figure-four deadfall trap, deadfall, grass, rock, sticks
Photo by Cody Assmann
This figure-four deadfall is simple to construct and easy to set.

For those interested in history, trapping, or survival skills can all benefit from learning how to build primitive traps, such as the figure-four deadfall.

While these sorts of traps are illegal to actually use in most states, building them is a gratifying process. They not only teach about the natural world, but they can also help us better understand those 190,000 years of history our ancestors survived in.

If you’ve never experimented with primitive traps, this is a good one to start with.

Figure-Four Deadfall

Perhaps the easiest trap to make is the figure-four deadfall. This simple device requires only three sticks, a rock or large log, and a cutting tool. It can be made small enough to catch mice and rats or scaled up to catch larger animals. These traps are easy to build and don’t require excellent craftsmanship to fire.


sticks, rock, notches
These three simple sticks and a large rock are all it takes to make an effective figure-four deadfall.

Before building your figure-four deadfall, you first need to gather your materials. You’ll need three sticks that are straight and easily carved. In my area, willow is a good option. When building small traps, your sticks should be about finger width and 1 foot long. You’ll also need a falling object. In his book Field Guide for Wilderness Survival, survival expert Tom Brown recommends an object about twice the weight of the target animal.

Building the Trap

sticks, trap, trigger, grass
This image of a figure-four shows how the horizontal piece locks into the upright. How delicately this is made will determine how sensitive the trap is.

To begin the building process, first make your upright. If setting in dirt, one end can be sharpened to a point and driven into the ground. If setting on rock, one end will need to be flattened. The opposing end should be dovetailed. The final carving on the upright will be creating a flat notch on the side facing the weight.

Next you can make your diagonal piece. It needs to be dovetailed at the bottom and pointed at the top and notched where it rests in the dovetail of your upright. This notch will be close to the top of your diagonal.

The final piece to carve is the horizontal, or trigger, stick. This component of the trap needs a notch carved near the back to accept the dovetail of your diagonal stick. It can also be carved to a point at the opposite end to allow you to skewer bait with. The crucial point on this particular piece is the notch that fits into the upright. This notch needs to be carved to a right angle that fits into the right angle of your upright.

At this point, you may be wondering a little about distances. It truly is impossible for me to describe the distance of each stick and where particular carvings should be. It will all depend on your particular trap. A good rule of thumb is that your diagonal piece should rest at around a 45-degree angle. After that, the rest of the pieces will naturally fall into place.

It’s About Balance

sticks, grass, trap
This shot showcases the majority of the carving the figure-four needs.

When setting primitive traps, you will wish you had a third hand; it can be tricky. Start by balancing the falling object on your diagonal as it rests on your upright. While holding that in place, set your horizontal trigger stick. The trigger stick will lock the entire mechanism into place. The sensitivity is adjusted by how delicately this piece is locked in.

You’ll likely find your trap will need some modification before it works. Be patient and analyze where the trap needs attention and diagnose your problems. At this point, you may also realize your falling object lands on your upright. If this is the case, you will likely need to readjust or find a longer diagonal piece.

Once it all comes together, you can step away and admire your new handiwork. One downside of the figure-four trap is the trigger is just not that sensitive. For smaller species, you will need a more sensitive trap.

A Link To The Past

Our modern world rests upon that old Stone Age world with the same materials available to us today. By building primitive traps, you will not only learn a skill that could potentially help you in a survival situation, but more importantly, you’ll develop appreciation for how incredible Stone Age people were. You’ll also breathe life into this ancient art and keep this knowledge from being trapped in the past.

This article is from the winter 2018 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Get your copy at

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