In the days when muzzle-loaders were the only choice for shooters, the one essential accessory was a flask for the powder. Many a battle or huntsman’s quarry has been lost through poorly kept powder.
Typically powder flasks were made from some inert, non-sparking
material (often copper and brass in the 19th century) and were
designed to keep the powder dry in the field.
It was not just a question of keeping the rain out. Black powder
is naturally hygroscopic, absorbing moisture from the air, and the
flask-makers' main concern was to choose a non-sweating material to
counteract this effect. Later flasks were generally fitted with
some form of adjustable measure to ensure that the charge was safe
and suited to the weapon in use.
Standard 19th century copper flasks are often offered in
multiples and few individual examples make more than £50, but
exceptional flasks can reach several hundreds. Earlier and more
exotic flasks can make four-figure sums.
Examples from recent sales can be viewed by scrolling through
the images above right.
Before consistency improved in the later 19th century, shooters
also had to contend with variable strengths of gunpowder and
various types of testing equipment were devised.
Illustrated below are two examples of the flintlock eprouvette.
To gauge the potency of a particular powder, the chamber was loaded
with a measured charge and fired. The explosive power could then be
read off a scale on a sprung-load ratchet wheel.
Above: an early 19th century powder-tester by Hobday Biddle
& Co of Birmingham, which made £520 at Lockdales' (17.5%
premium) July 12-13 sale.
Above: a flintlock powder-tester by Lancaster of London,
c.1820, with an internally-sprung ratchet wheel and a separate
release lever below the trigger guard, which made £900 at Thomas
Del Mar on June 25.
For those who wish to delve deeper into the world of powder
flasks, the bible is still Ray Riling's The Powder Flask
Book, first published in 1953. As the publisher's blurb has
it: "Where else can you find exactly scaled pictures of 1600 flasks
from the earliest gems to reproduction flasks of the nineteenth
century? This is not a book that attempts to outshine competitors.
It has no competitors."
Though it has been reprinted over the years, even later editions
are hard to find under £50 and a good example of the first may cost
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