Methods of Escaping from Handcuffs: An Overview

Along with many other types of survival skills, how to escape from handcuffs is the kind of practical information that everyone should know, and hope never to need. In the event that you do find yourself unlawfully restrained, knowledge of these escape tactics and the various tools required could be invaluable. This overview will cover the main ways to escape from standard ratchet-style metal handcuffs after maneuvering into the best position to do so: lock picking, releasing the pawl with a shim, and duplicate keys.  

Hand positioning

Upon unlawful detainment, the first thing to keep in mind is the position of your hands. If you can at all control your hand position as they are cuffed, you have a better chance of escape. Escaping from cuffs is very difficult if your hands are behind your back, so do everything possible to ensure that your hands are in front of you. In the worst-case scenario, you may need to sit or lie down, lift your legs and feet as close to your body as possible, and maneuver your hands around to the front of your body beneath your feet. This will put you in a much better position to begin to pick the lock. The more flexible you are the easier this will be, so practice this regularly if you are in a line of work or often find yourself in situations where being unlawfully detained is a threat.

Pick them with a paperclip

Once your hands are positioned as best as you can get them, the lock can be picked with a simple length of wire such as a straightened paper clip or bobby pin (sans rubber cap).

The wire first needs to be prepared. To do so, bend the end into a 90 degree angle by inserting the pin or clip halfway into the upper portion of the lock and bending to the left to attain a 90 degree bend. Take it out and re-bend it in the opposite direction to achieve a roughly S-shaped bend, where both bends are about 90 degrees but heading in opposite directions. The next step will require the most practice to become proficient: insert the newly-bent pick into the upper portion of the lock (this may take a bit of maneuvering, as the pick needs to bypass the lip of the lock) and apply enough tension (mimicking the key pressing against the lock mechanism) to release the lock. Check out this helpful video tutorial from ITS Tactical:

Use a shim

If you do not have access to a suitable length of wire, you can also pick the lock by using a shim to release the pawl. A shim is any small, flat piece of metal you can find, about the width of a credit card and narrow enough to fit into the locking mechanism. To release the pawl, insert the shim between the locking mechanism and the teeth. With the shim in place, tighten the cuff a single notch, and simultaneously push on the shim. The cuff should unclick. This method will not work if the cuffs are double locked, because the double lock prevents the cuffs from ratcheting any tighter. WikiHow has a great series of photographs demonstrating the shimming technique.

Use a universal handcuff key

While the aforementioned methods can work with practice and under the right circumstances, a much surer method of escape is to keep a duplicate key on your person. This at first sounds nearly impossible until you consider the fact that most handcuffs can all be unlocked with the same universal key- a feature that greatly simplifies the process for law enforcement. TIHK is an excellent solution due to the easily-concealable design that allows you to clip it to your clothing in undetectable places. A tiny inconspicuous handcuff key is a valuable addition to any survival toolkit, and can be easily taken with you and hidden on your person if you think you may find yourself in an unpleasant situation.