Urban Survival 101 – How to Pick a Lock

In an urban survival situation, all bets are off. You must do everything possible to keep you and your family alive- even if it means breaking into a building. I’m not advocating breaking into someone’s home. Obviously, this is very illegal and there are serious consequences to doing this. But after a huge disaster, like an EMP attack or hurricane, you might be left without food, water, and shelter. If this happens, and you’re on the verge of death, you might not have any other option than to break into an abandoned home or commercial building. With that said, let’s learn how to pick a lock.

Introduction to Lock Picking

Here’s one question I hear a lot regarding lock picking: “Is it difficult to learn how to pick a lock?” I’m sure that many of you reading this are wondering the same thing. To answer the question, no- lock picking is not difficult. People carry a false belief that you must spend thousands of hours to master lock picking. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. By the end of this article, I’m confident that you’ll know enough to get started.

What is Lock Picking?

So, what exactly is lock picking? It’s basically the act of unlocking a lock without using the original key. Believe it or not, lock picking is more of an art than a science. By that, I mean that there’s no “universal” way to do it. You can only become good at it if you practice. There are a huge variety of locks in existence today. Fortunately for us, each one is based on the same basic design. When learning how to pick a lock, we’re going to teach you how to unlock the most common lock there is- the pin tumbler lock.

Legalities of Lock Picking

Before buying lock picks, you should know if it’s legal to own them in your state. In most states, owning lock picks is perfectly legal. There are, however, four states in which possession of picks can be considered evidence of criminal intent. These include Virginia, Ohio, Nevada, and Mississippi. Additionally, owning lock picks in Tennessee is considerably restricted under current law. Here’s a handy map showing lock pick laws in the United States (Source: http://toool.us/laws.html):

How to Pick a Lock

How a Pin Tumbler Lock Works

It’s impossible to become a mechanic without understanding the inner workings of a car. Likewise, you can’t learn how to pick a lock without knowing how locks work. We’ll start by teaching you about the pin tumbler lock. This lock type is composed of five basic components:

  • Housing: Hold everything together.
  • Plug: Where the key is inserted.
  • Driver Pins: Located above the key pins.
  • Key Pins: Located below the driver pins.
  • Springs: Hold down the driver pins and key pins.

Here’s a picture showing how everything fits together:

How to Pick a Lock

When learning how to pick a lock, become familiar with something called the “Shear Line”. It’s basically where the inner cylinder ends, and the outer one begins (if that sounds confusing, refer to the illustration below). As a key enters the cylinder, it pushes the key pins flush with the shear line. At the same time, the driver pins are pushed upwards, allowing the lock to open. Take a look:

How to Pick a Lock

These are the basics of how a pin tumbler lock works. If you’re a beginner, it all probably sounds very confusing. Don’t worry, once you begin practicing, it will all make sense. As with learning any skill, you’ll want to practice regularly to keep your lock picking skills up to par. Now let’s take a look at the tools you’ll need as well as why you need them.

Tools Required

While it’s possible to pick a lock with nothing more than bobby pins, owning an official set will dramatically increase your success rate. A quality set of lock picks will allow you to master the fundamentals, while having fun in the process. Most cost about $20 or less, so you won’t need to put up a big investment either. A great set to try is the Looching® Professional Cutaway Practice Padlock+Lock Tool Set Locksmith Tools from Amazon. Not only does it come a set of 12 lock pick tools, it also comes with a lock to practice on and two keys. The lock in is clear, so you’ll be able to see exactly what’s going on.

The Tension Wrench

How to Pick a Lock Arguably the most important tool in your set will be the tension wrench. When learning how to pick a lock, you’ll need to become very comfortable using this tool. This bent piece of metal serves two purposes: it provides leverage for turning the plug and it keeps the pins at the shear line. It’s something that comes with every lock pick set. But you can’t learn how to pick a lock using just a tension wrench. As you’ll see in the following section, a second tool called a “Pick” will also be required. Let’s take a look at how they can both be used to pick a lock.

How to Pick a Lock – Single Pin Picking

We’ll start with one of the best ways for learning how to pick a lock- “Single Pin Picking”. With this method, the goal is to bump up each individual pin one at a time using a “Hook-Type Pick”. It’s not the fastest method out there, but it will allow you to master the fundamentals. If you can do this, the other methods will be easy in comparison. Here’s what your hook-type pick should look like:

How to Pick a Lock

First thing’s first: let’s locate the binding pin. Start by inserting your tension wrench and giving it enough pressure to bind the first binding pin. Remember, keep constant tension throughout the entire process. Otherwise, it won’t work. Next, insert your hook-type pick and begin to “probe” each pin by lifting them up slightly. When pushing each pin up, make sure you’re gauging the difficulty they are to move. The majority of the pins will be easy to life (with the exception of the binding pin). Once you’ve found your first binding pin, raise it above the shear line.

As you continue to apply pressure on your tension wrench, gently life the binding pin. Once the pin reaches the shear line, you should feel a slight amount of give in turning the plug. In some cases, you may also feel a “click” vibrate through your tension wrench. When learning how to pick a lock, know that this is a good sign (it means you’re getting closer to opening the lock). Once you set the first pin, this means that the binding pin will no longer be getting in your way. Here’s what it should look like:

How to Pick a Lock

The plug will then turn until it reaches the next pin furthest from the centerline. This will become your new target. Similar to what we did with the first pin, you’ll need to “probe” to find the new binding pin. Once you find it, slowly lift it past the shear line until you feel the “click” again (the plug should also turn by a small degree). Throughout this time, you should be applying constant pressure to your tension wrench, as well as repeating the above steps until the lock opens. Here’s a video that will show you exactly how to pick a lock using single pin picking:

Bottom Line

While owning lock picks in most states isn’t illegal, breaking into buildings that aren’t yours definitely is. If you’ve come this far, I’m sure you’re smart enough to already know this, but it still must be said. Lock picking is a super-useful urban survival skill to have. If you’re living in a post-crisis environment where streets and homes are empty, and you’re low on food and water, you may have no choice but to apply this skill. Even if you never experience a major disaster in your lifetime, it can still come in handy for when you’ve locked yourself out of your home. Thanks for reading.

Visual Guide to Lock Picking

Resources 

  1. How to Pick a Lock (Wiki How)
  2. An Introduction to Lock Picking: How to Pick Pin Tumbler Locks (Art of Manliness)
  3. How to Pick a Lock (Von Malegowski)
2 Comments
  1. Reply
    Johnctee May 5, 2016 at 2:49 am

    No the bottom line is if you take what doesn’t belong to you or break into some place that you don’t belong you are a criminal no matter what your situation is. You may feel you have to do this to survive but it is still a criminal act. Your situation doesn’t lessen that one bit.

    • Reply
      David May 5, 2016 at 3:57 am

      Hi John,

      It still might be considered a criminal act, but if your life is on the line, you don’t have a choice. Also, you have to realize that in a SHTF situation, there will be little to no police presence, so the chances are slim that you’d get in trouble anyways. As long as you’re doing it to save you or a family member’s life, and not out of greedy intentions, I think it’s an okay move.

      Stay Safe,

      David

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