Black powder and lip balm and the history of the West

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THE VIEW of the Mission mountains from the eastern side of Sanders County, over the Camus Prarie Valley. (John Dowd/ Clark Fork valley Press)

What do black powder and lip balm have in common?

While I am new to the world of black powder, I have been fascinated in learning about history my entire life.

Since youth I was always interested in wilderness survival and the pioneer spirit that drove the frontiersman west into the seemingly limitless mountains, plains and rivers.

A key aspect to understanding that past is understanding the tools that mountain men used in their endeavors. As those men traveled west and established themselves, the gear we were able to use changed. However one thing stayed the same: they needed ways to protect and feed themselves.

Initially, those frontiermen used flintlock rifles to conquer the wild. These were incredible tools for survival in many ways. Not only could many parts of the gun be fixed or replaced in the field they also acted as fire starting tools by using the frizzen and flint in the lock for sparks instead of having to carry extra flint and steel.

So, what does this have to do with lip balm?

These rifles needed special care to prevent them from rusting or wearing out. This is where lip balm comes in. In my research I have found several references to what many call “fixin wax.” This is more of a modern term, however historically something like it was used for a number of purposes. Through my online research and speaking with local experts, I have found several recipes for “fixin wax” and have discovered an interesting list of uses for the substance.

The main use was to coat the barrel, metal parts, and wooden stock with it to stave off rust and wear from steel as well as to protect from moisture or cracking in the wood. Carpenters and woodworkers also used it for this purpose as a treatment for their tools.

Leather workers found the substance wonderful in treating their leather products, to seal and waterproof hides and sewn connections. Mountain men were also known to use this wax balm on their pants and clothing because of its water-resistant qualities. The last use (and there are numerous more that I have not listed) was to use the substance as a balm for the lips to prevent cracking and chapping.

That’s right, they used it for lip balm!

As one might expect I was quite curious. This seemed like snake oil of sorts or a magic substance that could treat anything from hives to sores and upset stomachs to a broken marriage (those are actual terms used to describe its use.) So, I looked to investigate and to make my own. I will list the recipe, which is actually quite simple, below:

In a pan heat on low temperature a natural oil (olive oil, vegetable oil, canola, lard, etc.) with a natural wax (Beeswax, soy wax, paraffin, etc.) Let the two mix and pour them into a container, then let it sit and cool. The substance will harden into a consistency exactly like lip balm.

That is all it takes. There are literally thousands of differing recipes each calling for specific amounts of essential oils, pine tar, spices, various roots and combinations of oils and waxes to get the “perfect” mix.

I cannot speak to the improvement of effectiveness that any one of these other various mixes can bring, however when I made some, I used olive oil, eucalyptus essential oil and beeswax.

The ingredient percentage really depends on the intended consistency. More oil to wax ratios lead to a softer, closer to paste-like, consistency. In colder weather one may prefer to mix more oil to compensate for the lower temperatures. In a hotter environment a person may prefer the higher wax concentration so to prevent melting.

When I created my mix, I left it closer to a paste because of the inclement cold weather and the fact that I honestly had no idea what I was doing.

This being said, I tried the stuff on a couple semi-modern rifles with incredible success. It goes on easy and coats whatever it goes on well.

Plus, it has a near indefinite shelf life, meaning that you can make a lot and have it last a while.

And it never really goes bad so it will not mold up the bore of one’s rifle. It also, as I stated in the beginning, makes for an irreplaceable lip balm, as well as moisturizer.

I am not one for using moisturizer, but if it makes my guns happy then it makes me happy, and the added fact that it can double as a balm in a dry climate means aces in my book.

- John Dowd is the lead reporter for the Clark Fork Valley Press. He can be reached at

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