Once friends and family come to understand the breadth of collectibles that pass through Heritage, an employee will suddenly start receiving calls about the oddest things. Very often these inquiries have nothing to do with the employee’s actual position within the company. Instant expertise in all things collectible, or just plain “old”, somehow becomes the assumed norm on the part of the public.

Locating the appropriate expert often involves figuring out what the curio really is. This is really fun because even though we may not be Consignment Directors and auctioneers, we get the chance to see, and learn about, these artifacts while we try to connect the hopeful owner to the true expert. Fortunately, almost everyone at Heritage has a hobby related to some type of collectible or antique, and they are genuinely eager to help out.

A couple of years ago fellow Heritage blogger Brian Shipman stopped by my desk to ask if I could identify an antique gadget a relative had called him about. He described a device that looked like a flintlock pistol with a really short barrel. The part that had him stumped was the muzzle of the pistol had a hinged cover that was attached to a star shaped wheel.

Fortunately I had read about just such a device, and a quick internet search for “gun powder tester” turned up a picture that matched the description.


Gun powder testers were common items used to test the explosive force of black powder. The barrel was loaded with a precise amount of powder and the trapdoor closed over the muzzle. When the tester was fired the resulting explosion would pop open the trapdoor rotating the wheel. The user read off the measurement from the graduations engraved in the disc, and the measurement was recorded on the barrel of powder.

Black powder is a mechanical mixture meaning all of the ingredients were soaked with water and mashed together to form a heavy paste. The paste was later broken up into granules of various sizes for use. The purity of the ingredients could vary, and the brute force methods of mixing the “dough” did not always distribute the chemical components evenly. This lack of precision meant the quality of the powder could vary greatly between containers. The powder tester was developed as a method of quality control for the factory, and for the purchaser of the powder to insure product received was of acceptable quality.

I have never seen a powder tester in person, so I was excited about the possibility of being able to examine this specimen when it was consigned to Heritage.

How did I get involved? I work with Brian in the IT department, and I have this hobby…