Horns are made of keratin, the same material that makes up your hair and fingernails, and grow throughout the life of an animal, they also tend to grow in very simple shapes such as single spikes, curls or spirals.
In contrast deer grow antlers which form a variety of complex shapes like the palmate antlers of Fallow Deer, or the branched, multi pointed antlers of red or sika deer, or the strange antlers with backward pointing beams almost as long as the main beam of the antler of Pere-David’s deer.
These antlers are made of bone rather than keratin like horns and rather than growing throughout an animal’s life they grow, drop off and regrow every year. Depending on the species male deer spend about four months each year growing antlers, there are a few exceptions to this rule, female reindeer for example grow antlers as well as the males and Chinese water deer and musk deer have no antlers at all.
Male deer are variously known as stags, bucks or bulls depending on the species. In general, in the USA male deer are known as bucks, although male moose, elk and caribou are referred to as bulls. In the UK, male red and sika deer are known as stags, and the females as hinds, the other four deer species found in the UK; roe, muntjac, fallow and Chinese water deer are known as bucks and does.
photo: a Chinese water deer scull, no antlers but large canine tusks
While antlers are growing, they form inside a coating of velvet-like material which contains the nerves and blood supply that feeds the growing antler. This velvet is quite fragile, and if it becomes damaged or if a wound on the velvet becomes infected or infested with maggots there will be a corresponding malformation of the antlers. You will not see male deer fighting while they are in velvet, as they will try to protect their growing antlers.
photo above: a bachelor herd of red deer with their antlers growing in velvet
photo above: when a deer sheds its velvet to reveal the hard antler beneath it is referred to as being in ‘tatters’
Antler growth is controlled by the hormone testosterone, it’s release into the male deer’s system is triggered by the shortening days as we draw into autumn and winter. Once their system has testosterone in it ready for the breeding season the antler growth is stopped, and the velvet begins to dry as the bone underneath hardens.
Once the antler stops growing (though the velvet dries up and starts to fall off), during this stage of development the bucks and stags are known as being ‘in tatters’ as their antlers often trail long strands of drying velvet, they will often rub their antlers on trees and on the ground in a process known as fraying to shed these clinging strands and this explains the dark brown color of most antlers. The sign they leave behind can be a useful clue when tracking deer as the damage they do to bark and the undergrowth is quite unique.
If antlers were not colored by this rubbing and ‘fraying’ they would be pure white. You can even see regional and local variations in antler coloration due to the material that the deer color their antlers on. From a trophy perspective color is something considered when scoring and grading trophies so well colored antlers are highly prized.
Velvet is used by some oriental cultures as a medicine and health supplement. To harvest this velvet the antlers need to be removed from the deer before they are fully formed and the velvet had begun to dry out and the bone of the antler begun to ossify.
This is often carried out on deer farms in New Zealand where sometimes the sale of velvet is more profitable than the sale of venison. Antlers need to be removed from farmed deer anyway so that the deer can be safely handled to avoid injury to the farmers.
In the UK however, removal of velvet antler is considered an amputation and is prohibited, instead the farmers must wait until the deer is in hard antler to remove them. This does mean that the deer are nearer to the ‘rut’ the breeding season and can be quite aggressive during the process of de-antlering. It does mean though that this hard antler can be used for a number of primitive technology projects or modern crafts.
Once antlers have fully formed and the velvet is shed they will be solid, ossified bone and will be used for fighting and competing with other male deer, known as stags or bucks. After a few months these antlers will drop off as the new antlers begin to grow.
photo: de-antlering a red deer
The size of a deers antlers is not determined primarily by age, although in fallow they do tend to go through stages of development with the size and shape of the ‘palm’ of their antlers developing over a period of years.
This might start with a simple set of single pointed antlers in its first year when the buck is known as a ‘pricket’ followed by development of the palmate sections of the antler each year until by the time it’s four or five the palmation is fully developed. It is food quality which determines antler growth and size more than any other single factor and so you will often see the deer with the best feed, ie; those which live on parks and deer farms where they are fed, growing much larger antlers than their wild counterparts.
photo above: fallow buck
Deer are also capable of harvesting calcium from their own skeletons to contribute to the growth of their antlers, which means that if they are not on a particularly good diet while the antlers are growing, they draw so much calcium from their own bones that they are effectively in a state of osteoporosis by the time their antlers are grown
This can lead to high mortality among stags and bucks after the ‘rut’ or breeding season as they are so weakened by the combined exertion of the breeding season and the growing of antlers. Partly for this reason deer, and other animals such as rats and mice eat the cast antlers, which may explain why cast antlers are quite hard to find.
Each year this growth starts from scratch as soon as the previous antler drops off and within a few weeks of the old antler being cast you will see the first signs of new antlers forming underneath a covering of new velvet.
Using Antlers for Survival and Primitive Skills
As well as the traditional eastern medicinal uses for velvet antler there are countless other uses for it, from Stone Age weapons and tools to buttons and fasteners and the handles of high end modern knives.
Do bear in mind though that antler is very tough and strong and will require a lot of patience to work and shape it if you are using primitive tools. Even with modern power tools working with antler can be very time consuming and frustrating. You should wear a dust mask if you are shaping antler with power tools such as belt sanders as the dust can become quite irritating.
Antler can be collected from the ground where it is cast by deer and the best places to look for it is where there is plenty of deer activity and where you can use your tracking skills to identify where deer regularly jump over a wall, ditch or other obstruction. As the time nears where they will cast their antlers often the shock of landing after a jump over an obstacle is enough to shake the antlers loose and cause them to fall.
They won’t be easy to find though as they will blend in and will quite quickly be eaten by deer and rodents. Even though it seems strange that a material as hard a antler can be eaten you would be surprised at just how quickly it disappears.
You can also harvest antler from your hunting efforts, although it might be a wrench to cut up a particularly nice set of antlers from a recent hunting kill there is much more to antlers than just a trophy for your wall.
Antlers would have been used as they were with little shaping or adjustment and can still be very useful tools when used whole, for prising shell fish such ass limpets off of rocks, as an improvised digging tool or as a vicious weapon but they can be very heavy and cutting them up and refining them into purpose made tools not only saves weight but can give you a startling variety of different tools and instruments.
Buttons and Fasteners
One of the simplest projects to undertake with antler, simple slices of antler cross section can be used as excellent buttons and fasteners and the tips of tines make excellent toggle fasteners or duffle buttons. Be aware though that larger section antler is often hollow in the centre and may not be strong enough to bore two holes for making traditional pattern buttons.
photo above: traditional sami bracelet made by the author with a simple antler fastener
Instead consider using the side wall of an antler and cutting it to shape as well as avoiding the weaker central portion of the round antler you can retain the character of the coloured and textured outer portion of the antler.
Reindeer antler tends to be more solid than that of other species which makes it particularly useful for craft projects as do roe deer antler but due to their small size they are not always useful for some of the larger tools and crafts that antler can be used for so they are a good option for making smaller buttons and fasteners.
photo above: roe deer antlers are often too small for other tasks but are fairly solid and sometimes useful for making buttons.
Pressure flakers for flint knapping
The tips of antler tines are the perfect tool for pressure flaking flint, either to retouch a broken edge or add strength to a tool like an arrow head or spear point. The tips of red deer antlers are a perfect size to hold in your hand the natural curve allows you to apply pressure without causing any discomfort.
photo above: the brow and bay tines of a red deer antler, perfect for flint knapping
Soft Hammer for flint knapping
A soft hammer is made from the beam and crown section of a large antler such as red deer or moose and is the perfect tool for ‘spalling’ flint to strike off smaller workable sections or quickly knapp a larger piece down to size. The bulk and uneven surfaces of the crown can be ground down against a rock to give a smooth striking surface and any tines can be removed to give you a smooth, comfortable surface to hold.
photo above: a soft hammer made from a red deer antler
It is clear from the shape of larger antlers that they would make excellent diffing tools, either used whole or with some of the lower tines removed. Even without the spade or palm shape of a fallow or moose antler the sharp tips of an antler would be fantastic for digging.
Most first nation peoples who dig roots for food favor a digging stick for excavating roots and other edibles as the precision of a pointed digging tool instead of a spade or shovel allows them to carefully excavate roots and tubers without damaging them. Antler would give you increased durability over a wooden digging stick but given that it is such a valuable material for making tools it may be better of used for other things where it’s strength is vital.
Arrow, Harpoon and Spear Heads
Bone can be sharpened up to a very strong point or even to an almost razor edge and would have been a prized material of our ancient ancestors for the manufacture of harpoon points that would have been to fragile had they been made out of stone.
The strength and density of antler particularly as the solid bone is often thicker in antler than in other bones gives a lot of material to work with and to carve barbs and other features of harpoon points out of that smaller bones would not always have been ideal for. These barbed harpoon points can be made very long and still retain strength when you use antler and are vastly superior to other materials such as wood and stone. Long stone points are very fragile and time consuming to make and would have been too precious and fragile to use for them to be truly useful for catching fish, seals and other marine mammals.
As well as practical uses for antler they can be used for decorative and artistic carving. The cast crowns of farmed deer antler are often used for carving as they are solid bone and do not have any of the honeycomb centre that is present further up the beam of the antler.
photo above: the center of antlers is a honecomb structure, but the base and tips are solid bone and the thickness of the solid bone along the length of an antler is largely determined by the quality of food, although some species such as reindeer tend to have more solid antlers than other species
Antler is incredibly strong and hard though so carving it can be very difficult and can be made much faster and more efficient by using modern tools such as dremmels. Gouging and scoring with stone tools would have been an incredibly time consuming way to work antler although it can be weakened with heat by directly applying hot coals from your fire you can weaken the antler and break sections off.
A prized material for ancient as well as modern knife makers antler is non porous, dense and extremely hard wearing not to mention very attractive when used as a knife handle. Due to the honeycomb structure at the centre of antlers they can be easily drilled out to fit a handle with a narrow or ‘rat tail’ tang and are very popular for Scandinavian style knives where disks of antler can be mixed with wood, leather, birch bark and other materials to produce very attractive patterns.
Alternatively whole sections of antler can be used to produce a one piece handle such as the original knife of George Washington ‘Nessmuk’ Sears as illustrated in his famous 1884 book Woodcraft and Camping. Or like in the Silver Stage Bowie Knife available from Amazon.
Antlers are one of the most versatile natural materials available to us and you just have to look at a caribou using their antlers as a shovel to get at the reindeer moss beneath deep snow and Mesolithic artefacts to see that using antlers as tools is by no means a new phenomenon.