Sunday, 21 January 2018

More on Finger Spelling

The recent posts on American Manual Alphabet made me recall something many decades past. A summer long past at primary school when I had become interested in codes and cyphers. One of the books in my possession back then was “The KnowHow Book of Spycraft”. Recently I have been reading the “The Official CIA manual on Trickery and Deception” and realize many of the ideas in the children’s book are more practical than you might expect. Supposedly Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, testified that th KnowHow book gave away the KGB’s tradecraft.

When I look at the tracks of a bicycle in the snow and estimate its speed, it is something I learnt from the KnowHow Book of Spycraft. Even today this book and the related “Usborne Spy’s Guidebook” are well worth a flick through, especially if you want to inspire a youngster to noticing more than their phone.

The reason I recalled this book is that it contained the following page:

The system is less like British Finger Spelling than I had thought. Some of the single-handed signals have potential as useful supplements to the AMA symbols we have already learnt. For example, “Echo”, “Foxtrot”, “Mike”, “November” and possibly “Uniform” will all be clearer over a greater distance than standard AMA signs. “Juliet” can be made with less hand movement, although I would suggest this is always made with the four fingers raised to distinguish it from the standard “Lema” gesture.
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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Tension Tools

Some time ago there was a knock on my door. A female student accompanied by a member of staff. The young lady had locked her keys in her locker. Could I do something? Ironically I had been having a sneaky read of some lock picking ebooks when I was disturbed. I have access to three sets of bolt cutters in that building but the issue was not could I do something, but should I? I pointed out that I could not open a locker unless I had proof it was her locker. Who had allocated her the locker? The answer was the person who would have been my first port of call for the bolt-cutters. I pointed out that he may not be in his room, selfishly enjoying his well-earned lunch break.

Dully, the student muttered something about could I give her a clip to open the lock with.

“Do you mean a paper clip?”

Bovine grunt to the affirmative. Ironically I have just about everything in that room except decent springy paperclips!

“You can’t pick a lock with a clip. You need a tension tool too” I told her.

One might think, given that this is supposedly a future scientist, that “What is a tension tool?” might have been a likely response, with possibly, “Do you have a tension tool?” or “How do I get a tension tool?”

A further grunt about clips and she wandered off with the member of staff to find a paperclip. I have no idea how much time she wasted trying to pick the lock without a tensioner.

Picking is all about the correct application of tension. It doesn’t matter if you are single-pin picking, raking, using a pick gun or an electric pick, you still need a tension tool. One of the most common mistakes about picking that you see in the movies is a character using a pick or pick gun and no tension tool. This is like a horse-riding scene without the horse.

Admittedly, tension tools are the less glamorous half of the double act. In many kits you get dozens of varied pick designs but just a couple of tension tools, almost like they are thrown in as an afterthought. Picks show considerable variety, while tension tools often seem to be bent bits of metal, often home-made.

As you become more experienced you begin to appreciate that the tensioner and how you apply it is critical in whether a lock opens easily or not at all. The proportion of tensioners to picks in your kit will begin to shift, particularly when you realise you only use a small proportion of your available picks for most tasks.

Tension tools are commonly called “tension wrenches”, although some pickers object to the term “wrench”. It can also be argued that what pickers call “tension” is more strictly “torque”, so the term “turning tool” is used as well. That said, web-searching “tension wrench” will give you more hits relevant to lock picking than “torque wrench”.

Trying to acquire more tension tools can be frustrating! Some companies will only sell you turning tools as part of a larger set or with a pick kit. When you can buy individual items many companies do not bother to list the width and thickness of the tools. Also crossing the Atlantic tends to at least double the price! Not surprisingly, many pickers tend to “roll their own”. Turning tools are easy to make or modify. Tolerances are broad and tools are not subjected to strong forces.

If you do make your own, the dimensions given for the Southern Specialities 2500 set may prove useful. BosnianBill’s article on tension tools provides some useful photos of tools alongside steel rules.

Red .030” thick .50" leg, .125" wide and 3" long; .25" leg, .094" wide and 3" long

White .040” thick .50" leg, .125" wide and 3" long; .25" leg, .094" wide and 3" long.

Blue .050” thick .50" leg, .125" wide and 3" long; .25" leg, .094" wide and 3" long

Finding materials to make your own tools can be problematic. The “steel wiper blade inserts” usually recommended are not as easy to find in some areas as others. You take pot luck at what you can find, and as was seen in my account here, thicknesses of material can be significant. It would be nice if more retailers sold raw materials for making tools. There are other options. Some pickers make tension tools by bending the tips of screwdrivers.

You will encounter the terminology TOK and BOK. American locks are usually mounted pins upwards so turning tools that are applied to the pin side of a keyway have become known as “top of keyway” (TOK) tools and the alternative “bottom of keyway” (BOK). In Europe it is common for locks to be mounted either way up, so these terms can be a little confusing. TOK is often used as a term for prybar-type turning tools and BOK for other tools. In reality some prybars may be applied to the bottom/ outside of a keyway and a narrow headed BOK tool might be used on the top/ inner side of a keyway. TOK tools tend to be used at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions, BOK at more oblique angles.

Typical “L-shaped” “BOK” turning tools. These are both 3mm/ 0.12" wide, which could be considered to be the standard width. The longer one has a twist handle and is from a set of five tools that is widely available on ebay. They take ages to come but cost very little and were surprisingly nicely finished. Their price makes them a good source of materials for customization or creating your own tools. The shorter tool is from my Serenity kit and is probably the tensioner that I use the most. I plan to bend the end into another, narrower head.
Generally turning tools are used with very light pressure so do not need to be very long. A tool such as the longer one above could easily be cut and made into an additional tool. I will keep this tool as it is just in case I ever need a long tool. It could easily be bent into a shape that can be used on a tulip lock, for example. Keyways are very useful for bending and improvising tools. Second from the right is one of the tools supplied with my larger Chinese pick set. It is narrower and noticeably thinner than the two to the left but still useful. It could also be cut to make a second tool or bent to make a Z-tool. Rightmost tool is made from a pen clip. Unusual in that it required some unbending rather than bending. The shoulders and head could be filed down if desired, and the other end could also be made into a head for a Z-tool. This nicely illustrates that a turning tool need not be that long.

Tulip turning tools are used for locks recessed into doorknobs. This is obviously an application where length has advantages.

Two home-made Z-tools. The one on the left is made from a laboratory spatula. This was intended as a wide turning tool so was left at its original 4 mm width. It could easily be filed down to standard or narrow width. The keyway of a padlock was used to bend the ends. The next tool was made from a windscreen wiper insert and was seen in my article here. The short end has been filed down to 2.5 mm and the shank and shoulders suitably filed and tapered (shown below). This is used in small locks but can also be used TOK. The result is a versatile tool that can be constructed in just a few minutes. Ideally I would have a set of these in different thicknesses, complimented by the larger tool. 
The middle tool is the standard-width tool from my larger Chinese kit. Next to it is another tool made from a pen clip, but not yet filed to final dimensions. The leftmost tool is the same design as that which comes in the Goso hook kit, and one of the most useful parts of that kit. This tool also comes with the five-part tension tool kit mentioned earlier.

Flat Z-tools. These came with the five-part tension tool kit. Unlike many Chinese-made picks the turning tools are competently finished and seem serviceable. One is thicker than the other two. I don’t use these a lot but they work well enough and I have even had some TOK successes with them! It is a shape worth bearing in mind if you are improvising turning tools.
On the right is the prybar tool from my Serenity kit. Prybar and TOK tensioners are favoured by many pickers who are far more experienced than myself. I find I have trouble with them popping out of locks. These are often used for picking with TOK, which I often cannot get to work, perhaps because I usually rake locks. Part of the problem may be the Serenity prybar appears to be under 1 mm thick, probably 0.8 mm, so not suited to some of the wider keyways I have on some locks. It works with my narrow SKS lock. Ideally you also want prybars made from 1mm/ 0.04" or 1.2mm/ 0.05" thick material. Many retailers do not bother to list the thickness of prybars, so you may encounter thinner examples.

Y-shaped turning tools are used for certain styles of car lockway. Many of these have shutters and wafers on either side.

Lock picking is generally about “less force, more finesse”. If it is not working the solution is usually a gentler touch on the pick, rake or tensioner. Spring tensioners reduce the tendency to apply too much torque. By the time I tried using a spring tool I had already developed the habit of a light touch and had to use more pressure on it than I was accustomed to! Springs seem to work but you should learn to use more conventional tensioners if you are to be proficient with improvised devices.

My experience with turning tools made from hairpins has been mixed. The best results have been with tools constructed to be at a vertical angle to the lock, like a prybar. Bend the end over so it acts as a wider, flatter beak that cannot turn. Wider keyways will need additional modification. You will probably find hairpins too wide to be used as picks on some locks. The challenge is bending them in the right direction.
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Friday, 12 January 2018

Luggage Locks and Skeleton Keys

Warded locks are very simple devices. At the far end of the lock is a catch or spring. Rotation of the end of the key releases this. Between this mechanism and the keyhole is a space with a number of cross-walls or “wards”. The key cannot turn unless its cut-out sections coincide with the position of the wards. With a little forethought keys can be designed that will only open certain locks in a house, but not others. The downside is that warded locks only really prevent the use of other keys. If most of the excess metal of a key is removed the result is a key that can open a warded lock irrespective of the pattern of wards. This is the original meaning of “skeleton key”. Items such as screwdrivers might be modified to open some locks.
Warded mechanisms are still used and a set of skeleton keys can be purchased or fabricated with modest effort or expenditure. Such keys are, however, too large for the small warded locks commonly encountered on luggage.
While still common, such locks have dubious value. Many can easily be snapped open, sometimes without the need for tools. These, and many other luggage locks, can be bypassed by items such as pens applied to the zipper.

The keys for such small warded locks do not exhibit much variation. Some locks don’t even have any warding inside! I have a key on my bunch from a lock I have not seen for decades. When I encountered a small warded lock recently I tried the key and it opened the lock like they had been made for each other. Below is the lock, the key that opened it and a skeleton key for small warded locks that I made.
Below: A lock with a skeleton key made by filing down a similar key.
Some of your lock picking tools might open a small warded lock. I have opened such a lock using hooks, half-diamonds, single-hump Bogotas and snowmen. A ball or half-ball would probably work too. Just insert the pick and rotate until you trip the latch or spring.
Conventional lock picks are not really designed to take lateral pressure, so such use should be occasional or for when you do not have a better alternative. If you are a customs officer or someone else who often has a legitimate need to regularly open such locks you can make yourself an opener from some stout wire, tube or rod. Below is a photo of one of my turning tools. The rod section of the handle has been given a slight hook for opening small warded locks.
Alternately, the creation of a small skeleton key should be relatively simple, particularly if you already have a similar key. Keys can also be formed from scrap metal. The skeleton key that I made was created from a section of laboratory spatula. It was produced in under three minutes using just pliers and a needle file. This now rides the same ring as my other skeleton keys.
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Thursday, 11 January 2018

Zip Tie Escapes

Yesterday I came across a reference to cutting zip ties/ cable ties with “survival cord”. A quick websearch produced a video of a gentleman cutting zip ties with paracord bootlaces.

An important aspect of this to grasp is that it is not necessary to use paracord. The original reference was probably to kevlar line. I had neither paracord or kevlar readily to hand but I did have a soft bootlace that was probably polyester. I tried it and within seconds the zip tie was cut with molten ends. Later I tried some cotton string. I was actually surprised that this worked, but it did! The tie ends looked more broken than melted, but that is still an escape!
Dental floss should work. So might monofilament or braided fishing line. Electrical wires and headphone cables are definitely worth trying when the chips are down. Would belts or strapping work? Failing any of these, rub the tie on a brick edge or stone.

If you secure a prisoner with cable ties and leave them unsupervised there is a real chance they will not be secured when you return. Shoes have laces. Clothing and bags have cords. A compass, ID card or whistle might be on a lanyard. A metre of fishing line can sit in the bottom of a pocket and easily be missed in a search.

Below is an image from the Art of Manliness blog that shows some other techniques you can use against zip ties.

A trick used by magicians and escapologists is to conceal nail clippers on their person. This is often done using a bulldog clip on a safety pin. The clip can be compressed by various body parts to drop its contents into a waiting hand. If you have a lighter or match try and melt the tie. Many military “dog tags” now have rubber bumpers (“silencers”) to stop them rattling. This makes it possible to sharpen or serrate the edge of a metal tag or use the silencer to secure a rectangular blade behind the tag. Such a blade can be made from a tin can lid.

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