So you’ve been captured by enemy ninja terrorists and locked in a dark cell. You’ve used your bevy of skills to get out of your bindings and knock out your guard, but you still find yourself facing a securely locked door that you simply can’t kick in. You’re trapped… or are you? After all, if you have the right set of skills, the tumblers in that lock are no more an obstacle than anything else you’ve had to face. It’s just another Monday in the action hero world you live in, where having a lockpick in your pocket can save your life. Here’s how to use it.
What is Lockpicking?
Before we get started, it’s important for you to keep one thing foremost in your mind; lockpicking is nothing more than exploiting the mechanism of a lock to make it open when you don’t have the key. Just like computer hacking exploits weaknesses in an electronic security system, old-fashioned hacking opens the lock with a little gentle prodding instead of brute force. If you have a light touch then no one will even know you were there.
As always if you shouldn’t be opening a lock in the first place, leave it alone. On the other hand if you can’t remember the combination to your locker in the gym, you accidentally locked yourself out of the garden shed, or you’re being held hostage by a shadowy militant organization that’s kidnapped you for ransom, torture, or worse then it’s a good set of skills to possess.
How Tumbler Locks Work
Tumbler locks are where any locksmith starts out. You find these mechanisms in padlocks, home doors, and similar locations. They’re simple, straightforward, and they’re the most common types of locks that you’ve seen picked in thrillers, cop dramas, and action movies.
The interior mechanism of these locks is pretty simple. There is a central cylinder, and through the “ceiling” (since the teeth on a key tend to point up) poke pins of varying lengths. These pins are spring-loaded, and when the teeth in the key push the springs up to the proper height it aligns the cylinder, and the lock turns. If someone pushes too far though, then the pin jams itself in the other direction, and the cylinder won’t turn.
Finding the Sweet Spot: The Shear Point
A key is cut to the exact size of the pins in a lock; your job is to mimic the shape of the key using lockpicks. You slide the pick in until it encounters the first pin, and you push it up slowly. If you listen you’ll hear a small click when it reaches just the right height to pop out of the cylinder. This point of perfect balance is called the shear point. Slide a tension wrench (a flat or rounded tool with a 90 degree elbow in it) in behind the pick, and use it to hold the pin up and to stop it from slipping back down. Continue with all the other pins until they’re all pushed up to the proper height. Once the pins are up and out of the way you can turn the lock with the tension wrench just as smoothly as if you had the key.
Factors That Make it Easier (or Harder)
Picking an old, worn lock is much, much easier than picking a new lock. Why? Because the internal mechanism is worn down and a little tricky. If you push up a pin and it sticks then you don’t have to worry about keeping the tension on it with the wrench. Some locks require pins to be pushed up all at once, which can require a rake-style pick instead of a hook style pick. Other locks may require the pins to be pushed up in a certain order. Every lock is different, but generally speaking the older and simpler it is the easier it will be for you to pick.
Lastly, and this one is really key (no pun intended), the most important things you can do are study and practice. Pick the lock on your bedroom door, your journal, even your shed. Buy some locks from the store just to pick them. Once you’re familiar with the locks, the mechanisms, and the tools (both custom made lockpicks and improvised tools like paperclips and hair pins), then you’ll be ready when it comes time to make your swift, silent escape from captivity.
The bad guys will never know what hit them.
“Pin Tumbler Lock Pick” by Anonymous at Lockpick Guide
“How a Key Opens a Lock” by Anonymous at GregMiller.net