Barbed Wire Fences

The simple, yet effective, barbed wire fence was the inanimate object that won the West.

| December 2017

  • The same fence, exhibiting one of many strange “posts” added over the years as needed. Given the distance back to the ranch where replacement posts were available, any available upright was utilized to contain the livestock.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • New barbed wire comes in rolls. Almost all is galvanized, and some is advertised as “pre-stretched,” which makes building fence easier but complicates repair. When a break occurs, the wire retracts to its original un-stretched state, leaving a large gap.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • This old three-wire fence is held up with split cedar posts, once the posts of choice because of their resistance to deterioration. Steel posts have been substituted when repairs were needed. Close examination of the photo reveals that the wires have been spliced several times – understandably so, since the fence is at least 80 years old.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • Extensive displays of barbed wire can be found in Western museums and private collections. This display has 30 unique examples; the oldest are shown here.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • An unusual sight: A bumblebee impaled on a barbed wire fence.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives

Ranching in the cowboy era of the late 1800's and early 1900's has become a fixture in American minds. There are literally thousands of books written about that phenomenon. It doesn’t seem to make much difference if the book is fiction or non-fiction, somewhere in its pages will be a statement like, “the (fill in the blank) won the West.”

You can insert the name of just about any kind of handgun or rifle into that statement. Historic events like the Homestead Act of 1862 and railroad expansion also complete the sentence, and make fairly accurate statements. 

However, it wasn’t until some method of keeping livestock located in one general area was developed that lasting settlement became a reality. The lowly barbed wire fence was the one thing that made that possible. The lives of those of us who live in the rural West have been influenced by barbed wire from the time we were small children. Even today, physical movement in the plains area and foothills of the mountains means regular encounters with a barbed wire fence.

Enter at your own risk

A barbed wire fence is a divider between two pieces of land made up of posts set into the ground at regular intervals with several strands of twisted wire fastened to each. Short, almost razor-sharp projections are positioned at regular intervals along the length of the wire. Because of the wire’s strength and the pain that results from contact with the barbs, it is difficult for any living thing larger than a rabbit to cross it.



Gates must be built to allow large animals to go from one piece of land to the next. If an average-size human is extremely careful, he or she can crawl under the bottom strand. Attempting to climb between two strands of a well maintained fence often results in pain in both the back and crotch. A good barbed wire fence comes pretty close to keeping out anything not wanted in a field, and keeping anything in that you don’t want out. The vast open spaces in much of America are divided by such fences.

Sharp memories remain clear

Should you accidentally come in contact with a fence in the dark, that memory will never fade. This author had such an experience as a teenager when playing hide-and-seek at our church youth group sponsor’s ranch. Unknown to me, a three-wire gate stretched across one of the entrance lanes – one we hadn’t used – that led to the ranch house from the main road.

When running full bore in an attempt to avoid capture, I ran square into that gate. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground facing the same way I had been going after having gone head over heels caught in the wire. The barbs were so caught in my clothes that I was almost unable to move. But moving by tearing my clothes was necessary to stanch the flow of blood from dozens of slashes. Half a century later I still have scars to remind me the barb wire fence did exactly what it was designed to do: It stopped me from going farther.

Rules of engagement

Barbed wire is sold in rolls 40 to 80 rods long. (A rod is a unit of measure equal to 16.5 feet. An 80-rod spool covers about 1/4 mile.) Although dozens of styles of barbed wire were produced and sold since the mid-1850s, the design is standardized today.

New wire is galvanized, making it silver when new and a dull gray color as it weathers. It has been impossible to ascertain when wire first became galvanized, but it must have been fairly recently. Almost every barbed wire fence this author has ever seen consists of rusty colored wire. In typically dry Western regions of the U.S., metal objects get a skiff of rust on the surface but no additional rust forms. Thus those wire fences, many of which are as much as 100 years old, are still structurally strong.

For most of our history, the posts holding the wire – a minimum of three strands, but more commonly four – were wooden. Wire was attached using staples. (The wire was placed on the side of the post where pressure from livestock was most likely to result. A well-stapled fence was almost as strong against pressure from the other side.) On the Great Plains, wood posts were used for decades even though they had to be sourced, sometimes from a great distance.

Even today, one occasionally runs across a fence constructed where regular posts were unavailable and a strange collection of uprights support the wire. Big, dried tree roots, pieces of crooked driftwood, dry willows of fairly small diameter, broken wagon tongues and whatever else the fence builder could come up with make such fence lines most picturesque today.

Steel posts made brutal labor obsolete

Sometime in the 20th century, steel posts made their appearance. Building a fence with them usually was facilitated because there was an unending supply available, if you could afford them. In addition, steel posts can be pounded into many ground conditions, making it unnecessary to dig post holes, a hugely taxing job. Wire is attached to steel posts by wire clips in lieu of a hammer and staples. 

Those of us who have dug thousands of post holes with a post-hole digger have highly developed muscles on the back of our upper arms due to the way the diggers work. When enough soil material has been worked loose down in the hole, the digger’s handles must be pulled apart with extreme force to keep the material trapped between the blades so it can be lifted. Depending on conditions, that process has to be repeated dozens of times before each hole is deep enough. Try doing that hour after hour in the hot sun!



A necessary evil

All barbed wire fences need to be maintained. Wooden posts rot and have to be replaced, the wire breaks from harsh weather conditions and, occasionally, as a result of animals running into it. Sometimes a mountain stream changes course during heavy spring run-off, washing out posts and tangling the wire.

Because of the wire’s vicious nature, leather gloves are an absolute necessity for fence fixers. Even then, accidental contact with barbs results in torn clothing and occasional minor injury. Good gloves rarely last over a couple of days of fence repair before they disintegrate.

Skilled fence fixers enjoy much more success than amateurs, but the work is basically unpleasant for anyone. Even though almost no one reads about them in history books, barbed wire fences are an example of one of mankind’s most successful inventions. FC


An Amazing Fence-Line Discovery

People who deal with barbed wire fences on a regular basis usually pay little attention to them. One learns where to expect them to be, how to cross them and how to maintain them. Actual close examination of any one at any point just isn’t done.

However, in 1986, I actually did that when crawling through a gate at an abandoned farm once owned by a relative. As the photo above shows, I discovered an unbelievable sight. Right by my hand as I pushed the wire down was a bumblebee impaled on a barb.

Fortunately I had my camera with me and I recorded what I discovered. As I did, I asked myself what could possibly have happened. Did a high wind force the bee off course until it collided with the barb? Were situations at home so bad that he chose to commit suicide in a bizarre manner? Was this an example of  “drinking and flying” with a tragic result?

Another series of questions arose. In our somewhat isolated area, there are thousands of miles of barbed wire fences, all with three or four strands of wires. How many million barbs are on those wires?

What are the odds that a bumblebee would be impaled on one of them? How was it possible that I was I was at the very place way out in the country where it happened? Since the bee wouldn’t stay impaled there very long before falling off, why did I come along at just the right time to see him? I doubt even computers could come up with answers to those questions.

As noted elsewhere in these pages, barbed wire in the dry Western region of the U.S. gets a skiff of rust on it and doesn’t rust further. That is obvious on the strand with the bee. In the background is a piece of newer galvanized wire that was one of the several making up the gate. Note its gray color. The gate I was crawling through had obviously been repaired sometime in the fairly recent past.

Clell G. Ballard


A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.


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