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Few people like the idea of having things like booby traps around, because they have the effect of poisoning an environment to both sides. Even the most hardened and ruthless criminals don't usually like them. So fortunately they're not as common as they might be, at least during peacetime. This of course is why they're so effective when they are used: they're usually very much unexpected. To a booby trapper, anyone whose movements is more or less predictable and isn't expecting a booby trap is an easy target. Common methods of forced entry are a dream come true to a booby trapper and hitting a burglar is a piece of cake.
Booby trapping is an ancient martial art that seems to sleep most of the time, but awakens every so often to show its ugliness. In war, booby trapping is usually highly mechanized, in the form of mines and other explosive and incendiary devices. Sometimes people learn to make their own, in primitive workshops and use them effectively against well-equipped modern forces. In present day America, the old beast has a very small presence, mostly in the form of guards for illegal crops and that sort of thing.
History has shown booby trapping to be an inexpensive and destructive weapon, useful in sabotage, perimeter defense, psychological warfare, rear guard and other activities. Unlike firearms, there is no way booby traps can be registered, banned, confiscated, or controlled in any way, without the people themselves being controlled. Even if the liberal fantasy were to become reality and America were to become a police state, where only government officials had access to firearms and classified information (i.e., the news), there would still be booby traps. They might outlaw matches and restrict sales of gasoline and that sort of thing, but as long as there is any amount of freedom, booby traps will be available.
At present it would be impractical to adjust tactics around a largely nonexistent threat. But it is a good idea to at least know something about the nature of the threat and what to do about it if it does occur.
A booby trap is a ruthless killer/maimer that lays hiding until activated, and then attacks suddenly and viciously; it is fearless. It is also mindless; it has no memory; it can not be tortured and questioned. It doesn't sleep. It just lays there waiting. It is a weapon that allows its user to kill from a distance; in both space and time. It is also blind; it can not readjust its aim to hit a specific target. This is its weakness.
Booby traps are often used as guards. Some go bang just to give warning; some also attack, and so provide a rear guard mechanism, slowing the enemy by holding the threat of death over his head. How well they work depends on many variables, but only someone who is very stupid or very determined will move quickly through an area known to be booby trapped. Such a person makes a relatively easy target.
The greatest weakness booby traps have is that the eye of the killer is not on the target when his weapon fires. So a booby trap mechanic has to assume things about his target and aim his weapon according to those assumptions. The most dangerous behavior under a threat of booby traps, therefore, is behavior that is typical or predictable. Unfortunately, good tactics tend to be more or less typical, because the ones that are not like them aren't as good and everyone wants to use the best tactics they can.
A booby trapper deals with the problem of blindness in several ways. One is to cover the largest area possible; things like explosives and incendiaries work well in this regard. Guns can also cover a large area, depending on how big they are and how many there are. Since one trigger can activate any number of other triggers, a single action, such as kicking in a door, can cause a large area to be covered by a volley of fire. Pipe guns and black powder cannons are cheap and easy to rig. Actual firearms are even easier to rig. Automatic weapons can be set to sweep large areas by the mechanic controlling and channeling recoil energy. Flammable liquids and gasses can also be set to spill into large areas. An entire house can become a blazing inferno pretty quickly (remember Waco?); fires can originate from escape routes and the trigger can be set somewhere deep in the house.
There are also many ways that booby traps can be aimed by manipulating the target. Things like nail boards and booby trap-grenades are sometimes set at ambush sites, in defiles and other places people are likely to dive for when they are suddenly being shot at. Sometimes they are set in clusters (referred to as daisy chains), so that people who come to the aid of the first victim will also be hit. There are ways for one mechanism to control target position so that another one can make the kill, as though one hand holds the head against the ground as the other crushes the skull with a stone. Dummy tripwires that are obvious are sometimes used in this way. Sometimes a small explosion will be used to draw a crowd, and then a large explosion will attack the crowd. Time fuses are used in a number of ways.
Trails, defiles, streams, bridges, doors, windows, staircases, hallways, and other confined passageways are favorite sites for booby traps, because target position is easy to predict. Obstacles, such as a log lying across a road or a chair in front of a door or a closed door or window; anything that has to be moved in order to get beyond it, can be used to force a target to either not go beyond a certain point or activate a trigger. Bait used to control target position can take a thousand forms, from gold to guns to important looking documents to a hostage.
A booby trap can be completely invisible. Bullets and other projectiles can pass through walls and cover long distances; explosives can turn walls into shrapnel. Any section of floor or ground can be a hidden pitfall, especially if it has a cover, such as a rug, or dead leaves. Things that are standing might tip over; things that are hanging might fall. Any area that can't be seen might hold a hidden payload; things like dense foliage, bodies of water, the clutter of war, and darkness leave many such areas.
Triggers can be equally invisible. A skilled booby trapper can trigger virtually anything by slight pressure on a trip line made of sewing thread, which is fairly easy to hide. Virtually any trip line is invisible in darkness, tall grass, or under water. Things like floorboards, stepping stones, and soft dirt can be or hide pressure-plate triggers. Doors, windows, drawers, and other things that have to be moved to gain access to an area can be triggers. Anything that a person might pick up, such as a weapon, some kind of valuable, a souvenir, or something that evokes curiosity; anything that can be manipulated, such as a light switch or a vehicle, can be a trigger.
The most important booby trapping skill of all is the ability to empathize with the target. By imagining what the target will see, think, and do, the mechanic spins a web that will control and destroy him. Taking this ability away from the boobytrapper is how to make him fail.
OUTTHlNKING THE MECHANIC
Any movement in a booby trapped area involves great risk and should never be undertaken if there is any reasonable way to avoid it. But in a situation where there is no alternative to doing what no sane person would do willingly, there are at least ways to reduce the risk. First is to be alert to any irregularities in the environment; if there is a break in the continuity of something or if something just doesn't look right, be very suspicious. Beware of offered bait and don't let discovery of a trip line or some other booby trap component lead you to think you have found the one and only trap; there might be a pressure-plate trigger just on the other side of it or in a thousand other places. Keep contact with the environment to no more than what is essential. Avoid bunching up in a group; this can lead to multiple casualties. Likewise, if your buddy gets hit by a booby trap, don't go running to him blindly.
Booby traps have weaknesses that can be used to defeat them: they have to be aimed by assumptions; usually they can only fire one time, after which they are disarmed; sometimes they are only invisible from one direction; to be made well usually requires time, material, and skill, which are not always available.
How well these weaknesses can be exploited depends on how much time is available, whether or not booby traps are suspected, and how much if anything is known about the mechanic.
The first thing to do is what the booby trapper himself did: empathize with your opponent. Is it likely that he would have had time to run lines behind hollow walls and rig multiple payloads? Is it likely that he had access to explosives? How about firearms? They only take a short time to rig; pipe guns and black powder cannons take much longer. How skilled is the mechanic likely to be: has he ever been something like a home-improvement contractor or an electrician or a chemist? Does he have military experience, and if so, what kind?
Anything that compels you to approach it or pick it up, might be bait. This might be an open suitcase full of money, a rifle lying at the bottom of a staircase as though it fell there, food, water, or a number of other things. Things like wine bottles, souvenirs, and even children's toys have all been used as booby trap bait during wartime. The cardinal rule is: don't touch anything.
Anything that looks out of place or unusual, might be bait or something used to hide a
booby trap component. The more disordered an environment is the less anything looks out of
place. So risk in such cases is higher.
Usually one of the best ways to avoid booby traps is to travel by unexpected routes, but sometimes just the opposite might be the case. For example, a grower of illegal crops might want to use booby traps to guard his field, but not want to call attention to the trail that leads by the field; in such a case it would be best to stay on the trail and out of the field. But if booby traps have been set to slow or halt progress through an area rather than to protect certain specific places and you have to go through the area, it is best to avoid predictable passageways like trails and bridges. Doors, windows, hallways, and stairs can be avoided by cutting or blowing holes in walls, floors and ceilings.
In some situations it might be advisable to throw something like a sack of flour or heavy board through a doorway or onto a trail ahead. Two such objects might be used to leapfrog. If a door has to be opened, it is best to do it from the side and as far away as possible. Poles, rope grapnels and explosives can be used to open doors, move obstacles, test the ground, and so on. Short probes like knives and screwdrivers can be used to feel underground, but this is a very slow and dangerous process. Mirrors can be used to look through openings for booby trap rigging that might only be hidden from one direction.
Breaking out a basement window with a long stick, looking around carefully with a flashlight and mirror, then throwing something in to test the ground, in other words, is better than walking in through the front door, but not necessarily. Somebody might want to set a trap just for the type of person who would sneak in through a basement window and doesn't want to hit anybody, unless they come all the way in. There are certain general rules, but every situation is different.
If you have reason to suspect electrical booby traps, (which can be rigged very quickly and easily), it would be advisable to turn off the power from the outside before going in, if you can. But remember that there might be a generator inside or some other source of power that you hadn't thought of.
Any of the above is of course very risky and should only be done if there is no good alternative. Cover and distance should be used to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, it's difficult to know what a covered position is or what a safe distance is without knowing something about the booby trap that is waiting for you. Time fuses compound the problem.
HOW OTHERS DID IT
History provides a good example of widespread use of booby traps during peacetime and suggests ways to defeat them. In England in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, most rural land was divided up into a small number of country estates; cities and towns were filled with hungry people. So poaching and orchard-robbing were common. Landowners and their gamekeepers resorted to using what were called mantraps and spring-guns to deter this. Mantraps were large steel-jawed spring traps that would break a leg, usually leading to amputation. Spring-guns were small (i.e., four inch) black powder cannons with trip lines radiating out in multiple directions; pressure on the trip line would cause the cannon to swivel and align itself with the trip line, then fire. It would usually have multiple projectiles.
Just how effective these booby traps were was a subject of debate at the time they were in common use. It seems that innocent people, including friends and family of the landowner and gamekeeper, were more likely to be hit than were the poachers, who found ways to defeat the traps. This was no small feat on the part of the poachers, who were most active at night.
Poachers were known to use long poles to probe the ground ahead and throw logs ahead to use as stepping stones. They made deals with blacksmiths who made and sold mantraps (i.e., game or protection for information), and even with gamekeepers. There is a case on record of a gamekeeper being forced at sword point to walk ahead of a gang of poachers. Sometimes when a poacher found a trap he would move it, so that it would attack the trapper.
Just how well these methods apply to us now depends on certain variables. Certainly making a deal with someone in a position to know the nature and whereabouts of booby traps might save lives, if he could be trusted. Probes and things thrown ahead as stepping stones can be effective, but by no means guarantee safety. I don't know if I'd like the idea of making a booby trapper walk ahead of me to disarm his traps; he might be suicidal, but there are other ways to get information out of him.
The idea of sending someone in ahead to make the booby traps fire their (hopefully) single shot, might seem to have some merit. For example, it might be tempting for lazy drug enforcement agents to leak certain intelligence to get pot-heads and junkies to clear booby traps for them. Sending in cattle, dogs, or other animals would reduce the risk, but would also be inhumane and expensive. Driving a boobytrapper and his allies quickly through his own traps with tear gas or firepower might reduce your risk and perhaps even lead to poetic justice. But none of this could guarantee safe passage.
Fortunately, booby traps are rare enough that the above advice might never be needed, unless the situation changes. Usually they can be avoided and left to experts (and hopefully this article has demonstrated why it is such a good idea to do that). But in the unlikely event that you are forced to grapple with a booby trap mechanic on his turf, at least you can shift the odds a little more in your favor. That is, if you are lucky enough to be forewarned.
Lyle Whitney is author of The Black Book of Booby Traps, available from Desert Publications.
A booby trap is a warrior that jumps suddenly out of nowhere and attacks viciously. Like a religious fanatic it is suicidal; it will end its existence in one violent act. It is fearless and it doesn't feel pain; like the Terminator, it is virtually unstoppable. It can attack from a distance, in both space and time. As a sentry it can give warning, and provide a rear guard. This book will teach you how to recruit that warrior to your cause, and also make it more difficult for someone else to use it against you. The mechanisms covered in the book are made from common things. Be prepared to do whatever it takes to survive! Send $14.95 + $4.50 P&H to Desert Publications, PO Box 1751, El Dorado, AR 71731. (Arkansas residents add 6 1/2 % sales tax.)