16 Jul '08


How to break open handcuffs with tools

Preparing for a future danger - high-security handcuffs

Police forces could equip themselves with the new high-security handcuffs (see the photograph at the bottom of the page) that require individual, non-standard keys for each pair of handcuffs.

If the police in Scotland do deploy these high-security handcuffs at protests or demonstrations then protesters should respond by equipping themselves with tools to break the handcuffs open when necessary.

This web page suggests and details tools and a method to do just that.

The illustrative photographs show a normal pair of handcuffs (speedcuffs) because I don't have any high-security handcuffs (they are too expensive for me right now). Also, economy considerations prevented me from actually cutting up my one pair of handcuffs but test cuttings of drawn steel bar (cross-section 4mm by 10mm - the expected thickness of the handcuffs' steel shackle that needs to be cut) were done to test the method.

A bolt-cutter is the primary tool

The suggested method in brief is to use a bolt-cutter to cut through the rotating shackle or cuff at a position which would give the biggest gap when the shackle is cut and the part still hinged rotated away from the wrist.

The assumption is that then the wrist could be rotated free, avoiding or squeezing carefully past the part of the shackle still engaged with the locking bars.

This assumption should be tested by actual experiments on real handcuffs worn by volunteers.

If difficulties are encountered then no doubt some exemplary freedom fighter would publish a web page or two extending this method by detailing a method to remove the locked part of the shackle after the initial cut.

Selection of bolt-cutter
My 600mm long bolt-cutter (cost 41) cut through drawn steel bar (cross-section 4mm by 10mm) with a force equivalent to that needed to lift 20Kg - an easy lift for me with one hand. A quick test of another bolt-cutter, about half the length of mine, did subjectively require a considerable effort on my part to cut the same steel bar.
You can buy even longer bolt-cutters that will need less force to cut but they are increasingly impossible to carry discreetly. A 600mm (24 inches) bolt-cutter can be carried out of obvious sight in a large rucksack or sports-bag or strapped and slung diagonally over a shoulder under a coat but only just - anything bigger couldn't be carried without the police spotting it. For that reason, stronger freedom fighters than me may choose to select a 450mm or 18 inch bolt-cutter that can be more easily concealed.

My bolt-cutter's head indicates that it is manufactured from a chromium steel alloy and such alloys (sometimes with Vanadium rather than Molybdenum as claimed on my bolt-cutter) seem to be used for the better (more expensive) bolt-cutters. The Hiatts high-security handcuffs are manufactured from high-carbon steel which presumably does not have the hardness or compressive strength of chromium steel alloy. I reason therefore that the high-security handcuffs would be reliably cut by a chromium steel alloy bolt-cutter.

Without the expense of using chromium steel alloy, a cheap (15) 600mm "value" bolt-cutter is manufactured by Draper. It would be of interest to know whether this bolt-cutter would reliably cut high-security handcuffs or whether and how quickly the cutting blade would blunt and fail to cut. More generally, we may ask "what is the cheapest available bolt-cutter that will do the job?"

I should mention that my bolt-cutter was not supplied in excellent working condition. I had to file the gear teeth between the cutting blades (and grind the blades a little) to get the blades to meet properly by adjusting the blade cam-bolts. Also, I had to file smooth the bearing surfaces at the hinge bolts to sort out a stiffness problem. So quality control and finish seems to be an issue with this make of bolt-cutter anyway - EGA Master, Spain.

For this particular application, where the very end of the tool is used to cut, it is worthwhile after general adjustments, to grind the tip of the blades flat so that the cutting edge extends all the way to the tip of the tool.

Guarding the skin of the wrist
You can be sure that the bolt-cutter is powerful enough to slice through any part of the wrist that it accidentally grips in its jaws.

So I've designed a metal guard that can be attached on to the shackle to be cut in order to protect the skin of the wrist from the jaws of the bolt-cutter.

If the skin guard can be pushed on far enough, a metal toggle can be slipped inside the shackle to fasten the guard in place.

Failing that, a "quick-grip" clamp can be used to keep the guard in place while the cut is done.

The guard can be constructed from 0.5mm thick sheet steel. I had some galvanised steel sheet and used that but stainless steel sheet might be even better. The design size was 3.4cm by 11cm and a central slot of 5.4cm by 4mm was ground out using my 140 watt rotary tool with a grinding disc. (I accidentally broke the tiny mandrel screw that holds the grinding disc to the tool - so watch out and try to avoid too much vibration.)

The piece of steel sheet was bent so that the central 3cm part follows the shape of the inner circumference of the rotating shackle. From the centre, the next outer parts are bent sharply radially and then gradually circumferentially to make the guard stiff enough to work. See the photographs.

The metal toggle is made from the same steel, 3.5cm by 1cm. The leading end of the toggle is rounded and curved to the inner circumference of the rotating shackle and the trailing end is bent to a right angle.

The toggle is attached to the skin guard by string threaded through holes punched through toggle and skin guard as shown.

Obviously, the skin guard and toggle should be filed and/or sandpapered to remove any sharp edges.

The ideal position for the skin guard is on the rotating shackle as close to the lock as possible while allowing the inner section of the skin guard to sit comfortably inside the inner circumference of the rotating shackle.

There is a possible obstruction at the widest part of the rotating shackle where the last-to-engage few ratchet teeth are, so either position the guard to avoid that wide part or decide to extend the ground-out slot radially further, at the possible risk of reduced stiffness of the skin guard.

When fitting the skin guard, take care not to tighten the shackle any further but do take a minute or two to try to slip the toggle in. If necessary, guide the person's wrist to rotate inside the cuff to a better position or compress the wrist with the skin guard in order to get the toggle in as that will make the cutting process that much simpler and quicker.

If the toggle just won't go in then you'll have to use the "quick-grip" clamp (size 38mm, cost 3 something from a DIY superstore).

The gripping jaws of the clamp can be made more effective by sanding the plastic jaws and then gluing on a piece of sandpaper - so that the rough side of the sandpaper will help to grip the shackle.

I used medium (P120) coated aluminium oxide sandpaper and achieved a three-times stronger grip on the metal - invaluable.

With the skin guard in place, now is the time to cut.

STOP and put on your safety glasses. You can't be too careful with your eyes. Although a bolt-cutter is not a power tool and although when cutting through handcuff shackles both ends of a cut shackle are still attached to the handcuffs and are likely to stay attached, potentially when bolt-cutters snip bits of metal off, these little bits of metal can go flying off at high speed. So get in to a good habit. Wear safety glasses. Also have spare safety glasses available for the handcuffed person to borrow and try to get him/her to wear them. The chances are nothing will fly off but better safe than sorry.

Persuade the handcuffed person to position their handcuffs in such a way as to make your job easier - that might be difficult to achieve if the person is handcuffed behind their back. The ideal position for you is with the handcuffs vertically below (see the photograph at the top of this web page), second best is with the handcuffed persons forearms vertical and with your hands gripping the bolt-cutter's handles one vertically above the other.

Cut the shackle at the position closest to the lock and consistent with cutting all the way through the shackle. That should be easy if the toggle is in, not so easy if you are reduced to using the "quick-grip" clamp. If, despite your best efforts, the cut is only right through the outer-most part of the shackle leaving a few millimetres still un-severed then fear not, a back-up plan is in place.

If necessary make a second cut, 1.5cm to 2.0cm further away from the lock - move the "quick-grip" clamp along if necessary.

With a short section of shackle hanging on by at most a few millimetres of steel at two corners, you can now break that section free by twisting it about those corners using two mole-grips. (Bargain pack of 3 mole-grips, less than 10 from a DIY superstore.)

In the photograph, I have indicated the positions of two possible cuts by marking the shackle with black ink.

If these were actual cuts then the section could be worked free by holding the right mole-grip steady and levering the left mole-grip up and down.

Don't stop if the shackle just breaks at the side furthest away from the lock. You'll need to break the section at the side nearest to the lock to make enough space to free the wrist from the cuff.

When the shackle is cut then remove the skin guard to allow the shackle to rotate about its hinge away from the wrist. Carefully guide and rotate if necessary the wrist out of the cuff. If the wrist threatens to squeeze against the sharp end of the cut shackle then hold the curved end of the skin guard over the sharp end of the shackle to protect the skin as the wrist squeezes out.

Well that's one wrist free and the second should be even easier.

Tactical considerations at protests

Clearly, breaking handcuffs open is going to take some time and is an operation that cannot easily be done while the handcuffed protester and liberators are being jostled or interfered with by the police.

So it is likely to be better tactics to evacuate the handcuffed person to a "first-aid" station away from the front-line with the police so that the handcuffs can be removed in peace. Other protesters would need to cover the evacuation by stopping police pursuit.

There is also the consideration that bolt-cutters, being more expensive and more difficult to replace than keys, more effort should go into hiding them and protecting them from confiscation by the police. A 2 handcuffs key can be easily replaced. A 40 bolt-cutter is not so easy to replace and if the police manage to grab the protesters' limited number of bolt-cutters then protesters would be put at a tactical disadvantage.

This is why it is important to get the cheapest bolt-cutter that will break the handcuffs so that protesters can afford to buy as many bolt-cutters as possible to cover for some being lost to the police.

What to do now

Freedom fighters should now be preparing for future contingencies. So get yourself a bolt-cutter, make sure it is in good working order and has the tip ground flat as explained earlier. Practise cutting through some 4mm by 10mm steel bar. (Remember to wear your safety glasses). Make a skin guard protector. Make sure you've got the other tools that you might need - mole grips and a "quick-grip" clamp.

As of April 2004, to the best of my knowledge, the police in Scotland are not yet deploying high-security handcuffs when policing demonstrations. So while wrist protector cuffs and handcuffs keys are advisable for current protests, there is no reason yet to take your bolt-cutter and other tools to break open handcuffs along to the protest or demonstration. (If you are travelling to the demonstration or protest by car, it might be worth considering putting your handcuffs-breaking tools in the car boot to have them available as an emergency back-up measure.) At least on this issue, you are now perhaps one step ahead of the police.

High security handcuffs

Click to:
Handcuffs keys. How to unlock police speedcuffs.
Anti-handcuffs. Protective wear to slow down police speedcuffs.

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