Picking Locks With Sidebars

Ingenuity, perseverance, and raw skill are all needed in healthy doses to defeat many of the high security locks utilizing sidebars. Research is your best front line of attack. Understanding fully how the lock works will often provide you with helpful clues that can lead you to victory. A good deal of the fun and challenge of picking high security locks is first detecting weakness, then figuring out a way to exploit this weakness.

For example, older models of Medeco lock had gates in the key pins that ran the entire height of the pin. Some clever individual discovered that a very thin wire could be inserted into the keyway and slid up the side of the gate, allowing the angle of cut to be decoded. Knowing this valuable piece of information greatly reduced the level of difficulty associated with picking these locks. Clever fellow.

There are, unfortunately, no clear and direct instructions that can be given to teach one how to pick all locks with sidebars; there is no “one size fits all” approach. Fortunately, a clear understanding of a lock’s workings can provide helpful hints that allow one to create a plan of attack. Careful consideration of the mechanics of a lock will inevitably lead to an understanding of how the lock may be picked. Actually doing it can be another story. It is not uncommon for me to work for weeks on a high security lock, manufacture dozens of custom homemade tools, and work for hours straight with cramped hands, only to put the lock down in frustration, leaving it for another day. Nobody said it would be easy. That’s half the fun.

It is commonly accepted that no lock should be considered “un-pickable”. In theory, the very nature of the pin tumbler system is inextricably linked to the manufacturing defects that make picking possible. In practice, some locks are just darned hard. In the case of some locks, despite much thought and effort on the part of a wide body of enthusiasts and professionals, no verifiable or credible account of a successful opening exists. One such lock was made by Western Electric and employed in payphones for many years. Matt Blaze of Crypto.com fame wrote an article detailing the mechanics of these eight to ten lever locks. Though not a pin tumbler design, these locks serve as a valuable example of the disparaging gap between theory and practice. There is, at present, only one credible account of an individual able to pick the Western Electric locks.

But all hope is not lost. Just because a lock is hard does not mean you cannot pick it. The standard Medeco Biaxial lock is wonderfully difficult to pick. However, there are some tactics one can employ to begin to develop the skills needed, and learn the characteristics of the lock. These tactics can be employed in nearly any high security pin tumbler locks. Start by removing all but one pin stack, just as you did when beginning the basic picking exercises in this manual. Working with a Medeco with only one pin in place, you will have the opportunity to experience the feedback you get from setting pins at the shear line, as well as rotating the key pin to align the gate with the sidebar. A skilled lock picker will have little trouble successfully picking this one-pinned lock. As you might expect, next add a second pin stack and continue. Using this approach of gradual and methodical progression of skills, you will be able to see directly the development of your sensitivity and comprehension.

Another useful tool in your endeavor to pick high security locks is the cutaway lock. This is a lock that has had material removed – or cut away - in order to allow its possessor to view the internal workings of the lock during the picking process. This mean that you can watch pins set, getting immediate visual feedback that corresponds with the tactile feedback you receive via your pick tools.

I carefully avoided the discussion of cutaway locks throughout the instruction on picking conventional pin tumbler locks because I feel that, aside from perhaps your first 20 minutes of lock picking experience, cutaway locks can act as a hindrance to developing sound picking skill. The reason is this: using a cutaway lock, it becomes very easy to learn to rely on visual queues whilst picking rather than focusing on the tactile queues. As a novice, you would have been far more prone to developing poor skills or bad habits, lacking the sensitivity and awareness of the feedback relayed to you by the tools. If you’ve taken your time to go through this manual thoroughly to this point, you will have long since gained the necessary skills to ward off the habit-forming reliance on visual feedback that can be so damaging when using cutaway locks. Now, as you embark on learning to pick high security locks, it is a perfect time to make use of such tools.

The one downside to using cutaway high security locks is that they can be exceptionally difficult to obtain. If you are not a licensed dealer for a particular brand of high security lock, the manufacturer will not sell you factory-made cutaways. Many enthusiasts have had success purchasing these locks on Ebay. With the proper tools and some moderate machining abilities, one can take ordinary locks and create some very practical – and sometimes beautiful – cutaway locks: I have personally made cutaway locks for Abloy and Miwa cylinders with very primitive tools such as a rotary tool and drill press (see illus. (needed and needed)). Though not beautiful, they serve the purpose nicely.

No matter how you go about the journey of practicing the fine art of picking high security locks, patience and dedication will be your best guides.

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