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A history of handcuffs

It has been 100 years since the "Peerless Swingthrough" handcuff was invented. This handcuff is amazingly similar to those in general use today. However the story of handcuffs goes back considerably further than this innovative 1912 design.

March 7, 2012  By Morley Lymburner

It has been 100 years since the “Peerless Swingthrough” handcuff was invented. This handcuff is amazingly similar to those in general use today. However the story of handcuffs goes back considerably further than this 1912 innovative design.

In his 1894 treatise, simply called <Handcuffs,> Insp. Maurice Moser of Scotland Yard told of a French police officer who arrested a thief but found himself without handcuffs to secure him. Displaying some ingenuity, he cut off all the buttons on the man’s suspenders. Modesty made for the best handcuffs, as the suspect held tight to his trousers while escorted through crowded Paris streets.

When researching the history of handcuffs, one is initially struck by the huge volume but shallow content that exists on the subject. Moser was looked upon as an expert in ‘modern’ handcuffs in 1894 and his brief overview of the technology at that time describes some fascinating antiques.

Even in Moser’s day, ‘copper’ was a common slang expression for police officers and originally meant thief catcher. It came from ‘cop,’ an ancient Anglo-Saxon term which meant to catch (cop) something. Handcop, a natural extension, described a mechanical device that “catches the hands” and was the original name for handcuffs.

The idea of restraints dates back to Greek mythology and the prophet Proteus, who could foretell the future but wouldn’t unless forced to. He eluded those who tried by transforming himself into other forms, including wild beasts, fire and water, frightening them into letting him go. Aristaeus “fixed the fetters on him” after being told Proteus would eventually change back to his original form and prophesy if he held on long enough.

References to cuff-like devices date back to Fourth Century BC, when conquering Greek soldiers found vast numbers of them in wagons pulled by Carthaginian armies. They were primarily used to control and enslave prisoners of war.

Over the centuries, handcuffs have been variously described as swivel manacles, manacles, shackbolds, shackles, fetters, irons, bracelets and cuffs. The first big manufacturer was the Hiatt Handcuff company, founded in 1780.

The number of styles and usage of handcuffs began to take off around 1850 as the western world became more mobile and urbanized. Crime increased inordinately with the population explosion, as did apprehensions of criminals.

Transporting prisoners from police stations to jails and courthouses and back again could only be accomplished with handcuffs, which essentially placed the offender in a secure, lockup situation faster and with fewer escapes.

With handcuffs being used more frequently, there was a need to find an easier way to engage them. Until 1850, there were just two types in general use in England. The most common were similar to Bango handcuffs and didn’t allow prisoners any movement. Their adjustability made them popular for general use and they were particularly effective on violent prisoners.

The ‘Flexible’ handcuff offered prisoners some flexibility, allowing them to eat and perform other personal necessities. They were initially limited to lockup and transport situations because they took longer to size and apply and came in many sizes to fit different wrist thicknesses.

Unfortunately the Flexible, also called the ‘Darby’ or ‘English’ handcuffs, became popular for street use because they were so easily concealed. Weight was another matter; at almost half a kilo (one pound), they were almost impossible to place on a violent prisoner, even if the officer was fortunate enough to have the correct size with him — and that was crucial. Too large or small and the suspect had a heavy steel weapon which would make short work of a wooden nightstick.

After 1850 there was a move to invent a more universal handcuff which could be used both on the street and in prisons. They needed to be secure, flexible and adjustable, which led to a wide array of contrivances with such names as the ‘Snap,’ ‘Nippers’ and the ‘Twister.’

The Snap, branded , was the most popular in mid to late 19th Century Europe and America. It consisted of two loops, the smaller of which would literally snap over the suspects wrists; the large loop was held by the officer.

The Twister was also quite popular because it was compact and could easily be carried by both uniformed officers and detectives. It consisted of a chain connected to matching hand grips at both ends and was simply wrapped around a suspects wrist, with the officer holding the handles. Any struggling, of course, meant excruciating pain and the risk of breaking a wrist or arm. Widely viewed as contributing to police brutality, it was eventually banned in Britain.

Both cuffs could be generically described as ‘come-along’ devices and were adequate for an era when an officer walked the beat. When a prisoner was ‘copped,’ it was a simple matter to hold the other end of the cuffs and walk them to the station, take them for a ride in a horse drawn paddy wagon or commandeer a hapless citizen out for a ride in their fancy buggy. In each case, an officer had to hold the other half.

Struggling meant risking a broken wrist; if this happened, the nipper was simply placed on the other wrist. Officers also risked broken bones; a skillful arrestee with strong wrists could break the wrist of an over confident officer.

It took the ingenuity of the Americans to overcome the obvious shortcomings of these devices. The first popular adjustable handcuffs were produced by Tower and remained popular for more than 80 years. Many say they set a standard of precision, craftsmanship and security that has never been matched.

The history of adjustable handcuffs is very murky. The story begins with W. V. Adams, who patented the adjustable ratchet principle for handcuffs in 1862 — up to then, all American handcuffs were of fixed size. The Adams cuff was an adaptation of the English Darby — a square bow with notches on the outside which were engaged by a very simple, tear shaped lock mechanism which allowed their size to be adjusted. The design was quite successful and Adams Handcuffs were manufactured in great quantity.

The second part of the story takes place in 1866 when Orson C. Phelps invented and patented his version, which put the notches for the ratchet on the inside of the square bow and featured a heavier and more secure lock case. Phelps handcuffs were also very well made; although the lock wasn’t very secure, it was a vast improvement over any earlier design. It’s unknown if Phelps paid a royalty to Adams, who held the original ratchet patent.

John J. Tower enters the picture in 1865 when he established a company. He introduced a series of handcuffs initially built under license — it’s unknown precisely when since at least three distinct models were released bearing only the Adams and Phelps patent dates.

The first Towers weren’t much different from Phelps, with similarly shaped lock cases, ratchet notches on the inside of the bow and a three link connecting chain. Tower applied for his first patent in 1871 to cover the round or oval bow he invented, an improvement over the previous square bow. It took three years for this patent to be issued; O. C. Phelps died during this period and Tower evidently bought the Phelps patent, which was reissued to him in 1877.

Tower immediately realized that single lock models had a major weakness — they could be shimmed by a determined prisoner with a proper bit of metal. He solved the problem with the ‘double lock’ handcuff, which had a much more sophisticated lock mechanism. Patented in 1879, it was opened the same way as a single lock model, by inserting a key and rotating it one half turn counter-clockwise.

However, turning the key a full turn clockwise froze the catch or bolt, preventing it from being opened or further closed and stopping the wearer from shimming it open. To remove the double lock, the key had to be reinserted and turned a full turn to the left, counter-clockwise. Another half turn would open the cuff completely.

The earliest Tower double lock handcuffs are marvels of engineering and were manufactured to very high tolerances. Unfortunately standards dropped over the 50 years they were produced.

Much of the double lock cuffs security was due to their heavy weight. Tower patented a new light weight handcuff in 1887 “made for lessening the expense of the construction of the hasp and case of the lock, for lessening the weight of the handcuff…” The very simple design was essentially a return to the original Adams handcuff.

Like the original Adams, the new lightweight Tower model had a rectangular bow with the notches and lock case on the outside. The lock mechanism was very simple; there was no double lock and the cuffs could be shimmed more easily than any prior Tower handcuff. Essentially security was sacrificed for low cost and weight.

They were marketed as Tower detective handcuffs, “designed to meet the demand for a very light weight shackle for those officers, detectives, and others who require to have their implements with them, and find a few ounces saved in the weight a matter of convenience and comfort.” Despite their low security, Tower advertised that “we do not hesitate to guarantee them as next to our patent double lock handcuffs, the best shackle ever offered.”

Handcuff collector’s sometimes refer to this model as the Pinkerton model, since the Pinkerton Detective agency supposedly used it.

The classic swing through design of the original Peerless handcuff continues to be the industry standard, 100 years after it was first invented by George Carney.

The Peerless Handcuff Company was established in 1914 in Springfield, Massachusetts by James Milton Gill, a businessman and city police commissioner. He was approached by inventor Carney, who invented the swing through design two years earlier that would eventually revolutionize the industry. Relatively light weight and easy to carry, it could be quickly applied with one hand, unlike other restraint devices of the time.

Recognizing the advantages, Milton bought the rights and began selling the product under the Peerless name. It quickly became popular, rendering other types of handcuffs obsolete. Over time, after the patent expired, the design was copied by almost every handcuff manufacturer. The Carney design, however, established Peerless as a leading supplier of high quality restraints, a reputation it still carries today.

Modern handcuffs haven’t changed much since the Carney design. Most have adopted a universal key, seen as a necessity so officers could unlock cuffs on anothers prisoner. The down side, of course, is a greater chance a prisoner has a key.

Steve Santini, a 13-year-old Toronto youth, made headlines in the ’70s by demonstrating his ability to break out of an antique police jail cell. One year later, he wowed everyone with his ability to break free of standard police issue handcuffs. He has since gone on to become one of Canada’s top escape artists, compared to the famous Houdini, and has defeated more jail cells than any other Canadian escapologist.

Santini has also helped improve handcuffs and isn’t impressed by the security of most modern restraints and their ‘universal’ key — but unlike others with the same opinion, he’s come up with two approaches to help fix the vulnerability.

  • Keeping the universal key but redesigning the restraint so it’s difficult for a prisoner to open it even if they have a key.
  • Using a high security padlock, either alone or as a supplement to the universal key

One of the neatest Santini inventions is the Peerless Pivot. He welded a bar to each cuff to replace the chain coupling on a standard pair of Peerless handcuffs. The bars are riveted together by a swivel joint which exposes the key hole only when the cuffs are partially folded, making access much more difficult. An external padlock can be fitted over the swivel, locking it in the extended position and blocking access to the key hole, for even more security.

Hiatt spring loaded key cover

What’s better than a handcuff requiring a universal key? One that requires two of them. This Santini invention is a modification of a standard Hiatt hinged cuff; the key hole is covered by a sliding, spring loaded metal shield. The cover must be held open with the double lock plunger end of a second key before another key can be inserted in the lock. A prisoner would require considerable dexterity to open this cuff.

{The Titan}

Perhaps the most famous of Santini’s inventions, this massive handcuff, cut out of sheet steel and held together with stainless steel rivets, is designed for use with an external lock. Each cuff has a separate latch mechanism that protrudes from the bottom; in the absence of a lock, this pair of levers may be pinched together to open the bows of the handcuff. However, with an external, high security lock in place, they’re held in the locked position and are one of the most secure handcuffs ever made… and there are only 11 in existence.

(For a demonstration go to

The Smith & Wesson Model 100 is one of the most popular cuffs in North America and, of course, opens with a universal key. Santini enlarged the double lock holes so they accommodate a pair of high security Abloy padlocks, making it impossible to remove the double lock; they still function normally without the locks in place.

These cuffs are a brute force solution to security — a modern version of classic shackles, which also required external padlocks — but are very solid and quite secure when fitted with proper locks..

Modern, finely tuned, light and flexible handcuffs have come a long way from the old Nippers. Today’s restraint systems include full body wrap devices, glue guns and net shooting shotguns. Devices of tomorrow could include short term paralyzing devices, with antidotes administered at the police station.

“History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives,” Israeli politician Abba Eban once observed. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when taking a person into custody. There can be no benefit of the doubt when an arrest is made — cuff ’em all!

For more interesting reading about handcuffs, go to — other sites of interest include:
Steve Santini – Web or phone: 1-800-867-3281

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