The laws of mechanics, as well as experimental testing on full-sized columns of various structural materials, show that very short columns, or even those whose length is ten times their smallest diameter, will fail by crushing or shearing of the material. If the columns are very long, say twenty or more times their smallest diameter, they will probably fail by bending, which will produce an actual tension on the convex side of the column. The line of division between long and short columns is practically very uncertain, owing to the fact that the center line of pressure of a column is frequently more or less eccentric because of irregularity of the bearing surface at top or bottom. Such an eccentric action will cause buckling of the column, even when its length is not very great. On this account, it is always wise (especially for long columns) to place reinforcing bars within the column. The reinforcing bars consist of longitudinal bars (usually four, and sometimes more with the larger columns), and bands of small bars spaced from 6 to 18 inches apart vertically, which bind together the longitudinal bars. The longitudinal bars are used for the purpose of providing the necessary transverse strength to prevent buckling of the column. As it is practically impossible to develop a satisfactory theory on which to compute the required tensional strength in the convex side of a column of given length, without making assumptions which are themselves of doubtful accuracy, no exact rules for the sizes of the longitudinal bars in a column will be given. The bars ordinarily used vary from 1/2 inch square to 1 inch square; and the number is usually four, unless the column is very large (400 square inches or larger) or is rectangular rather than square. It has been claimed by many, that longitudinal bars in a column may actually be a source of danger, since the buckling of the bars outward may tend to disintegrate the column. This buckling can be avoided, and the bars made mutually self-supporting, by means of the bands which are placed around the column. These bands are usually 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch round or square bars. The specifications of the Prussian Public Works for 1904 require that these horizontal bars shall be spaced a distance not more than 30 times their diameter, which would be 7 1/2 inches for 1/4-inch bars, and 11 1/4 inches for 3/8-inch bars. The bands in the column are likewise useful to resist the bursting tendency of the column, especially when it is short. They will also reinforce the column against the tendency to shear, which is the method by which failure usually takes place. The angle between this plane of rupture and a plane perpendicular to the line of stress, is stated to be 60°. If, therefore, the bands are placed at a distance apart equal to the smallest diameter of the column, any probable plane of rupture will intersect one of the bands, even if the angle of rupture is somewhat smaller than 60°.

The unit working pressure permissible in concrete columns is usually computed at from 350 to 500 pounds per square inch. The ultimate compression for transverse stresses for 1:3:5 concrete has been taken at 2,000 pounds per square inch. With a factor of 4, this gives a working pressure of 500 pounds per square inch; but the ultimate stress in a column of plain concrete is generally less than 2,000 pounds per square inch. Tests of a large number of 12 by 12-inch plain concrete columns showed an ultimate compressive strength of approximately 1,000 pounds per square inch; but such columns generally begin to fail by the development of longitudinal cracks. These would be largely prevented by the use of lateral reinforcement or bands. Therefore the use of 500 pounds per square inch as a working stress for columns which are properly reinforced, may be considered justifiable although not conservative.