The first rule of locksport is: you never pick a lock that’s in use. The second rule of locksport is: you can only pick locks that you either own, or have the owner’s express permission to practise on. The rules on picking locks that have been abandoned by their owners are a bit more woolly – ‘lovepicking’, or opening love locks that have been left in public places such as the Parisian Pont des Arts, is generally considered OK if they’re going to be removed by the authorities anyway – but otherwise, there’s a zero-tolerance policy on anything that could be considered even borderline unethical.
Aficionados aren’t roaming the streets, looking for poorly-defended storage lockers to raid: they’re mostly meeting up in hack-spaces and offices, discussing pick sets and the merits of ‘bumping’ versus ‘raking’. But why, in a security-obsessed world where even owning a set of tools can be considered criminal (US lock-pickers have to be very careful what state they carry their gear in), does anyone do it at all?
‘I own over 50 American Locks that I pick through – you never want to stagnate’
Law-Abiding Locksport Citizens
‘The biggest misconception about locksport is that it is filled with criminals with intent to use their skills to conduct crime,’ says the locksport enthusiast who runs YouTube’s thriving ‘HelpfulLockPicker’ channel (and would rather not be named). ‘Most people don’t understand the puzzle aspect to it. I first started October 2016… I needed to rekey a few locks at my home and learned that in order to rekey a lock you need to either key, pick it, or shim it. I read about it and became intrigued by it. Once I opened my first lock it was eye-opening and it changed my view on security from there. It changed my perspective on locks forever.’
HLP’s entry-level introduction to picking is one of the most-viewed on YouTube, and uses a clear acrylic lock to explain how locks actually work – but, as most pickers agree, they’re less useful for actually practising. ‘Learning to pick by sight is a step in the wrong direction,’ says Andrew, a locksport enthusiast who goes by the name Aedalas on Reddit’s thriving locksport community. ‘The whole idea is that you can’t see what’s happening in there; you outgrow the cutaways and clear acrylic locks so fast it’s not even worth it.’
Lock-picking has to be done by feel, and every lock is different: diving into the rabbit hole of the sport’s online community gives you a new appreciation for the nuances of security. ‘A lot of people start on the old Master #3,’ says Aedalas. ‘It’s pretty much the most common padlock there is. It also happens to be one of the easiest to open which makes it great to start on. The usual method of learning starts there and follows a series of locks with increasing difficulty.’
From there, enthusiasts graduate to tougher locks such as the Squire and the Abus, in a never-ending quest for mastery. ‘I think the first big milestone is opening your first American Lock,’ says HLP, referring to one of the USA’s most popular (and supposedly tough) brands. ‘Followed by being able to open any American Lock easily. There is a difference between opening one lock and opening locks. I got proficient because I own over 50 American Locks that I pick through. You never want to stagnate, and you should always push yourself to try new locks. Practice every day, on any lock; you learn something from every lock you pick. My current goals are to get better at opening Medecos and then work on my Mul-T-Lock Classic.’
‘Events like LockCon challenge participants to pick locks blindfolded’
There’s Gonna Be A Jailbreak
At the competitive levels of the sport, events such as LockCon challenge participants to ‘clusterpick’ a set of locks randomly drawn from a sack, pick locks blindfolded, or square off in the ever-popular ‘Gringo Warrior’ – a contest which requires them to defeat locks of increasing difficulty in an attempt to escape from a fictitious Mexican jail (starting, of course, with handcuffs).
On the DIY side, most enthusiasts end up outgrowing pre-bought picks and making their own: ‘It’s somewhat common,’ says Aedalas. ‘There are a ton of different picks and tension wrenches and the better quality ones can get expensive, so making them yourself is very practical. That also happens to be one of my favourite parts of the hobby. A lot of us are making picks that simply aren’t available commercially, with improved designs and materials. It’s somewhat similar to knife-making, there’s a bit of an artistic flair to it.’
How far can it go? ‘Well, I’ve never heard of an “end” to it. I got as far as making a whole lock once. I’d have liked to take that further but I don’t have much access to a milling machine these days. A lot of people do seem to go on to locksmithing, though.’
An Endless Struggle
Ultimately, though, is lock-picking a pointless activity? Modern-day locksmiths, after all, barely use it: drilling through your lock is quicker, easier, and lets them charge you to replace it. Burglars are much less likely to finesse their way through a side-door lock than they are to smash a window, and digital keys or biometrics are increasingly replacing physical ones in places that really need security.
But that’s sort of the point: for lovers of locksport, it’s all about the puzzle, the challenge of solving specific technical problems with a zen-like feeling that true mastery gets further away the more you learn, amid a community that’s surprisingly open and supportive. ‘Some days you can open any locks put in front of you and others you can’t open even the easiest lock in your set,’ says HLP.
‘Don't get frustrated: take a breather, and never give up. Locksport is made up of some of the most honest and welcoming people I have ever met. It is a community I encourage anyone to try out. They may be surprised how quickly they fall in love with it.’ As long as they remember the rules.
WHAT NEXT? Go to keypicking.com or reddit.com/r/locksport for an introduction to the mechanics of picking your first lock – unless you’re interested in it for nefarious purposes. ‘The whole community tends to be pretty self-policed,’ says Aedalas. ‘They’re going to know if you’re just looking to get up to some shady stuff and won’t teach you anything.’
Owning lockpicking kit varies in legality depending on where you are in the world. Please check your local laws before you head to Amazon.