Rifles, Rambo, and rock climbing

The humble ‘biner is so much a symbol of the climbing community that we’ve all met someone who carries one clipped to the outside of their pack as a proud badge of the brotherhood of belay. Maybe you are that someone. What you might not know is that the carabiner can trace it’s roots to the days of muskets and cavalry….and a chap called Rambo.

At the time rifles and muskets found their way onto the battlefield horse-mounted cavalry were still very much a fighting force.  But long rifles and muskets were hard to carry on horseback without getting in the way or interfering with the horse itself. So a shorter gun was introduced for cavalry; the carbine. The name probably comes from the French who had cavalry troops called ‘carabiniers’ armed with a shorter musket called a ‘carabin’. In German the term was taken up as ‘karabiner’.  Shortening the weapon made it easier to quickly unsling it for use but with horses being jiggly things to sit on at the best of times it was found necessary to have a strong metal clip to secure it when moving, and one that could be unclipped to free it when needed. The Carabiner was born.

Rambo – because real heroes sport tweed and a pipe, not dodgy headbands and automatic weapons.

The leap from cavalry to climbing and war to walls came thanks to Rambo. No, not that one one, but instead a rather splendid German gentleman called Otto Herzog. Otto was a keen climber, noted for scaling the Schüsselkarspitze in 1913 and for an ascent on a face of the Dreizinkenspitze that was so tough it literally broke the grading system of the day and caused them to add another harder grade to keep up.  Looking uncannily like Christopher Lee, Otto was clearly inspired to energetic attacks on walls and acquired the nickname ‘Rambo’ from the German word “Ramponieren” – to batter or bash things up.

In the quest for better equipment suitable for gentlemen wishing to beat up mountains Rambo noticed that firemen used metal clips to attach equipment to themselves in a way that didn’t require untying when it was time for use.  At that time climbers attaching to protections had to tie and untie their ropes and he saw that this carabinier approach could change the game.

Different variations on the theme have seen changes in shape, and the introduction of wire and safety gates (see our article on choosing a carabiner), but next time you clip on give a thought, and perhaps a tip of the pipe stem to the real Rambo .

Words by Steve Shipside.

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