Freedom – How to Escape Handcuffs

We have all seen it in the movies… the hero has been captured and picks his handcuffs to escape. I recall a time from my youth when I found myself in handcuffs and pulled a staple from a cork board to try and pick the lock. It did not work.

handcuff concealment belt with comb picks, lock picks, handcuff shim (purple), handcuff key, glow stick
a handcuff concealment belt with comb picks, lock picks, handcuff shim (purple), handcuff key, glow stick

Needless to say this is a skill that takes some practice. Unlike the movies, you cannot just grab a hair pin and pop open your cuffs. The good news is that this is a challenge you can handle. Once you understand how the lock works, you should be able to consistently free yourself.

The Importance of Counter-Custody Skills

Knowing how to escape from handcuffs is more than just a neat party trick. You don’t need to be the heir of Harry Houdini or some hardened desperado that is avowed to never go back to prison: an increasing number of citizens are being illegally restrained by criminals with ill intent.

As part of stuffing resistance during a home invasion or as a necessary step in gaining compliance during a full-blown kidnapping, handcuffs, zip ties and other restraints are being used to bind and immobilize victims.

Once this happens, you are completely at the mercy of people who have already proven they are willing to use violence to get what they want, in no uncertain terms.

That is, you’ll be at their mercy if you don’t know how to get out of the cuffs. Having the right skills and a few purpose-made or improvised tools could see you regain your mobility in a bid to regain your freedom from criminal restraint.

As grim as it is to consider, every prepper should learn these skills and carry accordingly, especially if you are in an area where Americans are targeted for kidnapping.

The Clock is Ticking when in Captivity

If you are captured, you must flee as soon as possible. This is because the more time passes, the less likely your situation will improve, and your chances of escape will decrease.

This is due to the fact that captors who move or relocate you will almost always improve on their security by conducting a more thorough search, upgrading or adding to your restraints, and taking other measures that make escaping or protecting oneself increasingly difficult.

Assuming you don’t have your clothes taken away altogether, you’ll most likely be strip searched, and this means that most of the resources we’ve hidden away (discussed later) will be of no use.

Consider how you may be only cuffed or tied during the initial stages of the kidnapping/capture; that’s bad enough! But what if you’re then cuffed and tied to a chair or table later on or somewhere else? Now your chances of escape, and likely of surviving, are plummeting precipitously.

Remember, if you have a chance to remove your bindings and flee in the early phases of the event you’ll probably never have a better one! The longer the event lasts the worse your captivity will become!

The Best Counter-Custody Tools

A counter-custody or restraint-defeating kit will include a variety of tools cleverly carried and hidden on your person. And hidden in such a way they will escape detection and be easy to access after you are restrained!

The tools you choose might be homemade, field-improvised or purchased, and their usefulness will be second to none should you need them.

Whatever they are, you must be able to be get to them efficiently and from any angle or position, and they must also go unnoticed during a hasty upfront search by your captors.

  • Shim – A shim is a tiny, flexible instrument that may be used to defeat the ratcheting mechanism of handcuffs. You can unlock and remove the cuffs by inserting a shim between the bracelet’s components and then tightening them slightly. Purpose-made equipment for this purpose is available, but many makeshift solutions perform just as well or better, such as bobby pins and flat wire fragments.
  • Blade – A hidden blade is also a quintessential escape tool. You may use a razor blade, xacto blade, or even a lancet to cut through soft restraints like rope, cord and maybe even zip ties. It will be far harder than it sounds under the circumstances, but do your best to devise or practice a secure grip on the blade that doesn’t injure your fingers.
  • Handcuff key – This key must be easily accessible whether or not you are cuffed behind your back or in front of your hands. Double-ended double lock handcuff key is an essential tool that can save you a lot of aggravation if you’re restrained with handcuffs. However, being found in possession of such a key will generate serious concerns among genuine law enforcement officials, although it is not forbidden in most places.

Remember: You must ensure that your tools are not discovered during a simple first examination in order to have a chance to utilize and implement them.

Consider, too, that as time goes on in captivity you will be searched increasingly thoroughly, likely resulting in your being stripped. This assumes your captors are competent.

Also, if cuffed behind your back you should always be able to sit down on the ground and move your bindings to the front. This is the easiest way to break free.

Caution: Never practice picking handcuffs without having two keys within reach. Also, never tighten them down to the point that they cut off the circulation to your hands. You do not know how long it will take you to get your hands free.

handcuffs and keys
handcuffs and keys

Make Your Own Key

When you see people using a piece of wire or a paperclip to pick the lock, they are essentially creating a makeshift key. A paperclip is the perfect thickness to accomplish this as the metal needs to be thick enough to hold its shape.

  1. Straighten out your paperclip or thick wire
  2. Insert the end of the wire into the keyhole and bend it to the side.
  3. Insert it further and bend it back the opposite direction so you create a zigzag in your metal.
  4. Twist the metal just like you would with a key. Be patient. You may have to wiggle it a bit or twist in the other direction to get the cuffs to pop free.
  5. Remember to hold onto your key to free your other hand. You would not be the first person to make the mistake of discarding it too quickly.

Some handcuffs are double-lock models. This means that they have to be released in two different directions before the cuffs can be released.

The only difference with this is that your key needs to be twisted in both direction before you will feel them click loose. It should still be fairly easy to escape from this type of model.

cutaway trainer handcuff shimmed with improvised shim
Cutaway trainer handcuff shimmed with improvised shim

Make a Shim

A shim is simply a thin piece of flat metal that is used as a barrier between the teeth of the cuffs. A good shim must be flexible and should be no thicker than a credit card. The metal clip from an ink pen can work, but my favorite shim is made from cutting a square out of the side of an aluminum can..

  1. Insert your shim into the opening where the teeth slide into the rest of the cuff. You want your shim centered on the teeth with any excess metal wrapping around the sides.
  2. Wiggle and push the metal in as far as it will go without pushing so hard that you bend the metal. It is important that your shim stays flat.
  3. Simultaneously apply pressure to the shim and tighten the cuff by one tooth. You should be able to feel and hear it click in place. If you do this right, the mechanism will drop on the shim instead of the tooth.
  4. Push and wiggle on the shim being sure not to let it back out of the mechanism. The cuffs should come free.

Escaping From Alternative Handcuffs

Anymore many captives find themselves being bound by something almost as convenient and strong as handcuffs, but much less expensive.

Zip ties and duct tape are two examples that are commonly used. The key to escaping either of these bindings is outward pressure.

Duct Tape

Step 1) Raise your hands as high as you can being careful not to let the edge of the duct tape roll.

You do not want to wiggle your hands back and forth as it will turn the tape into more of a rope. This makes it stronger. The weak point is the exposed edge.

Step 2) Practice a downward motion striking yourself and ripping your hands apart. You will only get one shot at this so you have to get it right. If your hands are bound in the front, bring your hands down across your chest or belly.

If they are bound behind your back, bring them down on your butt or move them to the front. When practicing, do not actually make contact.

Step 3) When ready, raise your hands and bring them down as fast as you can. Strike your body hard and rip outward when you make contact. If done correctly, this should rip the tape breaking your hands free.

Zip Ties

  1. Move the square plastic lock on the zip tie to be centered between your hands.
  2. Tighten the zip tie as tight as you can get it.
  3. Unlike duct tape, you do not have to worry about rolling the edges and making the binding stronger. However, thick zip ties may have to be weakened by rubbing them on a sharp surface. You can find the edge of a table or door to get the process started. Try to focus on the plastic lock holding the zip tie together.
  4. Just like with the duct tape, you will raise your hands as high as possible and bring them down swiftly striking your body. When you make contact you will rip outwards popping the lock on the zip tie.

Note: This works even if one zip tie is used for each hand or if a third is used in between. You can also use a shim to break the zip tie lock free, but it has to be narrow enough to fit inside the plastic square.

Saw Method

I always replace my boot laces with 550 paracord, and this is one of its best uses. If you are having trouble getting out of zip ties or duct tape, you can saw your way through.

To do this you need to pull one lace out of your boot and tie a loop on each end.

Put a loop over one foot, drape the cordage over the bindings, and then put the other loop over the other foot. Then just saw back and forth with your feet until the friction breaks through the bindings.

Want a Shortcut?

If you want to be sure you can get out of your handcuffs, there are several products you can buy to help you.

I like to have a lock pick kit with me as much as possible so I can get through any lock. It includes a shim and a handcuff key, so it has all my bases covered.

You can also buy some spy level gear to help you get free. There are pieces of jewelry like pendants and rings that have shims or handcuff keys built in.

Most people would never think to look that closely at these items. There are also boot laces that you can buy that have a hidden handcuff key in the tip.

Injuries Sustained While Attempting Removal

The prospect of getting hurt in training, as well as during a live event, is one that frequently arises when discussing this issue.

The fragile carpal bones in your hands and wrists will be exposed to significant stresses through explosively violent approaches that rely on strength and momentum.

Because the fingers are such delicate and sensitive areas they are prone to harm. It’s only natural to assume that something might go wrong at any time.

Even with soft or subtle techniques relying on picking or tool usage, you may need to fight hard to get yourself in the right spot for success.

Whether or not your hands or wrists will be hurt, either tissue injuries, ligaments and tendons, or something worse like a fracture or dislocation, is complicated because there are numerous variables to consider.

The simplest explanation may be whether your own biological constitution is strong or frail. Those among us who are fit and athletic are less prone to get harmed, as are those who are young.

Both categories of people have tissues and bones that are more robust to injury, especially when subjected to major physical stressors.

On the other hand, those who are old, frail or physically compromised are significantly more likely to experience severe tissue damage should they attempt an escape.

This is due to a variety of factors such as the fact that bones weaken with age and are more susceptible to fracturing, muscles atrophy, and nerve damage can impede quick reactions.

There’s no getting around the fact that attempting any type of dynamic counter-custody technique puts you at risk, but it’s a risk that’s worth taking if your life is on the line!

The sort of the restraint, too, has a significant impact.

While ropes and duct tape are sturdy enough to entail pulled muscles, torn ligaments and severe scrapes or rope burn are often yielding and flexible enough to provide you with a margin of error for many failed attempts without serious damage.

Handcuffs, on the other hand, are often manufactured from steel or some other metal and simply will not yield before your bones do, most of the time.

They’re notorious for biting into the wrists of those wearing them under strain and can displace your thumb if you try to withdraw them.

At worst, you might experience a “de-gloving” injury if you yank your hand hard enough. You can Google the term to learn more, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Flexible plastic restraints fall somewhere between ropes and cuffs for “forgiveness.”

They’re flexible and hard, but if you try to snap them as stated above, they’ll cut into your skin readily and may withstand attempts to break them, potentially causing soft tissue damage.

Keep in mind that performing escapes from restraints, especially with dynamic approaches, will undoubtedly cause discomfort and perhaps injury.

Don’t undervalue yourself by practicing on cushy or “weaker” restraints, and be sure to use common sense while practicing these methods.

Want to Practice?

There are several ways that you can practice these techniques. The least expensive and easiest way to test your skills is to start with duct tape and zip ties. This is a lot of fun, and it’s easy to get the whole family involved.

When it comes time to move on to handcuffs, a normal set is fine. However, it may require several attempt with a helpful assistant to get you free.

The easier way to learn is to get a see-through set of cuffs so you can see that movement in the mechanism. Handcuffs are quite simple and seeing the movement is very helpful during the learning process.

Once you master handcuffs, you may want to get a lock pick set along with a see-through padlock so you can further your skills. When SHTF, having the ability to get through almost any lock or door will be very helpful and could save your life.

I would be remiss if I did not give some advice about escaping from handcuffs. Getting out of your cuffs when in police custody is a good way to get shot.

In addition COPS get you into the back seat of their car as quickly as possible, so getting the cuffs to the front is very difficult. I would only ever remove police cuffs if you feel that your life is in danger.

In hostage situations, this can be just as dangerous. Remember that trying to escape from a captor is the most dangerous move you can make.

I would only suggest freeing yourself to escape if you know for sure that you can break free or if you know for sure that your captor is going to kill you.

If there is any question, wait it out to see if your situation changes. If nothing else, this is a fun party trick to show your friends.

escaping handcuffs pinterest

updated 03/21/2022

20 survival items ebook cover
Like what you read?

Then you're gonna love my free PDF, 20 common survival items, 20 uncommon survival uses for each. That's 400 total uses for these dirt-cheap little items!

We will not spam you.

1 thought on “Freedom – How to Escape Handcuffs”

  1. Keep in mind that, in some states, possession of a handcuff key is illegal. Dumb, yes, but it’s not the first dumb law. Know the law in your area. Don’t let possession of a handcuff key be the reason you end up in handcuffs.


Leave a Comment