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David Sell

Inside the hidden world of competitive lockpicking

Despite criminal comparisons and bruised fingers, a community of hobbyist lockpickers is thriving online.

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- 09:16

It starts with tension. 

Not unlike defusing a bomb, the practice calls for incredible precision -- listening and feeling for the acute signal that progress is being made. 

It could take minutes, hours, days. Even weeks. Tools break, fingertips turn purple with pressure. Grips falter. All for a series of tiny mechanisms, hidden within the confines of a piece of metal no bigger than a few inches.

It's rigorous and demanding, but for the locksport community, it's all worth it to hear that final click.

Key players

Competitive and hobbyist locksport is the practice of navigating the intricate inner workings of a lock -- unused, unattached and usually held firm in a vise. It's a challenge, an unseen puzzle that's drawn thousands of people to converge online to share their excitement and frustration over a lock unpicked.

Banish the thought of shadowy figures picking open locks in the middle of the night. Abandon any notion of complicated Ocean's Eleven heists. Throw away your Skyrim character's Thieves Guild membership.

Instead, consider Dave. 

David Sell is an optical engineer by day, a black belt lockpicker by night and -- contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe about lockpickers -- has no interest in criminal activity. It's not about stealing someone else's hidden treasures. It's about the craft. 

"The draw of the hobby lies a lot in difficulty progression," he said "At any given time, there is a good lock to pick for your current skill level and there's always something more difficult or interesting on the horizon, which keeps it satisfying."

Sell isn't alone. In fact, he's a moderator for an online locksport community of over three thousand people, using Reddit and Discord to connect with members all over the globe. For the past few years it has been his responsibility to ensure everything is above board, despite misconceptions that the community could form a haven for aspiring thieves.

Rory Rezzelle, a fellow subreddit moderator and president of Augusta Locksports -- a nonprofit that teaches physical security and locksport around the US -- has also worked hard to change the negative mentality toward lockpicking versus conventional locksmithing.

Locksmiths have credibility and trust, but what they do isn't picking. A locksmith helping someone who's locked themselves out of their apartment, for example, wants to get in as quickly as possible. This means potentially using drills and other tools to break the lock, whereas a picker has the time to feel for the mechanics.

"People see locks and keys as these magical items that just work when you use them together," he said. "They don't always understand the mechanical intricacies, and when we show them how simple they can be it just blows their minds."

It's those mechanical intricacies that appeal to locksport devotees. It's creating lockpicking tools, adapting pressure, developing techniques, creating challenge locks, videoing successes, rising up the internal ranks and even mentoring newer members of the community. Like the hidden workings of a lock itself, it's the unseen side of locksports that advocates like Rezzelle and Sell are so excited to showcase.

image-from-ios-3

Transparent practice locks are incredibly useful in getting a feel for the internal mechanics.

Steph Panecasio/CNET

As with all sports, a system of progression gives practitioners something to strive for. For locksport, this system is the same as that of karate: colored belts.

Sell is the mod responsible for maintaining the belt ranking list, by classifying new locks and adjusting the rankings of existing locks as people either find new techniques or become more accustomed to a lock that may once have been considered obscure. 

It's a process that has necessitated his familiarity with a wide range of locks -- not just in theory, but in practice. But it's not just a matter of achieving accolades, it's also a useful tool in establishing your development.

"The belt system is a way to categorize locks to help people know what to look for," he said, "as well as provide a game to play along the way."

So no, you don't have to live or die by the belt.

How does lockpicking actually work?

As the pins fall into the correct arrangement, the shear line is clear and the key can be turned.

Know Your Meme

To understand the basics of lockpicking, you must first understand the mechanics of a lock itself. While there are countless types of locks to examine, most standard pin tumblers -- the most common lock style in use -- have the same basic elements. These include:

  • A cylinder, otherwise known as the housing or body of a lock.
  • A plug, which rotates to open the lock when all the other components are in place.
  • The shear line, or gap between the plug and pins which must be clear for the lock to open.
  • Pins, the mechanisms of varying lengths that make up the "cuts" of the key.
  • Springs, which hold the components together until a key is inserted.

In order to pick a lock, you have to mimic the cuts of a key in order to clear the shear line and rotate the plugs. This requires considerable pressure and tension, using multiple external tools to simulate the length of a key.

image-from-ios-4

Transparent locks showcase multiple components.

Steph Panecasio/CNET

Locksports and the law

Let's cut to the chase: Yes, locksport is technically legal in most US states. Mostly.

Locksport as a hobby is perfectly legal and acceptable to do. However, there are gray areas when it comes to the possession of a lockpicking kit. Who's to know you're a hobbyist if you're found wandering the street with picks in your pocket?

For most states, it comes down to a question of intent -- what is your purpose? If law enforcement believes you're in possession of a lockpicking kit with the intent to commit crime, that's where you'll wind up in trouble. For hobbyists like Rory, it wasn't until co-workers expressed an interest in his hobby that he even looked into the legality. 

"In my state, Georgia, there's no law against owning, carrying or using lockpicks as long as the use isn't criminal," he said. "The state would have to prove that I intended to commit a crime with them if I did get arrested for having them."

It does however raise concerns about the impact of criminal profiling. Some states have higher stop-and-frisk rates than others, and African American and Latin men are statistically more likely to be assumed guilty than others

Online, the r/lockpicking subreddit has laid the groundwork to ensure legislation is followed to a T, establishing strict rules: Nobody can pick an active lock, or help anyone attempting to. The community is united on that front, with mods receiving reports of any violations almost immediately.

"We are extremely strict about not assisting anyone with picking a lock in use, regardless of whether they own the lock, or whether they have permission to do so," said Sell.

"One reason is because they might very well break that lock, but another reason is that we want to discourage the idea that we are here to help pick locks for a purpose other than fun."

But the murky waters of intent do leave many hobbyists anxious. As a result, many chose to practice exclusively at home, with extra precautions taken if travelling.

"I do look at the laws when I travel," said Reddit user and locksport devotee 2BDCy4D. "If having [the tools] on me is going to cause more issues, I can pick them back up when I get home. Countries, states and territories can have very different laws, and it's really not worth the hassle for something that's supposed to be fun sometimes."

Perhaps luckily, whenever he's flown with picks on hand, he hasn't had any issues yet. If anything, it's been a hell of a conversation starter.

"I'll usually have some easier locks to open with me in case someone else wants to try," he said. "The look on someone's face the first time they pop a lock open is priceless every time."

Mechanical intricacies

Once you've researched the legality of practicing locksport, it's time to pick your tools. Fortunately, easy accessibility to practice materials is one of the biggest appeals of locksport.

Countless videos on YouTube detail the best methods of beating locks of varying levels. Anyone can purchase a beginner set of picks online and get started. You can even give it a go with pieces of metal from the back shed, if you're determined enough. 

"I've made tools from feeler gauge, steel tubing, keys, wire, bobby pins, paper clips (surprisingly useful even for high security sometimes), broken picks, shaped epoxy and more," said Sell.

These makeshift tools may remain the same for much of your locksport career, should you choose it. That is, until you reach high-security locks.

These take more time, skill and patience -- and a large amount of it at that, because these are the locks that might take weeks to pick. It's at this point you might need to seek out a specific tool or tutorial to give you better understanding and access.

"The first high-security lock I picked was an old 6-pin Medeco Original padlock without a key," said Sell. "I wasn't aware at the time, but for something like that, it's heavily encouraged to take most of the pins out and learn how to interpret almost imperceptible sounds by gradually reintroducing them to the lock. That wasn't an option in this case, so the lock more or less destroyed my life for two to three weeks.". 

"I took it to the lab with me and would pick it for hours every day until my grip gave out. Opening that lock was probably one of the most satisfying experiences of my life."

For user 2BDCy4D, his rapid progression and engagement in the sport led to the desire to make his own custom tools -- and he's recognized in the community for having some of the best.

"It wasn't a necessity at the time, but more out of curiosity," he said. "I liked the picks that I had been using and wanted to try making my own, experimenting with different shapes. I found even little modifications to a pick profile can make a huge difference in how they interact with a lock, and that made me want to make more."

custom-pins

Custom picks serve a practical purpose, but they also add an element of personality and style.

Reddit user 2BDCy4D

Lock it in

With the coronavirus pandemic upending life as we know it, now's the perfect time to get into lockpicking. People don't commute as often. Plans have changed. Going out to socialize isn't the best idea. So online communities like the r/lockpicking group have naturally grown, with hundreds of new members spurred on by the need for a productive distraction.

David Sell is sure the future of locksports is bright. "There will always be new locks to focus on, but I think that that has never really been the bread and butter of this community," he said. "I think the future of the community is more in the hands of the people who decide to jump into it and less a matter of what those at the top are up to."

And for those that are just starting to dip their toes into the lockpicking world, the community is ready and waiting to help. From videos to custom tools to the ever-present advice on Discord, all you need is a lock itself -- and the willingness to look past lockpicking's checkered past. 

"Remember that locks are puzzles -- just as brain teasers or 1,000-piece pictures -- and pickers are looking to solve them without breaking them," said 2BDCy4D. 

"We just can't see most of what we're doing."