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Karabiners or Carabiners (aka "krabs" or "crabs") have been around since at least Victorian times, and were used by continental alpinists prior to the First World War, but only really caught on in the British climbing scene in the late 1940s, when masses of ex War Department ones became available. In recent years the design of karabiners has gone through a rapid period of evolution with ever lighter and more radical designs appearing.
Karabiners were originally Oval, but it was soon found that "D" shaped ones were stronger and that these could be given a greater gate opening by making them as an Offset "D". Original krabs were Straightgate, then Bentgates were developed to allow easier clipping when sport climbing. In the mid-90s, Wiregates, despite being derided initially as nappy pins, revolutionised karabiner design, enabling much lighter krabs to be made.
Screwgates are designed for use where it is especially important that the gate remains closed (eg belays) and the HMS version (Halbmastwurfsicherung) was originally designed for use with a Munter (or Italian) hitch for belaying and abseiling, but are now much used with belay devices - though specialist belay karabiners are a better choice.
The strength off karabiners is rated in kiloNewtons (kN) and are usually given for gate closed (along the back), gate open (along the back) and cross-loaded (between the back and the gate). A fall can engender forces of up to ca 6kN so it is important that all aspects of a karabiner are stronger than this. In the early days of lightweight krab design (ca 1980!) gate open strengths were not very high and karabiners could break in a fall if the gates were knocked open or the krab was cross loaded. These days karabiners have very high gate open and cross loading strengths meaning that modern karabiners made by a reputable firm are most unlikely to break.
Standard (non-screwgate) karabiners are the workhorses of climbing, used to attach the rope to quickdraws, slings, nuts and cams.
A quickdraw (made up of two karabiners linked by a short nylon or Dyneema "extender") is the vital link between the climber's rope and the gear.
Oval karabiners are very useful in situations where you need a piece of equipment such as a pulley to hang straight downwards.
Standard "Offset D" small screwgates are ideal for setting up belays with.
HMS karabiners are a larger screwgate suitable for belaying with a Munter or Italian hitch. They are also ideal for use where two or more ropes need to be tied to the same point.
HMS type krabs designed specifically for use with a belay plate - many of them are designed to stop the karabiner being loaded across its weakest axis.
Auto locking karabiners for situations when you need to be sure that the krab is always locked.
Via Ferrata Karabiners are designed especially for easy one-handed clipping of cables and ladder rungs.
Karabiners with a built in pulley wheel are a brilliant innovation, weigh little more than a standard krab and can be used as a standard krab, but also spring into action as a pulley when required.
Innovative karabiners specially engineered for specific climbing issues.
Steel karabiners are harder wearing and stronger than their equivalant alloy counterparts, but they are also considerably heavier.
Maillons aren't really karabiners at all, they are screw locking chain links. Some climbers carry a maillon or two in case they have to abseil or lower off a route.
Solid strength-tested rings for smoothing rope recovery after an abseil and for numerous anchoring uses.
Accessory karabiners for keeping your keys on etc (NB NOT for climbing use!)
Please note that all Wild Country and DMM gear is 3-Sigma tested. Basically this means that statistically 99.73% of all their production will pass its strength ratings.
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