National Handcuff Day: Why is Law Enforcement Still Using this Early 1900s Design? - ITS Tactical

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National Handcuff Day: Why is Law Enforcement Still Using this Early 1900s Design?

By Bryan Black

HandcuffsI thought that with National Handcuff Day being officially recognized today, I’d take a few minutes and ask “Why is Law Enforcement still using the handcuff design from 1912?”

You may have read the previous post I wrote on how easy it is to pick your way out of handcuffs with a bobby pin and how readily available they are to the masses. This not only makes possessing the same “technology” that officers have at their disposal available for illegal restraint (like a home invasion), but also puts the simple handcuff key in the hands of anyone who wants it.

Between this and why most departments don’t issue trauma kits and rely 100% on EMS to save their officer’s lives in a traumatic injury scenario, are some of my big soapbox issues. My hope with this article is to bring any awareness that I can to the handcuff issue and also to open up some conversation so we can learn from some of the LEO readers out there.

National Handcuff Day

February 20th was chosen because it’s the birthday of the modern handcuff. It’s on that date in 1912 that the US Patent office issued patent 1,017,955 to George A. Carney for a “swinging bow ratchet – type” adjustable handcuff.

Before that handcuffs were heavy and bulky and there was no standard style. Carney’s design was always ready and was light weight compared to older models. Since that patent, most modern handcuffs around the world have been made with the same swing through design, with minor modifications.

The Carney Patent was bought by The Peerless Handcuff Company of Springfield, Mass., and the first models were manufactured for them by Smith & Wesson.


Handcuff Downfalls

I know most every LEO is well aware of the downfalls of the ratchet adjustable handcuff design, but my question is why isn’t something being done about it? Sure it’s hard to escape handcuffs if you’re properly restrained with your palms facing out and if other techniques officers use are implemented, but it’s not impossible.

There’s also the double lock, which as I’ve demonstrated isn’t an issue to someone with a bobby pin and especially someone with access to a key. So why are they still in use? Is it an issue of cost and requiring every department across the US to change keys? Why is the same equipment used by officers available to the masses to use illegally? It happens. Here’s an article about a Baltimore couple that was illegally restrained by Police impersonators.

Is it a mindset issue, where it’s just been done like that for so long and will continue to be done like that? I find it troubling that our world continues its technological advancements, like the development of complicated electronics such as UAVs and other devices that benefit our officers, but we’re still using handcuffs based on a design from 1912.

What are your thoughts? Am I off base with my thinking and overlooking something?

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  • Armbruster

    Just curious, but have you been able to pick your way out of a set of peerless hinged hancuffs, keyholes up with your palms facing outwards? That’s how we train our recruits in defensive tactics in the academy. If you can get out of those, my hat is off to you sir.

    As with anything gear wise, any new high speed design is going to be costly and trying to prove that to brass that has a shrinking budget, they’re not going to go for that.

    • 032125

      Hinged cuffs are a devil to get out of even with a key.

    • John T

      And don’t forget…
      Seatbelted in the back of a Crown Vic with a rip-hobble around the knees and the strap covering the locks.

      This is still great knowledge though. Knowing how the device can be compromised allows the officer to plan for the possibility and defeat the attempt before the bad guy even tries.

      In my academy class we had a DT instructor break the chain on a standard pair of 100’s. It caused him a lot of pain, but he was still able to break free with the technique that was demonstrated. I’ve used only hinged after seeing that.

  • Darren

    What else is out there that is better? And by better, easier to put on, easier to carry (including in multiples) and more escape-resistant? Yeah, it would be difficult to convince PD’s to change equipment (especially with the training tied to the equipment), but I can’t think of an alternative that is clearly better. Am I missing a product?

    • Corwin

      Zip ties.

  • Ken Bass

    You have to have a trade off. The original design works, is light weight, easy to carry, and is hard to pick. Sure, you’ve picked them, and I’ve picked all of mine, but can 90% of the people out there do it? As an instructor I ensured my students realized how easy it was to hide a key in your mouth and give a lesson plan with none of them catching on. I showed them hidden keys in my paracord bracelet, and everywhere else I could hide one in plain sight. Showed them that even as a big guy, I could get them to the front, I and hold my ow n fighting while cuffed!

    I personally HATE the plastic/metal cuffs from ASP, they are useless and broken with no effort.

    The tool still works, and will continue to work, when the end user is trained properly.

  • MPC

    The one thing that hasnt been mentioned about cuffs is that theyre a temporary use of restraint.

  • KN503

    I was in LE for over ten years, West Central Texas area, full of roughnecks, drunk cowboys and meth monkeys. I never had anyone get out of a well placed set of cuffs, there is ALWAYS time to readjust a set of cuffs before transport. If there was any worry they may even try, we were always ready with a set of shackle’s and a 20lbs logging chain pad locked between the cuffs and the shackels.

    The old fashion mousetrap is still around for a reason.

  • Zippo

    I agree that when “properly” cuffed, They are very difficult to get out of. The problem is complancancy. When our student officers come from their academy proper technique has been beaten into them, as it should be. As the years go on, Corners are often cut, mistakes are made. I have seen the proper replaced with the easy.

    I also agree that a tech sell to admin is hard. My deptartment tends to only make tech changes as a result to a major incident rather than make a proactive change. It’s sad.

  • The strengths of the modern handcuff, and I agree with MPC about them being a temporary restraint, are that they they are relatively easy to get on a suspect during a scuffle and their mechanical design is strong and durable. Prisoners in handcuffs should always be under observation. It can kill you to assume your prisoner is still securely handcuffed. I tell my officers to make sure to check their handcuffs before opening the cruiser door. If you cant’ see them, make the suspect move to show you the handcuffs. If you have taken your eyes off your bad guy for even a second, do not trust that he is still restrained. Be ready to fight. Be ready to survive.


  • Sivispace

    Why are they still used? They work! Physics dictate the design. Handcuffs are only part of controling a suspect.

  • daves

    It is in intereting topic. I have seen some new cuffs out there that use a defferent key and they are unpickable. They were prices and the a defferent key then a started handcuff key. I don’t think they are doing so well. It is interesting and made me think. Firearms, batons, peperspry, even the taser has changed. Not the handcuff esigned. Maybe they work that is why the design hasn’t changed. Maybe, when used corretly they work great. It is a good questions.

  • Nick Price

    The one comment I could make is that I in my experience is far harder to pick a set of cuffs behind you if the cuffs are on tight then when they are either not on me or are relatively loose. I have a little handcuff pick I made that works like a charm without pressure against the ratcheting mechanism, but when there’s pressure against the ratchet from my wrists, it doesn’t work at all. The real key has far more mechanical advantage.
    I do agree, however, with the point about it being old technology and that for a smart crook it is exceptionally easy to store a key in a place on their person that even a detailed search wouldn’t discover. The change I would make wouldn’t so much be in the mechanics of the cuff, but in the locking mechanism itself.

  • Tactical Tom

    I agree with Bryan.
    This is an outdated model. Lightweight?.. there are hundreds of materials out there that are lighter, stronger, and can be made to reduce the profile of handcuffs.
    At least we need to make the key for LE models different than civilian models!
    The design needs retooled. We need an easier to reach keyhole, unpickable, unbreakable, lighter weight, lower profile, and they should glow red when the BG lies!
    Seriously though. Just b/c something isn’t broke doesn’t mean we can’t make it better.
    As far as cost, the entire dept. doesn’t need to switch all at once and each officer could purchase them him/herself. Also, I’m betting they could be made at about the price of current restraints.
    It’s overdue. Why aren’t we using the same gun they did in 1912! B/c someone made a better design!
    So how about it ITS? Next addition to the the Store?

  • Mike

    I still carry a baton. How old is that technology? +1 for the ‘temporary restraint’ comments. Yes they’re pickable but its difficult to do if you’re being observed. Nothing trumps situational awareness. Keep your perp secured by layers of security or checks: proper placement of cuffs, staying vigilant, remembering that restraints are temporary and that every minute they’re on is a minute for the bad guy to try getting them off.

  • Phil

    I found something on a German Websitze called Trilock Handcuffs

    there seems to be a different key working those cuffs. Unfortunately the text isn’t that clear about how and why the Trilock System is superior to the classical handcuffs. At a price of aprox. 170 USD they’re quite expensive too…

    But as I’m an LEO myself I agree with the above statements about handcuffs being a method of temporary restraint and that the suspect should always be under close supervision.

    • Good find, mate!

      The German cuffs do look pretty interesting. At a guess — by looking at the key — there would be three pawls working against the ratchets that the Bad Guy would need to defeat simultaneously: not just the one as is the case with the usual 100’s. And these pawls appear to be separated by a physical barrier — which means you can’t just use an extra-wide key, you actually need a key with three “fingers” to it, if that makes any sense. Or a bobby pin with a bunch of rather difficult bends into it!

      I can sorta see how this works — it’s a clever enough idea, if primitive.

      Looks like they can ship double-ended keys: one end for “standard” cuffs, and the other end for their “trilock” cuffs.

      It all makes sense, from looking at one of their smaller detail pictures, here:

      Stay safe!

  • Tiny

    2 different issues here. One is whether felon are regularly escaping their cuffs – don’t seem to be ifthey are applied properly. Second is their use by the bad guys – changing LEO equipment won’t stop these being freely available, and I’m not sure the bad guys switching to flexicuffs and duct tape is really progress.

    Final piece is the cost / effort / viable alternatives piece – I don’t know of anything out there that offers enough improvement to be worth the effort

  • thinbluelion

    The standard handcuff is inexpensive and reliable. They work great when used as the temporary restraints they are designed to be. They can be picked, but if I see someone squirming around in my backseat I stop and check to see what they are doing. For longer use/high risk use, many agencies use specialized cuffs that don’t accept a regular key.

    … and if was up to me every officer would have to become first responder certified when going through the academy.

  • KKJ

    I look at this from this perspective. Handcuffs are like any other lock, it keeps honest people out and 90-95% of subjects under control.

    Handcuffs are used to control a suspect of a crime, either someone detained or someone arrested. I’ll say that someone handcuffed that isn’t controlled still could care less if they are handcuffed. I’ve been bitten, kicked, spit on, etc, all by subjects that even tho they were handcuffed they had not yet submitted to being restrained. Had an 85 pound male, warp a pair of Peerless 700’s. I agree with the proper technique and have been complacent at times too. No readily available restraint exist that offers what the handcuff does as of yet or at least not substantially more than the handcuff does at this time. When it does, I think you’ll see the change.

    As for the trauma kits, I completely agree with you there.

  • HardSpook

    It goes back to So Simple a caveman can do it. Its cost effective and readily available. Sure the hinged cuffs work better with the key hole facing the body but it’s challenging when you are in a hurry and also places you closer to subject. To be blunt….Most officers dont give a shit who picks the cuffs. Most inmates I know can’t and will not attempt to pick them. If you are on the streets
    this is why patrol cars have cages. Is it stupid? Fuck yeah! The statistics don’t add up enough to scare people into changing old habits.

  • Tim Crews

    There have been some developments in handcuff design i haven’t used them yet but the thompson tri-max system is a triple lock ratchet with a lip to prevent tampering. i prefer hiatt hinged palms out key holes up

  • Tim Crews
  • JN

    Really gonna have to agree that they are used for temporary restraint. No matter what technology come’s out, there will always be someone who will learn how to bypass the system, be it software or hardware alike. In the jails we constantly come across the career criminal who without a shadow of doubt, we know he is aware of how to pick our cuffs and is watching/evaluating our SOP’s. That is why you need to stay vigilant and constantly aware of what your inmate/detainee/prisoner is doing while you are on the job. Aside for it just being easy to keep the (mostly) tried and true method of cuffed restraint, you have to also understand that it a piece of equipment that universally taught to those who use them. You can have a federal agent, CO, Sheriff/Officer, probation/parole agent, State trooper, MP, and even a security guard (fingers crossed) or contractor all work side by side and be able to use each other’s restraints while dealing with a combative subject. The equipment isn’t perfect, but you can’t beat that kind of professional cohesion.

  • my grandfather has a set of handcuffs he uses while he was in the mounted patrol (New Mexico volunary state police) that had something different about them. most of the officers could not unlock his cuffs, part of the key was slightly smaller than the standard issue cuffs the city police had. i don’t remember what kind they were…or if he even has them anymore, but i thought i would share.

  • a175

    Necropost, I know…
    However, I’ll give some insight from my time on the other side-
    When being transported by US Marshals (or by any County/Local LE agency in Virginia), I saw not only equipment, but operator technique as being the key to security. Any time that cuffs were placed in the front, they were double-locked. Along with cuffs (mostly S&W M100 series, but the occasional Hiatt, rarely a hinged design, and only once the ASP monstrosity) were a belly chain and leg shackles. Affixed to both the handcuffs and belly chain was this hellish (but terribly effective) device known as “the box”. I’m not sure of the material, but it seemed to be a type of blue polymer. This would be placed over the lock and chain of the handcuffs, closed, and then the largest link of the belly chain would pass through a slot of the “box”. Then a padlock would be placed through the link. It could at times be incredibly painful, and can leave a scar if the detainee fidgets to much or of left on too long. But, they are incredibly efficient.
    The effectiveness of “the box” is not limited to its physical characteristics. There is definitely a psychological aspect of a barrier that looks and feels impenetrable that can make you just want to give up. Luckily, I wasn’t in a situation were I felt the need to attempt any escape. There’s not really anywhere to go when you’re airborne with JPATS, anyway.
    I think a major advantage of the setup is also the complexity. Sure, maybe you can get out of cuffs. But you have to pick the padlock first. Then you have to find a way to remove the box. After that, then you can give it a try. If a detainee is able to accomplish all that without anyone noticing and stopping the act, that is operator error. You can’t blame that on a flaw in design.
    I will also add that any time handcuffs were the sole device being used, it was to the rear with palms outward and cuffs being double-locked. Less than half were hinged.
    As I said before, at no point did I attempt any type of escape or resistance. I never saw anyone else try, either. I didn’t really see myself in the same group of other detainees (I still don’t, and never will), so I can’t say that I had the mindset or will to defeat the restraints. I don’t believe that I could have done it even if I tried, though.
    Bottom line, I’m a believer- through experience- of layers. Layers of clothing. Layers of kit. Layers of security.

  • John

    The Bonowi tri-lock cuffs discussed earlier are only available to German and U.S. law enforcement or military.

  • Aaron

    I dont carry a key, but the one time I was cuffed and placed in the back of the car, I easily made a phone call from my pocket without the crooks noticing.


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