Bad things happen to good people. This is one of the many mantras of preppers. We look out for those bad things around every corner. If you are a student of the threat matrix, you rank order the catalog of bad things based on probability. Then you spend the rest of your life chipping away at the mountain.
Somewhere in this giant mountain of bad stuff is the possibility of being handcuffed while you are still the good guy. That’s why you learn about escaping handcuffs.
Oh, by the way, it’s a fun skill to have!
My case is somewhere in-between. First, it’s a relatively easy skill to pick up and great at parties. Second, I travel a fair amount and occasionally I visit places where I’d rather be more prepared than less. This includes a variety of skills outside the norm of regular business travel.
Regardless of your reason, you’re here now. So let’s get started on learning how to escape handcuffs.
Table of Contents
Illegal Restraint Defined
First, it’s necessary to define when and why you would want to get out of handcuffs. This all boils down to illegal restraint.
We are not talking about having a few pops, doing something stupid, and going to jail for it. That is legal restraint. You got what you deserved, and it’s time to pay your penance.
Illegal restraint is when you are put into custody outside the actions of the law. This may be during a kidnap and ransom scenario, restraint for political gain, a domestic violence event, or even capture by law enforcement figures acting outside of the law.
Regardless of the event, your restraint will probably lead to severe injury or death if you do not escape. Your job is therefore to escape, and then evade your captors.
Next, we need to discuss a few precautions. First, never practice these skills alone! Accidents happen. Let’s compare and contrast two situations. First, after much laughing, your buddy unlocks you from a very stuck position.
In contrast, you have to explain your situation to the police after they bust down your door. Here, a loved one has phoned in a wellness check after you haven’t answered the phone in three days.
The next precaution is to take it slow. It is very possible to get into positions that are both uncomfortable and restrictive. This can lead to additional stress and potentially panic.
We never make sound decisions when panicking. Often, we make the situation worse. It does not take much to spiral your situation out beyond your ability to manage it.
Be careful, and always work with a friend!
In order to defeat any device, you must understand it. That being said, handcuffs are actually pretty simple machines.
The traditional Smith and Wesson Model 100 is one of the most widely used handcuff in the world. For readers in the US and Central \ South America, these are the ones that you will most likely encounter. S&W M100s have a few parts you need to be familiar with.
The body consists of two metal plates riveted together to hold the other components in place. Formally this is called the “Double-Strand”. The double-strands encase the locking mechanisms between its two halves.
The single-strand is an arm hinged to the double-strand, and swings between the two halves. The end of the single-strand has a series of teeth. These engage with teeth on the locking bar in the body.
The teeth perform two functions. First, they ratchet into place, allowing the handcuff to tighten around the wrists. Second, once engaged, the teeth lock, and don’t allow the handcuff to back out or loosen up. This keeps the person bound in custody.
Lock Bar Teeth
Within the body formed by the handcuff double-strand is the lock bar. The lock bar has several teeth that engage with the teeth of the single-strand.
Lock Bar Spring
The lock bar spring presses up on the lock bar, engaging the lock bar teeth with the teeth on the single-strand.
Key and Keyhole
The key of the handcuff is engaged with the handcuff key (I know it’s a little backward, but bear with me). The key, in the keyhole, when turned depresses the lock bar, disengaging it from the single-strand teeth.
With the key engaging the lock bar, the single-strand can be backed out of the handcuff body releasing the wrists. The key also turns in the opposite direction to disengage the double lock.
The double lock engages the lock bar, and prevents the lock bar from being disengaged from the teeth on the single-strand. The double lock is engaged to keep the single-strand from tightening any further on the wrist.
Before the advent of the double lock, criminals would tighten the cuffs around their wrists and complain that they were too tight. When the officer uncuffed them to reset the cuffs, the criminal would attempt to escape.
The double lock prevents the single-strand from being tightened, depriving those in custody from doing more bad things.
The key engages the lock bar within the body, and pushes the lock bar teeth away from the teeth on the single-strand.
The key usually rotates in two directions. One direction disengages the double lock. The other direction disengages the teeth. If the double lock has been set, it must be disengaged before the key will rotate to unlock the teeth.
Each of these components susceptible to attack. Let’s look at the best ways to escape handcuffs.
Disclosure: This post has affiliate links, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
But first, to practice, get a pair or two.
Escaping Handcuffs using the Keys
The most obvious answer to opening any locked device is with a key. Locked door? Use the key. Locked car? Use the key. Locked handcuffs? Use the key.
That being said, your key does not have to be a traditional handcuff key.
There are several keys on the market that are effective at unlocking handcuffs, and therefore releasing you from them.
First are original manufactures’ handcuff keys. While it is obvious what they are, they are great to practice with, and to stash in your bag or on your person.
Where and if you store these depends on your situation. Some states (e.g., Florida) and countries consider handcuff keys illegal for civilian ownership. Especially be careful when you travel internationally.
The second option is plastic keys. The advantage to these is that they look like a large button. Therefore, they can be sewn onto your clothing for surreptitious use. You can also easily cut, trim, or melt them into different more subtle shapes for deeper concealment.
The biggest disadvantage of plastic keys is that they are not very durable. You will get only a few uses out of them before the primary surfaces bend. Luckily, they are cheap. Buy a lot and replace them often.
Finally, some keys are intentionally made to look innocuous. Often these are sold as endings to shoelaces (aglets). You can hide these on your body, in your clothes, or in plain sight as aglets.
Again, practice with them, and learn their use and their durability. My favorite is the Delta Key.
Putting a key to use is easy. Slip it in the keyhole and turn.
You may have to turn in two directions. One direction to disengage the double lock, and a second to disengage the teeth. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Escaping Handcuffs Using Shims
The first non-key opening method is shimming. Shims are thin metal strips that slip between the teeth of the lock bar and the teeth on the single-strand.
A properly placed shim separates the teeth, and allows the single-strand to slip by the teeth of the lock bar. With an easy twist of the wrist, you are free.
Shims must be thin, but not too thin. They must be stout enough to separate the two sets of teeth, but not too weak that they bend. Weak shims crumple as you put them in place. You are now at risk of jamming and damaging the cuffs.
Similarly, shims must not be too thick. A shim that is too thick won’t fit between the two sets of teeth. Again, you risk jamming up the cuffs.
Finally, the shims should be smooth. I have used both hairpins and barrettes with plastic coatings. The coating binds in the teeth and gum up the works. The single-strand, while free, can’t move.
Shims can be easy to make as well as inexpensive to purchase. Commercial shims come in many shapes and sizes. Most are made of spring steel, while others are made from aluminum or tin. These are almost guaranteed to be perfect for the job.
That being said, practice with them! I’ve used a few that I’d consider thin and weak. They work great once. But only once. Twice and you are pushing your luck.
If you choose to make your own, there are few options that I have found that work very well.
First are bobby pins. On the edge of too thick, they work great if you sand them down just a touch. With their thickness comes durability. I have a few that I have used a hundred times.
Aside from the thickness, I find their biggest disadvantage is the difficulty to attach them to anything.
For concealment, it’s best to have either a hole or a hook shape to tie them to a tether or to hook them into the thread of a seam. You can do it with bobby pins. It just takes practice and patients. And maybe a little glue.
My favorite shim material is hair barrettes. Specifically, ones from the Dollar Store. These are just thin enough to slip easily between teeth and durable to be used many times. To top it all off, they come with a built-in attachment point.
The two halves of the barrette are hinged together with a hollow rivet. The hole is just big enough to slip a piece of Kevlar string through. I use Kevlar as that is perfect for defeating zip ties, but that is for another article.
I have had little luck with soda can aluminum (too thin), plastic strapping (not stiff enough), or soup can tin (works well but too hard to cut and improvise with). Try out several materials to see what works for you!
Concealing shims is easy. Slip them into a seam in your pants, or tie them to string and drop them down a pant leg. Retrieve them when you need them.
You can also stitch them into your clothing with a single thread. Pull the shim and break the thread when needed. Just make sure that your concealment method is durable enough to withstand a day of normal activity.
Shimming handcuffs is easy, but it takes some practice. There are two things to know before you attempt to shim cuffs. First, the secondary lock must not be engaged. Either the cuffs don’t have one, the person cuffing you didn’t engage it, or you’ve already disengaged it.
A lot happens in high-stress situations. You must always keep your wits about you, as it’s the small details that matter in these situations.
Practice with your trusted buddies with various levels of stress. During this time, see if you can determine if your “captor” applies the lock or not.
Often, it takes a separate movement to engage it. If you concentrate, you will learn to notice the positioning or clicks of the double lock. Even under stress.
Next, in order for shimming to work, you need two teeth of room. As you put the shim in place, you need to tighten the cuffs. This draws the shim further between the teeth, thus separating them.
Remember, every tooth you lose, you will never get back. If you don’t have enough space (e.g., the cuffs are already tight) then don’t attempt shimming. You will only make yourself more uncomfortable, and less maneuverable. Move on to an alternate method.
OK, on to the finer points of shimming.
Slip the shim between the single-strand teeth, and the lock bar teeth. Push it as far as it will go.
Then, while you are placing pressure on the shim (pushing it farther into the body of the cuff), gently tighten the single-strand. Tighten them for two clicks.
Once you bypass two teeth, you have separated the single-strand teeth from the lock bar teeth. Now you can drive the shim home.
Next, roll your wrist against the single-strand to loosen it. Keep rolling and you will open them right up. Just remember to keep pressure on the shim. If it slips out you’re back in the original position–stuck.
Escaping Handcuffs Using Picks
The next option is picking the cuffs. Like most locks, you can open them with the right tools, and a little knowledge. As locks go, they are simple. There is one surface you must engage to disable them. All you need is a correctly shaped pick.
Just like shims, you can purchase commercial picks or make your own. Buy a few, learn the ins and outs, then enjoy some deviant arts and crafts.
If you choose to make your own, material selection will be the difference between success and failure. The metal must be strong enough to apply the lateral pressure required to disengage the teeth or lock bar. Next, it must be thin enough to fit into the cuff keyhole.
Finally, it must be easy enough to work with your available tools. This is particularly of interest if you are manufacturing the pick during your travels, where you don’t have your own shop.
In the grand scheme of things, picking cuffs is pretty easy. All you have to do is get the pick in place, and then rotate it to disengage the double lock and then the lock bar.
In practical use, the effectiveness of your attempt depends on both your skill and the pick. I’ve had ones that are just too thick to maneuver around the keyhole and ones that are just right.
As it happens with all lock picking, you need to develop a sense of feel for it. Some days you are on. Some days you’re off. Don’t give up, keep at it. Then keep at it when the cuffs are on your wrists. Then behind your back. Then under stress. Get the picture?
Practice, Practice, Practice
Cuff picking, shimming, and traditional key use are all perishable skills. If you don’t practice them, you get rusty. That is not good when you need them the most.
When you are first learning, you will need to practice more often. Likewise, as you develop your skills, you will be best served by increasing the difficulty.
Again, always practice with someone you trust. This is not a time for joking. If you need help, they must jump in immediately. No joking, no hesitation. When it’s time to get out, they must let you out.
Start with the easiest situation. Work your techniques on a bench in good lighting. It may help to pick up a see-through practice cuff. Instead of guessing where the components are, you can directly see them. Work on the bench until you build up knowledge, skill, and confidence.
Move on to a cuff on one wrist then both wrists. Try the two positions allowed by the cuffs (e.g., keyhole away from your body (easier) and towards your body (harder)).
This is where you can add other stressors. Take a jog around the block to up your pulse. Soak your hands in an ice-water bath to affect your fine motor control.
The next step is to restrict your senses. Add blindfolds, hoods, loud music, and even excessive amounts of body spray or room freshener. We focus on the most dominant sense. If you need to focus on your sense of touch, the loud music or overwhelming smell can drive you to distraction. It’s surprising how intense a black canvas hood can be! You need to learn to work through the distractions.
Finally, add physical stressors. Cuff your hands behind your back. Cuff them between your feet. Cuff one arm above your head. Cuff left hand to right foot, and right hand to left foot.
Even during the initial application of the handcuffs add stress. This will stress your ability to focus if / when the double locks have been applied. Add multiple layers of restraints including zip ties, rope, and duct tape (assuming you know how to defeat them as well).
Remember to be cautious as you escalate the various situations. There is a difference between discomfort and injury. Minor discomfort is expected. Injury serves no one and is counterproductive.
Know Your Cuffs
Here in the states the Smith & Wesson Model 100 are some of the most common handcuffs. Learn to escape these, and you’re pretty well off for North America and most of Mexico. They are popular, but not the only models.
Similar designs are available from Winchester (WN-40), Peerless (700C), CTS (1008 Tri-Max), and others all have their unique characteristics.
Don’t forget hinged handcuffs (S&W 1H and 300, Peerless 802C, CTS 1058, etc.). They restrict your range of motion. This adds another layer of challenge.
Finally, handcuffs vary internationally. What is popular in the United States, may differ greatly from what you will encounter in Chinese-influenced countries as well as European-influenced countries.
If your travels take you to areas where you want to be better prepared, spend a few hours with Google image searches. Work to identify what is popular in that region, then work on updating your skills.
Nothing beats professional instruction. I’ve now taken two classes from Ed Calderon on counter custody mindset and techniques. Both classes were excellent, and pushed the boundaries for me both physically and mentally (tazers can be… interesting).
As an added benefit, Matt Fiddler of Serepick stopped by to provide a guest session on locks and handcuffs. Matt is a certified and registered locksmith and Security Professional with over 25 years of experience. Currently, he leads a Security Team for a Fortune 100 Organization in the United States. If you have time, search his DEFCON videos where his research into lock bypass techniques resulted in several noted public disclosures of critical lock design flaws.
Tieing Up Escaping Handcuffs
I’m not shy about strongly recommending that everyone should have a well-thought-out and developed threat matrix. This is the single best tool for focusing your prepping time and dollars.
If yours identifies the potential for illegal restraint, then you owe it to yourself to be knowledgeable about managing and escaping those situations.
Escaping handcuffs can be imposing at first. We see them portrayed to great effect in Hollywood and documentary police shows. The reality is a bit different.
With the right tools, and a little bit of knowledge you can learn how easy they are to defeat. Once you have mastered the basics, increase the challenges, increase the stress, and increase your confidence.