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Hooked on horn: John Proud's childhood interest in powder horns has evolved into a pursuit that occupies much of his retirement.

Like mankind's desire to leave his mark on nature, John Proud's interest in working powder horn goes back a long way. As a child, John visited the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum, and was immediately drawn to the powder horns on display. Years later, as a college student, John discovered an old powder horn in a nearby barn. Now a retired DEC wildlife manager and award-winning "horner," John creates his own works of art, using a unique medium to fulfill a demand in an equally unique market. His decision to become a horner spawned an avocation that now borders on an enterprise.

John's evolution from admiring powder horns, to collecting them, to eventually creating them himself ultimately grew from his use of a black powder flintlock rifle for hunting and for shooting competitions.

He wanted a powder horn to go with his rifle, and in the mid '80s, he decided to make one for himself. Trial and error were John's first teachers, and published articles helped him along the way.

Many a powder horn later, John now attends battle reenactments, portraying a civilian horn worker following the troops. He sets up a small bench and demonstrates horn-working techniques for the benefit of those who visit and participate.

As a collector, John has acquired about 30 authentic horn items so far. He prefers those from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of their variety and the way they illustrate the skill of the horner. Among his favorite items are pipes and lifelike birds made from horn. The two pipes he owns are fanciful, attractive, and useable. They were made in a Dutch souvenir style of the late nineteenth century, presumably from small pieces of nineteenth century, presumably from small pieces of scrap horn. When describing his horn birds, John says, "The skill of the horner becomes more apparent when you realize that each [bird] is made from one horn, cut and shaped to minimize waste."

Plastic of its Day

During its heyday in Colonial times, horn was used to make many products now made of plastic. Horn was inexpensive, readily available, and relatively easy to work. In those times, horn was so common that if people could afford things made of more expensive material, they bought those instead. Horn was abundant because cattle were raised by the thousands, and virtually everyone, even "townsfolk," owned cows. Although America had an established horn-working industry, the colonists also exported horn to Britain and imported horn products.

Farmers and soldiers were the most likely members of society to work horn themselves. Farmers had tools and easy access to horn, and they often made simple but necessary items such as scythe horns and sausage funnels. Soldiers of the time had little to occupy themselves while away from the battlefield. In addition to writing letters and keeping journals, they spent long hours making powder horns, often embellishing them with maps or illustrations depicting battles.

Horn products were in demand into the early nineteenth century, thanks to their utility and low cost. But like many traditional trades, horn working eventually declined and was replaced by newer technology and materials.

Horn Sources and Supply

Domestic cow horn is much less common today because of changed husbandry practices and the development of "polled" or hornless breeds. In addition, it's difficult now to find horn similar to that of historic cattle breeds. Horn workers find that horn from today's domestic cattle is heavier, darker, and has a different shape, texture and grain compared to imported horn.

John buys all the horn he can from an importer. He's always on the lookout for new sources of quality horn, but they're difficult to find, especially in the U.S. For one thing, there isn't much demand. Of the 150 or so members of the Honourable Company of Horners (HCH)--of which John is the current guildmaster--only about a third make horn products, and most make only a few items each year. Because demand is so slight, the U.S. beef industry considers raw horn a byproduct of little value, and has not found it profitable to market horn to horn workers.

Tireless Retiree

Working horn gives John a great deal of satisfaction, from researching new projects, to locating and selecting raw materials, to thinking long and hard about the method he'll use to produce the finished product he envisions. Of all the horn products that John and others craft, powder horns are the most sought-after items.

Creating a powder horn usually takes John a day or two, but more elaborate horns require at least 100 hours of labor. Finding an appropriate period design can take several hours. Thinking through the design on a particular piece frequently takes twice as long as the actual engraving does.

John makes and sells a wide variety of other items, including flasks, boxes, medallions, whistles, needle cases, seam rippers, waxers, bodkins, rulers, tape measures, shoehorns, horn books, and knife handles. John prices each item according to how much time is required to make it. Despite commanding hundreds of dollars for most finished pieces, he currently has an order backlog of about one year. It's not unusual for John to spend 60 hours per week working on his "hobby."

In addition to being guildmaster of the HCH, John is a member of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association and the Contemporary Longrifle Association. If it's true that a busy man is a happy man, John Proud has reason to be all smiles.


Horn is thermoplastic--that is, when healed, it's very malleable and can be molded into a variety of shapes. After it cools, it becomes quite hard. Horn also has a "memory" and will revert toward its original shape when reheated. In addition to gunpowder holders, horn has been fashioned into utensils, bowls, combs, containers, whistles, shoehorns and lanthorns (lanterns), among other things. Many of these items are curved or rounded, much like the horn from which they were made.


Besides being a predecessor to plastic, horn is also responsible for an addition to our lexicon. When powder horns were in common use, some people rushed the process of making them. Immediately after pulling out the bony cores, they would shave, polish and wax the horns before they were allowed to completely dry. The basic substance of horns, a fibrous protein called keratin, turns green if not allowed to season. Hence, the term "greenhorn" describes those who are unseasoned or inexperienced.

For more information and photographs of replica muzzleloaders, powder horn and leather work, see Muzzleloaders and Me by Jay Fullum, beginning on page 32 of the June 1990 Conservationist.

Bernadette LaManna is a contributing editor for the Conservationist.
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Author:LaManna, Bernadette
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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