Lock-picking is an ability possessed primarily by locksmiths and by persons involved in intelligence or detective work for which secrecy is a necessity. Requiring a high degree of reasoning power and mechanical dexterity, lock-picking even has its amateur enthusiasts who simply enjoy the challenge. The tools of the trade can involve an amazing array of devices, but most are variations on a simple pick mechanism that a skilled and patient practitioner can replicate even with a paper clip.

Basic technique. One of the simplest types of lock to pick is known as a pin-and-tumbler design. This lock uses a row of pins, divided into pairs, which rest in a row of shafts running perpendicular to the lock's main cylinder plug and its housing mechanism. Insertion of the right key forces the top and bottom pins apart at just the right distance so that all of the upper pins rest in the outer housing and all of the lower pins rest in the plug. At that point, no pins bind the plug to the housing, meaning that the cylinder can be turned freely, releasing the bolt that holds the locking mechanism in place.

To open such a lock without a key, one needs a long, thin piece of metal with a curved end (a pick), which can be inserted carefully inside the lock as one would a key. Moving with finesse, it is possible to adjust all the pins into place so that the cylinder can be turned as though the key had been used. Or one can apply a sloppier variation, known as raking, in which a pick is inserted and pulled out quickly while the cylinder is turned with a tension wrench such as a flathead screwdriver.

Tools. Experienced lock-pickers use a wide array of tools. They are likely to go to work using an entire tool kit with picks, "rakes" (picks for raking a lock), and tension wrenches, all of which are small enough that a basic lock-picking kit could fit into a pocket. To be equipped for a greater range of eventualities, a lock-picker may use a kit that includes other tools, such as a burglar alarm evasion kit, a key-impression kit (for making a key based on impressions that a lock makes on a key blank), a key-pattern device (for copying old-fashioned warded keys, made to fit into lever locks), files, and other items.

Even more sophisticated is an electric lock-opening device, which is used in tandem with a pick to move the pins into the proper position. Additionally, a lockpick gun can be used to open most pin-tumbler mechanisms. By squeezing the trigger, one strikes the pins with the pick, after which a tension wrench is applied to turn the lock cylinder.

There are other varieties of techniques and tools, just as there are variations in lock design, such as the wafer-tumbler lock, in which tumblers in the shape of wafers take the place of pins. Most aspects of lock-picking are simple in concept, but far from easy in application. Good locksmiths are almost always good lock-pickers, and the reverse is almost as true: a talented lock-picker, for instance, should be able to reconfigure a lock to fit a particular key, a skill that would obviously be of enormous advantage to an intelligence officer in a covert operation.



Macaulay, David, with Neil Ardley. The New Way Things Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Melton, H. Keith. The Ultimate Spy Book. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.

Phillips, Bill. The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Roper, C. A. The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Tab Books, 1983.

Sloane, Eugene A. The Complete Book of Locks, Keys, Burglar and Smoke Alarms, and Other Security Devices. New York: Morrow, 1977.


Harris, Tom, and Marshall Brain. How Lock Picking Works. Howstuffworks.com. < http://home.howstuffworks.com/lock-picking.htm > (April 5, 2003).


Black Ops
Covert Operations
Locks and Keys

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Lock-Picking forum