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Firing naval cannon at Trafalgar

HMS Victory powder horn

Firing naval cannon at Trafalgar
1803–1805
United Kingdon

Huge amounts of gunpowder were required to fire naval cannon. Boys known as ‘powder monkeys’ would haul it up to the gun decks in barrels. Cow horns such as this were used to contain the priming powder, which was poured into the pan before firing. This example, donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (now Wellcome Institute) in 1952, is said to have belonged to a gunner on Admiral Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. The Victory famously led a fleet of twenty-seven British ships to victory over Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, although Nelson himself sustained a mortal injury aboard deck.

Priming powder was a refined type of gunpowder that ignited more easily and so it was important to use the right amount. Too much powder could be catastrophic, too little powder might prevent ignition of the main charge in the breech, resulting in just a ‘flash in the pan’. Here, a brass mounted spring catch helped control the amount that was poured out. Two screw hooks can be seen where the horn would have been attached to a belt or baldrick and slung around the gunner’s torso, and it could be refilled by unscrewing the wooden stopper at the broad end.

Horn was an ideal material for powder flasks as it was readily available and provided a natural container; unlike metal it was not liable to create sparks that might accidentally ignite the powder inside; and it was also translucent when held up to the light, so it was possible to see how much powder was left.