The Powder Horn Blew Up!

“I was very fortunate,” my friend said. His voice betrayed the emotional aftermath he was trying to contain. “You heard the powder horn blew up? I always stress safety. I can’t believe it happened, but it’s got a lot of people thinking and talking, so it’s a ‘positive accident,’ if it helps make people, other shooters, aware.

“We were at Laingsburg [Michigan] for the January woodswalk and almost through all the targets. I had my Southern Mountain rifle, it’s .50-caliber, my favorite rifle. I started to load and got interrupted. I didn’t know where I was at in my loading sequence, so I put a little bit of priming in the pan, held the muzzle down and touched it off. I held the rifle out in front of me, midway in my body, which I usually do. It had to be about 18 to 20 inches from the horn. That’s when I had a ball of fire on both sides of my body.

Weskit and shirt sleeves after powder horn blew up.

Ted Jayson photo.

“I had two shirts on, I think they were cotton, and a wool weskit [on top]. The weskit had a glowing red circle where it was burning. The shirts had a little bit of flame. I was shooting with four guys, and two started beating out the flames. They pulled out their knives and cut the sleeves off. I was very fortunate; just two small spots on my arm that got burnt, and they went away in a few days.

“I had maybe 300 grains left in the horn. The plug was in, I remember checking that. The horn had a hairline crack. It didn’t look all the way through. I put sealer along the crack. The rupture occurred along that crack.

“I’ve stayed awake nights thinking about it. About the only thing I can think of is a spark got into that hairline crack. I didn’t think it was all the way through or unsafe. I’ll never do that again, use a cracked horn, I’ll tell you.

“I’m right handed and left-eye dominate. I’ve had issues over the years with my right shoulder, so I started shooting left handed. It was a left handed gun. I find it more convenient to have the horn on my left side, and I like it high up. I’ve started putting the horn on the opposite side of my body.

“I carry a canvas possibles bag on my left, four or five inches above my hip bone, and my shooting pouch on the right. The heat from the explosion went through the canvas [of the possibles bag] and charred the patch material on balls in a loading block, and dried up the bear grease I had on the patches.

“A lot of guys glue the end plug in, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I don’t, I make it fit tight, then tap it in and set it with toothpicks. I think that helped release some of the pressure.”

Sifting Through the Aftermath

The ruptured powder horn, split in two, end for end.

Ted Jayson photo.

With any accident all of the details are never fully known or understood. The shooters around my friend were just as baffled with the situation as he was. No one has a good explanation, and I doubt anyone ever will. What we are left with is a life lesson that demands a little soul-searching on an individual basis, or at least that is how I view it.

One of the first considerations is to put the incident in perspective. My friend has 49 years of black powder experience, is an avid competitor and has fired thousands of shots. Add in the lifetime shooting experience of the folks on that woodswalk, plus all the other participants at matches around the state, and the number of potential situations grows while the frequency per shot of a horn blowing up diminishes. But I don’t feel that absolves me, or any other black powder enthusiast, from exercising due care.

I feel the same concern my friend does; that accident has eaten at me for many weeks. The day I received the first report, I checked my horn, Tami’s horn and the two “loaner” horns I have. Doubts kept gnawing so I put on my OptiVisor® and took a second gander.

As I told my friend, I fear a missing horn plug the most. I am a brush hunter. Being right handed, I carry my horn on the right, at the lower ribs and to the back, unless it works forward in the heat of a chase. I spend a lot of hours in the field, and on occasion a twig will catch the leather thong on the horn’s plug and pull it.

Over the years I have learned to check the plug and adjust the horn regularly throughout a sojourn. Another traditional hunter offered a solution to brush-pulled plugs: switch to a small day horn that can be carried in the shot pouch. The loaner outfit my son-in-law hunts with includes a small day horn, and I recently picked up a small flask for the pouch that goes with the fusil de chasse.

But that is not without possible problems: say the plug comes out and spills powder in the pouch? I have heard of this happening at battle re-enactments using paper cartridges. Some events require all shot pouches to have flaps that close over the pouch.

As another example, I remember being told of one living historian who kept tucking the “used” paper cartridge in his tri-corn so as not to litter the historic site. Loose powder collected in his hat brim and towards the end of the event it went “POOOFFF!”

Switching the horn to the opposite side of the body offers greater separation, but when I tried it a few years ago, I found the new placement very awkward and abandoned the attempt. I have since noticed several shooters follow this practice and their loading process seems fluid and unhindered. I think I will revisit this choice while on the practice range this summer.

Photos comparing the flash streamers.

Left: a pan-flash using 3fg for priming powder; center: 4fg priming; and right: streamers from a standard percussion cap

But subtle changes may have unintended consequences, too. In my quest for greater authenticity, I started priming from my horn (3Fg) some years back. With the horn accident fresh in my mind, I looked at a recent hunting photo that showed a brilliant pan flash and gained a new perspective. The image showed hundreds of orange “streamers” blown from the pan. I compared the image to several taken when I primed with 4Fg and saw a significant difference.

The granules in the coarser powder contain more charcoal solids than the finer powder and thus burn longer. The barrel’s backpressure blows the pan clean, scattering the still-burning granules and increasing the chances for disaster. Percussion caps show similar streaming embers, so this is not just a flintlock issue. I’m still mulling this over…

If nothing else, there seems to be a consensus of opinion that all horns, flasks or other powder containers should be inspected on a regular basis. At the first inkling of a defect, the container must be relegated to “wall hanger status” and not used further. Sometimes that choice is a difficult one, but safety overrules sentiment.

Opinion on gluing or not gluing in the end plug seems evenly divided. Given the cost of a powder horn, testing of the glue/no-glue theory will be expensive, but not impossible. Perhaps this subject needs the backing of either the MSMLA or the NMLRA, and I intend to pursue the matter further.

By its very nature, traditional black powder hunting depends of the safe handling, storage and use of a dangerous explosive compound. We all bear a responsibility to keep our minds focused on the seriousness of our hobby, even in the midst of the simplest of pursuits. In no way am I saying or implying my friend let down his guard for a moment, but what I am saying is even with diligence and a constant eye on safety, accidents happen. It is our job to minimize the probability. And as he said, his unfortunate experience has “got a lot of people thinking and talking,” and that’s a “positive.”

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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15 Responses to The Powder Horn Blew Up!

  1. Darrel says:

    Denny as a re-anactor I am required to have a flash guard installed on my lock.
    Do you have any photos of what the pan flash looks like when one is used.
    We use them to prevent the next guy inline from getting sprayed from the flash, it sends the flash upwards and I suppose some down and being in a line of fire I can’t ever remember felling spray from the guy next to me.
    Like your friend above I am also right handed but shoot left handed but, have never shot a left handed lock always a right handed lock and with or with out a flash guard I don’t have a problem with the flash. I do carry my horn and bag high and on my right. I also carry my cartridges in a small leather belt bag which is located straight down from the lock of the gun when fired. I empty my pouch after each event and at times there is lose powder in the bottom of the bag. Something I will need to keep a eye on.
    Shooting a right handed lock left handed has never been a problem for me but some must think it unsafe for I have been asked to remove my self from a shoot a time or two because the scorer didn’t feel it was safe.

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      Darrel,

      The two flintlock photos are of “Old Turkey Feathers,” and I have a flash guard on the pan. You raise an interesting point, one that I will try to test in the future.

      I don’t think handing has anything to do with what happened, or the potential for other such situations. Some people have postulated that holding the gun down at the waist, rather than shouldering it may have contributed, but again, no one knows for sure.

      I was told the repaired crack was against his body, which might have created a “trough” between the horn and his weskit that caught a wayward spark.

      The only risk that I am aware of when shooting a flintlock “opposite handed,” is the possibility of a nasty burn on the arm that supports the forestock if it is held to the side instead of under the gun.

  2. William says:

    I read about this incedent back when it first happened but your article is a much more in-depth and clear explaination. I shoot left handed and am left eye dominent but write with my right hand. I carry my horn on my right side over my shooting bag but carry my primer on the left side, so my concern would be sparks igniting the powder in my primer. With your permission I’d like to forward this article to my shooting club in case anyone has concerns about the safety of their horns and loading techniques.

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      William,

      Please feel free to forward the URL for this post. The point of the post was to raise awareness and continue the dialog this incident created. The more folks that see this, the better, which is the “positive influence” my friend desired.

      • William says:

        I’ve posted the link to this article over at my favorite muzzle loading forum and it has spurred some great comments and discussion already. In fact, one of the members over there was acutally present when this happened so he was able to give a first-hand account as well.

        As far as flash guards are concerned, the only one I ever saw was included on a caplock that I bought used, which I never put back on after changing the nipple. I was told that these are required for reenactments where participants are firing musket caps to set off the blank powder charge but didn’t see the point when it came to #11 caps.

  3. Ted Thelen says:

    I was also at the shoot when this happened but was not with the individual involved. The best take I can gather from this event is that I will be flashing the pan with my gun on my shoulder as though I were firing for real. It’s the only thing I can think of that is different from the normal discharge of the firearm which had not been a problem.

  4. Ted Thelen says:

    I will bring this incident up at the NMLRA Board meeting to be referred to the appropriate committee.

  5. Ted Jayson says:

    Your right Ted! I NEVER waste a shot. I alway’s aim at a spot no bigger than a penny,everytime I pull the trigger,everytime! I like shooting well,and need all the practice I can get.

    And,I know were everything is and hope others watch as a back up. And thankfully,I’ve been blessed with watchfull shooting partners. More than once the plug has come out,and they made sure I knew it before I even shouldered my firearm.

    • HUNSFOOT says:

      Usually an incident like this is a combination of happenings that accumulate into the grand finale of an accident. Not really just one thing. He probably shot with that horn hundreds of times, but in that one instance everything fell into line to create the end result of this accident. Always keep all gear in top order and if there is a flaw that could be potentially dangerous, then it should not be used, as earlier mentioned.
      It’s always a good thing if we watch each other’s backs, so to speak. None of us know it all, but all of us together can cover a lot.

  6. R.A. Scheffler says:

    I was at a shoot a number of years ago and noticed the plug out of Len Graves
    ball bag. I brought it to his attention that if a spark fell into there it could go off and who knows who could get hit.

  7. Rick Roberts says:

    As I read this story, my first thought was how lucky that there was so little powder in the horn. Next I thought about doing an inspection of the two horns I have made. Then my mind jumped to a different issue – that of how I check to see what stage of reloading I am at when I get interrupted. The way I was taught: first check to see if the gun has a powder charge by holding the muzzle over a piece of leather on the ground – if powder falls out then I know to start over; if powder does not fall out then I insert the ramrod and check the markings for a load. From the description of events, had the rifle been fired from the shoulder, the sparks may have arched over the powder horn; however, as the rifle was tested the discharge was at the same level of the horn.

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      Rick,

      As I understand it, the amount of powder in the horn is not supposed to have much affect on the destructive force of the blast. And you are right, one of the points the owner wanted to make clear is that we all should inspect our horns on a regular basis.

      Regarding checking if the gun had a powder charge, I would like to point out that the common safety rules require a shooter to “drop the barrel” on the shooting line only and not at the loading bench. I think this is what you meant, but I wanted to clarify that practice.

      And attempting to clear a charge with the arm shouldered is also a good practice, one that is being considered by the NMLRA for incorporation in their standard “Rules and Regulations.”

  8. The main reason for not glueing in the butt plug is because this plus is like a pressure release valve. You should only ever use beeswax to seal it, & only a few small pins to secure it.
    The spout plug is often replaced in the horn when there is a little gunpowder left in the spout, this powder gets ground into the plug, & it can act as a fuse if a spark should ever land on it.
    I always swing my powder horn to my rear after loading & priming, this lessens the chance of it getting hit by sparks.
    I am glad to hear no one was seriously hurt.
    Take care.
    Regards, Keith.

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      Thank you, Keith.

      As I stated in the post, this topic is open to debate. Some follow your logic, and others state that the laws of inertia will negate the effect of not gluing in the plug and that the explosive force will be the same in either instance. At the time I wrote this piece, there was talk of testing both theories to come up with a more definitive answer. I’m looking forward to speaking with one of the individuals who was considering this project at Friendship in a couple of weeks.

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