Powder flask

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French 19th century metal flask, with device to adjust amount dispensed.
German antler and steel flask, c. 1570; the goddess Fortuna stands on a hedgehog upon a globe

A powder flask is a small container for gunpowder which was an essential part of shooting equipment with muzzle-loading guns, before pre-made cartridges became standard in the 19th century. They range from very elaborately decorated works of art to early forms of consumer packaging, and are widely collected. Many were standardized military issue, but the most decorative were generally used for sporting shooting.[1]

Although the term powder horn is sometimes used for any kind of powder flask, strictly it is a sub-category of flask made from a hollowed bovid horn. Powder flasks were made in a great variety of materials and shapes, though ferrous metals that were prone to give off sparks when hit were usually avoided. Stag antler, which could be carved or engraved, was an especially common material, but wood and copper were common, and in India ivory. Apart from the horns, common shapes were the Y formed by the base of an antler (inverted), a usually flattened pear shape with a straight spout (poire-poudre or "powder pear" is a French term for these), a round flattened shape, and for larger flasks a triangle with concave rounded sides, which unlike the smaller flasks could be stood upright on a surface. Many designs (such as horn and antler types) have a wide sealed opening for filling, and a thin spout for dispensing. Various devices were used to load a precise amount of powder to dispense, as it was important not to load too much or too little powder, or the powder was dispensed into a powder measure or "charger" (these survive much less often).[2] As early as c. 1600 a German flask had a silver spout with a "telescopic valve, adjustable for different sizes of powder charges".[3]


Although forms of pre-packed cartridges go back to the Middle Ages,[4] these were for several centuries made up by the shooter or a servant,[5] requiring a container for the gunpowder which came loose. Many forms of early firearms did not use cartridges, or users preferred to load each charge before firing, so gunpowder was loaded just before firing. An important safety concern was that when reloading a muzzle-loading gun soon after a shot there might be small pieces of wadding burning in the muzzle, which would cause the new load of powder to ignite as a flash. So long as no part of the loader faced the end of the barrel this was not likely to lead to serious injury, but if a spark reached the main supply in the powder flask a dangerous, even fatal, explosion was likely. General Sir James Pulteney, 7th Baronet, was one such victim; he died in 1811 from complications after losing an eye when a powder flask accidentally exploded in his face in Norfolk.[6] Charles Kickham, prominent in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, grew up largely deaf and almost blind as the result of an explosion when he was 13, in about 1840.[7] Various precautions were taken in the design and use of powder flasks to prevent this from happening, and expensive examples from as early as the 16th century usually have springs to automatically close the dispensing spout (this is much less common with the cheaper horn type).[8]

Modern manuals on muzzle-loading guns all say the flask should never be used to pour powder directly down the muzzle,[9] but from the English sporting press of the 18th and early 19th centuries it is all too clear that this was then common practice, resulting in many accidents.[10] Some YouTube videos demonstrating loading maintain the old traditions.[11] Instead the powder should be poured into an intermediate container known as a charger or powder measure. Sometimes the cap to the spout represented the measure, especially for priming flasks.[12] Sometimes the spout itself was the measure, with a sliding device to shut off the supply at the base, as well as a cap. This type became the norm in the mid-19th century[13]

High quality guns would often have come with a matching flask, chargers and other accessories.[14] Many flasks have small rings for a cord which was slung round the neck to carry them, especially before large pockets on hunting clothes arrived in Europe in the 18th century. Some examples have original elaborate cords with knots and tassels.[15]

Many types of early guns required two different forms of gunpowder (such as a flintlock with finer priming powder for the pan, and a coarser standard powder for the main charge), necessitating two containers, a main flask and a smaller "priming flask".[16] During roughly the 18th century paper cartridges became more and more popular, and a higher proportion of flasks made were the smaller priming variety. It appears that the British Army in the Peninsular War, despite regulations specifying the issue of powder horns and priming flasks, found the former inferior in action to cartridges, with the measuring spout prone to get detached and lost, and informally switched to cartridges during the war.[17]The powder flask was finally rendered obsolete by the spread of breech-loading guns and the innovations brought about by Hall, Sharps, Spencer and the later development of self-contained cartridges that were developed and marketed successfully by Oliver Winchester, after which manufactured cartridges or bullets became standard. Powder flasks were also used for priming naval cannon; such a flask would be as large as, or even larger than, a main flask for a personal sidearm. The large rectangular boxes from which the main muzzle charges for cannon were scooped are called powder boxes; these were used either when making up cartridges in advance, or loading loose powder when firing.[citation needed]


British soldier's powder horn, 1775, engraved with a map of Boston, Massachusetts and "A Pox on Rebels in ther Crymes".

Most of the vast numbers of flasks made in the gun-using parts of the world during the Early Modern period were probably relatively plain and functional, and have not been preserved. But those for the wealthy sportsman or soldier could have decoration of the highest quality,[18] and many artisan-made horns have folk art engravings similar to skrimshaw. They are collected at various levels; early hand-made examples of high quality are expensive and may be found in local or military museums and those for the decorative arts, while 19th century mass-produced examples in metal are a relatively cheap type of antique (though not always as old as claimed) and widely collected.[19]

Western tradition[edit]

Germany, in antler and other materials, and India, in ivory and even jade, are the sources of especially richly decorated luxury flasks. A number of German flasks from the 16th and early 17th centuries are very richly carved with a wide variety of scenes, such as the emblematic figure illustrated. Antler was used for decorating a range of objects associated with hunting, from buttons to gunstocks, knife handles and saddles decorated all over with carved slices of antler. The uniforms of the guards of German princes might include elaborate flasks, often decorated with heraldic designs.[20]

Detail of the "composite animal" tip of an 18th-century ivory Indian flask

By the 19th century stamped metal flasks with a central design in low relief are more common, and standard types by particular manufacturers dominate the field, some produced by gun or powder manufacturers and carrying branding or advertising. The pear shape has become dominant for smaller flasks, which are presumably mostly kept in a pocket.[21]


Ivory Indian flasks of the Mughal and post-Mughal periods, regarded as priming flasks, have a fish-like shape reflecting the tip of a tusk, and are often carved with animals (typically attacking each other) in high relief, with the bodies of the animals in the round at the narrow tip.[22] The bodies of hunter and prey are closely and often illogically connected, forming what have been called "composite animal" forms, which have interested art historians. The Indian tradition of ivory carving (which was probably objectionable to Hindu patrons) was rather late-starting apparently diffusing from a number of centres including a school of carving developed in the Portuguese colony of Goa from the 16th century onwards.[23] The flasks, from the 17th to early 19th centuries, have echoes of much older works in the Animal style especially associated with ancient Scythia, and an intermediate tradition of objects, now lost, in perishable materials such as (in India) wood has been proposed.[24] Collectors may use the Indo-Persian term barut-dan for flasks from these areas. Edo period Japanese flasks (kayaku-ire) were made in the materials and styles that were already highly developed in Japan for the decoration of small personal objects including flasks, often using lacquered wood, which was a very suitable material.



  1. ^ Timeline; Landers
  2. ^ Fadala, 53-55
  3. ^ Grancsay (1929), 134.
  4. ^ MacLachlan, 1955
  5. ^ As late as 1859 British soldiers were still expected to make up their own paper cartridges, following War Office instructions, with supplied bullets and other materials. See Browne, 83-85
  6. ^ Sylvanus, Urban (1811). The Gentleman's Magazine. part I. London: John Nichols and Son. p. 499
  7. ^ O’Sullivan, 347-349
  8. ^ Timeline, Landers, see also the other sources.
  9. ^ for example Fadala, 53.
  10. ^ See for example The Field Book, William Hamilton Maxwell, 1833, or from the same year this letter to the English magazine The Sportsman's Cabinet, and Town and Country Magazine explaining graphically the need for such safety devives, google books.
  11. ^ example, another example, see 2nd comment
  12. ^ Grancsay (1929), 133
  13. ^ Grancsay (1931), 77, German example about 1620; Landry
  14. ^ Victoria & Albert Museum, note on gun and flask in gallery
  15. ^ Grancsay (1929), 132-134
  16. ^ Garry, 192
  17. ^ Haythornthwaite, 18-19
  18. ^ Timeline
  19. ^ Landers on popular collecting in the US; see the other references for museum collections.
  20. ^ Grancsay (1929), 132-133
  21. ^ Landers
  22. ^ "Powder Flask", in the Walters Art Gallery
  23. ^ Born, 93-96
  24. ^ Born, 95-111 (summary conclusion, 111)


  • Born, Wolfgang, "Ivory Powder Flasks from the Mughal Period", Ars Islamica, Vol. 9, (1942), pp. 93-111, Freer Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan, JSTOR
  • Browne, S. Bertram, A companion to the new rifle musket, 1859 (2nd edn.), W. H. Allen & Co., London
  • Fadala, Sam, The Complete Blackpowder Handbook, 2006, Gun Digest Books, ISBN 0896893901, 9780896893900, google books
  • Garry, James, Weapons of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 2012, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0806188006, 9780806188003
  • "Grancsay (1929)", Grancsay, Stephen V., "A Gift of Powder Flasks", The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 5 (May, 1929), pp. 132-134, JSTOR
  • "Grancsay (1931)", Grancsay, Stephen V., "A Silver-Mounted Powder Horn", The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 3, Part 1 (Mar., 1931), pp. 76-77, JSTOR
  • Haythornthwaite, Philip J., British Rifleman: 1797-1815, 2002, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 184176177X, 9781841761770
  • Landers, David, "Powder flasks", Gun Mart magazine website, accessed July 30, 2013
  • McLachlan, Sean, Medieval Handgonnes, 2010, Osprey Publishing (page numbers per online preview), ISBN 1849081557, 9781849081559, google books
  • "O'Sullivan", Dr. Mark F. Ryan,Fenian Memories, Edited by T.F. O'Sullivan, M. H. Gill & Son, Ltd, Dublin, 1945
  • "Timeline", "Powder flask [German] (2007.479.2)", In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, (updated April 2009)

Further reading[edit]

  • Ray Riling, The Powder Flask Book, 1953, the standard work on 19th-century American flasks.