Breaking Bad Wasn’t Lying: You Can Totally Use a Paper Clip to Unlock a Pair of Handcuffs

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Sept. 23 2013 5:05 PM

Breaking Bad Wasn’t Lying: You Can Totally Use a Paper Clip to Unlock a Pair of Handcuffs

Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 15
Jesse Pinkman goes to work on his handcuffs.

Photo courtesy Ursula Coyote/AMC

Though Breaking Bad is generally pretty realistic—or, at least, as realistic as you can reasonably expect a show about a meth-cooking ex-science teacher to be—every now and then the show serves up a moment that makes me exclaim “Oh, come on, that wouldn’t happen!” Last night’s “Oh, come on” moment came about halfway through the episode, when the character Jesse Pinkman, held captive by a neo-Nazi gang in an underground jail cell, used a paper clip to free himself from his handcuffs and attempt an escape. “That’s ridiculous,” I said to myself. “There’s no way you can pick a handcuff lock with a paper clip.”

I was wrong. You totally can. As it turns out, handcuffs aren’t particularly complicated. Basically, when you snap a handcuff onto someone’s wrist, it stays shut because of a basic ratchet-and-pawl mechanism, where the teeth of a spring-loaded pawl inside the cuff engage the teeth of the hinged arm and prevent the cuff from being pulled apart. If you want to open a cuff, you simply insert a universal key—which will work on pretty much any handcuff anywhere—that disengages the mechanism and allows the cuff to open. (Some handcuffs are more intricate, but not by much.) This simplicity is a feature, not a bug. Imagine if the arresting officer was the only one who could unlock a suspect’s handcuffs. He’d have to trail that suspect around at all times, until he could pass him off to another cop with another set of handcuffs who would in turn have to trail the suspect around at all times. It’d be a logistical nightmare. Police departments would simply cease to function. It’s a good thing that handcuffs can be opened at any time by any cop anywhere.

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But a simple lock can be defeated with simple tools. While there are some better-quality handcuffs out there that will resist a paper clip picking, lots of basic brands can be beaten with nothing more than a stiff piece of wire bent to resemble a crank. This helpful YouTube video featuring an escape artist in a Wu-Tang T-shirt, shows you exactly how it’s done:

Now, if for some reason Jesse found himself unable to pick the lock, he could have always just shimmed the cuff. When you shim a lock, you disable part of the locking mechanism, rather than trying to engage the lock as if you were using a key. In order to shim a closed handcuff, you just insert the paper clip into the space between the arm and the cuff; if done correctly, this interferes with the pawl, letting you swing the cuff open and be on your way toward freedom. Here’s another helpful YouTube video to show you exactly how this is done:

This takes some practice, of course. You probably won’t successfully pick or shim a handcuff on your first try, or even your 10th try. But if you’re stuck in an underground cell with nothing else to do but eat ice cream and nurse your wounds, I guess you’ve got plenty of time to practice until you get it right.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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