In This Article
A basic understanding of lockpicking is one of the most valuable urban survival skills one can have in their arsenal. For many, the idea of lockpicking may be relegated to the realm of criminals and hackers, but there are many legitimate legal uses for these skills.
A locksmith can be an expensive solution to regaining entry into your own home, automobile, or safe when your keys are locked inside. Under such circumstances, a basic knowledge of lockpicking might save you a good chunk of cash. If ever the day should come that you’re the victim of an unlawful custody situation, a solid foundation of lockpicking skills and an understanding of the inner workings of the most popular lock designs could likely aid in your escape. And in a worst-case, end-of-the-world scenario, lockpicking could enable you to scavenge medications or other necessary items from places that may have been passed over by opportunistic looters.
In this article, we examine the anatomy of a lock, how lockpicking works, basic lockpicking tools, and the most popular lockpicking techniques.
The pin tumbler lock is one of the most basic and commonly used lock designs. This type of lock can be found on virtually every doorknob, deadbolt, and padlock. Even many high-security doors have a pin tumbler lock as a backup.
The mechanics of these locks are very simple and easy to understand. Once you have a firm grasp on how these locks work, they’re relatively easy to pick. Even some of the highest-security locks on the market are just creative alterations of the pin tumbler design.
Housing: The housing is the outer shell that holds all the internal lock components together.
Cylinder: The cylinder sits inside the housing and rotates freely when the proper key is inserted. It’s kept in place by a series of pins and springs that protrude into the cylinder and housing. These pins prevent the cylinder from turning until the key is inserted.
Shear Line: The shear line is the space between the cylinder and housing. When the key is inserted and all components are aligned properly, the gap between the driver pins and the key pins align perfectly with the shear line.
Driver Pins: The driver pins are essentially the locking pins, which sit between the cylinder and housing to prevent the cylinder from turning. When the correct key is inserted into the lock, these pins are pushed above the shear line to release the cylinder, which can then rotate freely within the housing. Driver pins are located on top of the key pins.
Key Pins: The key pins sit below the driver pins. Key pins are called such because these provide the coding system for the lock. They vary in length to match the cut on the appropriate key. These pins contact the key and press against the driver pins to push them above the shear line.
Springs: Each set of pins has a tension spring located at the top, which forces the pins downward into the cylinder.
When a key is inserted into a pin and tumbler lock, the cuts on the key contact the key pins and lift the pins upward to the correct height. This positions the driver pins above the shear line and the key pins below the shear line, allowing the cylinder to rotate.
The idea behind pin and tumbler lockpicking is to replicate the key’s function by elevating the driver pins above the shear line so the cylinder can be turned within the housing to unlock the lock. The tricky part is aligning all the pins, so they don’t bind against the lock. If a key pin isn’t pressed high enough, the driver pin will continue to bind against the cylinder, preventing it from rotating. If a key pin is pressed too high, the key pin itself will bind against the cylinder. There are several techniques for accomplishing this goal, which we’ll discuss later, but first we need to understand what makes lockpicking possible.
Most locks have very slight tolerance flaws in the alignment of the pin holes. It’s actually these imperfections that allow these locks to be picked. In lockpicking, there’s an order in which each pin will clear the shear line based on the offset of the pin holes. The pin located in the hole that has the greatest deviation from the centerline toward the direction of the cylinder is turning will be the first pin that has to clear the shear line and so on. This is referred to as the binding order.
When tension is placed on the cylinder with a tension wrench, and the first driver pin clears the shear line, the cylinder will rotate ever so slightly and trap the bottom of the driver pin above the cylinder. This process continues until all the driver pins have cleared the shear line and the lock is opened. Setting the pins out of order will result in a failed attempt, since the cylinder will have rotated past one or more pins. It’s also important to know the binding order can change depending on where the tension wrench is placed and the direction of force of the wrench..
Tension Wrench: The tension wrench is the most important piece of lockpicking equipment, or at least the most important piece of equipment to master. The tension wrench acts like the key in that it allows the user to turn the plug. It also places tension on the pins, so that when the driver pins clear the shear line, the cylinder will rotate just enough to bind it above the shear line.
Tension wrenches are pretty basic with little variance between them. Wrenches come in different thicknesses to accommodate different sizes of keyways. Most are designed to slide into the bottom of the keyway (side opposite the pins), but some have very short necks and are intended for use at the top of the keyway, just in front of the pins.
Hook Picks: There are many variations of the hook pick, but the purpose is the same. The hook is used for single-pin picking to lift the pins above the shear line. As a rule, the simpler the better when it comes to hooks. Small hooks are the go-to for most pin and tumbler locks. Large hooks are reserved for reaching the back pins on locks with long cylinders.
Half-Diamond Picks: Half-diamond picks are used for locks whose key pins are similar in length. The half-diamond is usually a good pick to start with, since many cheaper locks have little variation in key-pin length. The half-diamond can be used with all three picking techniques described later in this article.
Rake Picks: There are a few different rake designs, but most rakes are some variation of a “snake,” “W,” or “Running W” pattern. The purpose of a rake pick is to set multiple pins simultaneously.
Ball Picks: Ball picks aren’t used for pin and tumbler lockpicking, but they’re commonly included in lockpick sets, so we’ll touch on them very quickly. Ball picks are used for picking wafer locks, which function differently than pin and tumbler locks. These locks are found on filing cabinets, desks, and small lock boxes. The techniques for picking these types of locks are like the ones discussed in this article, so the skills will easily transition with a basic understanding of the wafer lock design.
There are several techniques for picking pin and tumbler locks. Each has its place. Here we’ll look at the three most popular methods. Keep in mind that each of these techniques has several variations, but we’re just covering the basic concepts.
Single Pin Picking: Single-pin picking is the most precise method for picking pin and tumbler locks, but it also requires the most skill and time on target. As the name implies, with single pin picking you’re setting each individual pin above the shear line. This is where binding order becomes an important topic, because each pin must be set in the correct binding order.
It’ll take a lot of trial and error to figure out which pins to set in which order. To do so, place a light amount of tension on the tension wrench and probe each pin until you find the one with the most amount of resistance. This will likely be the first binding pin and the one you should work on setting.
Continue this process until all the pins are set. If you reach a point where a pin will not move, it’s likely that it was set out of order and no longer has the clearance to move through the pin hole. If the cylinder will not turn, it’s a likely indication that either a driver pin or one or more key pins are caught midway between the shear line.
Raking: Raking is a picking method that attempts to set all the pins virtually simultaneously with a single, rapid action. This is done by inserting the pick (typically a rake or half-diamond) and extracting it quickly while placing light tension on the tension wrench. The tension on the tension wrench is released after each failed attempt to allow the pins to reset.
The raking technique works by bumping the pins far enough above the shear line that the key pins are able to fall below the shear line before the driver pins do, thus creating a momentary void at the shear line to allow the cylinder to turn freely. Raking takes the least amount of skill and is a quick way to pick a lock when the lock cooperates.
Scrubbing: Scrubbing is sort of a blend between single pin picking and raking. The wrench is inserted into the keyway, and light tension is placed on the tension wrench. An elliptical “scrubbing” motion is used against the pins, working from back to front, or front to back. The half-diamond pick works well with the scrubbing technique, but a rake or hook can be used.
Above: Lockpicking is a simple skillset to learn, but a difficult one to master. Practicing with a variety of tools and lock configurations will enhance your ability to adapt and improvise in a real-world survival situation.
Know your local statutes before you run out and purchase a lockpicking kit. In Colombia, for example, the mere possession of lockpicking tools is a felony. Here in the States, lockpicks are legal to own and carry in most jurisdictions. Even where the possession of lockpicks can be considered a crime, such as in California, the law usually requires that it be coupled with felonious or malicious intent to be considered illegal possession. Stay out of places you’re not supposed to be, and you shouldn’t have any legal problems.
Lockpicking is a skill that requires patience and tactile sensitivity, but it can be learned by anyone in a relatively short amount of time. With a good working knowledge of lockpicking tools and the principles behind their use, a person can easily create makeshift tools in a survival situation, making lockpicking a practical and potentially life-saving skill.