The Twisted History Of Barbed Wire.

by Daniel Russ on February 24, 2014




Barbed wire is as ubiquitous as cactus in the American West. Sparked by an Illinois Cattleman’s idea that herds of cattle could be persuaded not to stray by simply making a small adjustment to the retaining wire used in fences. James Farwell Glidden tied two strands together and where the strands met, he twisted the ends into barbs that stuck out and hung up skin and clothing. He is credited with the patent in 1874 after a battle with other inventors; whatever the truth may be, it caught on quickly. Soon British Army manuals instructed troops how to unspool barbed wire under fire, and at the outbreak of hostilities a million miles of the thorny fence festooned trenches all over Germany and France.


The Brits took it to South Africa and used it to good effect in the Second Boer War. Barbed wire played a role in the First Battle of The Marne where it was used to funnel troops into pre planned kill zones. It also appeared in the Russo Japanese War in the opening years of the twentieth century.


Some historians believed that the businessmen who came to Texas and experimented with barbed wire ranching were outsiders and interlopers. Their invention, cattlemen believed, would end the ranchers wide open grassy plains model of ranching. From the University of Virginia’s online courses:


“They were not free-pasture men. They were not champions of the Open Range. They themselves, though controlling cattle, were not even cattlemen in the usual sense of the term. But neither were they squatters or nesters, come to break up the land into small farms and settlements. They were in a unique position; they were owners whose cattle would obviously benefit from fencing, and they were ranchers who believed in confinement of herds, although the extent of their ranges belied the use of such a word as “confinement.” Their outlook presaged an overall change in philosophy for the cattle industry. They were among the first to put into practice the theory that cattle-proof fences were advantageous for Western cattlemen as well as for agriculturalists.”


Once barbed wire made it possible for small cattle ranches to keep their herds sequestered, the Open Range was essentially dead.

Barbed wire made the battlefields in World War I bloody traps where machine gunners could mow down men who were caught up in the wire. Necessity dictated ways of crossing terrain inundated with wire and trenches and machine guns. One of those inventions was the tank. Another was the Bangalore Mine, basically a tube filled with charges that once tossed over a barbed wire obstruction, it blasted a pathway through it.


Oh, and barbed wire gave birth to wire cutters as well.





Sources:, wiki, national archives.




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