Booby traps are perhaps the oldest weapon type we know of. Before we could make melee and projectile weapons, traps were the preferred way to catch game. Of course, a simple pre-historical trap from our hunter-gatherer days could hardly be compared to the elaborate – and deadly – mechanisms found in today’s booby traps, though the idea has always been more or less similar.
Of course, not all booby traps are equal, as it’s a broad definition to begin with, anyway. Something as simple as a buried knife in the ground could technically be called a booby trap, as it perfectly fits the definition. Simple booby traps, however, are not why we’re here today. Our focus for this one would be on the deadliest and most well thought-out traps in history, the ones that stand out for their ingenuity and effectiveness.
From the many uses of snakes in the Vietnam War to the elaborate, mysterious network of traps found underneath Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb, here’s the scariest and most effective booby traps ever deployed.
As most of us know by now, people in history were very touchy about what happens to them after they die. Cultures have come up with quite a few ways to protect their dead, from simply burying them with a bunch of gold hoping that it’s legal tender wherever they’re going, to outright sealing them up behind an escalating series of booby traps. While the former type of graves have all been looted in the years since, some of the latter ones still survive, though remain scattered across the world.
Take the cemeteries in Arlington, Texas as an example. Back in the 18th century, the town was hit by a wave of grave robberies, as there was suddenly an acute shortage of cadavers to experiment on. Medical schools were ready to do anything to get their hands on some dead people, which in turn massively raised their demand. To stop that, a bunch of cemeteries and private individuals started arming the graves of their loved ones with traps armed with guns, and you could still some of their remnants in the local museums. Looking at the level of technology back then, it’s surprising that the guns even worked, let alone worked well enough to keep the grave diggers away. Though we also know that this experiment was successful, as the robberies ceased immediately after the traps were set up.
6. Punji Stakes
If there was one conflict in history that was defined by ambushes and booby traps rather than conventional weaponry and tactics, it was the Vietnam War. One of the largest conflicts of the 20th century, it was a war that was almost completely fought from behind the shadows, at least on the Vietnamese side. It makes sense, too, as no Southeast Asian army is even close to matching the sheer firepower wielded by the United States of America on an open battlefield. Realizing this, their methods were rather based around inventive and craftily-placed booby traps meant to sow fear rather than outright kill. Some of them turned out to be quite successful, too, as they were aided by the natives’ extensive knowledge of the land and the invading force’s instinctive fear of venturing into the unknown.
Take the Punji Stakes as the perfect example, as they were by far the most infamous and feared of all the booby traps encountered by the American forces. These stakes – often sharpened to an unrealistic degree – were used in a variety of ways, most commonly in the form of camouflaged pits of stakes spiked with highly-infectious biological agents like human excreta and snake venom. Of course, they’d be covered with what would look like solid ground which was anything but; a realization that dawned on the victims as soon as they tripped in. They were so successful that about 2% of all allied injuries during the war came from them, and have since been used in many other guerrilla campaigns around the world.
5. Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb
Ancient tombs full of riches and locked behind elaborate and escalating series of booby traps have been a part of our popular fiction for a while, even though it’s almost impossible to access any of them (or we would have). Indiana Jones makes it seem easy, though just the fact that these tombs are sealed even after millenia of grave-digging and archeological expeditions tells us that they may not be as accessible after all.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is the tomb of the first Emperor of China – Qin Shi Huang. For those who are familiar with it, this is the same compound that houses the famous, life-sized Terracotta Army, and has been a global tourist attraction ever since it was first discovered. According to the researchers working on it, though, that’s where the party ends, as venturing any further would probably not be the best idea.
Recent discoveries suggest that there are many more things to be discovered underneath the compound, though no one wants to go in first because of the deadly booby traps described in the ancient texts. While we’re not sure if the traps are even there, the texts are spot on about everything else in the compound, so make of that what you will.
For the American GIs fighting in the Vietnam War, it was a rather diverse platter of insurmountable problems to choose from, ranging from fighting an invisible enemy that seemingly never sleeps to the various tropical viruses and bacteria that call the jungles of Vietnam home. If the traps or enemy soldiers didn’t get them, the malaria would, as the jungle was teaming with diseases that the Americans had no natural immunity towards.
One problem that kept reappearing in various forms, however, was that of the snakes, something you could only see the gravity of once you visit Vietnam. Apart from being a difficult country to traverse through due to its terrain, Vietnam is also home to many of the world’s deadliest snakes; a fact natives knew only too well and used to their full advantage throughout the conflict.
Snake pits – similar to the punji stakes above, only with poisonous snakes instead of stakes – were perhaps the most fearsome of all the snake-based traps, though they weren’t the only one. Snakes were used in a variety of ways, the simplest being just putting them in backpacks and leaving them around abandoned settlements, waiting for anyone foolish enough to search them for supplies.
3. Photo Frames
While it’s true that booby traps deployed during wartime can be deadly and psychologically damaging, their effects are limited to the lower ranks of most armies. Experienced officers are too smart to fall for, say, expensive German chocolates just lying around, making it incredibly difficult to design booby traps for them. The Nazis understood this, and came up with a way to entice them through other ways, like art. As you can guess from the topic of this list, they were quite successful at it, too.
If you were an officer taking back the German-held territories during the ending stages of the Second World War, chances are that you’d have come across quite a few works of art, especially in the more affluent parts of the towns. You’d look at them and may even lament on the tragedy of something so beautiful existing amidst something so destructive. It’s completely understandable, though if you ever saw one that was tilted on its place on the wall, you’d better step as far away as you could. It’s almost definitely a booby trap.
When the Germans were retreating from cities across Europe, they made sure to rig expensive art on the walls with explosives set to trigger on the slightest movement, only leaving them a bit tilted when they were done. They were specifically designed to take the higher-ups of the Allied forces out – as the Germans (accurately) suspected that only senior officers would care about a skewed painting enough to straighten it.
2. Cartridge Trap
When we talk about bullets and cartridges, we assume that they’re meant to be fired with guns. In fact – other than the salvageable parts – bullets are entirely useless without them, a fact that didn’t sit too well with the local forces in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. To challenge the notion, they came up with the Cartridge Trap: a rather clever trap that turned the ground into an upward-firing gun as soon as you stepped on it.
The cartridge would be encased inside a small piece of bamboo and placed on top of a firing pin, with a small wooden board acting as its permanent base and the whole setup camouflaged below a piece of bamboo slat. As you’d expect, any unsuspecting victim unlucky enough to step on the thing would be greeted with a wide, gaping hole in his foot, which would also immediately lower the morale of the whole unit.
For anyone who thinks that getting shot in the foot is a much better deal than dying, it’s intentional. Much like all the other booby traps deployed by the North Vietnamese forces in the war, this one was also meant to incapacitate and not kill, as it’s way more costly to treat an injured soldier than bury him.
1. The Deadly ‘Double Trap’
By now, it’s clear that some booby traps used in history have also been some of the best and most effective weapons we have ever made, even if they’re more suited to an irregular style of fighting than conventional wars. While it’s highly debatable if they could ever match the sheer firepower of, say, an assault rifle, their utility is more psychological than physical. The traps used in Vietnam, for example, managed to instill a deep-seated sense of horror around every corner among the allied forces, forcing them to eventually retreat.
The most effective booby traps, though, are the double-sided ones; the ones designed keeping the enemy’s awareness of previous booby traps in mind. For example, one anecdotal incident from WW2 tells the story of an officer who – upon encountering an expensive gun and suspecting it to be a trap – jumped into a nearby trench to save himself. Unbeknownst to him, the German soldiers had already anticipated this reaction, and had actually rigged the trenches with explosives.