The History of Police Handcuffs


Throughout history there has been the need to restrain individuals. From prisoners of war mentally ill persons, to criminals. While the basic idea of restraining hands has a long history, today’s zip-ties or the classic metal chain link ratcheting device are the end result of fine-tuning hand restraints over the centuries.

Earliest times in history recorded the use of animal hides or vines to restrain individuals. They were one time use and could easily be gotten out of. Later ropes were used, but the same issues were there. As we began to use metal, chains were used to bind people together or with their hands and feet. They were difficult to remove and caused limited movement in the individual. It was a time consuming process to attach and unattached.

They were not adjustable, thus persons with big angles or wrists were severely injured by the installation and while wearing them. While people with small ankles and wrists could easily get out of them and flee.

In the mid 1800’s W.V. Adams invented the ratcheting cuffs device and received a patent for it. This device had a square bow and notches inside. Soon after Orson Phelps put the notches in the inner part. Then John Tower in 1865 added three chain lengths. As a result they were more flexible and comfortable. Around 1880 He invented the double lock which is still the standard today. A few years later E.D. Bean added the quick release button which enabled the cuffs to be locked only after they were placed on the wrists. His company, Tower & Lyon, developed the thumb cuff in 1909 but it never really caught on.

In recent times additional developments in hinged cuffs and the plastic ties called zip-ties and for the police Flex-Cuffs are available for most detectives and patrol officers. They provide a one time, quick, inexpensive use and are easily attached, but must be cut off.

Dr. Kuch has a PhD, MA, and MS in Criminal Justice. He is a former Deputy Sheriff and has taught for over twenty years. He is on the adjunct faculty at Galatasaray University.

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