Since time in memorial booby traps have intrigued many, mainly due to the ingenuity demonstrated in employing them and the impact on the morale of those that suffered from them.
A “booby trap” is defined as an explosive or non-explosive device or other material, deliberately placed to cause casualties when an apparently harmless object is disturbed, a normally safe act is performed, or an assumed safe place is occupied. Booby traps are devices that are concealed or disguised that they will be triggered by an unwary victim.
Booby traps have been around for some time, although the idiom “Booby Trap” was not coined until about 1850 (Though the term ‘Booby’ for an awkward, foolish person originated in the 17th century). The first booby traps were pitfalls, a term dating back to the 14th century, although the concept of pits concealed by a flimsy cover dates back into pre-history, when they were first used by hunters to capture animals driven into them, or were left unattended to catch animals and checked periodically.
As humans began to wage war, pitfalls with sharpened stakes in the bottom of them were constructed to trap marauding enemies approaching camps or settlements. Deadfalls of logs or rocks were also used to disable large animals or men, tripped by the victim or remotely activated to send them thundering down a hillside or into a ravine. In this manner they were – to use modern military terminology – employed to deny the use of a chokepoint on an avenue of approach. Occasionally a large rock or heavy log was fastened to a properly situated tree; activation by a trip wire or the pull of a rope sent the object swinging down a trail to smash into a startled enemy. Sharpened stakes and spikes simply driven into the ground and concealed under vegetation also constituted booby traps, to slow an enemies advance or to inflict casualties – the enemy either being chased into the traps or accidentally advancing into them.
Another early form of booby trap was to place an array of fishhooks dangling from thin lines inside windows or dark corridors to ensnare trespassers. Even poisonous snakes could be employed in this way, but the considerable logistical, installation, maintenance and removal problems of this method render it rather impractical.
The first explosive booby traps were used by the Chinese against invading Mongols in 1277, but details are obscure. In the 18th and 19th centuries some use was made of modified firearms as booby traps – usually an old pistol, blunderbuss or shotgun was rigged in a stationary position to cover a door, window or trail, with its trigger attached to a trip wire – a “set gun.”
A few purpose made “trap guns” or ‘spring guns” were made, usually to catch poachers or stock thieves; these were large-calibre, shot loaded, pistol-like weapons mounted on a swivel. The swivel stake was driven into the ground and one to three trip wires were attached to cover different openings or paths; when a tripwire was disturbed the trap gun would swivel in the intruders direction and discharge.
Other than those based on hunting traps, the use of booby traps through the 19th century was limited, and it was not until the industrial revolution that the use of effective mechanical booby traps became widespread. The first recorded, albeit limited use of explosive booby traps in the western world was during the second Seminole war (1835 – 42). In 1836 a booby trap was left by troops abandoning fort Alabama in west central Florida; it was activated by Seminoles on their heels and the fort was destroyed. Details are not available, but it was probably a trip wire-activated flintlock igniting kegs of black powder. Some use of explosive booby traps was made use of during the American civil war; termed “land torpedoes,” “sub-terra torpedoes” or “sensitive shells” these were 24lb and 32lb cannon and 8in and 10in mortar shells buried as land mines, with a percussion capped detonator nipple exposed (landmines are, after all, a form of booby trap). These were first used by the confederates in Yorktown, VA in 1862.
There were also incidences where a desirable object, such as a /Jack-knife, was attached by a pull-cord to a buried shell fitted with a friction ignitor as used to fire cannon. The morality and legality of such “infernal contrivances” employed with “devilish ingenuity” was bitterly argued by both sides.
World War 1 saw the introduction of mechanical firing devices and it was not before long that they were incorporated into booby traps and landmines. Tripwire-activated hand grenades rigged in barbed wire obstacles saw widespread use, to cause casualties, delay the enemy, and provide early warning of raiding patrols and infantry attacks. Booby traps played only a small role in the overall mass carnage of the Great War, however, and little is now heard of them.
About the Author
Hailing from the west-country "Woody", as he is known to friends and family, has spent all his working life traveling the world, working with, and learning the Bushcraft and Survival Skills practiced by indigenous peoples. With over 40 years experience he has researched, planned and participated in expeditions to some of the planets most remote regions. Supporting this experience he has many formal instructor level qualifications. These include being a full time Certified Wilderness Guide, and Guide Instructor, registered with the Professional Association of Wilderness Guides and Instructors (PAWGI), Multiple Specialist Wilderness Guide Qualifications, International tracking qualifications, and is a qualified cross country ski instructor, freefall parachutist, PADI qualified diver and has medical training to paramedic level. As a result of his knowledge and experience, Woody has been called on to work in varying roles with television personalities.