Choosing the right cow horn for making a powder horn

Choosing the right cow horn by John Shorb, Master Horner
Choosing the Right Cow Horn for That Certain Powder Horn

This information is provided by, John Shorb a master hornmaker with more than 30 years experience making powderhorns. He is my teacher, coach and mentor in the business and most importantly-a good friend.

John Shorb on selecting a horn...

A good-looking powder horn absolutely requires the maker to find a handsome cow horn. After handling literally thousands of cow horns, I find that the old adage about “Not Being Able to Make a Silk Purse From a Sow’s Ear” to ring ever so true.

The first thing to answer is which side will the horn be worn on? Considering any given cow only provides two horns, one right side and one left side, half of the available horns can be disregarded. There, it’s getting easier all the time, see? The horn should lie flat against the side of the body that it will be carried on, left side or right side. I feel a person shooting right-handed should carry the horn on the left side and that the horn should be suspended from the straps of the shooting bag. Other people have other opinions, but that is mine. It’s mainly a matter of comfort and convenience, but safety also plays a part. I want the horn to be as far away from the sparks and flash of ignition as possible.

The next question to ask is what kind of horn is going to be made? The requirement for a heavily carved French and Indian style powder horn are vastly different than for a light day horn. The French & Indian horn will require a larger horn with a heavier tip and a thicker body for the extensive carving and reliefs that typify that style horn. The day horn (or hunting horn) will require thinner wall thickness and can be shorter.

Regardless of the size of the horn, it should be checked for visible structural flaws. First, inspect the tip and the base. You are looking for separations between the layers of horn. In the base, you will see actual separations. On the tip, you will see dime to quarter size bubbles under the surface layer of the horn. If you see this, it is better to leave the horn than to try to sand out the flaw. Sometimes you can, sometimes you cannot.

The next thing to check for is cracks in the horn. Hold the horn up to eye level with the outside curve facing a light source and look into the horn. If a crack is there, you can see it. Typically, it will be 2” to 5” long and will start close to the end of the cavity and run back towards the base. If you find a horn with a crack, disregard it, because it cannot be fixed.

Blood spots are another thing to be aware of. This is dried blood caught between layers of horn. Some people like them, some don’t. As long as the spot is completely below the surface of the horn, it is not a structural problem. I think it adds a little character to the horn, but that is only my opinion.

Lastly, we can talk about bug damage. A type of carpet beetle can inhabit cow horns and this evidently provides them a hospitable environment. They can live, eat, reproduce and die, all in the cow horn. They are evidenced by holes eaten into the surface of the horn. Mothballs can keep them away and below zero degrees F or over boiling temperatures can kill them. If they are or were present and have not eaten too deeply, the damaged area can be sanded away.

So, we have eliminated broken, separated, bug-eaten horns from our potential source and we are looking at what is left. Next, I look primarily for shape. Is the horn fairly round is my first consideration if I am going to lathe turn the base plug. Almost any horn can be rounded, given enough time and heat, but it sure is easier starting closer to where you want to end up. We can also make the base plug fit the natural shape of the horn, so then shape is not so critical. Now then, we have a structurally sound horn, the correct twist or curve, and it is shaped correctly at the base. It should gracefully decrease in size from the base to a pointed tip. The tip should not be blunt, and there should be no drastic changes in girth.

It’s a good idea next to consider the depth of the cavity inside the horn. The best way to positively determine that is to run a thin wire inside the horn all the way you can, mark the wire, withdraw it and lay the wire along the bottom side of the horn to see where the end of it is. Ideally, you will want about an inch of solid horn from the end of the cavity to where the tip is cut off, AND where the cut is made should not be any thicker than one inch. Any thicker will require a lot of sanding to make a graceful appearing horn. I typically trim my horns to ˝” in finished diameter at the tip.

Another thing to think about when selecting a horn is cost. There is a reason why some horns are less expensive than others are. Horns that are brought in from Mexico and from Africa typically sell for under $10.00. African horns often suffer from bad separations in the layers of the horn and also have very long, solid tips, making drilling into the cavity of the horn difficult. Mexican horns also have a lot of layer separation and typically do not have pleasant shapes. The all-black powderhorns that you see in discount stores for sale under $20.00 are made from water buffalo horn in India. Save your money, as you would be buying third rate merchandise at best. As a rule, they are hard to load, difficult to pour from and are just barely more airtight than a pipe that is open on both ends. It is better to invest in quality materials if you want to end up with a quality product. You just cannot assemble something nice from junk.

The last consideration is color, and this is strictly a personal opinion. Whether you want a horn to be snowy white with a black tip or mottled with a honey colored tip or even various shades of green is up to you. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Besides, there’s hardly a horn whose color cannot be changed by stain or dye.

Our commitment to you is that we will not knowingly send out a horn that has visible damage. We will inspect the horn for separations, cracks and bug damage. If you want a horn to be worn on the right side, we know the difference between right and left side horns and will in fact select one that matches your requirement. We can measure both the length and the circumference of the horn, as well as the depth of the cavity. This is the difference between doing business with someone who merely sells horns and doing business with a knowledgeable horn merchant.