Brief History of Handcuffs

by Jeff on January 23, 2012

To some people, the handcuffs used by today’s law enforcement officers and agents as standard police equipment might seem like a relatively modern invention. While that’s technically true as far as specific designs go, the need for restraining disorderly or dangerous subjects has existed since prehistoric times. Let’s take a brief look at how restraints have evolved over the millennia.

Prehistoric Times

It is commonly believed that in prehistoric times early humans used strips of animal hides to bind someone’s hands and/or feet. Later, primitive rope made from twisted vines and reeds were used in place of hides.

The Bronze and Iron Ages

Once human beings learned to work with metal, they were able to fashion more sophisticated, reusable handcuffs that featured locking mechanisms. The restraints that emerged during the Bronze and Iron Ages were still a far cry from what could ever be considered police equipment, but were nevertheless a significant advancement for the period.

Ancient Greek and Roman Society

Historical records and literature from ancient Greek and Roman society contain numerous references to felons and prisoners of war being bound by “fetters,” “chains,” and “irons.” This represented yet another progression in restraining devices, as chains were heavy and cumbersome enough to make escape or flight extremely difficult. One of the earliest literary allusions to handcuffs comes from Vergil, a Roman poet, in his description of the god Proteus’ captivity.

Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw the rise of manacles and shackles as the primary restraining devices of choice. Though these restraints exhibited more advanced workmanship than their predecessors, they were not adjustable, so prisoners with smaller wrists were often able to slip out and flee from their captors.

Modern Developments

The biggest design breakthrough came in 1862 when an inventor named W.V. Adams patented the familiar ratcheting mechanism that is associated with modern police equipment. The ratchets were engaged by a small locking apparatus that allowed the cuffs to be adjusted to virtually any size wrist. Subsequent improvements, including the addition of three chain links between the cuffs, were later made by Orson C. Phelps and the Tower Company.

Current Designs

Today’s law enforcement agencies approve the use of many different types of restraints as standard police equipment . Besides typical chain link handcuffs, LEOs also rely on hinged cuffs, disposable PlastiCuffs (aka FlexiCuffs or zip-ties), trifold restraints, and leg & waist restraints to control subjects.

As you can see, the progression from primitive restraints to today’s handcuffs has been a long and slow one. But the overall importance of these restraining devices as police equipment shows that the wait was well worth it.


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