Inventors were just as appalled as everyone else by the massive casualties being caused by the fighting in the First World War. And they wanted to help. So far, so good. Here’s some bright spark’s simple idea for helping soldiers cut through “barbed wire” on the battlefield.

This wire-cutting gizmo was supposed to slip onto the end of a rifle and bayonet. Some simple ideas are great. This one wasn’t. Credit: Scientific American, February 24, 1917

“With a view to facilitating the destruction of barbed wire entanglements by charging infantrymen, an ingenious little device, which its inventor chooses to call the wire shooter cutter, has been developed It is the invention of Joseph A. Steinmetz oi Philadelphia, Pa. Briefly, the wire shooter cutter consists of a closely fitting steel block which is slipped over the blade of a bayonet and held in place with a set screw.... In use, whether the user is prone or otherwise, the gun is thrust forward until an entanglement wire is engaged between the projections and brought to the forward end of the block and directly across the opening. The gun is then fired, the ball instantly severing the wire, or even, as experiment shows, a rod of several times the usual diameter of a barbed wire or cable.”

Barbed wire defenses surrounding the German territory around Jiaozhou Bay in China. Note the difference between the simple strands the inventor thought would face the infantryman and the dense tangle presented here. Credit: Scientific American, May 26, 1917

But having to fiddle about with rifle and bayonet while being machine-gunned and shelled seems to outweigh any possibility of this gizmo being useful. The neat, spare wire shown in our illustration was a lot closer to the simple fences hemming in cattle back home on the range. But the inventor (and apparently the artist and editors of Scientific American) wasn’t familiar with the thick, dense, heavy, tangled banks of strands and coils that confronted the troops in “no man’s land” between the trenches. Wire cutters were issued to troops and could be useful as a last resort, but the barriers on the Western Front were best torn apart by concentrated shellfire or Bangalore torpedoes, or most efficiently flattened under the tracks of a tank. Certainly, a rifle-mounted wirecutter that required the soldier to shoot off a scarce round (there are only so many rounds a soldier can carry) would have been of little use in battle.  


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on inventions of the First World War. It is available for purchase here.