Shackled: How to Escape from a Pair of Handcuffs

Shackled: How to Escape from a Pair of Handcuffs

Maybe we’ve all been there. She was cute and flirty. It was late, and her piercing steel eyes were captivating. You went back to her place. Drinks, music, the lights were low. It was her idea at first, and perhaps you thought it would be fun, something different at least.

But now they’re a little too tight, and she left the room, muttering something about getting your ATM PIN and where she kept the flat iron. Amorous delights are quickly being replaced by morbid fear, especially after sounds of her sifting through the knife drawer drift out from the kitchen.

You’ve got to escape, but how?

Metal handcuffs have been in use for a thousand years, as history has been full of unsavory individuals that needed restraint. Most were a one-size-fits-all affair until 1862 when W.V. Adams patented the first adjustable ratchet design, which was improved over the course of the next 30 years. However, in 1912, George Carney invented the first swing handcuffs, a design that allowed an officer to quickly apply and secure the cuffs with just one hand. It is a design that is still in use today. There are three kinds of handcuffs intended to be used on the wrists, and they are classified by how they connect together: the chain, the hinge (shown below), and the bar.

Since handcuffs are only supposed to be used temporarily, the lock is not too complicated. When the cuff is placed around the wrist, the swing arm slips into the lock housing and clicks shut. What holds the swing arm in place is a set of opposing teeth (on the arm itself and in the lock housing). Called the paw, it is set in place by a tension spring, which is why it makes the clicking sound when closing. When you turn the key, it pulls the paw away from the swing arm so it won’t bind against it.

Most handcuffs have a double locking mechanism that makes it slightly more difficult to escape from (if it is engaged), but not impossible. The double lock is when a small lever is slid closed in a hole on the opposite side of the handcuffs. In this manner, the handcuffs must be unlocked by turning the key one way and then double unlocked by turning it the opposite way. The double lock is engaged with the post on the top of the key.

There are three main ways to open a set of handcuffs, with the original key or a reasonable facsimile (like an escape key), an improvised picking device, or with a metal shim.

Having the original key makes escape inevitable, but the likelihood of you getting the key is rather slim, so it is always a good idea to carry one with you. There are many companies that make escape keys that are either very small to be sewn into the lining of your waistband or jacket cuffs or are incorporated innoxiously into various common items like a pen, a coin, shoelace aglet, or a wedding band. The concept is to have these items hidden in a location that will be near to where the cuffs will likely be, behind your back. Remember, when inserting a “key,” handcuffs release when the key is turned toward the hinge/chain of the cuffs when it is single locked, but you must turn it the opposite direction first, if it is double locked, before turning it back toward the hinge/chain.

Another, slightly more difficult way of releasing the lock is by picking it. This can be done with a bobby pin, safety pin, or a paper clip. The idea is to create a small nodule on the end of the picking devise, in our case, a bobby pin, that is approximately 70 degrees. This can then be placed inside the keyhole and used to retract the paw in a similar manner as the key. It takes considerable practice to do this, especially behind your back and a potentially dangerous situation.

A shim can be made of most anything flat and metallic, ours torn from a shard of a soda can. The idea is to force a stiff, but thin, object between the serrated teeth on the swing arm and the serrated teeth on the paw. Once something comes between them, the swing arm can be pulled out, and the arm is free.

If escape is your plan, remember, you only really need to get one arm free, and if you’re limber enough, start by slipping your arms underneath your legs so that they’re in front of you. Picking or shimming a set of cuffs is a lot easier if you can see what you’re doing. But then again, if escape is your plan, pick the locks later; get out now!

Though a variety of things can be used, aside from having the nearly impossible brute strength to break them (which a normal, sober person can’t do), there are only really three methods from circumventing the locks: key, picking, and a shim.
A standard handcuff key fits every handcuff, which is one of the things that makes escaping from them even easier. Of course, if you have the key, you’re in luck, but there are several things that can be made into a key if you’re lacking one.
Under normal use, when the key is turned, it disengages this toothed paw, which slides back and releases the swing arm. The object of any escape method is to either move this paw or come between it and the teeth on the swing arm.
There are many companies that sell escape keys that can be hidden in your clothes or disguised as regular looking objects, from a shoelace aglet to a ballpoint pen. There is even a rubber “support” bracelet that hides a key inside.
A bobby pin, safety pin, paper clip, or any small, stout object can be fashioned to fit inside of the keyhole and disengage the locking paw. But having these items on your person will most likely raise suspicion from your captors and be removed.
Creating a shim to come between the paw and the swing arm will force the paw away from the swing arm and allow it to release. It is important to find something strong but thin enough to be forced in the small gap between the swing arm and paw, such as a piece of an aluminum can. However, discrete shims can be purchased for just this reason.


Unique Titanium Provides Escape Solutions. There are a wide variety of scenarios where knowing how to escape a pair of handcuffs is vital; from kidnapping to home invasion, getting uncuffed without your captors knowing is Step One to ensure your survival. Unique Titanium in Bessemer, Ala., provides not only a large catalog of high-quality and affordable camping gear and fire starters, but also an enormous array of everyday carry items, such as carabiners, bottle openers, paracord and keychains, a lot of them made from titanium. Though the business was founded on custom flashlights, they also provide an assortment of micro escape tools that can be concealed, sometimes in plain sight, and ready if and when the time comes.

1. Undercover Bracelet

For anyone held unlawfully, this nonmetallic and unique “gummy” bracelet innocuously hides a handcuff key. Placed exactly where one would need it on the wrist, the key is easily accessed. The key is permanently affixed to one end of the bracelet and also serves as the connector to join the two ends. The bracelet accommodates wrists up to 10 inches, and can be cut down to fit.


2. Handcuff Shim/Saw Blade

This useful and tiny tool is easily concealed and can be quickly put to work as either a small saw to cut through cloth, duct tape, or plastic ties, or as a shim to pry apart the teeth of a single- lock handcuff. Made from hardened 316 stainless steel with a small lanyard hole, it is 2 inches long and 1⁄8 inch thick. It is a direct replacement for the saw/shim in the Titanium Escape Ring.


3. Zipper Pull Handcuff Key

Jackets and sweaters have zippers, and zippers need pulls, which makes this a perfect covert escape tool. Nobody will ever inspect your zipper pull for clandestine tools, so this is the ultimate “hidden-in-plain-sight” item. It can be attached to any zipper, and the key remains completely hidden and since it is attached to a rugged cord, it will not get lost.


4. Bootlace Handcuff Key

Similar in concept to the Zipper Pull Handcuff Key is this covert bootlace handcuff key that is designed to have a near zero likelihood of being detected. Discreetly attached to the tip of your bootlace, this handcuff key is then covered by a black rubber aglet. It installs easily with a pair of small pliers.


5. Titanium Escape Ring

It looks like a typical silver ring, one that has more sentimental value than monetary value, which will keep your captors from stealing it while in their charge. The Titanium Escape Ring is cut from solid barstock and polished to a mirror finish. Tucked into a small divot around the inside is the Handcuff Shim/Saw Blade, which is completely hidden from view when worn. Available in all most common ring sizes.



Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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