Can you really pick the lock on a pair of handcuffs with a paperclip?

In the movies, (do I need to go any further?) you see characters getting out of handcuffs with all manner of cheap disposable items, paper clips, bobby pins, whatever.

Is any of this really possible?

My friend brough a pair of handcuffs to school once (his brother was a cop) and they indeed could be picked with a paperclip. The locking mechanism was just a simple spring-loaded piece that would engage the ratchet mechanism.

I read that Harry Houdini used to own every type of handcuffs in use by law enforcement at the time, so that he knew how to get out of every single type. It gave me the impression that there were numerous different types, but that all of them could be opened with only a handful of different items that could be easily hidden behind your belt, if you knew how.

Of course this was a long time ago, so I don’t have any idea what’s in use currently.

I did it with a pair of cuffs I got from an arcade. (They weren’t too cheesy-- they were made of metal and locked tight.) I twisted the paperclip so that there was a loop on one end and I could use it like a key-- insert and twist.

If your hands are cuffed in front of you, then you’ll have an easier time doing it. Seeing what you’re doing helps tremendously and there’s less strain on your wrists when you twiddle with the lock. It’s more difficult if you’re cuffed behind your back.

My (now departed) brother-in-law used to be a local cop and yes, I could pick his cuffs with a paper clip.

Behind the back does make it harder. And proper cuffing techniques (with thumbs pointed UP) makes it nearly impossible to perform.
S&W also makes a ‘high security’ handcuff. The key and key hole are both really tiny. You’re not getting anything in there.

There is also a technique that involves slipping a thin piece of metal in between the ratchet itself and the lock mechanism in order to move the pawl away. Modern cuffs have a double-lock mechanism that allows an officer to lock the ratchet mechanism.

I don’t know the details about the cuffs that your average beat cop carries, but I have seen cuffs that had a little pin on the end of the key that was inserted in a small hole on the bottom of the lock that locked the pawl.

Those stamped-steel wonders that you can buy in novelty stores are not really comparable to the real McCoy.

[loosely-related anecdote]
You have invoked a distant memory of mine.
The scene: a southern-California hotel room in the summer of '78, 11 years old. My brother and I both had handcuffs we had bought at a novelty store the day before. Mom was out with old-time friends, expected to be gone till midnight. Dad was out running errands, without the room key.

Stupid brother calls me over and promptly handcuffs my wrist to his own and tosses the keys into the livingroom. I then noticed that his other wrist was handcuffed to the fridge :eek:.
We were too young to fathom what would happen if my dad were to get the manager to open the door (imagine California’s child protective services folks beating my dad with a rubber hose in a back room).

After the joke wore off we tried in vain to open the locks with bent fork tines. We narrowly avoided all of the possible unpleasant outcomes when I painfully wrenched my hand out of the not-so-tight cuff. Boy was that stupid.
[/loosely-related anecdote]

I’ve got a related question I guess. I’ve also seen that circus strongman stunt were a guy puts the cuffs on in the front and uses “inhuman strength” to snap the chain between the 2 cuffs. Is this really possible with a legit pair of cuffs or is that a trick or something?

I’m a former locksmith. I can’t speak to cuffs everywhere, but I have friends in the police departments in San Diego and San Jose, and I’ve seen and played with their cuffs. There was no way either of those cuffs could be picked by a paperclip.
The possible attacks are:
a) through the key hole: the keyhole is very small by itself, and it has a pin in the center of the hole (the key has a matching hole for the pin). It’s not possible to get a paperclip into the key hole between the edge of the hole and pin. no way.
b) along the ratchet: firstly, the cuffs are very well machined; a paper clip is too thick. more importantly, the cuffs have a secondary lock that disables the ability to slip the ratchet.

I am stll a locksmith.

It depends on the Cuffs and how the person is cuffed.

Most modern cuffs are designed to prevent this.

Some older cuffs can be done in this manner.

My brother in law happens to be a cop. He stopped by after work the other day, but unfortunately this was before this thread got started or I could have experimented with a real set of cuffs. My son was asking a lot of questions about the cuffs though and we happened to touch on this subject. My brother in law has never heard of anyone being strong enough to break out of them. Usually the only people who escape from cuffs are people with very small wrists and hands. He also mentioned that they do have the garbage tie types of things, but that they rarely use them because they are very easy to over-tighten when you put them on, and accidentally cut off circulation to someone’s hand.

I suspect your circus performer had a pair of el-cheapo cuffs from a novelty shop. They were probably real metal and would have impressed someone examining them, but I doubt the real thing could have been so easily broken.

My brother-in-law also mentioned that they have two types of metal cuffs, the chain type that we’ve been talking about, but also a hinged type. The hinged type is more restrictive of certain types of movement, and I’m guessing would be much more difficult to manuever around a paperclip or whateve to unlock it.

I saw a story on tv where an officer was restrained with his own cuffs. The kidnappers ran off and left him in a room. He was able to break the cuffs by muscle alone. That, and a buttload of adrenaline I guess.
It was a reputable show but I dont remember which one. I remember this part mainly because how suprised I was to hear it.

Hmmm… I’m surprised nobody mentioned this already ;).

Anyway, the last time I had my hands on a real set of handcuffs was at an Army surplus store – they had the whole range of cuffs, from the el-cheapo to the type that Bill H. described. Yes, they were very well machined and there was no way a paperclip could go in the keyhole – music wire maybe, but not a paperclip. As for ratchet approach, on that particular pair of cuffs, the officer had to engage the second lock by hand. I don’t know if the police bother to do so. Of course, the design may have improved in the 20 years since I fiddled with that pair.

In either case, you would need a piece of music wire or a flat piece of spring steel to do your deed. If one fears needing either tool, one could always carry a well-conceiled handcuff key.

I too have a funny story about handcuffs, I was out celebrating with my friends, the fact that I had a new job. A stripper handcuffed me to her. And she couldn’t find the key at all. It was a gag, and it was meant to inspire fear or worry in me, and it did inspire some fear. The bartender was her boyfriend, he was going to kill me, what was I going to do? It was all very funny, but it was all a gag and in the back of my mind I kinda knew this. Except that the girl could not find the key that she had brought with her for this, where was she to find such a thing in that costume she was wearing. The joke was becoming stale quick.

The stripper HAD lost the key somewhere. This part of the joke was legit. And I got to go back stage, in the dressing room, and everywhere in the bar so she could retrace her steps and find the key. Her boyfriend had to go to thier apartment to get another key and he left and was gone for an hour or so. But, before he came back, an off-duty police officer had a hand-cuffs key and he freed us.

Was her boyfriend mad? YES, at her, for being so stupid. Where was the key? In her bag, on a small key ring, right where she left it.

Oh well, all of you posters have answered my question, I suppose it depends on the hand-cuffs in question. All of the other stories are hilarious too.


What about those plastic strip ties they use nowadays? They look like cable ties, and I can “pick” those easily with a small screwdriver. (That way I can re-use them.)

I can’t. You need a very small screwdriver - one for specs, say, and you have to do it carefully. I don’t think you can do it if your arms are behind you.