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Updated on April 14, 2010

Traps and snares are devices to capture, maim, or kill a quarry. Traps and snares are often not differentiated in common use, though the latter term may be reserved for implements involving a noose.

Traps have been used from the earliest times as a means of environmental control. In addition to catching game and fish for food, for hides, and for other raw materials, they have helped control predators, both animal and human. Their great antiquity is attested by the fact that most types have a hemisphere-wide or worldwide distribution. Within the limits of archaeological preservation, virtually all traps of recent primitive men may be traced back thousands of years. Substantially few changes may be detected until the introduction of metallic traps in comparatively recent times.

Some authorities exclude from the category of true traps those that require the attendance of the trapper. While such devices occur, most traps are operated by the prey, if any release of energy is called for. Many traps, especially for fish, are passive in character, simply preventing the exit of an animal that enters freely. Attended traps are generally much simpler than unattended ones, as the former require only a rudimentary trigger mechanism.

The use of traps, even those attended, may facilitate the taking of game that cannot be caught in another manner. At the very least, the usual unattended trap multiplies the effective presence of the hunter, who may thus ambush many game trails and guard many den openings simultaneously.

Photo by Andrea Kratzenberg
Photo by Andrea Kratzenberg

Knowledge of Prey

The effective use of traps depends on a thorough knowledge of the habits, capabilities, and psychology of the prey. In this way a given trap, capable of catching a wide variety of game, may be set for a particular animal. Lacking this knowledge, or ignoring it, makes trapping a haphazard and unpredictable pursuit.

Primitive man made good use of this knowledge. For example, he would dig a shallow pitfall for elephants, knowing that they are unable to jump and hence cannot escape a confining depression. Similarly the docile behavior of a lynx caught in a neck noose simplified the construction of lynx traps. The blood lust of the wolf led to his undoing when he licked a bloodied knife blade frozen in the ice. His own bleeding urged him on and attracted other wolves, which would attack him and ultimately each other. A whole pack might be killed in the resulting melee.

Baits and lures appeal to numerous motivations- hunger, the sex drive, greed, aggressiveness, carelessness, and curiosity, among others. Food lures may include tethered live animals, while sex lures may consist of sexual parts or glandular substances. Even a sense of orderliness may lure a human prey, as witness the use during World War II of booby-trapped pictures hung askew.

Types of Traps

Traps may be classified according to the environment (for example, land traps), prey (animal traps, or rabbit traps), form (pitfalls), effect (enclosing, killing), or motive force (spring traps). A worldwide inventory of native traps would be virtually endless, but a few examples will illustrate the range encountered.

A simple type was a northern Mexican bird trap consisting of grains strung at intervals on a thread; when several fowls swallowed the different grains, they found themselves tied together and could not flee. The practice of bird liming, or placing loose adhesive-smeared sticks in roosting trees, has caught birds all over the world.

Nooses, pitfalls, and deadfalls, all basically simple, reached great complexity through elaboration of their trigger mechanisms. These traps were often set across game trails and operated by a treadle or trip cord. The triggers might involve multiple levers, lines, and toggles for their operation. Similar complicated mechanisms characterized set bows and related projectile traps; these traps, by means of a bent pole, a bow, or a crossbow, fired an arrow or spear into the animal setting them off. The set gun, or spring gun, is a modern version of this ancient trap.

It is noteworthy that primitive peoples often made complex traps for comparatively lowly prey. Crossbow traps might be made for mice. An equally complicated trap, resembling in some respects a modern gopher trap, was intended for worms.


Though trapping has been directed principally toward animals, man-trapping has occurred sporadically. This has been most effective in the jungle, where sharpened cane spines or set bows can be concealed along a trail. Modern jungle warfare has adopted these primitive weapons and added some of its own, such as land mines.

Man-trapping was a standard defense against poachers in the British Isles through the 19th century. Steel-jaw traps of great size were employed, often concealed in loose leaves and strong enough to keep a trapped man from freeing himself. The intent was to maim the victim and hold him until he could be removed for further punishment. Public sentiment forced abandonment of this technique in the early 20th century.

Steel Traps

From its appearance in the 18th century, the common steel-jaw trap has tended to displace other types, even among aboriginal peoples with well-developed traps of their own. The steel trap is portable, unlike most primitive traps, and is more durable, though relatively more expensive. Legal restrictions on the use of other traps have further strengthened the ascendancy of the steel trap.

Through several centuries the steel trap has undergone improvements, principally in the pan and trigger mechanism, but no major revision. The changes that have occurred are primarily to prevent the prey, usually held alive by one leg, from tearing or chewing itself free. One of the few modern advances in traps is found in the Conibear trap, which first appeared in 1957. This trap, deemed more humane than the common steel trap, kills an animal by squeezing it between two rigid wire bails.


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