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19th Century Black-Powder Flasks: Weapons & Militaria Collection Must-Haves

by Laura Collum (09/20/10).

This stork black-powder flask is in particularly good condition and valued at about to $350.

While adding a new collection of black-powder flasks to my Web site, I reacquainted myself with flask terminology through several reference books and became fascinated again with the world of the black-powder flask.

Powder flasks were originally created to carry the black powder needed for use in the first true hand firearms developed in the middle 1300s. According to Ray Riling, author of “The Powder Flask Book,” it is possible—but dangerously so—that the powder was carried in leather pouches and pockets until the first true powder flask was developed during the 15th century. The first flasks were probably hollowed out gourds or horns with a peg for stopper1.

Originally, black powder was a simple mechanical mixture of mainly saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. This was unstable and difficult to use, (thus the danger of carrying in the pocket). The heavier sulfur separated from the lighter charcoal and got wet easily and clumped. During the first half of the 16th century, corned powder was developed, which overcame the problems with the earlier powder. Corned powder was made by wetting the charcoal saltpeter and sulfur and forming cakes, which were allowed to dry then were ground up to create grains, or “corned” powder; the ingredients then could not separate out.

[Author’s Note: The reason for this little corned powder history lesson is this following oddity (and such oddities tend to lighten my day): Apparently, the wetting agent was urine. At the time, disputes arose as to the best urine to use. Wine drinkers’ urine was favored over beer drinkers’, but the best of all was that from a wine-drinking bishop! The things you learn! (See note below)]

Flasks were then developed that met the needs of the new powder. They were made from wood, horn, ivory and various metals. (Powder horns will be the subject of a future article). As people are wont to do, they decorated the flasks in many different ways, creating works of art that are very collectible today.

The flasks I purchased were all made in the 19th century—called the golden age of powder flasks by Martin Rywell, author of the book, “The Powder Flask.”2 The majority of 19th century mass-produced flasks are made of metal; usually an alloy of copper and zinc, differing amounts leading to different colors of the flask.3 They were also made of pewter, which was less sturdy; they are apparently easily damaged and I often find small holes in pewter examples. The flask could be plain, leather covered or decorated with simple to very fancy designs.

A shell design flask, worth roughly $225 with maker's mark.

A hunting scene. There was a wide variety of designs used in black-powder flasks.

A flask consists of a body and top. There were 46 American patents issued between 1838 and 1895 to improve the powder and shot flasks; mainly for improvements on the top itself. Basically, the top consists of a charger that is either plain or adjusts the amount of powder—or charge—released, a spring and a collar that attaches the top to the body with steel screws. This simplest arrangement is called the common top. The screw top unscrews from the collar. Both of these are not considered fireproof. The patent top has an inside or secret spring, or an outside spring.

A common top.

A screw-off top.

A patent top with outside spring.

A patent top with inside or secret spring.

There were many top variations, but for simplicity’s sake, these are the main components. The spring holds closed the sliding mechanism that keeps the powder in the flask. In the patent tops are considered fireproof due to the way the mechanism seals flask.

When the spring is pressed, a “cutter” is moved aside so the powder can flow into the charger when the flask is tipped. Releasing the spring slowly slides the cutter back in place sealing the flask. The user would ever release the spring with a snap, which could cause a spark and set off the charge in his hand! The cutter is shown partly open.

To pour a charge, one would cover the charger end with a finger, press the spring open with the thumb piece on the spring, tip powder into the charger, and slowly release the spring. Then a predetermined amount of powder would be tipped into the muzzle of the gun.4 If one had an adjustable charger, different charges could be easily measured out. The body of the flask was made in two halves, die stamped with the design, and aligned and soldered together. The tops were added before the whole was then coated with a finish. It is most desirable to find the original finish, but that is very uncommon. I have one flask with 85 percent of its original “fine bronzed copper” finish, a condition I rarely see. Some had carry rings, and these would then have cords and tassels attached.

There were flasks made especially for the military, called martial flasks, as well as those for civilians, mostly hunters. These martial flasks have military designs, such as bugles and various armaments on them. The naval flask has what is termed the “fouled anchor.” Gun collectors, civil war collectors as well as flask collectors actively seek martial flasks.

Martial patterns of the fouled anchor was used by the U.S. Navy.

A “stand of arms” flask issued with the Colt series of weapons. These two flasks retail for about $750 and up.

Numerous makers produced flasks here in America, as well as in England and the Continent. American Flask and Cap Company is a common maker (in business from 1857 to roughly 1870). N.P. Ames produced the martial “Peace Flask” from 1837 that was designed to go with the Mississippi rifle. Joseph Batty made a peace flask from 1847 to 1858. Dixon and Sons of Sheffield England had a reputation in their day for very fine and very safe flasks, beginning production around 1829. Sykes, Hawksley, and Frith and Son are just some of the many British makers.

Makers marked their flasks in different places; this one is marked on the charger.

The patent on this flash is marked on the top above the inside spring.

The N.P. Ames flask also has the government inspector’s mark and the date.

There are many reproductions on the market that the collector must be aware of, as well as flasks made up of incorrect parts. Italian reproductions are very well-made but have very little value. The first place to look for a reproductions is the screws holding the collar to the body. The originals had steel screws. Another clue is the fact that the collar and the flat part of the top are two pieces in the old flasks and one piece in the reproduction. Look for a line on the top where the collar joins the rest.

Beware of the numerous reproductions available. Look for steel screws, not brass screws.

Check for the hard to see line on the rim of the common top.

And look out for repairs.

One very good reference book that goes into great detail to help the collector is the one by Ray Riling mentioned above. All of the variations seem to be covered in this marvelous book.

There are more types sizes and shapes of powder flasks than can possibly be covered in one short article. Of the ones I have discussed here, prices range from $125 for a simple unmarked ridge design to $1,000 or more for an excellent Navy fouled anchor flask. Keep your eyes open for these flasks, think about wine soaked Bishops and have fun.

Note: I would like to know just how it was discovered that a wine-drinking Bishop’s was the best. I can envision a group of men sitting around comparing their . . . um, output. But who came up with the idea of a checking the chemical value of a bishop? And how did they go about getting some? Did they ask for it? “Uh, your Bishop-ness, we were wondering . . .” Or did the bishop, hearing of the problem, offer? “Uh, boys, I hear you are doing a little testing.” Or was there another scenario I haven’t thought of?

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1”The Powder Flask Book,” Riling, R. Bonanza Books New York. 1953.

2”The Powder Flask, Rywell,” M. Pioneer Press Tennessee. 1959.

3 You can get a general idea of the metal used in a flask by its color:

Tawny red (brownish) = 100 percent copper
Copper red (salmon) = 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc
Deep reddish gold (gilding metal) = 90 percent copper, 10 percent zinc
Red (red brass) = 80 percent copper, 20 percent zinc
Greenish yellow (hard yellow brass) = 70 percent copper, 30 percent zinc
Golden yellow (common rolled sheet) = 65 percent copper, 35 percent zinc
Pinkish yellow = 60 percent copper, 40 percent zinc

4This process is dangerous in that any spark floating around the barrel of the gun after it was fired can then ignite the powder being poured into the barrel for the second firing. This was a semi-common occurrence and many men were injured this way. If the closure on the powder flask was not fireproof, the whole contents of the flask could blow with catastrophic results.

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.


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One Response to “19th Century Black-Powder Flasks: Weapons & Militaria Collection Must-Haves”

  1. Bill Castle says:

    I found a nice looking powder flask at a flea market recently. It was made of brass and wood in a Spanish style. The patina of the wood, brass and paint all looked pretty good at first glance.

    However, when I looked more closely, the decorations were acid etched, not engraved. I ended up deciding this was a 1950′s reproduction at best.

    I think the seller had gotten burned on it himself. When I put the item down, he asked my opinion of what it was worth, but I didn’t have the heart.

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