Handcuff Collecting
Why collect them?
How to spot fakes


Mark Lyons

They are a part of the history of man!  Ever since the beginning of mankind and during the growth of several civilizations, there was a need to keep prisoners and to enslave people. This was necessary to have an inexpensive labor force to form towns and villages and to advance agriculture. Measures had to be taken to insure against the loss of these people.  Preventing them from escape was of utmost importance.  Not only for the loss of labor but for the fact that they could seek help and cause an uprising against their captors.  Strips of animal hide tied to the wrists were probably the first form of restraints used to prevent these events from occurring.  Later, twisted fibers from vines or tree bark were used to manufacture rope. During the Bronze and Copper Age more durable and permanent forms of restraints evolved.  At this time, locks and keys were crafted which made the restraints removable and reusable. During the Iron Age, stronger restraints developed as locks became more intricate and quality raw material was available.  Slave transportation to the United States relied heavily on mass quantities of iron neck collars, handcuffs, and leg irons that were manufactured and imported during the time. In the U.S., the use of handcuffs transitioned away from the slave trade and was used almost exclusively by the military and law enforcement.  Law enforcement, which may be the worlds 2nd oldest profession, were using these tools to arrest those in the worlds oldest profession.

The golden age of handcuffs appeared during the late 19th century and into the 1920's.  Manufacturing reached a pinnacle and some companies were turning out quality handcuffs by the thousands. High quality steel was now being used and manufacturing costs were reduced as factories were now producing virtually all restraints. Union Hardware-Tower Handcuff Company became the "Ford" of handcuffs and Bean cuffs were the "Chevy". The quality of the products were at their peak during this time.  As World War ll  approached, many handcuff companies went out of business as material was difficult to obtain.  If a company was not manufacturing cuffs for the military, they were probably not going to stay in business much longer. After the war and as the end of the 20th century approached, mass production and cheaper production costs were necessary for handcuff companies to stay in business. Consequently, the fine craftsmanship diminished.

Hundreds of patents were issued to inventors of handcuffs, leg irons, thumbcuffs, neck collars, ball and chains, and countless other forms of restraints.  Designs were copied or changed so there are now hundreds of models and variations from all over the world.  They have become very desirable to collectors and prices for rare examples or those in exceptional condition command premium prices.  Collectors of restraints are interested in their history but are equally intrigued by who may have had the misfortune to be locked up in their particular pair of handcuffs.

  If only they could talk!

Cuff collecting goes hand in hand with a desire to learn more about history, world geography, law enforcement and criminal justice.  Not only is the hobby fun and interesting, but it can also be a great investment.  Unusual, rare or historically significant pairs of cuffs can double or triple their value in a relatively short amount of time.  Cuffs once owned by Houdini or worn by a notable criminal can bring in a substantial amount of money at auction.  If you are interested in starting or expanding a handcuff collection, eBay is a great place to find them.  Some of my best pieces in my 600 + collection were bought on eBay and I have made many international friends here.
How to Spot Frauds and Fakes

Like any other shopping venue, please remember "Caveat Emptor--Buyer Beware!"  Unfortunately, even on eBay, there are fakes and frauds being sold at any given time.  If an available cuff is described as "Old West" or"Slave Shackles" and said to have been found in an old barn from the Deep South or the seller's Great Grandfather was a Sheriff in Dodge City and used to lock up someone like Billy the Kid, use caution.  Actual vintage cuffs are usually not sold with such story lines.  Most often, fakes are simply listed as fresh from an estate sale.  This allows the seller to later claim that he knew little about handcuffs, but was told that they were old and valuable. Another claim is that the cuff has been found and removed from a medieval dungeon.  There are restraints in private collections, mine included, that are from that time period, but the starting price is always more than $29.99.  Most of the reproductions being sold have a screw key type lock and more than likely, come with 2 keys.  Authentic antique cuffs share this same design but seldom come with any keys at all. The buyer should be considered fortunate to get even one key with the cuffs.  It is very rare that a good collectible cuff would come with both, so this is a tip-off.  (An interesting fact about this early screw key design is that Prison Guards would need to turn the threaded key several revolutions to remove or apply the cuffs to their prisoner. This is why guards were often called "Screws"). Almost always the cuffs will have numbers stamped into it and it will always match the numbers on the key.  The unscrupulous seller sometimes has amazing good luck.  Not only is he so fortunate to have found such a rare and valuable item to sell to you, he has found several of them to sell at the same time.  Another good indication that they are reproductions.  It is a common belief that the older the cuff, the more crude it should look.  There is nothing further than the truth with this fallacy.  It is fact that cuffs made in the early 19th and 20th century were beautiful works of art and were precise as well as smooth.  The junk being past off these days as real are crude and rough.

It can be said that the more crude the cuff appears, the newer it is.

In the old days of eBay, one could warn bidders of a disaster.  It was against eBay rules, but I warned many bidders and saved many of them lots of money.  Now, bidders names are disguised and the ability to warn them is non-existent.  

Another tip off is the chain on any particular piece.  A nice turn-of-the-last-century item usually will have nice even links to make up the chain. In the day, each link was made from metal bar stock which was cut into sections then one at a time, each piece was heated until it was red-hot and then hammered into a round or oval rings.  If the maker was instructed to do so, he twisted the link into what we call "potato chip links".  In the chain making process, the red-hot material was hammered closed.  This is known as the "Heat and Beat" method of chain making. Antique cuffs found today will feature nickel plated chain in the better condition examples or cuffs which had been exposed to the elements, will have a nice brown patina.  All of the links will be smooth and will be hard to tell where the link was closed and joined together.  The fakes will have either electrically welded links with a glob of molten metal at the joint or will have a shiny brass brazing on an otherwise rusty link. The joint will be very evident on each of the links.

A Fantasy Cuff is one that never really existed and is often sold as a rare cuff.  These usually have a name plate or a name stamped into it.  T.H. Porter--dealer in slaves, Alcatraz Prison, Folsom, Yuma Prison, Negro Woman or Child, Joliette and Andersonville Prison are among such markings that can be found on very real looking cuffs.  It is believed that none of these prisons ever stamped their names into actual cuffs, so if you are interested in buying an authentic cuff from any of these prisons, stay away from these fakes.  Restraints from jails can be marked with their name or initials but they are relatively rare. Please keep in mind that no prison used restraints are known to have their names stamped or have signs attached.  Jails rarely did stamp their names into their cuffs and only a few examples are known.  Currently, there are tire chains with brass tags glued onto them, stating that they are "Negro neck collars" from the slave trading days.  They have been bringing in good money.  It is bad enough that actual items were manufactured and used in the first place, but selling these fakes as authentic items from the era and making hugh profits from unsuspecting customers is also shameful.  These are all items that never really existed and you really do not want to spend your hard earned cash for them.  They are nice decorations or "wall hangers" but please do not spend more than $35 or so for them. If for some reason, you really need to have them, do not be in such a rush to buy them, for there will be more listed on eBay before long.  Do not think that the item that you are interested in will be sold without you being the highest bidder, because you will have plenty of other chances to find the exact same cuffs.  Most of these are made in India or Pakistan and are treated to look old.  They are imported around the world by the barrel full.  Quality antique cuffs generally will have a beautiful brown patina on them that is even and smooth to the touch.  It is very hard to duplicate what the elements and time have provided.  Fakes that have been aged to look old will be rough and partially rusty.  The finish can easily be rubbed off with a cloth towel.  It is claimed that the cuffs are soaked in vats of animal urine and other bodily wastes to get them to "age".  Another warning sign is quite literally just that.  The brass signs that are attached to fantasy cuffs are usually made of quality materials and the lettering is sharp and perfectly stamped.  Actual cuffs very rarely had signs affixed to them, and if they did, the signs would be fairly crude and riveted on to the item.  An expert in adhesives would know better than I, but to my best knowledge, glues that were available one to two hundred years ago would never have been good enough to still allow these brass tags to adhere to the cuff in each and every known example.  The cost of the brass tags would also have been too expensive to manufacture and probably would have exceeded the actual cost of the item to which it was attached. 

Another area to use extreme caution in is the Ball and Chain.  Please keep in mind that 99% of those sold on eBay and even the fancy Auction Houses that use eBay for their online bidding are selling less than authentic Ball and Chains most of the time.  I do not believe that they sell fakes knowingly, but even they experience a difficult time authenticating these super rare items.  If you come across a Ball and Chain and it has some lettering on it, you can figure with great certainty that it too is a fake! I do have one from Lincoln County Nev. that is lettered, but it is an exception.  Most of the handcuff companies that did manufacture ball and chains normally would stamp only the weight of the ball onto it.

When looking to purchase a restraint or any interesting item on eBay, ask the seller where they got it and if they could send some clearer pictures if the ones supplied are fuzzy or otherwise obscure.  Some sellers may ignore you as they have carefully posed the item to hide any flaws or damaged sections.  Some may have a beautiful piece to sell but have terrible customer relations and simply will not respond to your questions.  Your purchase will be a gamble at this point, but I have been both burned and pleasantly surprised by the items sent to me by non-responsive sellers. Be weary when a cuff is guaranteed to be "turn of the century" more times than not, the seller is referring to the period of time following Dec 31, 1999

KUB Industries in Pakistan is currently manufacturing high quality reproduction and fantasy cuffs.  I hope to include pictures in another guide soon.  They sell for $50 on up.  They are nice enough that they may be worthy of keeping in a collection and may be collectible in their own right.    

A Fake Alcatraz Ball and Chain.

Made currently and worth about $35 to put in a bar or old west display. Alcatraz had no need for such an item as they were on an island and prisoners rarely left their cell blocks. Note the obvious weld in the chain link.  This is the tip off!                                                                                                                 

Fake Georgetown Plantation Cuffs.


If these were real, the cost of the brass signage would have far exceeded the cost of the cuffs.

These are the typical cuffs that are sold as Darby adjustable cuffs.  They almost always have a storyline of being found in a barn in the Deep South or belonging to Wyatt Earp or Marshall Dillon. They are Pakistani made and imported during the last 20 years! If you want a pair of cuffs for "Wall Hangers", these are fine but do NOT spend more than $25-35 for them.


Welded Chain.

These cuff or leg irons are often sold as authentic Old West, Pirate, Dungeon, or Slave shackles. If there is evidence of modern welding, then the provenance is nothing but a lie.                                                   

Law enforcement personnel, locksmiths, magicians, old west-cowboy collectors, prison-jail collectors, war-military collectors, gunsmith-gun collectors, Houdini and other escape artist fans or performers are the usual candidates for maintaining a handcuff and restraint collection.  Handcuffs and other restraints cross over well into these other collections.  Other people from around the globe and in other professions also find cuff collecting interesting.   Many of these collectors are doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, electricians or work in many other professions and trades.  I find it very sad that people from some countries are not allowed to collect handcuffs.  Their governments has banned these items because citizens are not allowed to poses police or military items.  Some will allow antique handcuffs to be imported and collected, however.  The question these folks have is; if a high quality antique is allowed to be kept, what would the difference be if that cuff or a brand new cuff was used to lock someone up in a robbery?  They work equally well to restrain a victim.  The laws in some countries are frustrating as that example shows.  Those living in countries without the restrictions are fortunate to have the right to collect and I encourage people to do so. There are numerous resources out there to help you start a collection and steer you in the right direction.  Reference books on the subject appear on eBay quite regularly.  Before you buy or sell, please feel free to contact me for advice or for any other questions.  I usually know the answer, but more importantly, I know where to get the right answer if I do not have it.  You can contact me via email at markalyons@hotmail.com. I hope you found this article helpful. 

It is my desire to have new people take an interest in cuff collecting as any hobby always needs new people to help it grow.  New collectors need a resource to aid them to make prudent choices.

Whether the seller really thinks he is selling a quality item, when this is really not the case, or is knowingly selling garbage to line his pockets, I hope this guide saved you from getting ripped off.