Remember FIRST BLOOD? That was our introduction to one of Sylvester Stallone’s signature characters, John Rambo. In addition to convincing an entire generation of budding survivalists that we all needed to buy giant “survival” knives, it was probably a result of seeing that movie that I became fascinated with traps.
While being pursued in the wilderness, Rambo found time to fashion all sorts of booby traps that injured and disabled several deputies who were on his tail. I found an ad for the now defunct Paladin Press in one or another martial arts magazine and sent away for a few books on the subject. See kids, this was way before the Internet was a thing and if you wanted something that wasn’t sold in stores in your area you had to order it through the mail. Weird, hey?
As I recall, one of the books was the US Army field manual on booby traps, which was almost useless to me as I didn’t have access to actual ordnance of any type. Other books, though, I found very interesting.
I learned all about things like punji pits filled with feces-smeared spikes, smaller ankle traps that could snap a leg, homemade explosives using black powder that could be ignited by a lantern battery and so much more. That last one led to an interesting experiment in which a buddy of mine and I discovered that a golf ball size perfume bottle packed with black powder had sufficient explosive force to essentially vaporize a wooden mailbox. We also discovered just how fast we could run the quarter mile from that mailbox to my buddy’s basement to make it look like we’d been watching MTV all evening.
Surfing through various and sundry survivalist-oriented message boards and other social media outlets, I’ve found I’m not alone in my fascination with booby traps and the like. I see all sorts of posts detailing ways to inflict injury or death upon any who dare cross the perimeter after the inevitable collapse of society. From improvised explosive devices to shotguns rigged to fire when a door opens, it is obvious some folks have spent endless hours thinking up ingenious methods for defending what’s theirs, especially if they can’t be there in person to handle it.
Here’s the thing, though. While it all sounds awesome on paper, the reality is that booby traps might not be such a great idea.
First of all, they are highly illegal. While that might not be much of a consideration after a societal collapse, it for damn sure matters right now. Remember, agreement with a law has nothing to do with being held liable for violating it. In Katko v. Briney, a property owner (Briney) inherited an old farmhouse that had been vacant for several years. It was burglarized a number of times and he got tired of it. Briney rigged a shotgun in one of the bedrooms so it would fire when the bedroom door was opened. He intentionally aimed the shotgun downward so it would hit an intruder’s legs rather than aiming it at chest or head level. Long story short, guy named Katko breaks in, opens the bedroom door, and suddenly finds himself on the floor with several more holes in his body than he had when he woke up that morning.
The intruder sued the property owner and won, to the tune of $20,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages. That $30,000 total was awarded back in 1971. Adjusted to today, that’s about $186,000. And, of course, that’s on top of the legal fees incurred by Briney defending himself in the court case.
In another example, the owner of a tavern rigged a window in such a way that when a burglar broke in, he was lit up like a Christmas tree by an electric current. The burglar’s family sued and won $75,000 in 2003 (adjusted, that’s about $102,000 today). Again, that’s not including attorney fees and such.
Imagine how many preps you could purchase with $100K! And instead, the money goes to the family of some lowlife who was looking for a quick score.
What it boils down to is that the courts have determined property is less valuable than a person’s life. In the first example, had the property owner been in the home and believed his life to be in danger, the case may have had a different outcome. But, it was demonstrably evident that the owner was only protecting his property, not the lives of himself or others.
Again, we’re not debating whether such laws should exist. The fact is that such laws are on the books and you, just like everyone else, are subject to them.
The second, and actually far more important, reason booby traps aren’t so awesome in real life is because they are indiscriminate. The trap cannot and will not distinguish between you, your spouse, a burglar, a nuclear radiated mutant crawling in from the wastelands, your dog, or one of your grandchildren. Simply put, whatever or whoever trips the trigger gets hurt. While it is certainly possible to memorize the location of each trap and avoid them in your day-to-day life, there is still the possibility of error, especially when under stress. Zig when you should have zagged and suddenly you’re the one with extra holes.
Now, that said, all is not lost for those who are eager to put their DIY skills to good use. Do some research on booby trap triggers and see how you could modify them to activate some sort of alert signal or alarm rather than an explosive device. For example, here’s a homemade trigger device I remember seeing in one of those booby trap books 30+ years ago.
The wires on the top and bottom are connected to metal thumbtacks that were driven into the clothespin so they face each other. This is something I just slapped together so the wires are short. You run those wires to a power supply like a battery and then to some sort of alarm, whether that be a buzzer or even just a small LED light. Between the jaws of the clothespin is a piece of hardboard (not cardboard, that’s not a typo) with a hole drilled in it. A trip line is attached to the hardboard. The clothespin is affixed to a stationary object like a wall. The line is run from the hardboard across a footpath or hallway to a nail or screw. When the line is tripped, it yanks out the hardboard. This allows the tacks to make contact and complete the electrical circuit, activating the alarm. Nifty, hey?
Once you start researching this stuff, you’ll find all sorts of neat tricks like that. Be careful and use your head for more than just a hat rack. Oh and by the way? Rambo’s story had a far different end in David Morrell’s novel, First Blood.