A simple fact of life is that you never know what the future holds and what insane circumstances you will one day find yourself in. Furthermore, what crazy and confounding skills could aid you in such a situation.
Just about anyone can legally purchase and carry a set of handcuffs, therefore learning how to pick handcuffs is one of those oddball skills that one day may help you escape from a problematic situation, such as being unlawfully restrained.
The fantastic thing is, with a little practice, breaking out of a standard pair of ratcheted handcuffs is a fairly simple skill to acquire — like every other branch of lock picking.
This comprehensive guide will instruct you on how to pick handcuffs and how these devices themselves operate.
Basic Anatomy of the Handcuff
A standard pair of ratcheted handcuffs has seven main components. This includes the locking mechanism, the swivel, the chain, the double-strand, the single-strand, the rivet, and the ratchet teeth on the single strand arm.
Some handcuffs may include additional components but for the most part, this is what the common handcuff will consist of.
Handcuff Locking Mechanisms
As with any skill, becoming proficient at escaping handcuffs requires not only practice but also a basic understanding of how these devices operate.
Since the invention of the ratcheted handcuff by W.V Adams in 1862, nearly every style of handcuff used today falls under two categories of locking mechanism: the “single-lock” or the “double-lock.”
The single-lock simply uses a spring-loaded bar to keep the adjustable ratchet arm from releasing once tightened. But with this revolution in design came two great flaws.
The first flaw is that there is no way of preventing the handcuffs from continuing to tighten once applied. This can lead to loss of circulation and the restrainer having to disengage the handcuffs in order to reapply them properly which, needless to say, can be dangerous.
The second flaw, which we are most concerned with, is the ease in which these handcuffs can be tampered with and unlocked.
These two problems were later solved with the introduction of the double-lock by John Tower in 1879.
The term “double-lock” pretty much says it all. This style of locking mechanism utilizes two levels of security.
The first level acts just like a single-lock whereas it uses a spring-loaded lock bar to stop the ratchet arm from releasing.
But this time a second lock bar is included that acts as a barricade ensuring that the first lock bar cannot move while this second lock bar is engaged. This prevents the ratchet handcuffs from tightening once the second lock is in effect.
Additionally, this adds an extra procedure to those who desire to tamper and pick these handcuffs.
For the sake of simplicity, the remainder of this guide will only be covering the double-lock as it is much more common and knowledge of these locks can easily be applied to single-lock handcuffs.
Let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of a double-lock and briefly go over each component’s purpose.
Note there are five main components to these locks and are color-coded to the illustration above. These components are the lock bar, the double lock bar, the lock spring, the keyhole, and the double lock slot.
The lock bar is the first line of defense in a double lock. Its purpose to stop the cuff from opening by gripping the ratchet’s teeth. The lock bar is held against the ratchet arm by the lock spring.
The purpose of the double lock bar is to ensure that the first lock bar can’t move.
This is accomplished by sliding an extruded part of the double lock bar under the first lock bar, blocking any potential movement. The double lock bar is engaged by inserting the back of the key into the double lock slot and pushing the bar into place.
Disengaging a Double-Lock
To learn how to pick handcuffs we need to ensure that we completely understand how these double-locks operate under the normal conditions of a key. So let’s take a second and run through the process of how to unlock handcuffs when both locks are engaged.
To disengage the double lock bar the key needs to first be turned counter-clockwise (left).
This pushes the double lock bar out of the way giving the first lock bar room to move. We then simply turn the key clockwise (right), placing enough pressure against the first lock bar to push it down and out of the way of the ratchet teeth.
This will allow the ratchet arm to rotate and the cuff to open.
The animation below demonstrates this process.
Now that we understand how these devices work we can begin to learn how to tamper with and unlock them.
How to Pick Handcuffs
Picking handcuffs, while does take practice, is relevantly simple in theory. All we need to do is mimic the form and motion of the key in the locking mechanism.
This can be accomplished with any small strand of hard but formable wire such as a paperclip or a bobby pin.
For the purpose of this guide, we will be demonstrating how to pick handcuffs using a bobby pin, but of course, you may mimic these directions using any piece of material you wish to try.
Take note that tampering with and picking handcuffs is much easier when your hands are in front of you and you can visually see what you are doing rather than feeling about. If you are restrained with your hands behind your back simply maneuver them under your legs so that the cuffs are in front of you.
How to Pick Handcuffs With a Bobby Pin
The process of picking handcuffs can be broken into three steps: First forming the bobby pin, then disengaging the double-lock, and lastly placing enough pressure on the single lock to push it off the arm’s ratchet teeth and allowing the cuff to open. With that let’s start by forming our bobby pin.
The purpose of our bobby pin is to create a pseudo-key and to do so is rather simple.
The first thing we need to do is bend our bobby pin roughly 45 degrees from the halfway mark. We then need to remove the rubber tip from the end of the straight section.
This is done much easier with pliers, so if you plan to carry around a couple of bobby pins for the purpose of picking locks, it isn’t a bad idea to prepare them in advance.
Next, we have to form the end of the bobby pin so that it can be maneuvered into the lock and apply a rotational pressure on both lock bars.
To do this we have to make one final 90-degree bend to the tip of our bobby pin. The easiest method to do this is to insert our bobby pin halfway, or roughly 1/8 an inch, into the upper part of the keyhole. Then apply pressure on the shaft of the bobby pin bending it in the process.
The final result should look something similar to this.
Now that we have our bobby pin formed, it’s time to get picking. We must first disengage the double-lock. To do this insert the pick into the upper cutout of the lock ensuring that our bent tip is pointing away from the center of the cuffs.
Note that inserting and maneuvering the pick will likely take some practice. Once our pick is in, rotate and apply tension in the counter-clockwise(left) direction to mimic the motion of a key. Continue to apply tension onto the double-lock until you feel it give and stop. You may even feel a slight click depending on the spring mechanism used within the lock.
Now that you have disengaged the double-lock it’s time to tackle the single lock. This one by nature is much simpler to pick. Just like the double-lock, insert your pick into the keyhole but this time with our bent tip pointing towards the center of the cuffs.
Once our pick is in, rotate and apply tension in the clockwise (right) direction to once again mimic the motion of a key. As you place pressure on the single-lock you will feel it give in as it pushes the lock bar away from the ratchet arm and releases the cuff.
The video below is an excellent reference on how to pick handcuffs using a bobby pin.
Like tying your shoes or riding a bike, picking handcuffs is a skill and just like any skill, proficiency requires practice and patience.
With some time you can learn to accomplish this escape act relatively quickly and with ease. An amazing tool to aid you in learning how to pick handcuffs is a cutaway handcuff trainer. These handcuffs have a clear panel allowing you to see the inner workings of the locking mechanism. These handcuffs will not only increase your understanding of how handcuffs work but also give you a better idea of how to maneuver your pick, thus increasing your effectiveness.
In any regard, while learning to pick, shim, or use a key while restrained, having trainer handcuffs is crucial to develop the muscle memory required to gain proficiency. I highly recommend a cutaway for anyone endeavoring to master the art of escaping handcuffs!
Please note that you should never attempt to escape a set of handcuffs when lawfully detained as this is a felony. This guide is intended for educational purposes and you should only ever utilize this skill during practice or under an emergency situation.