Land of the Free

By Ciara Bohan

As part of our celebration of Independence Day, this week’s object is a traditional powder horn; an item commonly used during the Revolutionary War.  Selected for our patriotic theme of the week, this elegantly detailed powder horn symbolizes our countries victory and separation from England in 1776.

This powder horn in particular was made in the early 19th century, meaning it was not made until after the Revolutionary War. Carved into the side are the American flag and the British flag, as well as the words “Liberty” and “Land of the Free”. “Land of the Free” came from the National Anthem which was written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, meaning the horn was probably not carved into until after this year. Along with this are two sailboats, four tulips and a row of ten houses. The houses appear to have been built in the style of European architecture, especially with Dutch influence. Beside the houses is a church, which was likely illustrated to symbolize Christianity. This technique of carving is called scrimshaw, which normally takes the form of illustrated engravings or letters. After this, the artist would rub ink/pigment into the carving to highlight the detail. Interestingly, the bottom of the horn was carved to be in the shape of an acorn. The small opening at the end allows a small amount of gun powder to be loaded, making it an artistic object and a utilitarian tool. Its exterior has remained in a remarkably good condition since it has been well preserved. Powder horns to this day are considered highly valuable as they were all individually designed.






Although it was not used in the war, many powder horns like this carried gun powder used in battles at war. Powder horns have been used for thousands of years, mainly since they were so effective and useful. Soldiers, gunman, hunters, etc. all favored this tool for its highly valuable characteristics.  They were light and portable, waterproof, and most importantly spark proof.  Powder horns also helped soldiers pass time in winter camps. It wasn’t until Colonial times where it became common to carve into powder horns. They would normally use knifes or needles stuck into a stick to get the precise detail they needed, especially in this powder horn. Each powder horn was unique to its owner, commonly illustrated the status of their life.

Typically using the horns of cattle or buffalos, soldiers and other powder horn users favored its unique shape as a resourceful tool. The horns were naturally hollow on the inside, making it easier to use. The function of the powder horns was to have a wider opening on one end, and a smaller end. The wider end acted as the part where the powder could be loaded into the horn. The smaller end was used to pour the powder into the gun, acting as a funnel. This technique of loading powder was handy and could be done quickly, which helped at battle. Powder horns were mainly used for muskets during the Revolution. They could also be used for pistols and rifles which later became more popular in the United States.


Guild, Rich. “A Bit of Horn History.” Investment Grade Decorated Powder Horns. 2002. Web. 30 June 2016.

Powder Horns.” Firearms History, Technology & Development. 21 Jan 2013. Web. 30 June 2016.

Linberry, Cate. “The Story Behind the Star Spangled Banner.” Smithsonian: 1 March 2007. Web. 30 June 2016.

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