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  • Writer's pictureDave Rodgers

Survival Tricks for When Less is More: Alternate Uses for Common Old West Items

Updated: May 11


How Did Old West Travelers Treat Life's Little Emergencies Without Towns or Stores Nearby? Here are Some Ideas on Making Do With What Little You May Have in Your Bullet Pouch, Bedroll, and Saddle Bags


 

Dave Rodgers is Chief Editor of the Frontier American Illustrated News. He is a tribal member and westerner descended directly from Squire and Edward Boone (father & brother of Daniel Boone). With an old-west family lineage of farmers, ranchers, railway men, lawmen and desperadoes, he takes pride in the rich story of the land his family came from. As a resident of rural Arizona, he continues in the traditions of the American West and promotes the western culture as it continues on today.


Anyone reading this will know a few hacks of their own. Either a grandparent's sage advice or friendly conversation with a venerable elder, reminiscing about "back in my day..." has left you with some gem of advice that you have used to impress friends with. Here's a few more for the collection...


When traveling the 19th century American Frontier, a variety of problems can come up and in many cases, the only thing available is in the bullet pouch, pockets or saddle bags. These little 'hacks' are more than just interesting topics, they were essential nuggets of knowledge that many of our frontier ancestors used. I used some content from my previous article on frontier medicine since it was appropriate to explain the medical properties of some everyday items. The rest is from my new book coming soon.


DISCLAIMER: Much of the medical advice given here is considered unacceptable by modern standards and is presented here for historic discussion only. Please consult a physician for professional advice on, and treatment of your ailments, not this article.


From the Hunting Bag or "Bullet Pouch"



A typical frontier bullet pouch with its contents

The hunting bag is essential to the frontiersman. It carries the basic tools for the rifle or fowler in addition to "powder and ball". Other items found in the bag would be wadding, patch-knife, compass and tinder box (fire starting kit).


POWDER FLASK & HORN


Common Use: This carries the gunpowder for old muzzleloading firearms. A typical flask or horn carries between a half and a full pound of gunpowder. Powder horns and flasks would pour out a measured quantity of gunpowder for your firearm.

Alternate Uses for "gunpowder" (black powder):

  • Treatment for Poisoned Oak / Ivy - Apply a paste of gunpowder and water to the affected area. Sulfur and milk works even better.

  • Eyewash - In very diluted quantities, a few grains of traditionally made gunpowder (black powder) in a tumbler of warm water may serve as an eyewash. (The water should have a very faint salty taste. Too much will actually burn the eyes.) The secret for each is in the 3-primary ingredients to old-timey gunpowder.



  • Sulfur is a known as an effective topical to treat inflammation. It is ideal for skin eruptions from poison ivy to acne.

  • Saltpeter has antibacterial qualities and was a favored meat preservative in previous centuries.

  • Charcoal has been used for centuries treating skin and gastric afflictions. Since the main toxin in poison oak/ivy is Urushiol, activated charcoal serves as an effective treatment.

  • Fire-starting - Moisten a cotton or linen patch and then rub in some gunpowder. Once dried, these patches will take a spark from a flint and steel to become a hissing, sputtering ember to set tinder alight.


The moment of discovery that pouring gunpowder from the powder horn onto hot coals is ill-advised.

BONUS: In his 1859 guidebook, The Prairie Traveler, Marcy recommended using sparing amounts of "gunpowder" (black powder) to season meat when no salt or pepper is available...its not nearly as tasty as pepper because I know someone dumb enough to have tried it.


BULLET MOLD


Common Use: Bullet molds look like pliers but each side of the jaws hold a hollow cavity for molding bullets. Lead was heated past its melting point and then poured into the mold. It hardened within seconds producing a ball. Many molds had ‘nippers’ or sprue-cutters that would cut off the sprue leaving a nice round-ball to shoot.

Other Use:

  • Tweezers to Remove Splinters & Thorns – According to Strickland’s Pioneers of the West (1856) a bullet mold may be put to use as pincers to grip and remove impaled objects like splinters or thorns such as cane spikes when they have been embedded into the flesh. To treat the wound, take bark from the Linn Tree (Basswood), or Birch, or Mesquite and pound it on a stone with a hammer or hatchet poll, then boil it in a kettle of water. Soak the wound in the broth and use the pulverized and boiled bark as a poultice, which may be bound up with moss in lieu of linen, and bandaged with elm bark.

  • Wire Cutter - A well-made bullet mold's nippers can be repurposed to cut lighter gauges of bailing wire in a pinch, but I don't recommend making a regular habit of it.


From the Pockets

TOBACCO


Tobacco has antibacterial/antimicrobial qualities in addition to its ability to alleviate pain. Its astringent properties also reduce blood flow in wounds. Remember - Nicotine can also be extremely toxic. Tobacco also has a variety of chemicals now known to be carcinogenic so by modern medical standards, other options are advised.

  • Treating Wounds, Bruises and Insect Stings - Apply moistened tobacco shavings to the cut or bruise and bandage it in place. When the bleeding stops and soreness abates, remove the tobacco and treat the affected area with salt, honey or molasses, then wrap in a new, clean, dry bandage. Make a poultice to cover insect bites and stings to dull the pain and control the inflammation. I put this to work after stepping on a bark scorpion recently.

  • Insect Repellent - Tobacco smoke is an excellent insect repellent and offers great protection when your clothing, skin and hair are inundated with it.



SMOKING PIPE


  • Other Uses: Flushing out ears - A trusted friend can put a few drops of warm bear grease in your ear to kill vermin and then mix a solution of warm water and castile soap to blow from his mouth into your ear to clear the channel.

  • Blowpipe - I have used many pipe stems to deliver a strong enough jet of oxygen to ignite tinder in very cold & wet campsites. With clay pipes, it is best to put the bowl to your lips and blow out through the stem. In reed-stem pipes, remove the bowl and just use the stem. The best stems for this purpose are on the long-pipes carried by various tribal members and mountain men. The one shown here is an original Lakota pipe from about 1850s-1870s that is about 18-inches long.

The three samples on the left in the photo were recovered from an 1830-1850's era campsite on private land in the vicinity of the Oregon Trail route. They are all early period patterns from Ohio (likely Point Pleasant Pottery 1838-60's) as they match molds used by that company during the period. The top is a punctuate pattern Var. I, Middle is a chevron pattern Var. C, and the bottom is a ringed elbow pattern Var. N. The Orange George Washington Pipe (also found in green glaze) is a reproduction made from an original recovered from an excavated trash pit on the site of Camp Floyd, UT. (ca. 1857).

POCKET WATCH

Alternate Use:

  • Finding direction using a Pocket watch (N. Hemisphere)Lay your pocket watch flat on the palm of your hand with the (short) hour-hand pointing directly at the sun. Bisect the angle between the hour hand and the 12:00 mark on the watch-face. This will give you the location of SOUTH.


DRINKING FLASK

Alternate Uses:

  • Curing headaches - Lean your head over into the direction of the side from which the pain originates. Pour a few drops of spirit down the canal of the upturned ear on the opposite side. Let it stand for a few minutes until the pain abates then drain the ear.

  • Cleaning firearms - Strong spirits such as whiskey may be used to remove rust and clean folding knives, gunlock mechanisms and fouled gun barrels. It is also useful for cleaning glass and mirrors you may have in your kit.

  • Antiseptic - It is a good treatment for cleaning out minor cuts, and abrasions.

  • Bug repellent - Its scent is typically foul to biting insects and its application gives relief to bug bites and even lessens the irritation of poison ivy & poison oak


KNIFE


Alternate Uses:

  • Fire Striker - On a single-edged knife as shown here, the blunt spine of the blade may be used like a fire steel in striking a sharp edge of flint or chert to make sparks.

Splitting branches into kindling, courtesy of D.C. Beard (1920)
  • Log Splitter - Even a small blade of approximately 6-inches (as shown here) may be used in splitting dried logs into kindling and fuel. Using a stick for a mallet, tap the blade's spine, driving the edge down into the cross-section of a log running with the grain until the spine is buried. Gently but firmly lever the handle up and down to free the blade. Never wiggle the blade side to side or use strong force to extract it or the metal shall break. If the knife seems stuck, use your stick-mallet to steadily tap it out to be freed. Next, insert cut wooden wedges to open the gap across the full cut across the log's end and mallet each wedge in to separate the wood further. The wood will begin to split along the edges, so add more wedges into the rapidly forming crack running along the sides of the log until the plank separates. For logs that are thinner than the blade is long, mallet the knife tip down while pressing the down the handle. On thinner strips of wood, the blade may be guided by the fingertips as shown.


From the Haversack & Knapsack (Alternate Uses)


COFFE


  • Cleaning tinware, steel and ironware - Use a rag rubbing in a heap of used, wet coffee grounds to scour ironware. This is especially useful on tinware where scouring will injure the finish.

  • To allay thirst - chewing fresh coffee grounds intermittently, gives relief when water is scarce but thirst is not.


FLOUR


  • Treat Diarrhea - Flour has a constipating effect and its consumption can aid in solidifying the bowels.

  • Burn treatment, Soothe irritated skin & insect bites - For minor burns, a traditional treatment is to dust the injury with flour. However, burns that accompany blistering and wounds may become infected through such a treatment. Making a paste of flour and water brings great relief when applied to mild rashes and insect bites.

*Note: There is a lot of online debate as to if this folk remedy for burn treatment even has any scientific merit. I've used it on several occasions for minor burns during camp cookery that only reddened the skin and it seems to give some relief but I never used flour on any 2nd degree burns. I strongly advise against this method for serious burns as it can easily cause an infection.

  • Blistered feet - Mix flour with pig lard to form a paste. Coat the soles of sore feet and put on clean, dry socks. Powdered chalk is a good substitute.


SUGAR


  • Treating wounds Insect bites and Stings - Sugar has been used for centuries in treating wounds and soothing inflamed skin. Sugar helps in inhibiting bacterial growth and drying out wounds. If no other medicines are available, it is a good substitute.


MOLASSES & HONEY


  • Treating wounds, especially animal bites - Blackstrap Molasses is often touted as a key ingredient in making salves or poultices for wounds. Many 18-19th century medical books recommend applying them directly onto wounds (same as honey) and especially into animal bites to arrest infection and disinfect the wound. Scientifically, blackstrap molasses has two active antibacterial compounds, dehydrodiconiferylalcohol-9'-O-beta-D-glucopyranoside and isoorientin-7, 3'-O-dimethyl that are especially effective against cariogenic bacteria including various known and mutated forms of streptococcus. This makes molasses an especially good treatment for animal bites in addition to wounds.

  • Antiseptic treatment against bacteria - Pure, natural honey has the capability of killing even the most antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria because it contains enzyme-produced hydrogen peroxide and phytochemical agents (methylglyoxal) which is highly effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, E. coli and salmonella.


SALT


Other than curing hides, meat, and enhancing food, salt has historically been used for treating colds, and abrasions.

  • Head colds - making a strong brine with warm water, then snorting it and spewing it out is an effective treatment for sinus congestion and infection but the experience is not entirely pleasant.

  • Rashes & Sores - It serves as a good topical in their treatment.

EPSON SALTS - is a stronger compound that is effective for loosening stools or being made into a warm brine to treat wounds and minor infections.

  • Burn Treatment (Epson Salts) - Dissolve in as much hot water as the brine will take and then cork up in a clean bottle and cool. Keep this handy to treat burns by moistening a cloth and laying it over the burned area. When the cloth dries, add more brine.


OATS


  • Chapped skin - Oat flour when dusted on chapped hands and feet, brings great relief. It may also be made into oat water or added to ointments for chapped lips.


SWEET OIL (Olive oil)


  • Treating and moisturizing leather - Apply to the surface of leather and wipe away with a clean cloth

  • Base for medicinal ointments - This can be mixed with dry medicinal ingredients and topically applied.

  • Emergency lubricant for metal springs, hinges, and gears - It is a suitable metal lubricant when no other options are available. While it is not as ideal as whale oil or Bear grease (in common use during the period), it will do in a pinch.

  • Lamp oil - Olive oil has been used for lighting fuel since biblical times. Pour it into a small, shallow bowl or open-ended tin can and add a cloth wick that is well saturated. You just made a "Betty-lamp". This is ideal for lighting and heating an enclosed space such as a tent's interior.

Betty Lamp made from a discarded meat can.

Alternate Uses for Miscellaneous Things

HAT


  • Drinking basin - Punch in the crown to serve as a cup to gather drinking water for yourself or your horse.

  • Wadding for firearms - A discarded hat may be punched using a saddler's punch of the same gauge as the rifle or fowler's bore. This answers as a substitute for other materials to be used as wadding or a shot card such as greased cardstock or animal hide.


SOAP


  • Sore feet - Castile soap rubbed into the inner soles of socks are a quick cure for sore feet on the march.

  • Protect tinware from soot - Rub down your tinware with castile soap before using over inferior fuel woods such as poplar or pine, which are resinous and will otherwise coat your tin with sticky black soot that impairs boiling time and accelerates metal decomposition. After cooking, the soaped tin makes it much easier to clean away the soot.

Charcoal (made from hardwoods such as oak, ash, fruitwoods, willow, mesquite, & etc.)

  • Food Poisoning - Ingesting powdered charcoal was a common treatment. Nowadays, we know that charcoal molecules have a negative electrical charge that will bond with toxins due to them being positively charged. Since charcoal cannot be absorbed by the human body, it can be consumed orally and will pass straight through your digestive tract and out in your stool once it has bonded with the toxins.

  • Treating wounds - Powdered charcoal is a common treatment for wounds and abrasions. It is effective in its ability to mitigate infection by bonding with and destroying viruses and bacterium.

  • Blacking under the eyes - When traveling over salt flats, snows, and sand dunes, sun may reflect back up into the eyes, causing snow-blindness. When charcoal is mixed with grease or saliva and smeared on the skin below the eyes, it will prevent the glare from shining into your eyes and essentially sun burning the eyes.


CAMP RAGS


1850's era textile pattern

Making a Camp Rag - Try always to throw away as little as possible! Even an old ruined shirt has value.  Cut along the seams of an old cotton or linen shirt to make a series of rags in varying sizes. Remove and save the buttons for your sewing bag. The discarded collar and seams make good scouring cloths and will serve well.


The Life of a Camp Rag - Here are the life phases of an old rag of which, every campaigner carries a couple.

  • Use a clean rag for basic cooking duties. Wash and reuse whenever soiled with grease or soot.

  • Use dry for handling hot pans, dippers, and kettles around the cook fire or to keep flies off of food.

  • When the rag is showing wear, pieces can be cut off and lightly oiled to season pans.

  • The next use will be as cleaning/loading patches in the bullet pouch. Three cleaning patches are used; one is wet to clean the bore (rinse and reuse); one to dry, and one lightly oiled to treat the bore against rust.

  • Wash these patches in bar soap and save them for the next use. They can also be used as bullet wadding. I will recover shot patches, clean them and reuse them as cleaning patches. Cleaning patches should be rinsed and reused as much as possible until they are of no further use.

  • Either way, these patches soon become too frayed to seat a ball or scrub a bore. At that point, make them into charred cloth for use in fire making. Seal them them in an unsoldered tin box with a hinged or removable lid. Put it in the fire and remove it when a jet of burning gasses stops coming from the seams. Set it aside to cool and then recover your char cloth. Another way is to set the scraps on fire and when they are completely engulfed, smother the flames in a tinder box. Use these to replenish your fire kit.


 

In a time when we have grown dependent on high-tech instant gratification, it is best to look back and ask yourself how someone did all this before electricity was a common resource to be taken for granted. Electronics and technology are both fun and convenient but you should always challenge yourself by learning everyday hacks for your own convenience and survival. You never know when the lights may go out and another option must be considered.


-DR













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Arizona Ghostriders
Arizona Ghostriders
Apr 21

Some great tips and tools, Dave! Love the pocket watch/compass hack.

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Dave Rodgers
Dave Rodgers
Apr 21
Replying to

Thanks pard. Glad you liked this one. All of this came from my book.

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