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Photos by Jorge Nuñez and Patrick McCarthy
According to the Shoninki, a medieval ninja document written by Natori Masatake in 1681, the “essential gear for shinobi,” a ninja, was:
The ninja’s purposes included espionage, escape, and evasion while surviving in isolated and austere conditions. Traces of these purposes are still visible in the tools they carried.
Kits specifically designed to aid individuals in avoiding and escaping capture from hostile forces trace back to WWII. During WWII, members of the British RAF (Royal Air Force) and USAAF (United States Army Air Force, the precursor to the United States Air Force) were issued specialized escape-and-evasion kits. The British Ministry of Defense, Section 9 (MI9), commissioned Christopher Hutton, a British Intelligence Officer, to create and distribute the kits to Allied servicemen.
As times have changed, so has the need for escape-and-evasion tools. It’s no longer just high-risk military personnel who find a need for these to implements. Everyday people from all walks of life recognize the value of gear and training, including travelers, aid workers, and people living in urban environments who face an increased risk of abduction. Irregular custody comes in many forms. These include home invasion situations, domestic violence, targeting by criminal groups because of your nationality or socioeconomic class, or simply finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This reinforces the idea that it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
Above: A small metal shim can be concealed in numerous locations on the body, providing a means of escaping many types of handcuffs.
To be clear, tools only work if you know how to use them before you actually need them. Seek quality training in how to use your tools before you bet your life on any of them. There are many instructors out there today providing this type of training — do your homework and choose wisely.
This article highlights several purpose-built counter-custody kits, or SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) kits as some refer to them.
For the purposes of the review I took each of the kits and, without any modifications, used them to travel to a few places in Mexico and the United States. I also put them to use in classes and in simulated situations I create for students to learn about how some of these tools are meant to work. Focused on the functionality of the toolkits, the containers they're packed in, and how they actually worked out in the field.
I gave each kit a grade of pass or fail in four categories:
Access: Can you access the tools under duress and in a compromised position?
Concealment: Can they be concealed? Will they make it through a physical search, visual scrutiny, metal detectors, etc.?
Permanence: Will they stay with you when you are out and about? If you can keep them on your person during a few rounds of jiu-jitsu, it’s a good hide.
Narrative: What do the tools you're carrying say about you? This includes aspects like colors, brand names, things that look like weapons, etc. Will this tool be a bigger liability if found than if used?
$105 (belt only)
Black Scout Survival is a veteran-owned company and proudly supports other veteran-owned businesses. Many of their products come from veteran-owned manufacturers. Black Scout sent us a Concealment Belt with an add-on escape kit that included the following contents:
The belt itself is built on a CCW pistol belt platform (rigid enough to carry a firearm and extra magazines) with two inner concealment pockets that have been strategically placed to be accessible from the front and the back via a tab that pulls out the tools when needed.
I traveled to Guadalajara via airplane and during the security check at the airport the belt did get some looks because of its black tactical appearance, but I didn’t get questioned. I traveled with the contents separately spread out in my toiletry bag. Once I got my checked bag, I went to the bathroom and loaded the tools in the belt; it was easy and really fast. I went outside and met my local contacts to do a weekend of classes and meetings.
A quick online search of cartel kidnappings and eyeing a few handcuffs on some of the local authorities gave me a very good reference, justifying the presence of the handcuff keys and shim in the kit. People often ask, “Why carry both?” The answer is simple — some bad people double-lock handcuffs. (The double lock on handcuffs is a safety feature. Once this feature is engaged, it makes a shim useless and a key indispensable.) How common is it for criminals to engage the secondary lock? Well, in Guadalajara specifically, a significant part of the criminal elements are former police with some training. And double locking is a habit that tends to stick. So, I planned accordingly.
The differences between the metal Delta key and the plastic one are simply durability and ease of use. If you aren’t versed in using handcuff keys in compromised positions, you'll quickly find out how fragile the plastic keys are. Once snapped off in the keyway, your options are diminished. Besides the airport, I didn’t encounter a single place I needed to circumvent metal detectors during my time down there. So, the plastic key was really more of a redundant element that I would have switched for another Delta Key. The keys are so small that hiding them behind existing metal components on clothes like zippers or belt buckles would solve that problem without many modifications.
I also noted during my research of the area that criminal elements used duct tape and packing plastic wrap as restraints — this justified the ceramic razor. Out of all the tools I have carried, this is the one that never gets found. Its size and lack of a magnetic signature makes it a very interesting option for non-permissive environments. This razor is not only a good emergency cutting tool for restraints, it’s also an excellent tool to modify other things, to put points on improvised weapons, and when combined with a duct tape handle, a very weaponizable tool in and of itself.
Finally, the chem light is a very under-appreciated element that only shows its true potential when I challenge students to manipulate small objects like handcuff keys or lock picks in the dark. As an everyday emergency light source, it can be used for signaling, marking a trail or path, and in some cases, I've seen them used to mark captured individuals by attaching them to their zip ties or handcuffs. If they run off into the dark, they can easily be found again by the glow they give off. Great thing to have in the dark.
I used and accessed the tools from the belt fairly easily during some of the exercises I did. In one evolution I had local agents go through their search-and-detention routine as if they were arresting a high-risk person. They took off my belt and shoes without giving it a second thought. A common practice, this left me without much of a choice as far as escape tools. When I asked why they took it, they answered, “Because it looks tactical.”
The belt is a real quality piece of kit and is used by some of our nation’s finest, but for discreet movement out in the bad parts of the world, its aesthetics might work against you. I’d advise anyone using something like this to build in redundancies around your person, such as inside the bottom of your pant legs, underwear labels, etc. Coat steel with some nail varnish to reduce any possible rusting caused by skin contact.
£50 to £72.50, depending on options
4Tac5's kit was by far the most unique. The company sent us the latest FT-CCK (Fast Track Counter Custody Kit), some of it contained within a Go-Tube.
(1) T200 High-speed friction saw
(1) Technora escape necklace with:
(1) Uber gulag shim with 120-pound test stainless steel split ring
(1) Uber gulag shim with AHK3 and R clip
(1) GTFO wrist strap
(1) SAD tool installed with high-tensile stainlesssafety pin and compression spring attachment
(1) Go-Tube Deep Concealment Device with shock-cord waist IWB strap and plastic end cap insert.
All contents are supplied in a clear zip pouch, which can be used for passport and boarding pass. This is a very advanced kit that requires training before I would advise someone to carry it. This kit provides many options for people with such needs.
The container included is an Oscar Delta Go Tube — a small plastic tube that can carry considerable amounts of kit, such as thumb drives, cash, and precious metals for bartering when traveling overseas. It’s also an excellent container to leave things behind in places you might go back to, instead of making the effort of trying to travel with suspicious items and getting questioned about them. Risk once, use often.
I crossed into Tijuana, Mexico, without much scrutiny through a pedestrian port of entry. The tools were on my person and as far as local laws are concerned, none of the items included are prohibited. Most wouldn’t recognize them if they saw them. Outside of the black Go-Tube, the kit looks benign, which makes it a very interesting option.
As an international port of entry and one of the most heavily trafficked borders on the planet, heavy criminal influences. All sorts of restraining methods and odd handcuffs show up in irregular custody events, so having a way to open cuffs with different keyways and mechanisms is a plus. The kit included a SAD-TOOL (Special Activities Development Tool) designed to defeat various handcuffs and restraints from around the world. It can also open cheap padlocks common in the third world, which are used at times to restrain multiple people like an old-time chain gang in long-term holding sites down south. Using a SAD-TOOL takes practice, but in trained hands, it’s a game changer! Redundancy is key with this kit, so multiple shims are also present in the bundle to spread out on your person.
Also included is a Technora Escape Necklace with a shim embedded in it. It’s a highly functional friction saw that can cut through most plastic restraints and a few other materials that can be cut with friction. The necklace may be too small for some users — if this is the case, they include a full length of cord inside the Go-Tube that can be configured any way the end user wants. I attached a Catholic religious icon on mine to make it look like a faith-based object. It can also function as a garrote in a pinch when you attach some cloth or Sharpie marker handles.
Another small item that is very interesting is the Micro Striker Bead attached to an elastic band. It can break most tempered glass commonly found in vehicles in case you need to exit your fake taxi in a hurry. Use the band to snap the bead against the glass you want to break and be sure to protect your eyes from flying glass shards.
4Tac5 sent a Handcop restraint along with the kit, recognizing the importance of being proactive in your mindset. Sometimes you'll need to act against people before they move against you. These restraints can also be used to jam commercial door arm hinges or secure door handles closed. Very useful in an active shooter scenario as well.
All tools performed amazingly, and the amount of thought that went into the design and development of this gear is beyond anything I've seen out there. The only thing I'd wish for is some color choices beyond black.
This was the smallest kit sent for testing. Minimalist and lightweight at only 22 grams, the Micro SERE Kit by Vigilant Gear is oriented more as a true SERE kit with elements that focus on more than just countering restraints, like signaling mirrors, fire-making tools, and leader wire. It’s the only kit to include a compass. The importance of such a tool, especially in an unfamiliar urban environment where the sky and landmarks might be obscure, shouldn't be overlooked.
Monterrey has a long history with abductions and has been the cradle of many new methods of cartel violence in recent history. For example, cartels use stolen vehicles to block roads and create traffic. This limits the ability of local authorities to respond to events in this part of the country, a method now adopted by many cartel groups all over Mexico. So, abandoning a car with all of your belongings is a very real possibility. The vision for this kit seems to be to spread it out on your person. The container it comes in really doesn’t hold up to hard use, doesn’t have any attachment points, and vomits its contents out when opened. While all the gear isn't meant to be carried in this fashion, it's important to note this fact.
Most of the contents in the Micro SERE Kit are also included in the past two kits so we'll focus on some the counter-restraint tools unique to this kit.
Diamond wire is an old-school tool with plenty of history. Small and easily hidden, it’s capable of cutting through handcuffs if you have enough time and opportunity. It takes practice to use well, but it does the job. It’s also useful against dense plastic restraints like zip ties and is capable of cutting through copper wire, sometimes used as an environmentally sourced restraint in home invasions. It’s hard to use and slow going so take some time to work on your technique before you carry it as an option.
The Sere VV-Cutter is basically a small rescue cutting tool that needs to be anchored to something like your belt for it to work. It’s meant to be hidden inside the waistline and, when needed, flipped out, and used to cut restraints. The cut is made by hooking the cutter on your bondage elements and pulling it up or down, using pressure to aid in the cut. Again, this is a hit or miss item since the size limits its use. Also, some of my students have made the mistake of attaching it to a belt loop on jeans only to have it ripped off on the first use. So, be careful with this one.
Two classic discreet tools are included in this kit in the form of bobby pins. In a pinch they could be used to improvise lock picks, handcuff shims, and handcuff key picks, among other things. Be warned, if you don’t have any hair, and these get found on you … there will be questions. This isn’t a secret to anyone with a little bit of experience, so have a good excuse to carry them.
This kit also included some polymer handcuff keys with a clip attachment. I had some issues with these migrating from the concealment positions I put them in. I usually modify them myself by attaching a lanyard and a necklace clasp made from rare earth magnets to act as a pull tab for access. The magnetic clasp is strong and works great to anchor the pull tab to the cuff and avoid dropping the key while working behind my back. I highly advise everyone to make your tools work for you — if they don’t work, fix them.
All in all, a great kit and value for what you get. I have a few issues with some of its contents, but definitely a solid entry.
SerePick.com was founded to address the unique needs brought forward by military, law enforcement, and security professionals. At the core of their kits is the highly effective Tactical Entry Kit. Each custom-designed part is uniquely crafted as both a tool and a tension wrench allowing their users rapid entry capabilities, while maintaining a limited footprint and a minimal set of tools. Kits can be extended and customized to include the latest technology for the urban professional.
Included in the 9-by-6-by-2-inch custom pouch are the following tools:
This is by far the most extensive kit submitted for testing. Its contents are interesting because it focuses on a very specialized discipline: covert entry. This is a kit that, just a few years back, had to be assembled piece by piece. Only recently has Serepick made this available to the general public. The first time I saw this kit it was in the hands of some friends of mine from NSW.
So what is this kit designed for? It was made for people who need to get in and out of spaces that they might have a need to access for reasons only the end user would know. Among the noteworthy components are the snapgun or pick gun, which is an alternative method to conventional lock picks and is used to bypass most common types of pin tumbler locks. Tutorials on its use are all over YouTube. One could see how such a tool could be useful if you had to find places to hide or needed to gain entry to places that contained critical resources while being actively pursued by a hostile force. There's a noise discipline concern that can be mitigated by using environmental noise to conceal its use or by muffling the sound with a jacket or towel. Definitely worth its weight.
The tubular pick opens locks that are commonly used for some types of gun safes, weapons-locking chains, and some commercial vending machines. It’s a very specialized tool that has served me well on more than one occasion back in my operational days when doing site exploitation.
This kit traveled with me via plane to Mexico City mixed in with electrical equipment. It didn’t receive any scrutiny at all. The purpose of the contents is unknown to most people who don’t work in the locksmithing field. As an experiment, I used its contents to open every lock I came across during a day of sightseeing and visiting a few companies and friends. It’s surprising how often people can be delusional about the effectiveness of locks. In that regard, this kit really has a powerful side effect on the user's perception of home or hotel security. After a few days of training, you'll be looking for alternative ways of securing your laydown sites.
As far as what the kit included specifically to get out of custody, it’s mostly the same as other entries and designed with the “spread out and conceal” mentality in mind. One very special inclusion was the ceramic lapel dagger — the only true weapon included in any of the entries. It’s a highly concealable item with non-conductive qualities that can help it pass through many security checkpoints you might find in an urban environment like Mexico City. Some gangs carry volcanic glass with the same mindset.
The kit comes in a small modular pack that keeps everything in its place. This kit requires time and dedication to be proficient in the use of all the tools it holds and truly make it worth its presence in your travel loadout.
You need to be careful as far as legalities with any and all of the tools talked about in this article. Some lock-picking tools are viewed as burglary tools by some U.S. jurisdictions, even if they're rarely, if ever, used. In that regard, this kit could present some issues if found on your person, but it sure is reassuring to know you'll be able to ransack any vending machine after SHTF.
Above: We attended one of Ed Calderon's counter-custody classes and tested our escape skills in simulated captivity scenarios. Refer to “Vanishing Act” in Issue 29 for a summary of lessons learned.
Whatever you choose to carry out there, remember this — tools carried need to make sense within your surrounding environment. A plastic handcuff key makes no sense in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Learn to prepare for the probable.
Any tool is only as good as the training behind it. If you don’t have the skills, buying stuff online won’t make you proficient through some form of mystical transference. Don’t buy protection amulets, buy tools to complement your skills.
Don’t rely on items you practice with. Plastic handcuff keys will break after a few uses, and shims have a shelf life. Remember everything you carry has a narrative — don't let your gear expose you to a foreign country’s security forces. Be smart about how, what, and where you carry.
Finally, the best recommendation I can give anyone about these types of tools is to first learn how the kit you buy works. Then reverse-engineer it by making and improvising your own from the things around you. That's the highest level of the craft. Stillness is death, so always keep adapting.
For over a decade Ed Calderon worked in the fields of counter-narcotics, organized crime investigation, and public safety in the northern-border region of Mexico. Learn more about his survival courses at: edsmanifesto.com