Secret Agent Magazine


Open locks without a key

Learn the methods and tools of lockpicking


There are many different tools and methods one can employ to open a lock, depending on the type of lock and the skill of the person picking the lock.

Methods range from picking or bumping to copying the key or prying open the lock.

In order to learn the basic methods of picking locks, one first needs to know the basic operation of common locks.

Lock - front viewLock - side view
Lock - side view
Lock - front viewLock - front view

Most typical door locks use the pin tumbler design, which features a number of pins (usually five or six) that are lifted to varying heights by the teeth on the key. The pins are in two parts: an inner “key pin” and an outer “driver pin,” which is held in place by a spring.

When the line separating each key pin from its corresponding driver pin is aligned with the inner cylinder of the lock, the cylinder can turn freely, allowing the lock to open. However, if the separation lines of all the pins do not line up with the edge of the cylinder, then it will not turn.

When the key is removed from the lock, or an incorrect key is inserted into the lock, then the pins will be at the wrong height, and the separation lines between the pins will not line up with the edge of the cylinder, preventing the lock from turning.

Lock Picking

Lock picks

Picking a typical pin tumbler lock requires two basic tools: the pick and the torsion wrench. The torsion wrench is an L-shaped tool inserted into the lock to hold the pins in place, as well as to apply pressure and turn the cylinder once the pins are released.

The pick is one of several differently shaped tools, depending on the type of lock, which can either move pins individually, or “rake” all the pins, in a method similar to lock bumping.

There are many different shapes and sizes of lock picks, but even a small set of picks will be effective with a wide range of lock types. With some training and practice, picks can even be improvised from ordinary items, such as nail files, paper clips, or pieces of wire, depending on the type and complexity of the lock, and the skill of the lockpicker.

Lock Bumping

The simplest method of opening most residential and office door locks is the lock bumping method, in which an impact causes all of the driver pins to bounce up out of the cylinder at the same time, allowing the cylinder to turn freely.

swinging balls
Billiard balls

This method uses the principle of physics known as kinetic energy transfer. This principle is best illustrated by the swinging-ball toy, or by striking a contiguous row of billiard balls with a cue ball. When a ball strikes one end of the row of balls, its energy is absorbed by the row, and the ball at the other end of the row is knocked away at almost the same speed with which the first ball struck the row.

Since typical locks use contiguous pins stacked on top of each other, striking the bottom pin transfers the energy to the top pin. Like the row of balls, the first pin remains stationary, while the top bin bounces upward, leaving a gap between the pins for a fraction of a second. At the moment that the gap is formed between all the pins, the lock’s cylinder can be freely turned, thus allowing entry.

Pick gun

The professional pick gun uses this method, causing a sharp impact when the trigger is pulled, briefly knocking all the pins out of the cylinder. This allows the cylinder to be rotated with a torsion wrench before the pins fall back into position.

Bump Keys

An alternative to the pick gun is to use a bump key that fits the particular lock one is trying to open. A bump key is a standard key whose teeth have been cut down to the lowest possible level, so that the teeth just barely touch each pin when the key is inserted.

The bump key is then pulled back slightly, leaving a small gap between it and the lock, and then the key is struck with a bump hammer, screwdriver handle, or similar object. The impact strikes all the pins at the same time, transferring the energy to the upper pins and causing them all to bounce out of the cylinder at the same moment.

Bump keys

The bump key method requires some advance planning and equipment. First, you need a collection of bump keys, so that you have at least one key that can fit into most types of locks. Many residential and office doors use just a few of the most popular brands of locks, so if you have a set of bump keys that fit a few dozen of the most popular locks, then you will have a key that fits into most of the locks you encounter. Even a basic set of the five or 10 most popular brands of bump keys will open at least half the locks you come across.

Cutting Bump Keys

If you encounter a lock for which you don’t have a matching bump key, or you do not want to purchase an entire set of pre-cut bump keys, you can simply purchase the same model of lock as the one you need to open, which will come with matching keys. You can then cut all the teeth on your key to the lowest level to create your own bump key for that brand of lock. To cut a bump key, you can use a professional key-cutting machine, or simply use a file to cut down the teeth of the key by hand.

(Since locks are made from harder metal than keys, the bump key does not have to be precisely cut. A few impacts of the bump hammer on an imperfectly cut key will cause the larger teeth to become indented by the lock’s pins, so that after a few strikes, all teeth will hit all the pins in a uniform manner. However, using poorly cut keys may damage the key or the lock, or both, so buying professionally cut bump keys, or using a cutting machine, is always preferable.)

Bump Hammers

Tomahawk bump hammer

Special bump hammers are available to strike the bump key, including Kurt Zühlke’s original Tomahawk, or similar tools such as the Peterson Bump Hammer, the Brockhage bump hammer set, or the Hawley bump hammer set. Such professional bump hammers are the most effective in lock bumping, but, in an emergency, tapping the key with a rubber mallet, a screwdriver handle, or any other object that you find nearby may work with a little more effort, as long as the proper amount of force is applied.

Whatever tools are used, whether professional or improvised, lock bumping can be learned quickly through practice on a variety of locks.

Opening Padlocks

If you’re in a hurry, and you don’t mind destroying the lock, you can simply use a common bolt cutter to cut the padlock.

But if you want to keep the lock intact, or you don’t want the lock’s owner to know that it has been opened, then a few methods can be used.

padlock shim

In addition to the lock picking and bumping procedures described above, a simpler method of opening most padlocks, whether they are key or combination locks, is to use a shim.

A shim is a flat, wedge-shaped piece of metal that can be wrapped around the shaft of a padlock and slid down to release the hook holding it in place, much like the old credit-card-in-the-door-jamb trick.

While you may purchase sets of padlock shims (if you anticipate opening a large number of padlocks), a less expensive method is simply to cut your own shim out of a flat piece of metal. This can be done with a soda can and a pair of scissors, as demonstrated in videos on

See SecretAgent.TV for more videos on lockpicking.

Biometric lock

Opening Electronic Locks

Some newer electronic locks use keypads, key cards, or biometric scanners (retina, fingerprint, etc.) to secure a door and make it resistant to lockpicking, but there are still ways to bypass these computerized locks.

A biometric fingerprint scanner may be fooled by using fingerprint dust to make the last user’s fingerprint visible, then applying pressure with a finger in a latex glove, causing the scanner to detect the fingerprint that was already on the scanner.

Fingerprint dust can also be used to find the numbers that are most commonly pressed on a numerical keypad lock, in order to narrow down the possible combinations. A 10-digit keypad, with a four-digit entry code, could have 10,000 possible combinations, but if you knew which four numbers were in the code, then that would narrow it down to only a couple dozen combinations, which could be tried in under a minute.

There are also ways to hack into the circuitry of the lock itself, either to bypass the lock entirely, or to insert a recording device inside the lock, which will record the keypad combination, keycard data, or biometric data when an authorized user opens the lock. The recorded data can then be transmitted to the lock’s computer again, causing it to think an authorized key has been used again. Such a method is described in the article “Simple Hack Can Unlock Most Any Office Door.”

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