Tag Archives: handcuffs

Q&A: Escaping Handcuffs

Could you escape a cuff around your ankle by breaking your ankle? Or breaking your hand to get out of handcuffs?

No, or at least, probably not. You could break your hand or ankle trying to escape from cuffs (thought that’s rare), but actually breaking one to escape relies on a couple things to go wrong. First, either the cuff itself has to be defective, or the person who cuffed your character didn’t know what they were doing.

Thing is, I can’t find any credible reports of this working. Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, just that it’s extremely unlikely. I suspect the answer is that, most people who’d find themselves in a situation like this are going to have better options open to them.

There are a number of ways to get out of handcuffs. Some rely on the person putting them on screwing up, such as where the escape artist will insert a small metal sham into the cuff’s teeth, to separate the locking mechanism and open the cuffs. Others, such as picking the cuffs, is very doable with a small amount of practice.

Normally lock picking (at least in the modern world) is a fairly finicky skill. You need time, the right tools, and a lot of practice. That doesn’t hold true when it comes to handcuffs. The locks on these are fairly simplistic, out of necessity, and as a result, they’re fairly easy to open, even without dedicated tools. In fact, most handcuff picking tutorials you’ll find online suggest using things like straightened paperclips or bobby pins. Yes, really.

The critical thing to understand about most handcuffs is that they’re not, really, locked. At least not in the way your front door or car locks. The key is just a standardized design that operates interchangeably between almost all commercially available cuffs. (There are some heavy manacle designs that do use a more secure key, but these are a rarity.) The keys even work across manufacturers in most cases.

The hard part is simply getting a tool which will interact with the lock mechanism itself. Again, this can be achieved with a paperclip in seconds. Literally, in seconds.

Now, if you’ve got someone who’s willing to seriously mangle their hand or foot, they might be able to get out of a properly configured cuff. But, we’re talking about self-mutilation to the point where that appendage is never working right again.

So, this leads us back to the big problem with this approach. If your escape hinges on destroying one of your limbs, it needs to be something you won’t need to actually escape. Breaking your heel and foot into enough pieces that you could slip out of a cuff would basically mean it’d be impossible to escape.

If you’re thinking of one of these, “you have time to cut off your foot before the car’s fuel line goes up,” kinds of situations, then serious dismemberment is justifiable, but it’s still unnecessary given how easy it is to pick a handcuff. But, unless you’re working off some kind of torture porn scenario (like Saw), there’s really no reason to do this.

There is another reason why this is a bad idea. Whenever you’re writing, you need to keep an eye on what will happen next. Especially when your characters are making plans. If someone’s in a situation where they need to escape from a pair of cuffs, it’s very likely those cuffs aren’t the only thing they’ll need to deal with. Even if it just means running a few hundred feet into the woods, that’s something which will require their feet. If they’ll need to deal with doors or operate machinery, that will require their hands.

When you’re making plans, you need to make sure you don’t do anything that will invalidate later steps. There is some validity to a, “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” approach, and some people really do live that way, but in a situation like this, failing to account for what happens next can be fatal (for your character.)

This doesn’t mean you have to abandon the idea entirely, and it is possible for a character to see this as the only possible way out. But, it’s extremely unlikely, they’d be able to actually get their hand of foot free, even if they did break some bones in the attempt.

There is a legitimate point to characters making sacrifices, sometimes extreme ones. There are compelling moments to be had when characters make incredibly self destructive decisions because it’s something they won’t need to complete their plan. This is especially true if they don’t plan to survive. If your character is willing to die, they may be willing to take their hand off with an axe, in order to slip out of the cuffs, and then attack the person who put them there.

So, no, probably not. But, if you’ve got a character who legitimately planned for this, there are subtler ways out.


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Hello! My main character (who has considerable knowledge of fighting) wants to incapacitate another guy without killing him, wounding him (considerably) or knocking him out (and she probably doesn’t have time to tie him up or drug him either), and she wants to do this with hand-to-hand combat. Is there any way in which she can do this?

It’s probably worth stressing again: there is no such thing as safe
violence. You can try to mitigate the harm done, but you can’t negate it entirely. When you’re
looking at a situation and saying you need a solution that ends without
anyone getting hurt, the only ones which can guarantee that are
non-violent. If you’re resorting to violence, it has to be with the understanding that harm is an acceptable outcome. As someone with “considerable”
combat experience, your character would know and understand that.

Note that, I said “acceptable,” not “desired.” You can get a lot of
mileage out of someone who wants to deescalate the situation, doesn’t
want to hurt their opponent, but is running out of non-violent options. The final duel in Return of the Jedi is a classic example of this playing out.

Responsible hand to hand combat is (usually) about balancing the amount of force you need to achieve your objectives, without harming your opponent(s) excessively. Unfortunately when your goal is to incapacitate, that’s going to require a lot of harm. This is also why you’ll see actual martial artists try to defuse the situation rather than resorting violence. It is the safest way to achieve their goals (of not having everything pear-shaped around them).

With that said, joint locks and submission holds come to mind. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the solution you were hoping for, because it means you can’t just wander off, you need to stay there, physically holding your opponent in place. If your character wants to try to talk their opponent down, these do allow for the attempt, but it’s still better to start with talking, and only resort to locks when persuasion fails.

Locks work by manipulating your opponent’s body into a position it can’t escape from. Twisting the arm up behind the back is a classic example, you’ve probably seen in film and TV. This is mostly because it’s a very easy lock to fake for the camera. But, there are a lot of joint locks (particularly ones that start with the wrist) that can completely immobilize a foe from basic counters.

If you just need to hold someone in place to buy time for reinforcements or the police, then this is the ideal solution. Honestly, generally speaking, this is the best option in a self defense situation, when it’s viable.

Even then, this isn’t harmless. In a controlled environment, locks and holds can be practiced safely. But, if your opponent struggles against the more effective holds, and refuses to submit, they can seriously injure themselves. Also, if you misjudge the hold, it is possible to lose control. These are temporary solutions at best, not permanent ones.

If you need your character to stay mobile, that’s not an option. If their opponent is just an obstacle, they need to get around, then simply bolting past may be the best option.

If they need to immobilize their opponent, and stopping him is the priority, then one good option is restraints. These aren’t harmless, or foolproof, but it sets a good balance for neutralizing them without adding unnecessary force.

Zip tie restraints are pretty cheap, disposable, and allow you to “tie someone up” in a matter of seconds. Depending on the style, you can get them for less than $2 a unit, meaning even if they’re on a budget, your character can probably afford a few. They’re also fairly secure, unless you know what you’re doing, most people cannot get out of these on their own.

If you need something a little more secure, police handcuffs are going to cost, but unless you’re dealing with police, or an escape artist, getting out of these is probably not happening. Of course, they’re also a lot more expensive, so just leaving someone in cuffs is probably not happening, unless they’re very well funded.

Still, your best option is probably to try to talk it out, and, if need be, bolt. Or accept that if violence is necessary, someone’s going to get hurt.


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