By Andrew Westcott
Index Of Sub-headings:
Introduction To The Gin Trap
The Anatomy Of A Gin Trap
How To Measure & Describe A Trap
Different Designs Of Gin Trap
Variations In Gin Trap Construction
Chains, Swivels And Stakes
Examples Of Humane Trap Designs
Using The Gin Trap Against Rabbits
Further Reading & Links
I'm not an expert on traps, but I do have a great interest in them along with other rural antiques. I like to search out additions to my collection along with information on them, so if you've found an old gin trap you'd like to sell, get in contact using the e-mail address below, send me some decent images of it, and we can discuss what we think it's worth.
E-mail Andy at:
The term 'gin trap' generally refers to a mechanical device designed to catch an animal by the leg or head using spring operated jaws. The word 'gin' is believed to have come from the word 'engine' which was used centuries ago to describe any mechanical device, and as I understand it some literature from around the 17th century referred to traps as 'engines'. The word 'gin' entered our language presumably as a result illiteracy, mishearing of the word 'engine' or simple laziness of speech, and as is so often the case with the English language, eventually became accepted as a noun in its own right.
Steel spring traps have probably been in use in some form or another since the technique of tempering steel in order to create a spring was developed, although it has been said that the first mention of a steel trap bearing any similarity to the gin traps described here appears in literature dating from the late 16th century. A wide variety of designs have since evolved based on differing ideas and the intended target species, ranging from the tiny kingfisher trap through the range of common vermin traps and pole traps right up to the large predator traps, not forgetting the man trap.
There was a time not so long ago when there were many UK manufacturers producing traps for the home market, and also for export throughout the world. There were a number of factors involved in the gradual decline of trap production here in the UK, although there were three major laws introduced concerning the use of gin traps which had an impact on the trap making industry to some degree or another.
Firstly, a bill was passed in 1827 banning the use of man traps and spring guns, making it illegal to set such devices in order to help protect property against poachers.
Secondly, in 1904 it became illegal to set a trap in an elevated position with the intention of catching birds, this doubtlessly having an affect on the manufacture of pole traps intended for this purpose although it is interesting to note that many manufacturers continued to offer 'round traps', so we can only assume that some purchasers intended to use them illegally.
Without doubt though, the legislation responsible for the greatest upheaval in the industry came into force on the 31st of July, 1958 after a 4-year amnesty period, when it became illegal in England (1971 in Scotland) to use any kind of trap designed to restrain an animal by the leg using steel jaws, and the only spring traps allowed to be used after this date were those which had been approved as being humane, which required them to be of the instant kill variety, and then only when set according to strict guidelines.
Although this latest law had a big impact on what was left of the trap-making industry, it was already in serious decline as a result of the arrival of myxomatosis, a virus which was highly infectious and generally fatal to rabbits. It is suspected that the disease arrived in the UK from France during 1953 and so devastating did it prove to be, that around 99% of wild rabbits succumbed to the disease. Obviously, with the much reduced rabbit numbers present in the wild, there was no longer the urgent need to control them by trapping, therefore trap sales fell drastically.
The classic gin trap design is simple and effective, consisting essentially of just a pair of jaws held closed by spring tension, and a triggering mechanism. This design has been well proven in the field and later designs are masterpieces of simple mechanical efficiency. The two diagrams below illustrate the component parts of a typical gin trap; the names I have used for the components are those used by the manufacturers, as it seems sensible to retain that naming convention.
The whole trap is constructed upon a base consisting of a bar of steel, this is known as the stock bar. This stock bar has a stock head and a stock end, the head usually being bent up at the end to form one of the standards, or hinge points, for the jaws, and the stock end usually having a hole punched in it for the purpose of fastening a chain. A powerful spring would be attached to the stock by the large spring rivet. The spring in the case of the trap pictured takes the form of the classic bow spring, and you will notice that as we move towards the jaws the spring narrows in width and thickens in depth somewhat to form what is known as the spring neck. At the end of the spring would be formed an eye, for the purpose of closing the jaws. Most traps of this design have a shorter bar riveted to the stock at right angles, and under the jaw region. This is known as the bridge and is used to support the fittings for the plate and bent up at the bridge head to support the fittings for the tongue, which would be designed to engage the till on the plate in order to set the trap.
If you are considering selling a trap, please resist the temptation to set it as there is a distinct possibility that a very old and rusty spring may break if depressed or at least permanently bend. If the spring breaks it renders the trap worthless, and a trap with a weak or bent spring is worth a mere fraction of what it would have been, so the best advice would be to not mess with it at all, no matter how tempting it seems.
When describing the trap, include the jaw measurement: the diagram here shows where the jaw measurement should be taken, and as can be seen this is actually between the insides of the two jaw supports, rather than the jaws themselves, and the measurement should be to the nearest quarter of an inch.
The overall length of the trap should be stated and it should be examined for any identifying marks or stampings which wouldn't be visible in a photograph, these being usually found on the neck of the spring, on the plate, or on the upper or lower surface of the tongue but resist the temptation to get to work with a wire brush or similar in an attempt to make a name more readable.
Don't attempt to clean a trap in any way, as collectors will have their own ideas on how to treat and preserve the trap once purchased; careless abrasion can obliterate remains of name stamps, turning that as yet unidentified rare trap into something to hang on a pub wall. Gin traps are becoming fewer in number as many continue to find their way to the scrap yards or rust away beyond recovery in damp barns as happened to this pole trap; some even get destroyed or 'deactivated' by well-meaning individuals.
The idea of spring-operated jaws was such a success that the design was universally accepted, and many different patterns emerged for dealing with the unique problems associated with catching a particular species. Image No. 6 shows a design known as a pole trap, this particular one being fairly large, the serrated jaws measuring 5 inches between the supports. Image No. 7 is also of a pole trap, but this one has smooth jaws, a feature apparently intended to reduce a bird's injuries. Some companies went a stage further and offered traps with jaws padded with 'India rubber'.
The design of a pole trap is somewhat different to a normal gin trap in as much as it is designed around a circular base, but as with other gins, they were available in a range of sizes. The larger traps would normally have been used for catching birds of prey, and would usually be set on the top of an old tree stump or wooden pole which is how the name originated. Buzzards and the like were considered unwelcome by gamekeepers as they were known to kill and feed on young game birds so careful observation would be used to locate sites where a bird would regularly perch, either for plucking its prey or for hunting, and a trap positioned and set accordingly, with its chain secured to prevent the trap being dragged away. The bird, upon landing on the top of the pole would trigger the trap and be caught by the legs.
Kingfisher traps are probably the smallest pole trap manufactured in the UK and typically have a jaw measurement of just 2 inches, and this small size is illustrated by the one pictured sitting on my hand in image No. 8. Kingfisher traps, as the name may suggest, were used to trap kingfishers, which if present in sufficient numbers were perceived as a threat to fish stocks, although it is difficult to imagine such a tiny bird doing any real damage. Taxidermists of the time also expressed an interest in the colourful birds, and without doubt many were caught to end up in display cabinets or to have their feathers used for fishing lures.
Kingfishers tend to patrol a certain stretch of river in their pursuit of prey, and in doing so flit from one overhanging bough to another whilst on the lookout for prey. This predictable habit would prove to be the undoing of many, as a kingfisher trap would be secured on a likely landing point on a branch, usually the highest part of a horizontal bough, and when the bird alighted there it would be caught by the legs. Due to their highly specific purpose, kingfisher traps are relatively uncommon although they do turn up for sale from time to time.
The impressive beast shown in image No. 9 is of a rather large type of gin trap intended for large predators and measures around 4 feet long with 16 inch jaws. Examples of these can occasionally be seen in museums described as man traps, and although there is no doubt that the trap is large enough to catch a person by the leg, this is not its intended function. It is generally believed that this trap was designed to catch the predator by the neck as it investigated the meat the trap would have been baited with, as illustrated in the painting below.
The above image dates from 1814, and despite the rather poor non-technical interpretation of the trap, it clearly shows the wolf having been caught by the neck, suggesting this was the norm. (Unfortunately I don't know who to credit for this image, as it is widely available on the internet.)
Regarding this type of trap being mistaken for a man trap, there are a few ways of determining that this is not one: looking at the ends of the springs you can see a pair of metal loops, one on each end. These 'setters' could be slid up over a depressed spring to retain it, making the trap easier to set. Obviously, a true man trap wouldn't incorporate such a feature which may allow the trapped person to depress the springs one at a time, locking them down in order to release himself.
Another clue is the plate or treadle, which is mounted on a pair of pivots and tips sideways to release the tongue when triggered. The treadle itself sports some vicious-looking spikes, and they are there purely for the purpose of securing a piece of meat or the carcass of a small animal into place to act as bait. Obviously not a required feature on a man trap.
Man traps tend to be quite flimsy in build, simply because a trapped man doesn't struggle and pull at the trap in the same way that a trapped animal would. Some even incorporated a ratchet and locking mechanism to prevent the victim or his companions opening the trap.
A common application of the gin trap was in the control of smaller ground vermin in its various forms, such as rats, mice, weasels and stoats. Image No. 10 illustrates a pair of typical small vermin traps, known as run traps, as sold by most of the trap manufacturers and a typical jaw size for these traps would range from between two and a half inches to four inches or so.
Characteristic of this type of trap are the small saw-like teeth cut into the jaws, and the plate with holes punched in it to facilitate fixing bait to the trap in order to help lure the animal, in the hope of a fatal head catch rather than a leg catch. A head catch was preferable partly due to the more humane instant-kill nature of such a catch, but also because rats in particular were notorious for wringing off a leg in order to escape. The traps illustrated here both have curved jaws and flat springs complete with setters, flat springs often being preferred as when set, the trap has a very low profile. Run traps can also be found with square jaws and the more conventional bow spring, the manufacturers of the time often offering a choice of combinations for different prices.
Image No. 11 shows an unusual alternative to the conventional leg-hold trap - this is a Douglas Improved humane rabbit trap. If you click the link under the image, you an examine a larger photo; in it you can see how much of the standard design found in gin traps was incorporated into this design. There is the typical stock bar with the spring riveted to it in the usual manner. Even the eye of the spring is constructed in the same manner, but where this trap differs is in the way it catches rabbits: the spring is depressed and held in position by the familiar till and tongue arrangement. A careful look will show a pair of 'outriggers' either side of the plate, and these act as anchorage points for a replaceable length of wire which forms a loop. When the trap was set into the ground in the manner of a regular gin trap, the loop would protrude through the slot in the crossbar at the end of the spring, and the wire would be adjusted to merge into the undergrowth.
On being sprung, the crossbar slot would rise up the loop of wire, trapping the rabbit between it and the top of the loop although I'm unsure whether it was intended for the trap to kill the rabbit or simply restrain it without injury. An old trapper I used to be in communication with (sadly now deceased) told me that he used 14 gauge copper wire for the loop as it was easy to fasten to the anchors and to bend into position when setting the trap. He said he didn't get on well with this design, and simply preferred a conventional gin. Not many examples were made of this trap, and it does seem that it never became popular with the trappers of the day. Worth mentioning is that earlier models of this trap had a rigid steel loop permanently fixed to the base, and no guiding slot in the spring's cross-bar - it simply sprung up against the loop. Presumably the changes seen in this example were as a result of negative comments about the original design.
Image No. 12 shows another adaption of the traditional gin trap maker's skill. This is the Everitt rat trap, stamped on the neck of the spring with H. LANE, the manufacturer. As can be seen, this trap features the familiar gin trap style spring, plate and till, but instead of closing a pair of jaws, the eye is fixed to a pair of serrated prongs which rise within slots in the galvanised steel artificial tunnel.
Rats tend to move around in relative security by keeping close to walls and other such boundaries, and this trap would be set with the prongs facing a boundary where a potential run may be, there would not necessarily be any bait involved. The rat would pass through the artificial tunnel whilst out foraging, pressing down the plate as it did so. This would release the spring which would rapidly lift the prongs to the roof of the tunnel, trapping it.
I understand that these were fairly popular and effective against rats, weasels and stoats, but apparently did not have an overly long operational life if left outside due to corrosion of the sheet steel forming the artificial tunnel despite the galvanising, therefore good examples are becoming somewhat thin on the ground.
There are a great many variations in the design of gin traps and the methods used to manufacture them, and the first variation I'll deal with here concerns the design of spring used.
In the early days of trap manufacture, springs were entirely hand-made, being heated in a forge and beaten into shape on an anvil before being subjected to some rather dubious hardening and tempering techniques, resulting in a type of spring known interestingly enough as a forged spring. The earliest traps used what is known as a flat spring as shown in image No. 13, which was all but superceded by more efficient types, although this design was still being incorporated into certain small vermin traps and even the largest lion traps as exported to Africa right up until production ceased. The early flat springs had a reputation for rapidly becoming weakened, although I strongly suspect this had more to do with the poor tempering techniques used in the earlier traps rather than a basic design problem.
A slightly later modification consisted of folding the spring over by 180° to create what is known as a bow spring, this enabling a longer spring to be incorporated into a physically shorter length. This design of spring became pretty much the industry standard throughout the trap making years, and proved to be more effective and resistant to wear than the old flat springs.
The final evolution occurred with the introduction of the coiled wire spring, as shown in image No. 14. This design uses a rather more modern looking spring than the others, made as it is of stout spring steel wire wound into a coil, one end being anchored onto the stock end, the other formed into a loop to create the eye. This idea had important benefits over the other types in as much that it was more resistant to weakening by use or rust because of its increased thickness and lower deflection per unit length, and it had a greater overall travel which meant the force of the spring remained much more constant over the length of its range of operation leading to higher force being exerted by the jaws in the closed position.
Image No. 15 shows an old style forged spring. The method of producing forged springs may be of interest so I'll describe it briefly here. Initially a bar of spring steel would be obtained, and a piece of ordinary iron would be forge welded onto the end of it. With a great deal of work with the forge and hammer the iron end would be split, opened out, and the two resulting prongs bent inwards again to form the spring's eye, and worked to obtain the required shape.
This process required many heating phases, was very time consuming and produced springs which although similar to look at, were all unique in their own small way, but at the time it was the only way to get the job done. As can be seen in the photograph the welding of the two parts of the spring often leaves a noticeable join mark on the underside of the spring. Once finished, the newly formed spring would be heated to orange heat, then quenched in water to harden it. It would then undergo further treatment to produce the required springiness by reheating the spring to a specific temperature for a certain length of time to 'draw the temper', a mysterious and critical process little understood by those outside the industry.
Over time, trap manufacturers became aware of the benefits of making some of the trap parts by machine and many of the larger companies invested heavily in the equipment to do so, with only the smaller companies being forced to continue down the hand-made route by having insufficient funding for the expensive machinery or the tooling for them.
One result of this was a gradual change in the springs used, as rather than having to be hand made, they could now be stamped out and shaped entirely by machine, leading to improved quality and uniformity which in the longer term meant a better product. An example of a pressed steel spring is shown in image No. 16, and as can be seen the spring is dished upwards in cross section (embossed) to reduce flexure at this point, and there is no evidence of the join found on forged springs.
Another way traps can vary is in the design of the jaws; some may have teeth cut into the edges, have spiked teeth riveted on the top surface or underside, and where the teeth are stamped as part of the jaw itself, there is variation in the form, such as whether or not the teeth are fully interlocking or only partly so and some jaws are smooth with no teeth at all.
However, despite so many differences in design, jaws can be sub-divided basically into two main categories, those that are either flat or those with a reinforcing ridge, both types being shown in image No. 17, with the ridged jaws on the left and the flat jaws on the right. The ridges were incorporated as reinforcements to the jaws making them less susceptible to flexing, but as this shape had to be specially created the costs were somewhat higher and this design feature was usually limited to the more expensive and better quality trap. Flat jaws were much simpler to make and could be easily stamped out of metal sheet and were therefore cheaper and so are often found to be a feature of traps at the cheaper end of the range or the smaller vermin traps.
Some traps were designed in such a way that a small gap would be left between the jaws when fully closed, this accomplished by the design and shape of the jaws themselves and such designs were described as having 'offset jaws'. This feature, although commonly seen in American traps is very uncommon in British traps and very few manufacturers incorporated the idea. The feature can be found on some versions of the once popular and still very common 4 inch 'LI-LO' wire spring trap, and image No. 18 illustrates this.
Offset jaws would be considered a good idea for a number of reasons depending on who you asked. One view is that it was considered more humane to not have the jaws slam completely shut on the leg, breaking bones and cutting skin, the intentional gap preventing this. Another view was again concerned with leg damage but for a different reason, the intention being to minimise the damage to the leg bone and tissue which in turn reduced the chances of the animal pulling its leg off completely and escaping, albeit to possibly die later.
Looking at it from a more technical viewpoint, an offset would allow the jaws to close to a greater degree on a leg of a given thickness, as the jaws would no longer be held apart by the leg to such a degree as with conventional jaws, and this would allow the spring to rise further up its travel making for a more secure catch with far less chance of the jaws being opened. Interestingly, in Britain later types of man trap were also made with large offsets on toothless jaws to reduce the damage to an entrapped leg, as many of the catches turned out to be innocent people - those out walking or children playing in the woods, and such was the outrage shown by the general public concerning the horrific injuries inflicted by the old style man trap that the design needed to be re-thought.
Several interesting variations between traps can be found involving the trigger mechanism. One feature of the better class of trap was the use of a brass tongue and till rather than having these components made out of steel, the benefit of this was chiefly to eliminate the chances of the mechanism rusting up if left set for any length of time, but also a brass trigger mechanism had a smoother action, the brass pieces sliding smoothly over each other rather than grating as rusted steel components would tend to do.
On occasion, the avid gin trap collector may be fortunate enough to encounter a rather different style of triggering mechanism to that normally fitted to a gin trap, as several manufacturers experimented with trying to simplify or improve the mechanism in order to either boost performance or to reduce costs. Many interesting ideas were tried and incorporated into production models and one such idea was that patented by Roberts in 1932, and image No. 19 shows one such Roberts Dogless trap which in this case involved the elimination of the tongue, or 'dog' as it is known as in America, and relied on the opened jaws engaging an elongated till directly. The advantage of this design was that the trap was simpler and therefore cheaper to manufacture, lighter and narrower in the bridge, and easier to set as only the plate had to be lifted into position.
The trap pictured in image No. 20 shows another approach to designing a trigger mechanism which went a stage further than the 'dogless' design. This trap is a typical 'run trap' having a flat spring and a jaw measurement of 3 and a quarter inches, but is unusual in that not only does it have no tongue, but it has no bridge either, the plate being mounted directly to the stock and the till on the plate being positioned to engage directly with the eye of the spring, simplifying the design pretty much as far as was possible.
The advantages were similar to the previous example - with fewer parts to make and assemble, the trap was cheaper to manufacture, and presumably cheaper to buy. One disadvantage of this design was the high force placed on the till by the spring, as it didn't benefit from the force being divided down by the action of the leverage of the jaw and tongue assembly, resulting in a high wear rate. There was also no scope for adjustment in the trigger action and so once worn, the trap became virtually useless. Despite this design possibly being cheaper to buy, I can only assume that they had certain operational issues in the field as they were never widely accepted by trappers of the day and relatively few were manufactured in comparison to the conventional tongue and till arrangement.
Many apparently pointless patents were filed in connection with the design of traps, it being difficult to understand where the benefits, if any, of some of the designs lay, and it is easy to believe that designers of the time were almost filing patents for the sake of it. However, where such oddities made it through to production, it does add interest for the collector.
Patents aside, another variation on the normal trap design which is also easy for the novice to overlook is the extended stock. An example of this detail is pictured in image No. 21 with a conventional trap on the left and the extended stock on the right. It consists of a departure from the usual practice of bending up the stock head to form one of the jaw standards, and instead the stock remains straight and a second standard is fitted on which to hinge the jaws. This construction method leaves a small amount of stock bar protruding and according to various adverts of the time had the benefit of offering added protection to the jaw mountings in the event of the trap being dropped end down, which presumably happened frequently enough and ran sufficient risk of damaging the trap to warrant the extra cost of manufacture and purchase.
Any gin trap would have required some form of securing to prevent the captured animal or a predator dragging the trap away causing it to be lost, and the usual way of achieving this would be to chain it to a wooden or metal stake driven into the ground, the chain and stake usually supplied already attached to a new trap. The chain would need some kind of swivel link along its length to allow the chain to twist as the unfortunate animal struggled to free itself, as if the chain became kinked it might be possible for the chain to be broken or the stake be levered out of the ground, resulting in the loss of both the captured animal and the trap.
Image No. 22 shows three different styles of swivel often found on trap chains, the top one being the most common twisted wire design, the middle being a more expensive and stronger cast type and the bottom is an example of a 'box swivel', patented by Lane's and found on some of their wire spring traps, amongst others.
Image No. 23 shows a random selection of stakes fitted to gin traps, and here it is possible to get an idea of the wide variety of designs and styles to be encountered. The top two stakes pictured are manufactured from square section steel and as with any style of stake would have been offered in different lengths, the longer lengths useful for securing a trap in sandy soil. The top one has had the tip ground to a point whereas the second has been heated and hammered flat to create the point. The third stake from the top is made of round section steel rod, and as with the other two, the top has been heated and curved over to produce a loop in order that the chain may be secured.
The odd one out here is the bottom stake, in as much that it is made out of wood, with a large staple having been driven through the wood and the protruding ends bent over to secure it. So why use wood? This stake was probably home-made, but may also have been a cheaper and lighter option offered to buyers. A wooden stake may have been inferior in strength and would have had a shorter useful life as compared to the steel ones, but certain opinions suggest wooden stakes were in fact more secure, being more difficult to pull from the ground on account of their extra width.
Once the legislation of 1958 had come into force and conventional leg-hold traps had been outlawed, trappers were rather limited in their choice of trap. It now had to be one of the few designs approved under the Spring Traps Approval Order, and most of these designs favoured the method of clamping the body of the target animal between a pair of spring loaded arms or jaws, this method proving to be effective in catching the animal and also of ensuring a quick kill.
Such a trap is the Juby trap, and image No. 24 shows two models, the Mk1 and the Mk2 with the Mk1 on the left. A look at the high resolution image will reveal the differences between the two versions, the main differences being the rather more complicated and prototype-like assembly found in the relatively rare Mk1, such as the way the ends of the coiled springs are brazed to the angle-iron base, the hinges for the jaws are welded to the base, and a lug is welded on to the right-hand arm. Also, the safety catch is a welded construction rather than simply bent wire. The Mk2 version has been adapted for high volume production by using a cast base and the jaw hinges making use of the ends of the springs as they pass through holes in the base. The jaws are also cast or stamped, and bear part numbers visible in the photo. The Juby was, despite the modifications seen here to ease production costs, a fairly expensive trap to produce but highly effective in the field.
A cheaper alternative to the Juby was the Imbra trap as shown in image No. 25. Broadly similar in design and appearance and easily confused if you are unfamiliar with the differences, this trap was easier to manufacture and lighter in the field, but proved equally effective. Pictured here are two versions of the Imbra, once again the Mk1 and the Mk2, with the Mk1 on the left. There are only minor differences this time which represent streamlining in manufacture and the most obvious is the change to the way the left-hand jaw is hinged, and the spring being attached to one jaw only. The earlier Mk1 relied on spring force to keep the jaws located with the possibility of them becoming misaligned, but this had been rectified in the Mk2 by using a cotter pin to locate the jaw at the fulcrum. The right-hand jaw in both versions has a slot which the other jaw passes through, similar to the Juby.
Image No. 26 shows a Sawyer rabbit trap, in this case the Mk1 version. Once again it uses the tried and tested configuration of two opposing spring-loaded jaws to catch and kill the rabbit. In 1874 the RSPCA, in the first of several competitions launched in an attempt to speed up the emergence of a truly humane killer trap offered an initial prize of £50 to anyone who could design a suitably efficient device.
Many designs were offered over the years for testing but it was eventually the Sawyer trap which finally won the competition in 1946, taking the prize which then stood at £300. It is an elegant trap of lightweight construction although not overly common these days as corrosion takes its toll over the years. This trap, as are all of the humane instant-kill traps shown here, perfectly legal to use if anyone was so inclined.
Image No. 27 shows an early rabbit trap marketed by Fenn - the Fenn Mk1 rabbit trap. This early version used rounded jaws as can be seen, which would be opened up to set the trap. Once triggered, the jaws would clamp hard around the rabbit's body, rapidly killing it. I believe the only UK trap manufacturer still making spring jawed traps suitable for catching anything larger than a mouse is DB Springs Ltd, who now manufacture the tried and tested Fenn range with permission of Mr G Fenn, consisting of the Fenn Mk 4 for small vermin, and the Fenn Mk 6 for rabbits.
Humane trap designs weren't always required to kill the target animal, and a live catch was seen as preferable by many people so some interesting ideas emerged to enable this to be done with the minimum of suffering. One example of such an approach is the leg snare. Several manufacturers experimented with producing traps like this, most of them being broadly similar in design.
Image No. 28 shows a nice example, in this case the Phelps Mk2 leg snare. The operation is fairly simple, with a powerful spring being held compressed using the tongue, till and plate system until an animal stepped on the plate, whereupon the spring ends would be released to rapidly move apart pulling the noose tight around the animal's leg.
Image No. 29 shows detail of the noose chain, with the penny for scale. As can be seen, the chain is delicate in nature complete with its tiny swivel. The chain passes through the brass loop to form the noose, and the other end has a brass washer and split ring to secure it to the other end of the sprung arms. The split ring can be moved up the chain to facilitate adjustment, ensuring the rabbit was held securely but not injured.
Image No. 30 shows detail of the name stamped into the plate - "THE PHELPS', along with the patent number 397268. This example still has most of its original black paint, but complete traps in this condition are rare. My thoughts on this design are that it was not very popular with trappers and as a result relatively few were sold. As the trap came in two parts it was easy for one part to be mislaid, rendering the remaining part useless and the noose chain appears very fragile, almost jewellery-grade in nature, so I would suspect that breakages were common. Odd parts of this type of trap do occasionally surface, but it is rare to find a complete working example of the Phelps leg snare nowadays.
The ongoing war against vermin has given rise to some ingenious trap designs, probably none more so than in the area of mole control. Moles are very secretive and because of their habit of living an almost entirely underground existence, special trap designs had to be employed to destroy them. To illustrate the lengths people would go to remove a troublesome mole, certain devices known as mole guns were manufactured to discharge a rifle or shotgun round at the mole when triggered. A case of overkill perhaps?
Image No. 31 is of an interesting design of spring mole trap known as the 'Anglo Impassable', the Mk2 in this case, resplendent in its protective aluminium paint. (Not for the purists, but it is easy to remove and does offer protection.) For reference, the main difference between what collectors refer to as the Mk1 & the Mk2 is that the top of the spring rod of the Mk1 is bent around to form a loop, whereas in the Mk2 the loop is complete and of forged manufacture.
This trap uses a quite spectacular method of dispatching the mole: moles sometimes create a run just under the surface of the grass raising the turf as they do so, and if a small section is flattened with the foot, next time the mole travels the tunnel he will re-open the tunnel by re-lifting the turf, and this trap makes use of this fact. The assembly bearing the six sharp spikes would be drawn upwards against the coil spring, being retained by a plate and lever assembly. The trap's two ground spikes would then be pushed into the soil either side and directly above the flattened mole run in such a way that the trigger plate would rest on the surface of the flattened run. When the unfortunate mole attempted to push through the flattened section of tunnel the trigger plate would be forced upwards, releasing a catch which in turn would release the six spikes which would slam down guillotine style through the ground impaling the victim in its tunnel, quickly killing it. Apparently this trap didn't find much favour with professional mole catchers as the spikes would damage the pelt, rendering it worthless.
Image No. 32 is of a conventional humane mole trap. This type of trap is fairly common and legal to use, and the design has changed little over the decades so it can be difficult distinguishing the old from the new as condition alone can be a poor indicator of age. The main variations to be seen are in the design of the spring, the example here having a coiled compression spring, but most often seen are the types with two flat springs acting against each other.
To set a trap of this design you simply squeeze the handles together to open the jaws and insert the trigger ring between them to keep them apart. The trap would then be placed in a partially excavated mole run, and when the mole encountered the ring, it would believe it had encountered an obstruction and try to force itself through it, dislodging the ring from between the jaws allowing them to close, crushing the body of the mole resulting, hopefully, in near instantaneous death. This was a bloodless method of dispatching the mole, leaving the pelt in good condition.
The classic gin trap could be set either at the entrance to burrows or in the runs, but successful trapping relied on the trapper understanding how to correctly deploy his traps, and in the main this required the trap to be hidden from view. This would generally be achieved by excavating an area of earth just large enough and deep enough to allow the set trap to sit within the recess, which would then be gently concealed by sprinkling earth over it to bring the surface back up to its original level, completely hiding the trap. Rabbits tend to leave their burrows in a predictable manner, positioning their feet in precisely the same place time after time, so an experienced trapper would set his traps in such a way that the plate of the trap coincided with where the rabbits' feet would touch the ground.
I was born some time after gin traps were made illegal to use and so have no direct knowledge of the lifestyle or methods of a typical trapper, but there are books available which help give an insight into how gin traps were used. Far more interesting though are those who remember first-hand how it was done, and I consider myself fortunate to have been in contact with such a person, a Mr Robin Menneer, who has written much on the subject of Cornish hedges, and in so doing has highlighted the specific damage rabbits do to these structures by way of their excavations. I quote, with permission, a section from one of his papers which gives an insight into the life of a professional trapper:
"The author himself, like many another country boy, caught rabbits with gin traps during the war, when food was rationed. Traps used to be set along a length of hedge, with a trap in every run and at the entrance to every hole. Each trap was set into the ground so that its top was level with the surface, the spring covered with thin turf and the foot plate with sifted earth. Most rabbits were caught during the first night and, after a day or two, the traps were moved on. In this way, the farmer hoped that all the rabbits in that section of hedge would be dealt with. But, once all was quiet again, rabbits moved in from other untrapped hedges. Naturally it did not pay the trapper to move his traps to a hedge until it had plenty of rabbits, so really he was only reducing the population, not eliminating it."
"Most farmers employed rabbit trappers to reduce the numbers of this pest. Otherwise, with their small fields, they would often find that half their grass and corn had been eaten by rabbits coming out of the hedges. Len Neale told the author how in his youth he helped his father move his 900 gins on farms at Trewint. They picked up and re-laid 300 traps each day, Monday to Saturday, so each gin was moved on average every third day except Sundays, when they were only looked at, rabbits removed and the traps re-set in the same place. The rabbits were sold to a local dealer who put them on the train."
Robin includes a table of Mr Neale's trapping records, which
"shows how relatively few rabbits (5.6 per trap per year) were caught by the 900 gins which had to be taken up and re-set in a new place every third day."
He notes that
"Trapping was not an easy way of making a living."
For far more detail and information on rabbits I recommend a visit to Robin's Cornish Hedges web site, where his paper (in PDF format) entitled "The Curse of Rabbits in Cornish Hedges" can be found under the "Cornish Hedges Library" heading.
UK manufacturers of the Fenn range of traps.
The Trap Man
UK manufacturers and suppliers of humane cage traps.
Vintage Traps & Collectables
An online auction site dealing primarily with the sale of vintage traps.
A web site concerned with perpetuating and 'continuing an ancient craft'. One of the papers deals specifically with the problem rabbits cause to these hedges and contains a wealth of information on rabbits generally, and the methods used to trap them.
If you know of any other trap collecting or vermin related links which could go here, or are interested in exchanging web site links, please let me know so I can consider them for inclusion.
Rural Reflections (2nd Revised and Enlarged Edition.) - Stuart Haddon-Riddoch
A hard back limited edition book, containing 416 pages, index, and over 400 illustrations.
An exhaustive study of British traps, the trap making industry and game keeping. An absolute must for anyone seriously interested in traps and trap collecting. Available to order:
How To Trap & Snare - William Carnegie
An excellent book running to 224 pages, originally published in 1898, but now available once again. Describes in great detail how a trapper of the time would capture various species of vermin, and for this the original author draws on many years of experience in the field. The web site of the publishers can be visited here:
Rabbit Traps - T & J Bateman
A pictorial guide to British rabbit traps, and includes examples from the author's own collection. Runs to 53 pages. Available to order.
Bird Traps - Traps & Scarers - T & J Bateman
A pictorial guide to British bird traps, featuring traps in the author's own collection. Runs to 33 pages. Available to order.
If you have any comments about this page or have a vintage or antique trap you'd like to sell, please feel free to e-mail me at this address:
© Andrew Westcott 2003 - 2021