, the Revolution and the War of 1812 there are numerous accounts in correspondence and other government documents related to equipping and supplying the riflemen. Some of these documents go into enough detail to include a wire for picking the touchhole but none we have found mention a priming horn.

Period books from England on shooting like An Essay on Shooting, 1789, Colonel Hanger to all Sportsmen, 1814, and Instructions to Young Sportsmen, 1833, give instruction on shooting but never mention separate priming horn or the use of a finer granulation of powder for priming. Recently we have also noticed the absence of a second powder container in even the more elaborate cased sets of guns. Some of us believe that the gunsmiths who made these cased sets and the rich gentlemen who could afford them would have been at the leading edge of the shooting technology. They, more so than a colonist, would have had separate priming if they thought it to be an advantage.

And finally there is also some modern proof that there is no significant advantage in using finer priming powder. In 1987 Larry Pletcher began developing a system to use electric eyes and a computer to measure how long it took from tripping the sear until the priming powder ignited. His research was published by the NMLRA in Volume IV of the Journal of Historical Armsmaking Technology (1991). In 20 trials each with 2Fg, 3Fg and 4Fg priming he found the average for 4F to be only .004 of a second faster than 2F. Later studies with a video camera that took 1000 frames a second confirmed Larry’s work. There was more variation from lock to lock and shot to shot than there was between powders.

My conclusion from all of this evidence is that the common use of priming horns and finer granulations of powder for priming were developments of the mid to late 19th century.