One Man’s Trap is Another Man’s Treasure

This image, which does embiggen, shows a variety of trap guns that are among the many treasures in James D. Julia’s October Auction. Trap guns (which are also called “spring guns,” and other names) were common means of poacher and burglar control from the fifteenth through the 19th centuries. Basically, it’s a firearm arranged to be set up unattended and fired by a tripwire. Such a booby trap could easily be rigged with any firearm and a basic understanding of pulleys, of course, but purpose-made trap guns were cheap and low-maintenance.

JuliaOct16AlarmandTrapGuns

A 1983 American Society of Arms Collectors article[.pdf] by Melvin Flanagan runs through some of the historic trap guns and helps make a tentative identification of some of these… at least, that is, until Julia publishes a final catalog. Numbered from top to bottom:

  1. Sure-Shot trap gun, in which the same tripwire swung the gun on target and then fired it. Designed by Charles D. Lovelace and made in several varieties by several firms from 1913;
  2. Unknown;
  3. W. Cameron trap gun, patented 1891;
  4. Unknown;
  5. Reuthe Trap Gun, fourth model. Frederick Reuthe earned the first US patent for a trap gun in 1857;
  6. Unknown;
  7. A probable 20th-Century fake, probably made in the vicinity of Omaha, Nebraska;
  8. Unknown.

Trap guns were used by the British Army to secure armories during the Colonial gunpowder-raids period in 1773-1775, and, according to Colonial Williamsburg’s history of the powder magazine, was instrumental in the initial overthrow of King George III’s governor in Virginia, Governor Lord John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore (a Scots title). Dunmore had been a career soldier, and later Governor of New York before being named to the wealthier Southern colony. He was a gun-control believer, and sought to confiscate, disable (for instance, by having the locks of the militia’s muskets removed), and to the extent possible, spirit away onto HM’s ships, the arms and ammunition that might feed a rebellion. He set stringent security measures on the magazine at Williamsburg. But on the night of 3-4 June, 1775, a spring gun that was one of those security measures set history in motion:

[A] spring-gun trap set at the Magazine wounded two young men who had broken in. A furious mob stormed the building June 5. Rumors that the royal marines were returning brought out the militia. June 8, Dunmore fled to H.M.S. Fowey. British rule in Virginia was at an end.

SM-70 illustration as a poster: "Wanted: East Germany. The World's Last Headhunter Reservation."

SM-70 illustration as a poster: “Wanted:  Visit East Germany. The World’s Last Headhunter Reservation.” (Thanks to an anonymous reader for the correction — Ed.)

Trap guns have little military application, except as generic booby traps by unlawful combatants. They were used, along with several types of antipersonnel mines, along the inter-German border by the quisling regime in East Germany. Some East German trap guns were converted cartridge-firing firearms, but from 1970 a special purpose directional mine called the Splittermine Modell 1970 was set up at intervals to booby-trap the expanded-metal fence that was one of the many security layers of the Berlin Wall.

Trap guns gradually fell out of favor, especially after World War II as courts came around to the idea that criminals’ rights were more important than victims’. In the USA, the key rulings were Katko v. Briney (1971) and McComb v. Connaghan (1990) in which career criminals (Katko and McComb) were held to be unlawfully killed. At least one other booby-trap dead burglar case was resolved with the acquittal of the booby-trapper, but he used electricity, not a trap gun.

Despite these rulings, trap guns and booby-traps are not banned, per se, in many jurisdictions. But it’s hard to imagine a situation in which an attorney would advise a property owner to deploy such devices. They’re a use of deadly force that is not being used to protect life and limb; they seem to fail several prongs of the use of deadly force test.

Consequently, the trap gun is an artifact of a lost period in history, and a collector’s item… some of which are coming available at auction.

33 thoughts on “One Man’s Trap is Another Man’s Treasure

  1. DaveP.

    It would be interesting to see how those two court cases would do in light of the modern “Castle” doctrine. If I’m allowed to assume that any intruder into my domicile has evil intent (and therefore it’s acceptable to use lethal force against him), then can I not ‘delegate’ to a mechanical device rather than actually pulling the trigger myself?

    1. DSM

      John Kerry would invoke some treaty on mines and the State Dept would launch a drone strike I’m sure.

    2. looserounds.com

      In the case of KY, the intruder has to gain entry by violence. .e.g kick the door down, come busting through the window like the hulk, shoot the lock off, or come in while threatening or a gun/weapon in hand etc.

      cat burglar sliding the door or window open would would past the test.
      In reality and practice though, here in Ky if some one comes in your home in nay shady way in the middle of the night or something, the state is pretty much on your side no matter what.
      people talk about TX and its defender friendly policies, but in reality Ky is much better than TX about that and gun ownership and carry all around, but without the PR campaign of TX.

      1. John M.

        Texas’ gun laws have historically been pretty crappy by US standards, but their use of force laws are quite…open. Oddly, in spite of California’s horrible gun laws, their knife laws aren’t bad and their use of force laws are reasonably good (though, as everywhere, your mileage in front of a jury may vary).

        I am a bit peeved that Texas now has campus carry, which doesn’t seem to have any traction at all in my state, which has had better gun laws than Texas for over a century.

        -John M.

  2. Dan F

    I am suprised the ATF hasn’t banned them under destructive device heading. Must not be common enough to matter.

    1. DaveP

      Muzzleloading guns are generally exempt from ATF control. Now, setting one of these up for its intended purpose might be a problem… but just owning one shouldn’t be.

    2. Tom Stone

      They are common enough in my part of Northern California along with punji pits and even the occasional improvised claymore.
      It’s coming into the pot harvesting season and you don’t walk the woods this time of year without keeping in mind that there are people guarding their crops, the Cartel grow ops are the most dangerous.
      With legalization coming this is likely the last year I’ll have to deal with it.

      1. Hognose Post author

        You’re kidding, right? You think the Cartel is just going to go legit and stop fighting over turf? It’s not just the cops they’re armed against.

        1. Tom Stone

          God, no.
          But they won’t be growing in National and State parks, which means fall walks in the woods will be safer.

          1. Raoul Duke

            Really?

            What makes you think that criminal outlaw growers who aren’t used to paying for legitimate property for their weed farms are going to change their minds?

      2. Hillbilly

        Used to come across grow sites all the time as a kid growing up in Trinity County. Mostly they were small 15-20 plant ones that some of the hippies were growing for personal use. It wasn’t uncommon to come across signs of a large grow site out in the back country while deer hunting though.
        Back in the 80’s pot was huge in that area along with Humboldt and Mendicino counties. I’m sure it probably still is, but haven’t been back in years.
        When I was logging down on the coast we even ran across pot plants in containers that had been hoisted up into the trees one time. Of course the land owner denied all knowledge of them.

  3. DSM

    I believe a 12ga shell in your favorite flavor of shot, piece of 3/4″ pipe, some nails, screws and a hardware store spring will recreate the spirit and intent of these wonderfully crafted devices. They may have been used to protect a mountain boy’s science experiment a time or two.

    1. W. Fleetwood

      Correct. In the 60s they were known as; Mole Guns, Gopher Guns, and Varmint Guns. The Avant Garde used a triple charged reload with double wadding. “It’s the concussion that kills the mole, not the pellets.” Remember long arguments over loadings, and then; Push or Pull? (Think 9mm vs .45 ACP, then Revolver vs Automatic. God bless America!)

      Sua Sponte.

  4. James

    A artifact of a time gone by,replaced by mines ect.I hope it stays a time gone by but the way the world seems to be going one has to wonder.I would say any mountain boys experiment/garden ect. would by use of such a item draw attention to said project and defeat it’s purpose,at least a lot of the time.

    Deep hiking in the Cali. days of me youth came across a garden in Humboldt County,looked at it a few moments,smiled,walked on.Said owner caught up with me,had been watching,offered me some bounty for me honesty,though at that point no longer smoked said my friends would love a sample which was fine with garden owner.I had hit a booby trap what have you folks knew general area of me hike and could have been bad for all(especially me!),but,luckily just a hiking tale with a good ending.

    1. looserounds.com

      In my younger days I ran across these so called gardens myself and without fail stomped them to the ground or removed the giant cam netting over hanging it to protect it from the yearly summer ERAD choppers. The stomped it to the ground. I did keep the camo netting for making ground blinds for hunting.

      I may have gotten lucky that no hilljack ever got ill with me, but then again, I always carried a rifle with me on my shoulder.

  5. Sixgunner

    An old neighbor of ours in a former place of residence had a bad hand. It had received a reloaded 44-40 round fired from an 1873 Winchester that he was setting up as a trap gun for paca. The common procedure was to measure the appropriate height of the barrel by using the hand as a measuring device. Unfortunately, he’d already cocked the gun and as doing the final tweaking of the aim point when he tripped the trigger and blew a hole through his hand. That put a damper on his cowboying for some time. The term used locally was “espera” (wait) as one just had to set the rifle up along a well traveled game trail and then wait for dinner to come along. All manner of rifles, shotguns and muzzle loaders were employed in this form of subsistence hunting. Never heard of anyone using them except for hunting in that region.

    Back up in the northern continent of the Americas, sheep ranchers used to set trap guns with cyanide shells for coyotes, until the Feds decided to put an end to the practice. Grandad used to set them around his place all the time and had the varmints mostly under control until .gov interfered (actually it was before .gov, but the same clown act nonetheless.)

  6. James F.

    From Massad Ayoob’s THE TRUTH ABOUT SELF-PROTECTION (1983), pp. 77-80.

    THE TRUTH ABOUT BOOBY TRAPS

    A midwestern farmer, righteously enraged by multiple burglaries on his place, rigged up a “trap shotgun” so that anyone who opened the door of the shed where he kept some of his most expensive equipment would be shot.

    Sure enough, a burglar forced his way in. The shotgun went off, crippling him for life. He never denied being a burglar; but when he sued the homeowner, the court ruled in the plaintiffs favor.[*Katko v. Brinev, 183 N2nd 657 (Iowa 1971).] Not only did the farmer not have the right to kill to protect property, the judge announced, but the act was reckless: What if a child had run into that shed to fetch a baseball that had been batted through its window? The civil court judgment against the farmer was so huge that he had to sell his farm to pay it.

    I can empathize with the person who has had his home violated and seeks both revenge on burglars in general, and a painfully deterring experience for the next burglar in particular who chooses him for a victim. But booby traps are not the way.

    The court judgment of Katko v. Brines has been upheld again and again in high courts. You do not have the right to kill or maim to protect property, and you do not have the right to kill or maim at random. An alarm is something that triggers a warning signal when a door or window or room has been entered by an unauthorized intruder.

    Under American law you can only hurt the burglar if he threatens the life and limb of innocent persons inside. A booby trap, something that physically harms an intruder, can maim or kill a fire fighter breaking in to rescue your home and possessions from a blaze. It can spring shut on your spouse or child, or even on you if you come home preoccupied with something else and forget to circumvent your own trap. Improperly set up, it can go off accidentally and injure or kill you or a member of your family, or your household pet.

    One journalist who wrote a book on home security in 1975 understood that, but then went on to say that it would be all right to set up a booby trap on the order of that classic child’s prank, a bucket of water set precariously on the top edge of a door. He recommended a bucket of paint, molasses, or glue.

    He did admit however, that a person nailed with such a trap might get angry enough to tear your house up a bit. I think he was being conservative. The person would be more likely to light a match and burn your home to the ground; remember, criminals think they have a God-given right to prey on you, and they develop intense and self-righteous anger when you even try to thwart them.

    That journalist also didn’t realize that a 2 1/2-gallon pail of any liquid weighs 20 pounds or more. Falling, it could crush a burglar’s skull or break his neck, leaving you in the same position as the farmer whose shotgun booby trap cost him his livelihood.

    One firm is making a lot of money selling a burglar alarm-cum-booby trap that sprays the offender with tear gas. They boast that they’ve never had anything stolen from a space their unit was protecting. I’ll buy that as far as it goes. But what happens if the person who was sprayed staggers out of your apartment, tumbles down the stairs, and breaks his neck? Or what if he staggers to his getaway car and in his half-blind agony, runs over a couple of children down the street? You better believe that you’re going to be right back in the position of that midwestern farmer who set up the trap shotgun.

    If you doubt for a moment that the court is likely to rule in favor of the burglar who is now suing you, you obviously haven’t spent too much time in contemporary American courtrooms.

    I have spent a good bit of time there, and I’m here to tell you that any sort of booby trap will trap the person who set it, far more painfully and permanently than it will hurt the person who activated it with his illegal entry if it harms someone who was not immediately and unavoidably threatening innocent human life.

    If you want a good booby trap, invest in something like California’s Westec Security; they train their men almost to the level of the LAPD, and work assiduously with the department so that their men and the police officers will interact well when your life or property is at stake. When an intruder breaks in, he trips an alarm that is linked to roving patrols of highly trained security guards who will catch him in the act at gunpoint. If he sues for getting hurt, he can only recover from the security service. They have a lot more money to fight court battles with than you do.

    Booby traps are for guerrilla soldiers. They do not belong in American homes and businesses. If you try to use them, you will be the “boobv” who ultimately gets “trapped.” ‘

    1. Billybob

      Mr. James F
      Twenty five years ago I would have agreed.
      The Rule of Law no longer applies.
      The entire Court and justice system is a joke.
      Maybe it always has been, the more history I read the less respect I have for the system.

    2. John Distai

      To add to this, here is an article on such a story from 1990. Hognose cites the case:

      http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/22/us/booby-trap-death-brings-fine.html

      I recall this case, as it was in the local news for for several weeks. A guy in Denver had a shop full of tools. He was tired of people breaking in and stealing them. So he set a shotgun booby trap, which killed a youth who was up to no good. It did come back on him, and he pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

    3. Hognose Post author

      Strikes me as an educated (as in practically educated in the law) response. To that I’d add, while normal people may share this sentiment:

      I can empathize with the person who has had his home violated and seeks both revenge on burglars in general, and a painfully deterring experience for the next burglar in particular who chooses him for a victim. But booby traps are not the way.

      …few normal people have donned black robes for the past century or so. Not only have the robes ruled consistently against booby traps, they have ruled that personally waiting and shooting the sonsofbitches is murder.

      And having stuff that the Blips and the Cruds want to steal? That’s an “attractive nuisance,” and it’s your fault if they injure themselves stealing it.

      Stealing your $#!+ is apparently an entitlement for the criminal class. Thanks to their friends and allies, the lawyers.

    4. Hillbilly

      I wish I could remember when and where I read it, but as I recall it, there was a burglar making his getaway with the homeowners big screen TV and unable to see where he was going he fell into the swimming pool. The swimming pool had been drained for maintenance and he broke both of his arms and sued the homeowner because of it.

  7. Combat Adj

    Ah, the spring gun — a classic feature of first-year law school torts case law and hypotheticals. Interesting to see what they actually looked like.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Very cool. I clicked through to the quartet the curator who wrote it up plays in and discovered… baroque music, one of my favorites, in Cody, Wyoming. (Notably, most of their regular performance pieces are Christmas music… gotta keep body and soul together to play the Bach for those few of us who appreciate Dead White Euro Male Music.)

      1. John M.

        Whoa! Reference to Christmas music with no trigger warning. I need to go back to my safe space and turn up my Kwanzaa album until I feel better.

        -John M.

  8. Raoul Duke

    Hog:

    Thanks for the trail of breadcrumbs to the DDR’s SM-70 mine. I’d never heard of such a thing, and was intrigued by it’s history.

    Maybe an article on this site about the SM-70 would be a Good Thing?

  9. James F.

    In the 1983 Ayoob text I quoted above, Ayoob said “Booby traps are for guerrilla soldiers. They do not belong in American homes and businesses. ”

    I learn elsewhere on this site that thanks to Army lawyers, they’re not for “guerilla soldiers” anymore, either.

    In talking about Operation Red Wings, the “Lone Survivor” operation, Hognose wrote

    In the Vietnam war, long range patrols and particularly the SOG patrols into areas that were truly denied, both de facto and de jure, had an option that not only frequently allowed them to break contact and extract, but even to break contact and continue mission. That was the toe-poppers (M14 antipersonnel mines) or booby-trap-rigged Claymores (M18/M18A1 command-detonated mines hooked up to a tripwire) on their back trail. Many of the guys who survive today from SOG were saved by that very tactic. These defensive mines were forbidden by the staff judge advocates and they were actually collected from US SOF years before Operation Red Wings.

    In civilian life the issues are (a) recklessness, since you’re just as likely to kill the mailman or a meter reader, and (b) even if you shoot a bad guy, you’re shooting him over “mere property”, since if you’re not home to shoot him yourself, he’s not threatening your life.

    Under the Geneva Convention as practiced by Allied and German troops in WWII, minefields are supposed to be marked with a sign that says “Achtung! Minen!” or “Danger! Mines!” I suppose that’s what the SJA’s were thinking. Could someone tell them it’s the Current Year, and WWII ended in 1945?

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