How to Pick a Pin Tumbler Lock

DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.

In a P.A.W., there is potentially going to be a whole lot of empty buildings with no owners around.  These buildings will be treasure troves of supplies, tools, and shelter, but the more goodies inside a building, the more likely it is to be guarded by locks, barred windows, and thick doors.  The easiest way to gain access to this stuff is just simply break the door or a window or something like that, but that may not always be convenient or the best approach.  To take a scenario from the UK series Survivors, say you come across an inventory depot for a grocery store chain (a warehouse where all the inventory for a number of stores is stored until they need it).  It’s locked up tighter than a drum with serious security (steel doors, deadbolt locks, barbed wire fences, no windows, etc.).  If you happen to find a pickable lock (and you can pick locks) you could get into the building without permanently ruining the security – meaning you can stay there and keep all the supplies inside away from everyone else’s grubby little hands.

How a Pin and Tumbler Lock Works

Cross Section of a Lock

Take a look at any key you have in your pocket.  The shaft of the key is a series of peaks and valleys.  Each of the peaks coincides with a pin inside the lock.

Every lock has a series of pins of varying lengths.  Each pin is divided into two pieces, the top halves all being the same length and the bottom half being the excess length.  If the wrong key (or no key) is inserted into the barrel, the pins prevent the barrel from being turned.  If the appropriate key is placed into the barrel, the pins will line up so that the top portion is perfectly outside the barrel, and the bottom portion is perfectly inside the barrel – allowing the barrel to turn freely inside the lock (and thereby locking or unlocking the door).

Picking Locks with Lockpicking Tools

A Tension Wrench

A lockpicking set (at its most basic) consists of a tension wrench and a pick.  The tension wrench is a strong, thin piece of metal with a 90 degree bend at one end.  As the name implies it needs to be strong enough to withstand a little tension.

The pick can take on any number of shapes.  A masterful locksmith or lockpicker might be able to tell you the benefits of using one pick over another or what benefit different shaped picks have, but for our purposes you only need a simple half-diamond pick.  This is the most versatile pick in any kit and the one pick to have if you only have one.  The half-diamond pick is a straight pick with a triangle-shaped peak at the end of the pick.  The half-diamond pick is used to trigger each pin individually.

A number of lock picks

Insert the short end of the tension wrench into the bottom of the lock and apply a little bit of pressure.  The idea is to create enough force to create a misalignment in the barrel, but not enough to grip the pin and not allow it to move freely in the pinhole.  Finding the right amount of pressure is a trial and error endeavor and you’ll get a better feel for it the more you practice.

Insert your pick into the top of the keyhole and feel your way back to a pin.  I prefer to start at the back and move my way forward.  This gives you an opportunity to count the pins on the way back.  Once you find the pin you are trying to trigger, push it up slowly.  You will feel a faint click from the pin.  This click is the top portion of the pin leaving the barrel, allowing the break in the pin to align with the break between the barrel and the rest of the lock.  Since you’re applying pressure to the barrel, when that break alignment occurs, the barrel will twist ever so slightly, causing a misalignment in the pinhole which forms a lip that the upper portion of the pin will rest on.  You’ll do this pin by pin until all the pins are resting on this lip.  At this point, what you’ve essentially done is simulated inserting the key into the lock and the barrel will freely rotate, unlocking the door.

Alternatively, you can use a rake pick (which looks similar to a saw) to pick locks, if you aren’t so good at picking locks yet.  Just making a sawing motion back and forth until the barrel rotates freely.  This won’t work for every lock, which is why learning with a half-diamond pick is preferable.

Picking Locks with Improvised Tools

The methodology of lock picking doesn’t change, just the tools.  As difficult as lock picking can be sometimes, using improvised tools makes it that much harder.  As far as the tools go, you can use anything that you can think of to do the job.  You essentially need something that fits into the bottom of the lock that won’t bend, and something to stick in the top of the lock that will give you fine manipulation.

For a tension wrench, you could use a small flathead screwdriver, a large flathead screwdriver with the end filed down, an allen wrench with the small end filed down, etc.  The two most common items used as a pick are paperclips and bobby pins.  To use a paperclip, you just need to make a 90 degree bend very close to one end, or if you have access to needle nose pliers, make a very small loop at one end.  You don’t need to do anything with a bobby pin except to break the ball off one end.

Bumping Locks

A 6-Pin Bump Key

By far, the easiest way to “pick” a lock, but requires very little skill and no finesse.  Modern lockpicking enthusiasts frown on this practice, but in the P.A.W. nobody cares.  This may not be a feasible technique in the P.A.W. because you need a bump key, also called a 9-9-9 key, configured for the number of pins in the lock you’re trying to bump.  If you don’t have one of these ahead of time, it’s going to be close to impossible to get one after Armageddon.  A bump key is just a key with the valleys cut as deep as possible (the setting is 9, hence the 9-9-9 key) and a number of valleys equal to the number of pins in the lock.

Place the bump key all the way into the lock and the pull it out until it clicks once.  Place a bit of pressure (about the same as if you were picking the lock) on the key and then hit it with a rubber mallet.  This will force the key into the lock all the way and jolt the pins all the way up, allowing the barrel to rotate freely before they come back down, giving you free access to the other side of the door.

This won’t work on all locks, and a lot of lock companies are now marketing “bump proof” locks that make it harder to bump the locks.


Author: Adrian

Adrian Hannah is a system administrator and poor college student at Michigan Technological University. He currently resides in Hancock, MI where he observes the outside world and puts in his two cents.