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Safes: To Crack or not to Crack, that is the Question!


Though we don't really have a lot of safes lying around the house, we did once receive a safe from an estate sale. We promptly locked the combination inside (dumb, yes, but lets assume the fault lies with one of our children!). Two possible scenarios came to mind to access the contents of the safe: one was the scene from the The Apple Dumpling Gang (a movie we recently felt compelled to expose our kids to from our own childhood). I don't remember the details of the scene, but it ended with a large explosion, money flying everywhere, and no one injured - only a bit of soot on everyone's face. Though there was no disclaimer, the scene screamed at me “DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!” My next thought was of The Italian Job and Charlize Theron. She had quite a touch in opening the most difficult safe under stressful situations successfully and without causing any damage to the safe. Hmmm? Not knowing Charlize personally, I decided to call my local locksmith to get his take on the situation. It turned out that he had seen this problem before and had quite a “sensitive” ear for this type of thing. So, when needing to access a safe, there is one simple question to ask: Do I need to keep the safe intact? Though it was not a realistic option for me, brute force is one of the methods for opening a safe. The other main safecracking methods involve either lock manipulation or manipulating a weak point on the safe (or as seen in popular media: drilling).

For all intent purposes, lets assume that we are trying to break into a safe illegally. Then we get the added pressure of being caught and have to consider how much time and noise the job will take.

The best method to use is lock manipulation. How sweet would be the satisfaction to leave no sign of having ever been there! The safe owner comes in on Monday morning, opens his safe, and all the gold bars are missing. There are no indications of a break-in. Though you could leave a calling card inside the safe, something that says, “Safe cracked courtesy of the Ghost” (or whatever cool name you come up with).

Surprisingly enough, the first way a safecracker will usually attempt to open a safe is to guess the combination. Manufactured safes often come with a manufacturer-set combination, which many people fail to reset. Most of these try-out combinations are industry standard and are accessible to locksmiths and safecrackers. With time being an issue, you might as well try the easiest thing first. If the try-out combination does not work, then a quick search of the room may reveal the combination. Often people leave their combination written down somewhere close by, sometimes even on the safe itself! Or, the owner uses easy to remember numbers, such as a birth date.

If no number is to be found or guessed correctly, then the safecracker must move on to more difficult options. To have to sit there with patience and your ear pressed up against the safe is probably the most pure form of safecracking among the professionals. It takes a great deal of skill and practice. For us non-safecracking people, it is the romantic and mysterious way to crack a safe. But it is also scientific. Harry C. Miller in 1940, described the following three-step process to discover the combination to a safe: 1. Determine contact points 2. Discover the number of wheels 3. Graph your results I am not going into detail now on how this works, but lets just say that once the numbers are graphed, you just have to try the different possibilities to discover what order they go in to open the safe.

There are also autodialing machines to open safes. Auto-dialers try all the different numerical possibilities until the combination is discovered. This can be very time consuming, and are best used if the combination only has 3 digits.

Another method is to compromise a weak point on a safe by drilling. Drilling can be used to give the safecracker visual access to the locking mechanism. If they can see the mechanism, they can open the safe. Most manufactured safes have an ideal drill point and these are published by the manufacturer, though it is closely guarded information by manufacturers and locksmiths. More secure safes have relockers that are triggered by drilling. It is a piece of glass mounted between the safe door and the lock. When the drill hits the glass, spring-loaded bolts are released that block the retraction of the main locking bolt. Sometimes this can be avoided if it is possible to drill in from the side or back of the safe. Instead of trying to visually access the combination, two holes are drilled, one for a borescope to see what you are doing, the other for an extra-long screwdriver to remove the back plate and gain accesses to the lock. The screwdriver can then be used position the wheels of the lock so that the safe door can be opened.

Obviously, manufacturers try to combat safe manipulation methods. Besides relockers, different materials are used (such as cobalt) that are almost impossible to drill through. Special drill bits are needed and a lot of time.

Now, if noise is not an issue (you have been able to physically remove the safe to a remote location), then sometimes more physical methods can be used. This can include plasma cutters to cut through the safe, or explosives such as jam shots using nitroglycerin or C-4 to blow the door off the safe.

If you are a homeowner like me, I would suggest messing around with your ear pressed against the safe, just for the fun of it, and then calling a locksmith. Then you can watch the magic at work and wonder if you could ever do it!