Lesson Plan

Material Culture: The Powder Horn

Overall Rating

Add your review
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
State Standards:
SC: ELA 3rd IV-A ,B, E; V-A, B, C; 4th IV-A, B, G, J; V-A, B; 5th IV-A, D, E; V-A, B, C; 6th IV-A, C, f, K; V-A; 7th IV-A, B, C, G, H, L; V-A, B; 8th IV-A, B, D, E, F, G; V-A. Vis Arts Comp 1-4. Sci 4th I-A; II-A; 7th I-A; II-A S

Essential Question

GOAL: To introduce to students material culture related to the Battle of Cowpens.


See Learning Objectives listed in Background Information section.


Learning Objectives:

The student will describe the function of a common natural material (a powder horn) as necessary to the Battle of Cowpens.

The student will use cognitive skills in answering progressively difficult questions.

The student will see relationships between this natural material and its cultural adaptation contemporary with the battle.

The student will use language arts skills to create a story based on use f this material in the Battle of Cowpens.

The student will use art skills to design scrimshaw to picture some aspect of the Battle of Cowpens on a powder horn.


Militia in the Revolutionary War used powder horns to prime rifles for firing. Such horns, obtained from slaughtered oxen or cattle, became an inexpensive and convenient method of storing and carrying powder. Powder horns were strong and watertight, and would not mold or decay. Also, they would not build up static electricity or spark when struck against metal.

To prepare a powder horn, one boiled the inner material out with water, plugged the big end and put a stopper in the small end. Plugs were made of wood and often caulked with beeswax or tallow. Some horns were scraped to thin as to be translucent so the owner could see the powder level inside.

Many soldiers or militia engraved their powder horns with scrimshaw as a pastime to while away the leisure hours. Engravings included dates, names, road maps, rhymes, bird or animal pictures, and, in some cases, ships or forts. Succeeding generations often added their own names and dates to the original engravings.

Horns often were used for other purposes such as salt containers, cups, sword grips, windowpanes, and spoons.


Read Background Information and Procedure sections.



1. Hold up either a powder horn or a slide or pictuer of a powder horn and ask the following questions, each progressively more difficult:

(1) What is it?
(2) What materials is it made of?
(3) How were these materials obtained?
(4) What was it used for?
(5) How does it work?
(6) What would be the consequences if it didn't work correctly?
(7) How could it be decorated?
(8) What other uses could be made of such material?
(9) What are its properties?
(10) How do these properties contribute to longevity of the material?

2. Let the students touch the powder horn, and, if it has a shoulder strap, let them wear it.

3. Discuss its use in the Revolution and the Battle of Cowpens.


1. Have students search Cowpens National Battlefield's museum for related accouterments for firing rifles or muskets.

2. Have students look at soldier models to see powder horns and accouterments.

3. Walk the battlefield trail and discuss the importance of powder horns to the battle and the importance of cattle to South Carolina's frontier economy.


1. Have students compose a journal or story about one soldier's use of a powder horn at Cowpens National Battlefield (how obtained, fashioned, used, etc.)

2. Have students draw their own scrimshaw design (contemporaneous to the battle or to their lives (maps, forts, architecture, ships, rhymes, birds, animals, etc.) As a further activity, have students carve into scrimshaw-like material to make their design. To substitute for a horn, get poster board and coat the surface with India ink. Scratch out the design on the dried surface.

3. Discuss the scientific composition and properties of horn, hoof, and fingernail. Demonstrate translucence and discuss how horns can be made translucent (scraping or peeling into layers.)

4. Many of the regular soldiers carried cartridge boxes holding pre-measured powder in what wsa known as cartridges. A soldier would tear open the cartridge to prime his weapon, then ram the remainder down the barrel. Contrast and compare advantages of cartridges and cartridge boxes over powder horns.


Prime - to add powder to the pan in loading firearms
Static electricity - a stationary electrical charge built up on an insulating material
Tallow - animal fat
Translucent - permitting diffused light to pass through
Militia - members of colonial volunteer armies; not professional soldiers
Scrimshaw - the art of carving or engraving into whalebone, horn or other material
Accouterments - the equipment of a soldier
Gesso - a plaster-like material on which designs can be scratched to simulate scrimshaw

Additional Resources

Lagerman, Robert and Albert C. Manucy, The Long Rifle, Eastern Acorn Press, Eastern National, 1993.

Hogg, Ian V. and John H. Batchelor, Armies of the American Revolution. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1975.

Klinger, Robert Lee and Richard a Wilder. Sketch Book 76: The American Soldier 1775 - 1781. Union City, TN: Pioneer Press

Neumann, George C. and Frank J. Kravic. Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia fo the American Revolution.Secaucus, NJ; Castle Books, 1977.

Frontier,  2910 San Bernardo, Laredo, TX 78040
Jas. Townsend & Son, Inc., 133 North First St., PO Box 415 Pierceton, IN 46562

Contact Information

Email us about this lesson plan

Last updated: November 2, 2018