The “Hunting Bag” of the 18th-19th Century American Frontier
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
What were the Basic survival Essentials Carried in the Frontiersman’s Hunting Bag? Our ancestors more commonly called it a ‘Bullet Pouch’ and here is why you should never call it a ‘possibles bag’.
A friend of mine asked about trying the old ways of running the woods and trails as was done by the fur trappers, mountaineers and other frontier-types of centuries past. I told him you could either do it in modern clothing while using the old-fashioned methods, gear, and muzzleloading rifle, or you could join a group of guys who wear nothing but the historic clothing, buckskins and do it 100%. I can say first-hand that it is very rewarding either way you do it. The scenery, the connection with the elements, and the sense of accomplishment make it all worth the effort; but it’s not easy…at all. Actually, it requires a lot of grit, perseverance and the willingness to endure privation but everything starts with the basics.
Who carried hunting bags/bullet-pouches?
In this case, it’s a small shoulder bag measuring about 9x11 inches or smaller, perhaps small enough to hold just a few bullets and some small tools. Some call it a ‘hunting bag’; your friends will call it ‘a man-purse’, but the original frontiersmen typically called it a ‘bullet-pouch’. These pouches served the basic needs of the individual and his weapon across the subsequent generations of the American story. They draped the shoulders and rode on the waists of colonials 'woodsrunners', riflemen and rangers. They served the following generations of explorers and fur trappers as they crossed the Mississippi and ventured into the Rocky Mountains. Bullet-pouches were indispensable to the frontiersmen, trackers and guides crossing the plains and deserts to the Pacific coast. The tribal people who had their own means of carrying essential tools, food, and medicine before contact with the white newcomers soon added bullet bags, molds, and powder horns to their kits as well.
What is a 'hunting bag'?
It’s easy to romanticize roving across the open plains; threading through primordial forests and surveying the endless expanse from solitary peaks but how do you go from here to there. Even with years of outdoor skill, there still needs to be a basic kit that carries the essential tools of your survival. This is where the bullet-pouch comes into play.
As I said before, to 21st century eyes, it may look out of place but a hunting bag's functionality for then is more in step with what a modern-day courier bag does now. It carries the basics of what would be needed for life in the primitive world. They are typically of a cloth or skin construction. In addition to ammunition, there will be basic tools for your long rifle or fowler; also included is a means to make fire or knap flint; a kit to repair your clothing and gear; tools to navigate the unfamiliar trail; various simple remedies for injury or illness and even a cutting tool to help you make more useful implements.
What is carried inside of a bullet pouch…other than bullets?
The bullet pouch featured here is of the mid-19th century design. It is made of deerskin with a fabric lining. The bag features 2-cavities, one internal pocket and a knife sheath. The flap is fastened in place using a coat button of vulcanized rubber common to the 1850s. The style is sometimes called a ‘haversack-style’ by collectors due to its similarity to the cloth shoulder bags of the same name issued by the military for the purpose of carrying rations.
Bullet pouches or ‘hunting bags’ varied in quality and workmanship. Some of the better-quality bullet pouches were made by saddlers and leatherworkers. Many were homespun by an individual using their own materials ranging from cowhide to deerskin or even fabric.
This kit is reminiscent of the 1850s and is for a percussion rifle using an explosive ‘percussion cap’ to set off the main powder charge. Among the implements are as follows:
Itemized Contents of a Bullet-Pouch
1. Gun worm or ‘wiper’– is attached at the end of a ramrod to run patches or vegetable fiber in and out of the gun’s bore for the purpose of cleaning. It can also be used to clear the bore of any foreign matter.
2. Ball-Screw – is attached to the end of the ramrod and bores into a musket ball for the purpose of extracting it from the barrel.
3. Adjustable powder measure
4. Turnscrew (screwdriver)
5. Cone wrench – removes the cone at the breech of the musket where the hammer strikes.
6. Pistol brush – for Colt’s patented revolver
7. Pistol tool – for Colt’s patented revolver
8. Bullet mold -.530 caliber for a .54 rifle
9. Capping (priming) mechanism – attached an exploding cap to the cone.
10. Tinder box (fire-making kit) with charred cloth and plant fiber, flint and steel (strike-a-light)
11. Patch knife (repurposed dining knife) and whetstone
12. Gunpowder flask (powder flask) – is made of zinc so that it will not spark and is lightly soldered from the inside so that it will easily come apart with minimal injury to the shooter in the unlikely occurrence of an explosion. It has an adjustable nozzle that ensures and an equal amount of powder is dispensed each time the lever is thrown.
13. Bullet bag & wadding – holds dozens of round bullets for the rifle. The wadding ensures that the ball is firmly seated and will not roll. It also contributes to the ball’s engagement with the rifling.
14. Compass – is an essential navigation tool that accompanies maps or charts carried in the pocket or valise of a traveler. These are commonly carried in the pockets as well.
15. Pipe and tamper – this is a universal solace for frontier travelers. In addition to the stimulating effects of tobacco, it was also used in medicine of the period. It is also a good product to share with Indians and other emigrants encountered along the way to trade or simply build rapport. Friends come in handy on the open plains.
*Not shown: the oil bottle (used for cleaning); spare powder-ball-caps-wadding; additional punk (char-cloth) striker and flints are carried in my knapsack, saddlebags, or possibles-pack since they are not normally needed unless going into camp.
*Editor’s notes: although I have bullet molds and ladles shown in the bullet pouch, I normally store them in the possible-pack, knapsack, or saddlebags as they are only used when going into camp. It is best to keep your bullet-pouch as light as possible.
If space permits, a small pouch of medicine as well as a poke of jerked meat and sagamite may be added either to the hunting bag or to a coat pocket, or even within the folds of the coat that is girded with a belt.
Some Medical Treatments from the 18th-19th Century Hunting Bag
*(Legal Disclaimer) These remedies are listed for historic purposes only. Seek professional medical treatment for any of the said afflictions.
Gunpowder can be made into a paste to treat poison ivy/poison oak. It can also be diluted into a mild solution and used as eye wash.
Hardwood charcoal from the campfire was used to treat wound infection and as an antidote against ingestion of various poisons or even tainted food.
Hardwood ash can be used to rid the gastrointestinal system of parasites
Tobacco can be used as an astringent and painkiller in wounds. Its antimicrobial properties also made it a useful treatment against infection.
A small pouch of herbs can also be carried to provide additional remedies
· Wild mint or ginger can be harvested and carried to treat gastric discomfort.
· Elderberry leaves can be used to ward of insects such as flies, midge, and mosquitoes.
· Mormon tea treats cough and allergy
· Desert holly has antimicrobial properties
· Mesquite leaves can be made into a tea that treats headache, upset stomach, or can sooth eye or skin discomfort
What Did the Original People of the Period Say About the Bullet Pouch?
In his 1851 book, The Great West, Henry Howe went into great detail describing the life and times of the mountaineer/fur trapper, and this includes observations on their clothing and the gear that they used. Here is a description of the content that made up an individual’s outfit.
"On starting for a hunt, the trapper fits himself out with the accessary equipment, either from Indian trading forts, or from some of the petty traders - coureurs des bois - who frequent the western country. This equipment consists usually of two or three horses or mules - one for saddle and the others for packs - and six traps, which are carried in a bag of leather, called a trap-sack."
Howe’s description of the bullet pouch is as follows.
Over his left-shoulder and under his right arm, hang his powder-horn, and bullet-pouch, in which he carries his balls, flint, steel, and odds and ends of all kinds."
*Note: The contents of an 18th century bullet pouch for a 20-gauge fowler includes (L-R) .62 cal. punch for making wads and shot-cards, casting ladle, .60 cal. mold, .28 cal shot-mold, pliers, bullet bag with rounds and bird shot, compass, flint wallet. wisk & pick, powder measure, skin and tick patches, whang strings, spare patching, knapping nail and turnscrew (screwdriver).
In the 1849 book, Life in the Far West, George Frederic Ruxton had this to say about the bullet pouch from his experiences in the early 1840s
“Fire-making is a simple process with the mountaineers. Their bullet-pouches always contain a flint, and steel, and sundry pieces of " punk" or tinder ; and pulling a handful of dry grass, which they screw into a nest, they place the lighted punk in this, and, closing the grass over it, wave it in the air, when it soon ignites, and readily kindles the dry sticks forming the foundation of the fire.
Further details on the little things carried by mountain men were as follows when Ruxton was describing mountain man Bill Williams.
“In the shoulder-belt which sustained his powder-horn and bullet-pouch, were fastened the various instruments essential to one pursuing his mode of life. An awl, with deer-horn handle, and the point defended by a case of cherry-wood carved by his own hand, hung at the back of the belt, side by side with a worm for cleaning the rifle ; and under this was a squat and quaint-looking bullet-mold, the handles guarded by strips of buckskin to save his fingers from burning when running balls, having for its companion a little bottle made from the point of an antelope's horn, scraped transparent, which contained the "medicine" used in baiting the traps. The old coon's face was sharp and thin, a long nose and chin hob-nobbing each other; and his head was always bent forward giving him the appearance of being hump-backed.”
In the book about his 1834-1843 exploits called Journal of a Trapper, Author Osborne Russell gives a now familiar account of the mountaineer’s kit.
“A Trappers equipments in such cases is generally one Animal upon which is placed one or two Epishemores a riding Saddle and bridle a sack containing six Beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Mocasins his powder horn and bullet pouch with a belt to which is attached a butcher Knife a small wooden box containing bait for Beaver a Tobacco sack with a pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the Pommel of his saddle...”
In his 1846 publication, Rocky Mountain Life, Rufus B. Sage wrote in detail about his experiences during the first half of the 1840s as an explorer and Indian trader. Here is his account of a frontiersman’s personal gear including the bullet pouch.
“His waist is encircled with a belt of leather, holding encased his butcher-knife and pistols—while from his neck is suspended a bullet-pouch securely fastened to the belt in front, and beneath the right arm hangs a powder-horn transversely from his shoulder, behind which, upon the strap attached to it, are affixed his bullet-mould, ball-screw, wiper, awl, &c. With a gun-stick made of some hard wood, and a good rifle placed in his hands, carrying from thirty to thirty-five balls to the pound (about .52 cal. bore or a .51 cal. ball), the reader will have before him a correct likeness of a genuine mountaineer, when fully equipped.”
A Mountain Man’s Shooting Bag is NOT Called a ‘Possibles Bag’.
A huge misnomer came out of the 20th century muzzleloading hobby. Somewhere along the line, the bullet pouch started being called the ‘possibles bag’. It’s an easy mistake to make because it is all over Google and even stated by many 'living historians who are in the know'. For the record, I was set straight by a fellow historian who brought this to my attention. After double-checking the sources, I found that he was absolutely right. The Possible-pack was much larger than an individual’s ‘shoulder-bag’. It actually carried a lot of the 'possibles' or essential items but was designed to be carried on a pack horse.
Getting back to Henry’s book, he specifically points out the difference between the possible pack and the bullet pouch. He starts by describing the contents. The "wallet" he describes is a sort of bag that is sewn on both ends but open in the center. It is easily closed by simply folding the ends together. A common rendezvous item similar to this is what we call "the market wallet". The market wallet is a concept that goes back for centuries. Here is an accurate period description of the slang term "possibles".
"Ammunition, a few pounds of tobacco, dressed deer-skins for moccasins, etc., are carried in a wallet of dressed buffalo-skin, called a possible pack. His 'possibles' and 'trap sack,' are generally carried on the saddle mule while hunting, the others being packed with furs."
So for the armchair historian, I hope this sheds some light on a small detail that is largely overlooked. For those who want to physically take to the trail, I can only add one final test. Everything you wear should stand up to the rain as if you wore your kit into the shower. Anything ruined by it should be discarded or modified to not fail a second time. Woodsrunning is a full-contact, high impact exertion. Your clothing and accouterments should facilitate movement, weather, and the abrasion of hard work. The little things like bullets, patches, tinder box, and compass make up the ideal load for your bullet pouch. From my experience, anything that you must make camp to do, should perhaps be carried in your blanket roll or possible pack. This may include the bullet ladle, molds, huswife, leather kit, spare tinder, spare clothing, mirror/razor/soap/towel. There's a lot of gear needed for life in the wild. For all the little but absolutely essential things, there's the bullet pouch.