The Industrial Revolution brought the first barbed wire (also "barbwire" or just "barb") fences, which were widely used after their introduction in the mid-19th century. This technology made it economically feasible to fence rangeland for the first time. In the United States, introduction of barbed wire contributed to the range wars of that century, as various ranch interests attempted to use barbed wire fences to claim exclusive access to the best pasture and water resources, including those lands in the public domain. It also exacerbated tensions between cattle ranchers and crop farmers, partly when access to water was involved.
Barbed wire has been made by many manufacturers in an almost endless variety of styles. For the most part these were functionally identical. The differences reflected peculiarities of each manufacturing process rather than deliberate design of the end product. Sections of unusual barbed wire are collected by some enthusiasts.
The traditional barbed wire used since the late 19th century and into the present day was made from two mild steel wires twisted together, usually of about 12 or 14 gauge, with about 15-30 twists per metre. Steel barbs were attached every 10–20 cm. Barbs had either two or four points, with the two point design using somewhat heavier and longer barbs. The relative merits of two point vs. four point barbed wire are the subject of deeply held views among many farmers and ranchers, to the extent that both types are still made today.
Typically four strands of barbed wire, with the lowest strand no more than 12 inches (300 mm) from the ground and the top strand at least 48 inches above the ground, make up a legal fence in the western United States. Better-quality fences have five strands, older fences often had only three strands, and just two strands is widely used in Britain if only adult cattle are being contained. Other variations exist, depending on local laws and the purpose of the fence.
Barbed wire is particularly effective for containing cattle. In pastures containing both cattle and sheep, one or two strands of barbed wire is used in conjunction with woven wire to both discourage cattle from reaching over the top of a fence and to keep sheep from crawling under. Though often used in many areas for horses, barbed wire is not advised; its use is considered poor management. There is very high risk of injury occurring when a thin-skinned, fast-moving animal with long legs runs into it or puts a leg through the strands.