The Pack Report

History of the Duluth Pack Shell Purse

The Shell Purse is a Duluth Pack icon. You may recognize it as a top-selling Duluth Pack lifestyle purse most commonly seen at the super market, at a hockey game, or just casually around town. However, this best seller is also a hunting and camping staple, transcending its outdoor utility and becoming a lifestyle bag. It’s stylish, versatile, and American-made, but many misunderstand its provenance.

You’re not alone if you think the Shell Purse gets its name from its clam-like shape. The truth is it alludes to its original purpose. Read this brief history lesson to know how this iconic Duluth Pack style came about.

Early Origins of the Shell Purse

The Shell Purse draws inspiration from the satchels the people who built the United States wore when they moved westward. These trailblazers were the fur trappers and traders who crossed the Great American Desert searching for beavers and ventured as far west as the Pacific coast.

The frontiersmen and frontierwomen’s arduous journey throughout the unforgivable wilderness required self-reliance. They had to carry their belongings in possible packs by horse. These large bags contained everything they needed to hunt, fight, and survive — such as knives, fire starters, and muzzleloader essentials. These pioneers also kept furs in their saddlebags.

Before, many mistakenly called possible bags “hunting bags” or “bullet pouches.” Eventually, researchers learned the latter were different. Bullet pouches were smaller since the mountaineers who wore them could only bring a small kit when hunting.

In the mid-19th century, the bullet pouch design featured deerskin with a fabric lining. It had two cavities — an internal pocket and a knife sheath. A coat button made of vulcanized rubber fastened the flap, resembling the haversack soldiers used to carry the days’ worth of rations they would snack on while on the move. Other bullet pouch designs used cowhide or fabric.

Regardless of the material, bullet pouches could house ammunition and tools needed to operate whatever firearm they had. They could also accommodate fire-making essentials and various medical remedies, including herbs, hardwood ash, and tobacco.

The Evolution of Small-Arms Ammo

The 1800s accelerated the rapid development of small arms ammunition, ushering in the end of the muzzle-loading firearm era. It saw the invention of the percussion cap, which the discovery of mercury fulminate paved the way for. This lock-and-ignition system rendered matches and flints obsolete and made ammo more reliable, particularly in wet environments. Such disruptive tech allowed a smooth transition thanks to various similarities between the flintlock and the percussion lock.

Integrating percussion cap ammunition into the Brown Bess of 1842 led to breech-loading. Shortly after, military rifles and civilian revolvers became breech-loading firearms. Despite the advantages of guns taking percussion cap ammo, their mechanism was still complicated, requiring users to remove the metal case surrounding rounds before loading a new one.

Many tried various solutions to no avail. Complex ejection devices were prone to jamming, and self-consuming cartridges didn’t gain traction. Then, integrated cartridges became available — European gunsmiths Jean Samuel Pauly and François Prélat invented them in 1808.

These cartridges rolled the cap, power, and projectile into one, giving rise to modern-day bullets. Integrating all ammo components into a single metal package made it possible to produce ammunition away from the battlefield and started an entirely new industry. 

In the years leading up to the Civil War, these firearms became increasingly popular in rural and urban communities. The holiday season, in particular, embraced the new technology, with excited civilians firing into the air to make as much noise as possible. This tradition eventually led to the New Year’s Eve celebrations many follow today.

In 1846, Benjamin Houllier patented the modern cartridge with copper or brass casings. It’s the first all-metallic cartridge that went mainstream, inspiring the design of current rounds. People could continue using their firearms for enjoyment without worrying as much about jams or unnecessary damage.

Commercial Hunting on the Rise

Innovations in the 19th century made shotguns shorter and lighter, which game hunters found suitable for carrying and swinging at winged games. Wingshooting was possible with flint ignition, but the percussion lock was the game-changer that took the sport to new heights.

Hunters couldn’t use the typical cartridge bags for shotgun shells, which were larger and bulkier than other ammo types. They needed specialty satchels to carry dozens of projectiles and spend more time scouring for flying targets on the field. Outdoor gear manufacturers saw the demand and designed bags for large quantities of shotshells.

Duluth Pack Gets Its Start

French-Canadian Camille Poirier immigrated to Duluth, Minnesota, in 1870. He initially opened a leather shoe shop but later saw a more lucrative opportunity, outfitting workers from thriving local timber, mining, railway, and port industries, as well as explorers and pioneers.

His first product was the C. Poirier Pack Sack — a large pack with a tumpline — which he patented on December 12, 1882. The handcrafted product has stood the test of time. It’s still on the market as the #2 Original Pack more than 140 years after its creation.

Poirier’s company launched various timeless outdoor pack designs that became staples for canoeing and portaging. In 1911, he sold the business to the Duluth Tent and Awning Company, which later became Duluth Pack.

During the Roaring ‘20s, Duluth Pack became a lifestyle brand. It began offering premium bags and accessories for travel and recreation and sold them at the first Abercrombie & Fitch store on Madison Avenue.

The Creation of Shell Purses

The Shell Purse hit the market in 1922. It’s a practical fashion item for anyone now, but it started as a satchel for shotshells for hunters and outdoor enthusiasts — hence its name. This everyday purse has a main compartment, an internal slash pocket, a leather flap strap with a roller buckle, and an adjustable, detachable leather body strap.

It comes in three sizes based on how many shells it can fit. Small bags can accommodate 50 projectiles, medium purses can hold up to 100, and large ones have room for more than 200 shotshells. The design has evolved but remained unchanged over the past 100 years, still following the original stitching, 15-ounce duck canvas construction, American cowhide or bison leather, and premium wool fabric. The only difference is it’s available in various colors and patterns.

Occasionally, Duluth Pack offers limited-edition or extended lines like the Conceal & Carry Shell Purse or additional wool collections.

Duluth Pack’s Shell Purse — A Legacy of Quality

The Shell Purse proves a brand can adapt to modern times while paying homage to its humble origins. Simplicity is timeless, so expect this icon to stay relevant for another century.

Happy adventuring, friends!

Guest Contributor: Jack Shaw