Caption: Handcuff shims, both commercial and improvised. Left to right: Oscar Delta Mini Gulag, two more by Oscar Delta, two dual-pall shims by Endured Limits, an Uber-shim by Oscar Delta. Top to bottom: Dual pawl and an Ultra-slim from Law Industries, hair clip, combo shim/qwik-stick/decoder (made by the author from a hair clip.)
Please understand that I’m not a lawyer and that nothing in this article should be misconstrued as legal advice. By continuing to read, you agree that you are responsible for your actions and any consequences that result from them. Otherwise, please stop reading now. The reason is that this article is for Survival Dispatch in Florida, and some of Florida’s laws regarding anything that can be used to open handcuff keys have potentially serious consequences. If you are arrested by law enforcement and carrying a shim, bobby pin or hair clip that can be used to shim handcuffs, I’d let the officer know immediately, or you may risk a third-degree felony. My intent here is to help folks intending to escape illegal restraint, not lawful arrest, which typically helps folks from the frying pan into the fire.
What Makes a Good Handcuff Shim?
Here is what I incorporate into an effective handcuff key for restraint escape designed to open the highest number of modern handcuffs with a single key:
- Flat and therefore easily concealed – One would think that this is a given, but shims come pre-bent into all kinds of shapes, sometimes because they used to be a cotter pin, bobby pin or the like until repurposed into a shim. The alternative is to carry a bobby pin or hair clip in its unmodified state and modify it for use as a shim when needed, but this might be difficult for short-haired male readers to explain away. Unless your captors are unaware that these tools can be used to open single-locked handcuffs, either object may incur equally harsh consequences if discovered on your person. However, the chances of a captor discovering a well-concealed shim shortly after your capture (when the best opportunities to escape often occur) are pretty slim indeed (no pun intended.)
- Long – So it can be bent or used as a reach tool for a handcuff key in case the captor who applies your handcuffs double locks them, preventing the use of the shim in its intended role. I have tested various methods of attaching shims to handcuff keys so that the shim can be used in this role. In some cases, a shim can be used to clip handcuff keys to clothing, if desired. This can be accomplished by attaching keys or shims to a short bobby pin (see image below) by punching or drilling holes or slots in the key (if it does not come with them). The shim can be used as a reach tool for a handcuff key to escape rigid handcuffs (when properly handcuffed with fingers facing away from the keyway). Alternately, a reach tool or lanyard of Kevlar thread can be added to the shim to aid in the manipulation of the shim, apply pressure without cutting your fingers (helpful in long training sessions) and prevent dropping with cold, wet, bloody or shaky fingers.
- Narrow– In my opinion, with few exceptions, most handcuff shims on the market today are a little too wide. Reducing the width just a hair along both edges generally won’t stop them from opening more expensive models with wider pawls and single strands, but wider shims can’t open cheap handcuffs. This is because cheap cuffs feature narrow pawls and single strands to save money on materials, resulting in a slightly smaller gap where shims are inserted (between the cheek plates and between the teeth of the pawl and the locking bar where the shim opens single-locked handcuffs by disengaging the pawl teeth from the locking bar).
Caption: Here you can see the comparative with the width of three handcuff shims. The narrowest shim (right) opens cheap handcuffs, whereas the other two shims could not. The center Shim is for shim-resistant dual-pawl handcuffs.
- Lanyard hole backed away from the tip– This enables a lanyard, bobby pin, or a hook pick to be added to the shim making sort of a restraint-escape Swiss Army Knife, but you must keep the entire package flat enough to escape detection in a pat-down. It also enables the next feature.
- Double-ended – This is better than two shims because it is thinner. If the lanyard hole is far enough from the tip, double and triple pawls shims can be cut into both ends of the same strip of metal, effectively opening single, double & triple-pawl handcuffs.
- Non-ferrous – Ideally shims should be made of a non-ferrous material, so they don’t rust when carried next to your body. Since steel is the go-to material for shims due to price and performance, stainless is preferred over carbon.
Improvising & Modifying Handcuff Shims
Since most shims currently on the market are less-effective with the cheap handcuffs most likely to be used by criminals, unless you may make your own or modify commercial models, you’ll be stuck carrying more than one handcuff shim, which makes your tools thicker and more likely to be discovered. The human hand is remarkably sensitive, able to detect the difference between one or two sheets of paper, so any reduction in thickness is material.
In my experience, most shims can be punched without breaking. They can also be drilled. My favorite tool for working on restraint escape gear is a diamond cutoff disc for rotary tool, which is coin-shaped, easily concealed, and usually, more effective sans the rotary tool for most work on shims and handcuff keys unless you need to reduce the width of a shim. Then you need to remove some material. When working on pre-prepared restraint escape gear at home, a pair of calipers can come in handy for measuring tolerances of both handcuffs and the tools that open them.
There is an argument for using field-expedient tools in the field, but don’t get caught without raw materials. Even many SEALs carry a few bobby pins for this very reason.