Flashback: The Metal Flask, Successor to the Powder Horn

March 19th, 2009

This article describes the spread of powder flasks from England to America in the 1800s and notes some of the major manufacturers, the varying sizes, designs, and materials, and the best way to care for your antique powder flasks. It originally appeared in the November 1937 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

When I was a boy in my teens, I well remember the first time I went hunting. Along with a breech loading gun I carried a leather flask for shot and a copper powder flask. The latter was embossed on one side with a hunting dog and had a beautiful blue carrying cord with tassels on both sides where it went through the lower rings of the flask.

Plate I – Four Distinct Types: Left to right, there are brass combination container with compartments for powder, percussion caps, bullets, and bird shot; tin flask with screw-top, probably used as shipping container; an English flask of zinc; and a transitional flask with metal ends set into a section of cow's horn.

Plate I – Four Distinct Types: Left to right, there are brass combination container with compartments for powder, percussion caps, bullets, and bird shot; tin flask with screw-top, probably used as shipping container; an English flask of zinc; and a transitional flask with metal ends set into a section of cow's horn.

This interesting accessory really belonged, of course, to the era of the percussion cap, muzzle loading firearm which ended with the Civil War period; but in all pursuits there are always a few who are slow to abandon old ways and methods.

Even today, one occasionally finds an old hunter stubbornly clinging to his muzzle loading gun and the accompanying powder flask. On this occasion, then, the beauty of the flasks I carried made such a lasting impression on me that I later started collecting them. That was 30 years ago. I kept no record of the first hundred but on sorting them found only four duplicates. At present I have some 200 flasks practically all of differing design and size. Like all other collectibles they are interesting not only for their variety of shape and design but as reminders of the era when they were used on battle and hunting fields alike.

They were successors of the powder containers made of cattle horns which accompanied the earlier flintlock guns. One finds the Napoleonic Army first using these metal powder flasks between 1800 and 1810. Soon afterward, English firms began to produce them and there is no doubt that the earliest ones used in America were imported from England. Even in 1830, when various American firms began producing them, it is more than probable that English workmen were employed for making the first ones at least. One of the firms, Capswell Horseshoe Nail Company of Woodbury, Conn., definitely employed English workmen.

Plate II – Four American Flasks: Right to left they are marked "Robbins and Lawrence Co., Patent Revolving Hammer Pistol, Windsor, Vt."; "Colt's Patent" used with 44 so universally popular with western adventurers; an army officer's flask hearing the motto, "E Pluribus Unum"; and a smaller unmarked pistol flask with graduation to regulate the amount of the charge of powder.

Plate II – Four American Flasks: Right to left they are marked "Robbins and Lawrence Co., Patent Revolving Hammer Pistol, Windsor, Vt."; "Colt's Patent" used with 44 so universally popular with western adventurers; an army officer's flask hearing the motto, "E Pluribus Unum"; and a smaller unmarked pistol flask with graduation to regulate the amount of the charge of powder.

Certainly, American makers did not hesitate to pirate English designs. A notable example is the hanging game design, especially favored by James Dixon or James Dixon & Son, pewterers and flaskmakers, Sheffield, England, and faithfully copied by the American Flask & Cap Company.

Except for a few sport magazines and directories, there appear to have been few advertisements for the sale of these powder flasks and only a small percentage has the maker’s name on them. When they do, it is usually stamped on top of the charger; but with both English and American specimens, a few will be found with the mark on the flask itself.

Of the English firms known to have made powder flasks there were James Dixon, already mentioned, Crary Renham and Company, James Barlow and Company, and Frary Benham and Company.

American makers included the American Flask & Cap Company which was later absorbed into the Waterbury Brass Co. They marked their flasks as did Samuel Colt of Hartford, Conn., Robbins and Lawrence Company of Windsor, Vt., and the Capswell Horseshoe Nail Co. who are still making horseshoe nails at Hartford.

An example of the modest advertising done by these firms is found in the Vermont directory of 1856 wherein Robbins and Lawrence announce that they “have enlarged their establishment and are doing an immense business in the manufacture of rifles and pistols.” Of Dingee, a New York manufacturer, the City Directory of 1849-50 simply lists, “Robert Dingee, equipments, 56 Frankfort St.” Under it “Henry A. Dingee, equipments, 56, Frankfort St.”

Most of these flasks were made of copper with a brass top or charger, in many cases adjustable to four different sizes of powder charge, 2, 2 1/4, 2 1/2, and 3 drams (this of course was for black powder).

Plate III – Three American Military Flasks: At the left, U. S. Army regulation issue; center, a U. S. Navy flask, used for the priming charge for a cannon; and right, flask marked "US" on the shield superimposed on a stand of crossed flags and arms. Above, within a circle of 26 stars are two clasped hands and below the neck, an eagle with wings spread, shield of stars and stripes on its breast.

Plate III – Three American Military Flasks: At the left, U. S. Army regulation issue; center, a U. S. Navy flask, used for the priming charge for a cannon; and right, flask marked "US" on the shield superimposed on a stand of crossed flags and arms. Above, within a circle of 26 stars are two clasped hands and below the neck, an eagle with wings spread, shield of stars and stripes on its breast.

Flasks made for rifles or for priming cannon had no adjustable charger. Other rarely used materials for making flasks were brass, tin, zinc, sheet iron, and paper fiber. I have just one of the latter. It is eight inches long, four and one-half inches wide, and one and one-half inches through. It has two loops on each side for the carrying cord, has a graduated charger, and was made by Crary Renham and Company. It is very light and perfectly plain on both sides.

The earliest flasks were perfectly plain. Then came the embossed design. Many will be found embossed on both sides; some on one side only. The rarest are those embossed with Indian and deer, etc. American specialties are western scenes, particularly one of Indian hunting buffalo, which gives evidences of being copied from a Catlin print. There are also designs featuring hunters with dogs. With some the hunters wear a high hat and are obviously English. A large percentage of flasks is decorated with a geometric design.

Metal flasks became part of the standard equipment for both Army and Navy about 1840 but there seems to have been no standard design other than U.S.N and the anchor for the Navy and the eagle and U.S. for the Army.

When powder horns were in use they were accompanied by a “buckskin bag for buckshot.” This also held for their successors. Sold in pairs and usually of the same size and design were a metal flask and one of leather. The latter was for carrying shot and the reason for it is obvious. If shot were carried in a metal flask it would rattle and scare the game.

Sometimes one finds a metal flask covered with leather but these are apparently not common: I have only three in my collection. One is a pistol flask unmarked; the second bears on its brass charger “extra quality Sykes patented.” The charger is graduated in sizes, 2 1/4, 2 1/2, 2 3/4, and 3 drams. The third flask, made by the American Flask and Cap Company, has a charger graduated in the four sizes, 2, 2 1/4, 2 1/2 and 2 3/4 drams.

It is hard to find a good specimen of zinc flask because of the chemical reaction between the zinc and the gunpowder. The result is a definite corrosion which in some cases practically destroys the flask. This undoubtedly accounts for the material being rarely used.

Among those of copper I have a unique specimen acquired only recently. It has a brass top made in the shape of a gun stock embossed like the carving on a regular stock. It is eight and one-half inches long, three and one-quarter inches wide, and has a pair of loops on each side for the carrying cord. The charger is adjustable. This flask was made by Frary Benham and Company.

Plate IV – Three Contrasting Types: Left, the earliest type, no decoration or maker's mark; center, a sportsman's flask with central scene showing an Indian buffalo hunting; right a homemade shot pouch of leather with horn nipple and cap. Shot carried in a metal flask might rattle and warn the game being hunted.

Plate IV – Three Contrasting Types: Left, the earliest type, no decoration or maker's mark; center, a sportsman's flask with central scene showing an Indian buffalo hunting; right a homemade shot pouch of leather with horn nipple and cap. Shot carried in a metal flask might rattle and warn the game being hunted.

Fifty years or a little more cover the period that these metal powder flasks were in general use and favor. During that time they were made by the thousands and in sizes ranging from those proper for priming cannon to those that went with the small vest-pocket or muff pistols. Since their manufacture stopped it is surprising how they have disappeared. But no one thinks of saving things until they become scarce and only then when collectors begin to hunt for them.

Many of those found today are in very good condition because they were originally lacquered and this, of course, preserved them. If they are not corroded all they need is to be treated with a good grade of oil and then wiped off. Spots of erosion or of vertigries should be removed first with a little steel wool moistened with oil. Rub lightly with this until the spots disappear, then treat the whole with oil as already described.

Under this care they soon develop a good antique copper color which I much prefer to the complete face lifting sometimes administered to old flasks in the name of restoration. I recently saw two that had been thus cleaned, burnished and relacquered. They were still old, of course, but they didn’t look it. One of the greatest assets of the antique, the mellow bloom of age, had been destroyed.

These old flasks were made in two pieces, stamped out and then braised together. Some have two rings and some have four for the carrying cord. Before metal powder flasks came into general use, there was a transitional stage of horn with two metal ends. An example of this is shown in plate one, number four.

In the same illustration is an unusual pistol flask. It is made of copper with brass ends and has three partitions, one for powder, one for caps, and one for lead bullets. A tin flask for storing powder is also shown.

Plate II shows three pistol flasks, with one loading charger. They are made of copper with a brass top. Number one is made by Robbins and Lawrence Company of Winston, Vermont; number two, by Colt and Company; number three, same company; number four, no name.

Plate III, number one, was issued for the U. S. Army with a leather carrying cord. Number two, used for the Navy, is made of copper measuring nine and one-half inches long and four and one-half inches wide and two and one-half inches through. It is stamped “Stimpson 1845″ with the Navy emblem, the Anchor and raised letters U.S.N. on both sides. It has a brass charging neck with one loading, used during the Mexican and Civil Wars. It was also used for priming cannon, two rings for carrying cord.

Plate V – Seven Typical Flasks: Top row, three with same embossed decoration of hanging game. At the left, a leather flask for bird shot; center, copper flask marked "James Dixon & Sons" immediately beneath the decoration; right, a copy of the same design marked on the charger, "American Flask & Cap Company." Bottom row; left to right, an unmarked American army flask; an English flask with Grecian decoration; and two English sporting flasks with hunting scenes in which the men wear top hats.

Plate V – Seven Typical Flasks: Top row, three with same embossed decoration of hanging game. At the left, a leather flask for bird shot; center, copper flask marked "James Dixon & Sons" immediately beneath the decoration; right, a copy of the same design marked on the charger, "American Flask & Cap Company." Bottom row; left to right, an unmarked American army flask; an English flask with Grecian decoration; and two English sporting flasks with hunting scenes in which the men wear top hats.

Number three is also made of brass and used for the U. S. Army. The average pistol flask measures three and three-quarters inches long, two inches wide, and three-quarter inches through. The average hunting flask was six and one-half inches long, three inches wide, and one and one-half inches through. The largest flask in my collection is ten inches long, four and one-half inches wide and two and one-half inches through; the smallest, two and one-half inches long, one and one-quarter inches wide, and three-quarters of an inch through.

Plate IV, number one, is a copper flask, perfectly plain on both sides. Number two, beautifully embossed, is one of the rare ones, Indian hunting buffaloes. It is made of copper with a brass charger. Number three is a homemade flask of leather.

Plate V, numbers one, two and three, are made by James Dixon and Son of Sheffield. Exact copies were later produced by the American Flask & Cap Company. Number one is a leather flask that went with number two or three. Number four may have been used by the army; number five is a Greek design; numbers six and seven are old English flasks with hunters with high hats and their dogs.

When I first started to collect these, many could be bought for a quarter but a good specimen today brings almost as many dollars. It is especially interesting to find a pair of embossed matching flasks, one of metal, the other of leather.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

17 comments so far

  1. dan selinger Says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. I have a powder gun flask made of leather from the testicles and penis of an ox. The leather was treated in a special way, in order to make it extra hard and (I think) was stamped to create an intricate ornamental pattern all over it. An ornamented hollow moon shaped brass buckle with nine holes in it, was connected to the underside of the flask, supposedly helping the owner to carry it. I’m looking for any information concerning it- when was it made & by whom, what was the technique they used, do the ornaments have any meaning and so on……I’ll be very happy if you share any idea you have with me. Thanks. Dan

  2. Aubrey Says:

    I have found what looks like one of these gun powder flasks, except the top is a lid that fits down on (it slides up on the leather cord leaving the metal pouch open). I dont think that it could have been used for gun powder as it would have easily spilled out if the lid slid up. I am trying to figure out what it is that I have. It has a beautiful deer design on both sides in what appears to be a European style (think Norse runes, or Celtic) the top of the lid has design as well. It is rather heavy not thin metal. When I place a finger down inside it does come out with soot on it. Any ideas what I have? Where and who would have made it? I am not a collector and have no idea.
    Thank you so much!
    Aubrey

  3. frank Says:

    I have one of these flask made from cooper or brass with nothing stamped on it. My flask has a bird dog on the bottom half with it appears to be two game birds on the upper half. But my question is this flask does not have rings on the side for a carrying strap…. Did they make maybe sporting flask for carrying in pockets or has the carrying rings been removed? It seems as if none was ever on it…and maybe how old this might be.

  4. Dianne Says:

    Finally, a site with information on the flask I inherited from my Dad. He was an avid hunter. I could tell this flask came from the Civil War period and was not certain, but now I am. I have one that is exactly like the picture of the, flask marked “US” on the shield superimposed on a stand of crossed flags and arms. Above, within a circle of 26 stars are two clasped hands and below the neck, an eagle with wings spread, shield of stars and stripes on its breast. Are these worth anything? Should I obtain appraisal for insurance purposes? Thanks for posting this information!!

  5. frank bonadio Says:

    i have a flask that is copper very ornate design on both sides. the top brass area has fine print made in italy. it has original laquer over copper in very nice condition. on the copper before it was laquered is marked C L J 7-7-69 on both sides of flask. on each side of flask is like 2 pheasants on top in ornate frame and hunting dog below in ornate frame. same design on both sides of flash. the C L J 7-7-69 marking is above the dogs back within that frame on both sides of flask.they appear to be carved into the copper with a knife before the laquer was applied. the marking are hand written not stamped. Any idea what this means and any idea of value for insurance. i will email you a photo if you give me your email. thanks

    frank

  6. theo Says:

    i have plate v which is a leather case w/ the hanging game. the neck is stamped am flask & cap co. on the other side it is stamped 1/4 & 1/2. there is also a mark that i think is stamped above the loop holding the game that says: 3lbs. it is in great condition. any idea of it’s worth?

  7. Heidi Says:

    My husband was given a powder flask yesterday from his father. His grandmother found it in a cabin when she was a child. It is marked “James Dixon/& Sons/Sheffeild” on the brass charger, and the motif is identical to the “Indian hunting buffalo” shown in the center of Plate IV. I have found estimated values for reproductions from Frary Benham & Co., and American Flask and Cap Co., but I cannot find an estimated value for this particular flask, and I would greatly like to insure it. Does anyone know how I can go about finding it’s worth?

  8. Tim Laddish Says:

    I have a flask identical to the “E Pluribus Unum” flask in Plate II. Does anyone know the date of this flask? The article doesn’t give a date.

  9. Bob Cheel Says:

    A couple of corrections, etc:
    Spelling : CAPEWELL. Part of the family was a big New England firm making horse shoe nails. Another branch made powder flasks, shot pouches & other materials to do with the sporting crowd.
    Spelling, etc. FRARY, BENHAM & CO. – Meriden, Ct. After old man Benham died, Frary joined Walter Hicks (of percussion cap fame), to form the AMERICAN FLASK & CAP CO. of Waterbury, Ct in l857. They made flasks until ca. 1890 + Am. Flask & Cap made 3 grades of powder flasks, also whisky flasks and leather shot pouches. The HICKS name stayed on percussion cap cans until 1920 +/-.

  10. Joel Says:

    My son brought me a small powder flask he found to look up for him. It’s a Colt,with the embossed eagle on both sides. the one with his wings pointing down and his head looking left. He’s holding a pistol in one claw and what looks like a powder flask in the other. But on this flask embossed above the eagle is ( COLTS PATENT ) I’ve haven’t seen this in any pictures.
    I would like any info. I could get.

  11. Sebastiano Says:

    reading number four I have a similar flask to what you described too i have no idea what its worth and how old it is i have a strong feeling that its 1800′s era. maybe around civil war times

  12. Vickie Prewett Says:

    We have powder flasks and shot bags in the collection; however, a visitor told me that as least one of our metal powder flasks is actually a shot flask! How do I tell the difference?

  13. Lisa Says:

    Very interesting article – enjoyed reading it. I have come across a James Dixon & Sons black powder flask. It features a beautiful hunting dog scene, with the hunter holding his rifle standing next to a fence, while his two dogs stand on-point for their catch. The hunter appears to be wearing come sort of hat, can’t really make it out to well. The flask is approx 9″ tall x 5″ wide (at widest part). There are several dings on the flask – they are not deep, but are noticeable. There is a green stain of some sort above the hunter’s head. The flask has four eyelets, 2 on each side of the middle of body, but the leather strap is missing. There are 5 graduations on the screw-off top: 3, 3-1/4, 3-1/2, 3-3/4 & 4 drams. The spring-tab that controls the powder flow still works — lots of spring. Of all the ones that I have seen, I have not come across this particular scene in order to judge the value. I know the dings and the stain detract from the value – but any ideas?

  14. lyn Says:

    I wonder if someone can help me as I have recently acquired what I think is a powder flask. I have looked everywhere on the net but I am stuck.
    It is made of silver and brass gilt, has two spouts on the top and depicts what I think is St. George slaying a dragon. It also has two feet for the flask to stand on and a chain attached to each side. I have no idea of its age but it looks very old . Plus I have no idea of the history behind it. Are there many others of this type, has anyone seen one of these before, do you have any information about it?

  15. June Scott Says:

    Could you help me to identify a powderhorn that my nephew dug up from underneath a root of an oak tree. It is 10 & 3/4in. long, 5 & 1/2in. around top lid, and 1 & 3/4in. at the tip end. It has a coat of arms and a double (eagle?) on top and other designs. When acid tested it showed up silver and a metal detector showed it to be silver. In the body there is a small 4 and what appears to be letters underneath the lid. I have pictures if you would like to see them.
    Thank you

  16. kim Says:

    I have similar flask to Lisa Q13 21 june except mine only has 3 graduations on the nozzle. Have checked that the screws are steel. Has a few minor dents and is not polished Question: is it the real thing and ballpark valuation thanks.

  17. Al stevens Says:

    I have a Stimpson Navy Flask with the fowled anchor embossing but charger is missing. Any idea where I might find a replacement for the charger? Would any of the new chargers fit? Thanks for any ideas you may have.


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