New Handcuffs, Leg Irons, ShacklesBy

New Handcuffs, Leg Irons, Shackles

Walk through any outdoor market or surf the large auction sites and you're almost sure to see handcuffs, leg irons and other restraints. Such pieces are often represented as "slave shackles" or are attributed to the American civil war, American frontier, or are purportedly marked with the names of well known prisons.

Virtually all these pieces are fantasy creations only loosely based on old counterparts. Most are mass produced in China and India and imported into the United States by reproduction wholesalers. Wholesale prices for almost all the new pieces are under $50 yet these pieces consistently trade for hundreds of dollars at flea markets, shows and online auctions.

Wheeler-Tanner Escapes of Elk Grove, California, has specialized in antique restraints for over 50 years. Second generation owner Joseph Tanner says collectors and general line dealers can catch the vast majority of the fakes by following a few simple guidelines.

"Any piece with an applied tag or plate, usually brass, with the names of prisons, famous companies such as Wells Fargo, plantations or merchants' names, is almost guaranteed to be a fake," said Tanner. "Probably less than one percent of vintage restraints have any names on them. And those are not the pieces that the average buyer is going to be finding at the local flea market. Just avoid any piece with a name tag."

Tags and plates can be attached with super glue, rivets, screws, solder or metal hanging loops. Common names on tags and plates include Alcatraz Prison, San Quentin Prison, New York Insane Asylum, Yuma Prison, Leavenworth Prison, and Sing Sing. Prison names can appear as the name only or in phrases such as "Property of...." followed by the name of the prison.

Other words and phrases commonly appearing on reproductions include the names of "plantations" and slave dealers on various new pieces sellers attribute to the slave trade. Names of well known railroads also appear on many new fakes. Some of these include Union Pacific, Santa Fe, Pullman Car Company, Great Northern and Southern Rio Grande. Names of prominent companies associated with the old west are also frequently used. Some of the more common are Pony Express, Railway Express, Wells Fargo, Texas Rangers and other similar names.

Another important clue to the new restraints is the poor quality construction. New pieces are mass produced of low quality materials assembled with minimally skilled labor. Most new pieces have obvious grinding marks, crude casting seams and sharp edges on many surfaces. Comparable originals generally have a uniformly smooth even surface. Mold seams have been hand finished, there are no marks from power tools, corners and edges are generally rounded.

Even originals that have seen heavy normal use over the years usually look well made and have a consistent appearance over the entire surface. New pieces, which have been "antiqued" and "distressed," generally look shabby, poorly made and the surface finish will vary from area to area over the same piece. One side of a piece might be heavily rusted, for example, while the opposite side is relatively free of rust. Similarly, one side might be badly dented and scratched, the reverse side without any dents or scratches.

Since chains are a common element to most restraints, pay particular attention to their construction. The most important feature of a chain is the connecting link. This is the link which joins the cuff, ball, leg iron, or shackle to the chain.

This link is important because it has to be spread open to make the connection. New connecting links are rarely closed as well as connecting links in vintage pieces. New connecting links almost always have obvious gaps, welds or some type of mechanical fastener like a slip collar (see Figs. 6, 7, 8).

Original connecting links were virtually always fully closed without a visible gap or mechanical aid. Vintage connecting links were most commonly joined by forge welding. In this process, the link would be heated until soft, opened, then quickly passed through the pieces being joined. The hot link would then be hammered closed, the soft metal virtually blending back into one solid piece as it was struck (Fig. 9).

Construction techniques can also be used to identify original balls in ball and chain sets. Most original balls are solid metal five to seven inches in diameter. An average weight is anywhere between 30-50 pounds, but there is considerable variation among vintage weights. Loops on the balls–the part to which a chain would be attached–was either cast as one piece with the ball or was inserted as a separate piece during the casting process. When the loop and ball are cast as one piece, there will not be any joint or seam between ball and the legs of the loop. If a loop has been inserted during casting, you may see a joint line but it is so tight you cannot put a piece of paper between the ball and leg of the loop.

The majority of new balls are made quite differently. Some new balls, for example, are conspicuously large, ten inches or more, and sometimes hollow. The lighter larger balls are visually more impressive and easier to carry. Two important advantages if you're selling to an uninformed buyer.

In most new balls, the loops and balls are made separately and attached later. Many new loop and ball combinations can be identified by large gaps between the legs of the loops and the ball. Some gaps can be up to one-eighth inch, but any gap deserves close inspection. Another common method of joining new loops and balls is by arc welding or brazing. Welding beads or brazing material found around the loop are a warning sign of a reproduction (Fig. 11). Some new loops are also attached with simple glues. Any foreign material around the legs of a loop should be examined carefully. Another obvious sign of a reproduction is any loop with a base plate that has been attached with screws.

Without the brass tags or plates, some new restraints may not be so obvious. Construction details in mold seams, tool marks, chain links and assembly are your main clues to separate old from new. Look at all the features before making a judgement, keeping in mind original restraints may have been repaired.

To learn more about original restraints

Consider these books: Handcuffs of the United States, Roper; and Modern Handcuff Secrets for Magicians, Norman, (despite the title, this is an excellent source of information to learn about antique restraints of all kinds).

You can also visit Yossie Silverman's website: There you'll find patent drawings of handcuffs, a photo gallery of various cuffs and cutaway photos showing various lock mechanisms with animations of how the mechanisms work.


Fig. 1 Two sets of new handcuffs. Various styles of new cuffs are available. This style features a screw-in key. Mechanisms in most new locks are in operating condition.


Fig. 2 Reproducton ball and leg chain. New sets are available with several different sizes of balls. The best way to catch the fakes is to examine how the chain is fastened to the ball (see illustrations).


Fig. 3 Examples of applied brass tags on new locks and restraints. Various names appear on these tags. Any item with these tags is virtually guaranteed to be a fake.


Fig. 4 Catalog page from a reproduction wholesaler showing various new shackles, handcuffs, padlocks and restraints. Prices range from $10 to $50.


Fig. 5 Typical new cuffs as offered in a catalog of reproductions. Available marked either "San Quentin" or "Alcatraz."


Figs. 6-8 Connecting links between new chains and the cuff, ball or other end piece commonly welded (Fig. 7), have a mechanical fastener like a collar (Fig. 6) or are simply left open, (Fig. 8). Any gaps, lumps of applied material or mechanical attachments are signs of a new connector and a reproduction.


Fig. 9 Original connectors between original chains and cuffs and chains and balls were forge welded. In other words, the links were heated to red hot then hammered together. This generally leaves a smooth swelling around the chain links. There will be no gap or applied material.


Figs. 10-11 The loops on new balls from leg chains are good tests of authenticity. Any measurable gaps or openings surrounding the chain loop, Fig. 10, are indications of a fake. Signs of welding, brazing, glue, putty or other adhesives around the loops (Fig. 11) is also a sign of a fake.


Figs. 12-13 Loops on the great majority of original balls are either cast as one piece with the ball, Fig. 12, or, if a separate piece, inserted during the casting process, Fig. 13. If cast, there will be no gaps around the legs of the loop. If the loop has been inserted, a gap may be visible but it is so tight as not to be measurable.


Fig. 14 Many new handcuffs are a type called Darby. Darby cuffs have keys (A) which thread into a horizontal housing (B). Screwing the key into the housing causes a bar, or bolt, to retract which releases the bow (C) and opens the cuff. To close the cuff, the bow is simply pressed back against the housing. A key is not required to lock the cuff. A bolt will spring into the bow as it enters the housing.