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Shimming Handcuffs

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Shimming Handcuffs
by Michael Jaquish

It is impossible to count the number of times I placed suspects in handcuffs during my law enforcement career. I recall being aware that it was possible to pick the cuffs, but fortunately, I never actually encountered anyone who managed to do that. That does not mean it could never happen though. There are individuals out there who possess the knowledge, skill and motivation to do this and the information is freely available on the internet. As law enforcement officers we need to be aware of how one would pick a set of handcuffs so we can limit the suspects opportunities if they happen to be so inclined. And, what if the worst should happen? What if you find yourself taken hostage by your suspect; and, you end up wearing your own cuffs? Hope for the best, but plan for the worst by having a contingency plan.  Here is what you need to know about picking handcuffs that you may not have learned at the academy.

First of all, we are technically exploring shimming the cuffs, not really picking the lock.  Lock picking more or less involves the manipulation of the lock tumblers, while shimming is defeating some portion of the locking mechanism.  The most commonly used handcuffs are Peerless or Smith & Wesson. These and other handcuffs are very easy to shim because they have very simple, generic locking system that allows the handcuff locking arm to swing freely, making it easy to apply the handcuffs in a tactical situation.  Essentially, when handcuffing a suspect, you close the cuffs over the wrists of the individual and then use the tip of the key to lock the cuffs so they cannot be tightened accidentally; this is commonly referred to as double locking. 

Handcuffs can be easily opened without keys

Handcuffs can be shimmed by a safety pin, paper clip, bobby pin, or piece of wire nearly as quickly as opening them with a key.  Shimming is done with a small piece of stiff wire such as a safety pin or a small paper clip. Handcuffs have a metal arm with a series of notches that swings around and tightens when it contacts the ratchet, allowing for movement in only one direction (tighter). The handcuff can easily be shimmed by inserting a wire between the notches and the ratchet to cover two or three of the ratchet teeth. Once you do that properly, the handcuffs will slip open if you press your arm against them in the right spot.  However, if the wire shim is too large, you run the risk of jamming the cuffs. If this happens, you may have to dismantle the cuffs or saw them off to remove them.

Picking certain cuffs

Picking Smith & Wesson handcuffs with a bobby pin is quite easy. Bobby pins tend to jam Peerless cuffs but they work well to pick open the cuffs in Smith & Wesson cuffs. First, bend the bobby pin (using the keyhole in the cuffs if you need to) so it looks like a hand crank, with one flat end shorter than the other.  You insert the bobby pin into the handcuff keyhole and turn, just as you would with the regular key.  By moving the bobby pin around in a circular motion you can defeat the locking mechanism, opening the handcuffs.  Of course, with the cuffs behind your back, both techniques will take some practice.  Next time you are searching or transporting a prisoner, take extra care to make sure they dont have any small wires, pieces of metal or even bobby pins that might allow them to open the cuffs.

The retired Chief of Police of the Okanogan Police Department (Washington), Michael Jaquish has degrees in Business Administration and Law Enforcement.  His book, Tales of a Country Cop in Africa, traces the experiences of a Jaquish, a small-town cop, who, following a divorce, retired from law enforcement to pursue a career in international diplomatic security and intelligence.  In 1989, he traveled to Liberia, West Africa, where, shortly after his arrival, savagery and revolution exploded across the West African countryside. 

Michael can be contacted via his website at There he writes about current global and domestic politics and events and publishes his opinions on his blog, Stranger in a Strange Land.

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