A Mighty Fortress is Our Home

An Ex-CIA agent tells how to keep intruders out. For starters, lock the door.

June 1974By Comments

Let’s start by accepting a lot of the blame ourselves. We are lazy. We want to be able to rush out a door, fling it closed on the run, and have the door instantly secure from intruders.

It is axiomatic that something easy to close is easy to open. Read that again. It is very important to what follows.

Most people outside the lock industry would not know a good lock if they saw one.

One builder told me that of the hundreds of houses he has built, only one guy ever asked him about the type of locks to be used. “Everyone spends their time and money picking out special tile for the bath, colored toilets, fancy carpets, and expensive lighting fixtures, but no one asks about the locks. I end up using the same $5 lock on a $30,000 or a $150,000 house.” A representative of a major lock maufacturer has observed that a person who builds apartments for resale will generally use a cheaper, less secure, type of lock. If he intends to retain the property for rental, he will use a better grade of lock.

Accept the fact that a secure lock will take some effort to open and close, and that a good lock costs money. Because the lock industry is very competitive, price is a pretty good guideline to quality. Your builder can get them for you. If you move into a house or apartment that has inferior locks, there are good auxiliary locks you can install to upgrade your security. I intend to take my $45 deadbolt with me when I move.

The retailer has to stock items that will sell. You can find some adequate locks in hardware, discount, and department stores, but you have to know what you are looking for. It makes little sense to try to upgrade your $5 lock with anther $5 lock. Many retailers do have an excellent selection of optical viewers, chains, bolts, and security hardware for use on windows and patio doors. But if you are seeking top-flight security for your doors, you ought to drop into your local locksmith shop. No competant security man will tell you that you can be “burglar-proof” your house or apartment; however, you can reduce your risk of forced entry to an absolute minimum.

Most burglars are not particularly skilled. They get the job done with a screwdriver, a jimmy bar, a hammer, a hacksaw, or other hand-tools. They do have emotions and they are not operating in a vacuum. They have pressures on them to complete their job quickly, quietly, and in seclusion. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics show that 50 per cent of those arrested for burglary are less than eighteen years of age. More than 80 per cent are less than 25.

If we put good locks on our doors and windows, a burglar will not generally be willing to spend the time and make the noise that is required to make an entry; he can find enough unlocked doors, easily bypassed locks, and keys in mailboxes to make his quota. By installing the best locks that are available, we can practically deny a burglar access with the use of ordinary tools.

Few burglars carry guns. They are intent on stealing without running into anyone. As he stands there by our door or window, perhaps he is remembering a newspaper headline, “Homeowner Shoots Prowler.”

The average burglar, if he is confronted, or even threatened with confrontation, will usually run like hell. Of course, even a relatively passive person will lash out if he is cornered. If you come face to face with a burglar, stay calm (easy to say), and give him plenty of room to escape.

What about the junkie—the guy that has to get some dough for a fix? There is no question that a majority of burglars are involved with drugs in some fashion. Veteran narcotics officers estimate that between 50 and 80 per cent of burgalrs are “on drugs,” but when committing a burglary, an addict is generally “level;” that is, he has had his quota of drugs and is in a pretty stable period. Put yourself in an addict’s position. Would you want to be trying to break into a house, fence the merchandise, and make a drug connection—in the space of a couple of hours before a deadline for a fix?

As one officer pointed out, residential burglary is kind of a roundabout way to support a drug habit. Addicts may prefer to forge prescriptions, steal a doctor’s bag, burglarize a drug store, or write bad checks. I do not want to dismiss the addict/burglar as being no threat, but the public image of the wild-eyed, drug-crazed addict bashing down doors with reckless abandon is a bit exaggerated. As many parents have discovered when their children have taken to drugs, it is not easy to spot and addict from his behavior. He may exhibit little “abnormal” behavior.

“Maybe there are good locks for doors,” you say, “but all a burglar has to do is break out a window.” Just remember, burglar protection is nothing more than putting the odds in your favor.

Locks on Doors

One of the reasons that a burglar would prefer to go through a door is that is how authorized persons are expected to gain access. If you or I see a person climbing through a window, that is out of the ordinary, to say the least.

The main reason burglars can gain quick access through most doors is the almost universal use of the “key in knob” lockset, with a spring latch bolt. In its simplest form, it is cheap to manufacture, easy to install, and allows us lazy folks to lock the door by slamming it as we rush out of the house. The spring bolt can often be slipped open with a credit card or pried with a screwdriver. (“Easy to close, easy to open.”) Many spring bolts now have a “deadlatch plunger” which presses against the door jamb strike and prevents the bolt from being slipped back with a card or pocketknife. This little addition still does not offer much resistance to entry. The average spring bolt, with or without the “deadlatch” feature, sticks out from the edge of the door less than half an inch. If you look closely at most of these bolts, you will see that due to poorly fitted doors, the bolt just barely catches in the metal “strike” which is attached to the door frame. It is a simple matter to spring the soft wood in the door and the jomb just enough to cause the the tip of the spring bolt to pop out of the “strike.” Burglar alarm salesmen are fond of telling prospects that burglars have a “master key” to their house. As the startled prospect watches, the saleman reaches in his bag and produces a foot-long pry bar.

Even if your door is perfectly fitted, you are still whistling “Dixie” if you think your door is secure. The strike plate is normally secured with two screws in a soft piece of wood framing. A fairly modest kick or butt at the door may split the framing, and the strike no longer has an anchoring point.

To put the final stroke to the key-in-knob lock as an item of security, the lock itself is contained in the knob. If the knob is knocked off, there is no longer a lock. Burglars know several quick ways to get a key-in-knob off the door. If your only lock is a key-in-knob lockset, you need additional security on your doors. State legislatures and city councils throughout the United States are enacting statutes and ordinances requiring deadbolt locks on new multiple family construction. Some of the legislation will also set standards for door-framing materials and doors.

When you look at your doors, you ought to consider replacing any exterior hollow core doors with solid doors. Then you should have some sort of deadbolt lock. A deadbolt becomes rigid when it is closed. This means, of course, that the deadbolt must be manually closed, either with a little knob on the inside (‘thumb-turn”) or a key. There are hundreds of deadbolds available in several different styles. You have to know what you are buying or you may do little to upgrade your security.

The “rim lock” deadbolt attaches to the back of the door with screws. A separate striker plate or box is secured to your door jamb. A very popular version of the rim latch lock uses a spring bold instead of a deadbolt. This meas you can still lock your door by simply shutting the door. This is not a true deadbolt. Many such locks are available in discount and hardware stores for about $3. They give you a full three dollars worth of security. If you can’t face locking a deadbolt with a key each time you leave, you might consider the ABLOY #1100 (single cylinder) or #1300 (double cylinder) rime locks at $20.75 and $27.07 respectively. These fine Finnish-made locks have a sturdy spring bolt which snaps closed when you shut the door. A plunger retracts from the pressure on the door jamb strike, causing the bolt to become a deadbolt. The ABLOY is practically unpickable and the keys can only be obtianed from a small number of registered ABLOY dealers.

Another version of the rim lock deadbolt is a vertical deadbolt. The bolt interlocks with strong rings on the strike. This type of lock has been used in commercial applications for years, and mounted on a strong door and frame it offers very good security. Most rim latch locks have one basic weakness. The only things holding the lock to the back of the door are screws. If you mount a rim lock on a hollow cire door, you will probably find that the screws toward the middle of the door bite only into a thin sheet of wood that forms the interior skin of the door. The rim lock deadbolt, either with a standard rectangular deadbolt or the vertical interlocking kind, can substantially upgrade security on a solid core door if you use the longest possible screws fo mounting the lock, and screws that penetrate through the door trim into the framing boards for the strike plate. The Super-guardlock by Ideal Security ($17) uses a different design in which the part that mounts on the outside of the door is secured to the inside part with bolts. The problem of poor screw contact in the door itself is eliminated.

The mortise deadbolt is rapidly becoming the standard as legislatures and security men talk about deadbolts for residences. A mortise lock is installed by hollowing out the door and mounting the lock inside the door. A high-grade mortise deadbolt, properly installed, can deter even a resolute burglar. But again, there are lots of mortise deadbolts that have weaknesses which can be explouted by the more determined thief. The mortise deadbolts are generally supplied in two bolts lengths, approximately 5/8-inch and one-ince. Considering the abundance of poorly fitted doors and weak framing materials, the 5/8-inch deadbolt can often be pried enough to slip out of its strike plate. Most legislative standards call for a one-inch bolt. all the first rate one-inch deadbolts have some form of hardened steel pin in them, to prevent  the bolt from being cut with a hacksaw blade. Believe it or not, we are not home free yet. Even within the family of one-inch deadbolts, there are vast differences. Many mortise lock cylinders can be wrenched or knocked loose with a hammer or pry bar. The top of the line mortise deadbolts use some form of security collar around the lock cylinder. This collar revolves and prevents the cylinder from attacks from a hamer or pry bar.

If you already have a deadbolt without a security collar, you can add a security plate over the face of the cylinder to protect the lock from all sorts of physical assault. Sclage and H.P.C. make security covers that will handle most installations.

The most recent additions to this type of lock have been hardened steel mounting bolts and steel plates with which the outside cylinder is attached to the inside portion. If you put this all together, you come up with a lcok that will take the most vigorous hammering, sawing, and prying, and still not fail. During the last Associated Locksmiths of America convention in San Francisco, the Weiser Lock Company put on a demonstration of its new D4000 series of deadbolts. A man wearing a face shield hammered and pried on the lock until he was exhausted. He never managed to defeat the lock. Few locks can pass this kind of all-out torture test.

If you install a quality mortise deadbolt, you should do something about beefing up the strike plate. An extra long strike plate with several widely spaced mounting holes should be used. The mounting screws should be lling enough to reach into the framing boards. A commerically available strike of this type is the MAG 101. It sells for about $7 through locksmiths. Any competent locksmith can make up his own high security strikes. One Dallas locksmith always tries to sell two deadbolts for each door, mounted about 20 inches above and below the knobset. He also uses extra long strikes. This wide distribution of locking forces is very sound. My friend has challenged me to try ot kick in one of “his” doors. I think I’ll send a substitute kicker.

On doors with glass panes. You should strongly consider the use of a deadbolt that locks from the outside and inside. Some well-meaning police and fire departments insist you should not lock yourself in a house in case of fire. However, you have a couple of choices when you are home. You can hide the key inside and out of reach of broken glass panes, so a burglar can’t reach the key, or you cna leave the key in the inside lock when you’re home. At least when you are away, you have the protection of the double cylinder lock. Consider using double cylinder locks even on solid doors. If a burglar does come in a window while you are gone, he will probably have to carry your TV and stereo out a window, which ups the odds a little more in your favor.

So far I have talked only about brute force assaults on your door and lock. As a technical point of reference, let’s agree that “picking” a lock refers strictly to manipulating the tumblers inside the lock to open it as though you had a key. Statisitcs on how many burglars actually “pick” range from one per cent to 50 per cent. Certainly there are some burglars who are skilled in this area.

Fortunately, when you start paying for good locks that are secure from physical assault, you generally get as a bonus a lock that is more pick-resistant than the $5 special. However, if you wish to continue to swing the odds against burglary in your favor, there are lock cylindars on the market that are virtually “pickproof.” The MEDECO company makes lock cylindars that will defy picking by any burglar. These are replacement cylindars to be used in locks maufactured by other companies. You can buy a MEDECO cylindar for deadbolts made by Weiser and Schlage, for instance, and for some of the better rim lock deadbolts. If you have a first-rate deadbold with a pick resistant cylindar in it, you will just about deny access to your door(s), provided the door frame does not give in. Another bonus with a MEDECO is that the keys cannot be duplicated in a local store. You will need to contact a locksmith, if you want this kind of lock cylindar.

There is a lockset that looks like a key-in-knob device, but is actaully an entirely different approach to providing some of the convenience of having a spring bolt, with the security of a true deadbolt. The Schlage “G” series locks have a free twisting outside knob, a spring-bolt, and a one-inch deadbolt built into a single mortise type housing. If you don’t press the button on the inside knob, the door will not lock as you leave and the outside lock will work the springbolt. If the button is depressed, the springbolt (with a dead latch plunger) will lock as you shut the door. The dead bolt can be actuated upon leaving only by use of the key. During reentry the key will retract both bolts at once. The “G” series sells for about $58.

Keyless Locks

Simplx pushbutton locks are in widespread use. The Model NL Simplex, which retails for abut $52.50, is a rim lock with a spring latch. Due to its rugged construction, large bolt and long mounting screws, this lock can provide good security when mounted on a solid core door and outstanding security when mounted on a metal door. Simplex also offers a Model DL at $44, which is a rim lock with a deadbolt. The Presto-Matic is a mortise pushbutton lock that sells for $26. Residential pushbutton locks are also marketed by Unicam.  

If you are building your dream house and really want something different, take a look at the new electronic lock by Proximity Devices, a subsidiary of the Schlage Lock Company. This lock is opened with a plastic card. There are several electronic locks that operate by inserting a coded plastic card in a slot near the door. The Proximity Device lock opens when the card is brought within several inches of the hidden antenna, which is usually buried in the wall next to the door. A woman can open the door while carrying two bags of groceries, by pressing her purse against the wall near the antenna. a man can carry the card in his billfold and back up to the door and it will fly open. The present model uses an electronically operated springbolt. Before long, there will no doubt be a form of spring deadbolt, like the ABLOY, available for the PD system.

Patio Doors

Definition of a patio door—”A device designed to let in the sun, burglars, ten neighborhood kids at once, and to afford the occupants an unobstructed view of their garbage cans.” The little hook bolts used on sliding glass doors can usually be disengaged from the strike with just a screwdriver. The lock cylinders are usually of an inferior type due to space limitations, and many doors can simply be lifted out of their tracks. The Adams Rite #1848 lock is one of the best choices for locking patio doors. But you should still have additional security on your patio door.

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