union hardware

Tower Handcuffs

If any company can be said to have dominated the classic era of American handcuffs it would be Tower.  Tower products had their roots in the 1860s, they lasted until the World War II era. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the Tower product set a standard of precision, craftsmanship and security that perhaps has never been matched.

Adams handcuff
Adams Handcuff

Adams Handcuff. The story begins with W. V. Adams who introduced the adjustable ratchet principle to handcuffs in his patent of June 17, 1862. Prior to Adams all handcuffs, at least those in America, were of fixed size. The most common design of the time was the classic Darby, popularized in England by Hiatt, but also made in America most commonly by the Providence Tool Company.

Providence Handcuff
Providence Tool Company "Darby" Handcuff

The problem, "one size does not fit all." A pair of average size Darby handcuffs that might be too tight for a large man would not restrain a small person at all since a small hand could simply be slipped out of the cuff. Adams changed this all by his radical ratchet design. The Adams cuff consisted of a square bow with notches on the outside which were engaged by a very simple "tear shaped" lock mechanism. The size of the cuffs could be adjusted to fit a wrist of any size. The Adams design was quite successful and Adams handcuffs were manufactured in great quantity. The model shown above is an early model marked "patent pending" on the side of the bow.

Small phelps cuff
Phelps Handcuff

Phelps Handcuff. Part two of the story takes place a few years later when Orson C. Phelps invents and patents (on July 17, 1866) his version of a rachet handcuff. The Phelps design brought the notches for the ratchet to the inside of the square bow and featured a heavier and more secure lock case. Phelps handcuffs are very well made and although the lock is not very secure it is a vast improvement over any earlier handcuff design. The example shown above is marked "O. C. Phelps Patented July 17 66" on the side of each bow. It is unknown if Phelps paid a royalty to Adams, who held the original ratchet handcuff patent.

Tower Bottom Key Handcuff. At this point John J. Tower enters the picture. After establishing his company in 1865, Tower introduced a series of handcuffs initially built under license of both the Adams and Phelps patents. The exact date of the first Tower handcuffs is unknown, but a sequence of at least three distinct models were released bearing only the Adams and Phelps patent dates.

Frist model Tower bottom key
First Model Tower Bottom Key Handcuff

The first Towers cuff was quite clearly based most closely upon the Phelps patent. The general shape of the Tower lock case is quite similar to the Phelps and the ratchet notches are also on the inside of the bow. Like the Phelps the two cuffs of the first model Tower are connected by a three link chain. There are two significant differences. First the location of the key hole has been moved from the side of the lock case to the bottom. Second the bow is round instead of square. The round bow was the subject of the first Tower patent, applied for in 1871, but not issued until May 26, 1874, but the Tower patent date does not appear on these early models.

An example of the first model Tower bottom key handcuff is shown above. It is marked on the side of each bow near the hinge with the Adams, June 17, 1862 and Phelps, July 17, 1866 patent dates. The patent date are hard to read because only a small region of the bow is flat. As the end of patent dates extend into the curved region of the cuff they can no longer be read. The key hole on the bottom of the lock case is small and a bit hard to reach.

second model tower bottom key
Second Model Tower Bottom Key Handcuff

The second model Tower bottom key introduced several changes. The most notable was the substitution of three round rings for the conventional chain lengths found in the first model. The design of these three rings were taken directly from the Adams handcuff. The outer two rings were perfectly round, the middle ring bent, just like the rings on the Adams cuff. The second major difference between the first and second Tower models is the size of the lock case as shown in the figure below. The second model had a lock case significantly smaller and established the basic size and profile that was to be used for Tower handcuffs for the next seventy years. Overall the second model was built to a finer standard. The key hole was slightly smaller, the notches on the bows were not cut so deep. The Adams and Phelps patent dates were written straight across each hinge, much easier to read than those of the first model.

model 1 and 2 bottom key

Comparison of Model 1 and 2 Bottom Key Handcuffs

Towers Single Lock Handcuff. The bottom key was not the greatest of designs. The key was small, rather fragile and its placement made it rather awkward to use. The original Phelps and Adams key placement on the side of the lock case was much more practical. Tower must of realized this and redesigned the lock of his next model, the first Tower side key handcuff. This handcuff is commonly referred to as "Tower's Single Lock" handcuff.

Tower single lock handcuff
Tower's Single Lock Handcuff

Other than the changed lock the single lock handcuff was essentially identical to the second model of the Tower bottom key handcuff. The key hole is on the side near the bow pointing slightly backward. The date of introduction of the single lock handcuff is not clear. In 1871 Tower applied for his first handcuff patent covering his invention of a round or oval bow for his handcuff as an improvement over the square bow of the Phelps and Adams cuffs. It took three years for this patent to be issued on May 26, 1874. And in most an interesting development sometime in this period O. C. Phelps died. Tower evidently bought the Phelps patent and it was reissued to Tower in 1877. However, neither the 1874 or the 1877 patent dates appear on the single lock handcuffs. Instead they only display the original Adams and Phelps patent dates. Since it would seem odd for Tower not to include his own patent dates one might assume that these cuffs were a product of the early 1870's.

There exist variations of the single locking Tower handcuff. The one shown below has two notable differences. The most noticeable difference involves the key hole. It is more upright and the center pin is recessed instead of flush with the lock case. Second, the bow has a slightly smaller that normal diameter. In the small figure to right below the normal bow is on the right, the smaller variant on the left. The lock case in this variant model is not changed, but the hole through which the bow passes is smaller to accommodate the smaller bow.

Tower single lock variation bow comparison
Variation of Tower Single Lock Handcuff

Towers Double Lock Handcuff. The introduction of the adjustable ratchet principle by Adams and later Phelps solved one major problem in handcuff design, but it introduced another. For the ratchet to work the locking bolt or catch had to be spring loaded. This allowed the bow to be freely closed to suitable setting to fit the prisoner's wrist. The problem was that the spring loaded bolt was susceptible to shimming. To shim a handcuff one inserts a watch spring or other fine bit of metal down the inside of the bow until it rest against the bolt or catch. One then closes the cuff one on additional notch catching the watch spring between the catch and the ratchet notches. This prevents the catch from engaging and the bow can be sprung open. Tower realized this problem from the beginning. Indeed the main claim of his 1874 patent for the round bow was that a round or oval bow would be harder to shim open than a square bow.

tower double lock handcuff

Tower Double Lock Handcuff

Despite the round bow the Tower bottom key and single lock models could be shimmed by a determined prisoner with a proper bit of metal. To permanently solve the problem Tower introduced the Tower "Double Lock" handcuff. Patented on August 19, 1879 this handcuff has a much more sophisticated lock mechanism. The lock had two settings. In the single lock mode it acted just like the single lock model. To open the lock the key was inserted an rotated one half turn to the left, counter-clockwise. However, if the key was turned instead to the right, a full turn clockwise, then the lock was put into a double locked setting. The catch or bolt was now frozen, the handcuff bow could not be opened, but it also could not be further closed. This prevented one from shimming open the cuff. To remove the double lock the key had to be reinserted and turned a full turn to the left, counter-clockwise. Another half turn to the left would then open the cuff completely.

The earliest Tower double lock handcuffs are marvels of engineering. They were manufactured to very high tolerances. The key hole has a very tight opening requiring a key with a very thin wall. The bow also fits into the lock case with a very close fit. Indeed there is so little gap it is hard to imagine any prisoner successfully shimming open the cuff even without the double lock. One could reasonably argue that these handcuffs are the finest handcuffs ever made in America, at least in terms of adherence to quality standards of manufacturing. Unfortunately these comments apply only to the earliest double lock models. Double lock Tower hand cuffs were manufactured for over fifty years. Later models were not manufactured to such high standards.

Tower handcuff with the patent stop

Tower Double Lock Handcuff with the Patent Stop

The "Patent Stop" Model. In 1882 E. D. Bean patented his first handcuff featuring a unique release button that locked the handcuff. This solved the problem of premature locking. In his patent application dated September 1, 1882, Bean stated:

"It often occurs in the attempt of a policeman to arrest and manacle an offender that the handcuff becomes in the struggle accidently closed and locked before the officer can succeed in placing it about his prisoner's wrist, and when this occurs it is a matter of time and difficulty to unlock the instrument, and more chance is afforded the offender to escape from the control of the officer.

The object of this invention is to prevent accidental or premature locking of a handcuff by providing it with a lock containing an adjustable stop controlled by a readily accessible thumb-knob, by means of which the latch or bolt of the lock is restrained from engaging the hasp until such time as the officer shall release them by pressure upon such said thumb-piece."

Just five days later on September 6, 1882 Henry W. Kahlke and John J. Tower responded with a patent application of their own. In it they claim that the Bean design is not reliable.

"Handcuffs and shackles usually shut with a spring-lock and sometimes a refractory prisoner will in his struggles force the bow of the shackle into is place before it is on his person. This necessitates the unlocking of the handcuff by the officer under very disadvantageous circumstances before he can put it on the prisoner. Efforts have been made to apply a stop in the lock or on the radius bar to prevent this; but the same is not reliable, and can be operated by the prisoner so as to be useless for the purpose intended.

Our present invention relates to a stop on the bow of the shackle, which stop is so placed that it allows the end of the bow to enter the opening in the radius-bar to prevent the bow becoming bent; but the stop prevents the bow passing in sufficiently far for the first notch to be caught by the spring-lock, so that the officer can open the bow the instant the same can be slipped over the prisoner's hand, and by an easy movement, as the bow is pushed into the lock, the stop is turned aside, and the bow close as far as necessary to secure the wrist."

The Tower patent offered three different designs for a bow stop. The design that was adopted was a direct spring loaded bow stop shown below. The two other designs were an inverted stop that catches the hole in the lock case with a hook and a ring about the bow that needed to be pressed into alignment for the bow to lock.


The Patent Stop

The handcuffs with this feature were marketed for many years as the "Adjustable Double Lock Handcuffs with the Patent Stop." Judging by the relative rarity of such handcuffs today, the feature was never very popular.

Tower's Detective Handcuffs. The Tower double lock handcuffs were quite secure, but much of that security was due to the heavy weight of the handcuffs. In 1887 John Tower patented a new light weight handcuff, "made for lessening the expense of the construction of the hasp and case of the lock, for lessening the weight of the handcuff..." The design was a very simple one, essentially a return to the original Adams handcuff design.

tower detective

Tower Detective Handcuffs

Like the original Adams handcuffs the new lightweight Tower model had a rectangular bow with the notches and the lock case on the outside of the bow. The lock mechanism was very simple, there was no double lock and the cuffs could be shimmed more easily than any prior Tower handcuff. Essentially security was sacrificed for low cost and low weight.

These handcuffs were marketed as the Tower Detective Handcuffs, "designed to meet the demand for a very light weight shackle for those Officers, Detectives, and others who require to have their implements with them, and find a few ounces saved in the weight a matter of convenience and comfort." Despite the low security of these handcuffs, Tower advertised, "We do not hesitate to guarantee them as next to our Patent Double Lock Handcuffs, the best Shackle ever offered." Handcuff collector's sometimes refer to this model as the "Pinkerton" model supposedly the Pinkerton Detective agency used this model.

Union Hardware Models. In 1902 Tower became part of the Tower & Lyon Corporation, incorporated in the State of New York. Tower & Lyon was primarily a tool company manufacturing several different lines of tools and other hardware in addition to its police equipment line. John J. Tower was president of the corporation, but his company was soon to loose its identity as it came under the umbrella of the Union Hardware Company of Torrington, Connecticut. In a 1904 catalog the Union Hardware Company is said to be "in charge" of Tower & Lyon.

price list

In their 1904 catalog Tower & Lyon list five basic variations of their Double Lock model each in "Bright Polished" and Nickel Plated versions. These included the standard double lock handcuff, the Patent Stop version, a three handed handcuff, a straight bar handcuff and the double lock leg iron (see below.)

three way

Tower Three Way Handcuffs

The three way handcuffs were "especially adapted for use in conveying prisoners, by shackling three together; as the three are thus brought awkwardly in each other's way, any effort to escape would be futile, and an officer could often control three prisoners shackled easier than two shackled in the common way. Or they may be used on a single prisoner, and the third cuff locked to the arm of a car seat, or other fixed object."

straight bar handcuff

Tower Straight Bar Handcuffs

Tower straight bar handcuffs were "made with a steel bar 12 or 14 inches long in place of the links, and designed to meet the demand for a shackle to keep the hands apart."

In addition to the double lock models the Tower & Lyon catalog lists the Tower Detective Handcuffs for an identical $4.00 per pair. However, the catalog was not limited to Tower products. For the same $4.00 you could by a pair of Bean Cobb handcuffs or for a couple of dollars more you could buy a pair of Bean's Giant Handcuffs at $6.00.

Bean Cobb handcuffs
Bean Cobb Handcuffs

The Bean Cobb handcuffs must have sold well, because in 1909 the Tower & Lyon corporation patented a new handcuff that proved to be a close copy of the Bean Cobb handcuff. Indeed the new handcuff was marked "Tower Bean's Pattern."

Tower Bean Pattern Handcuff
Tower Bean's Pattern Handcuffs

Like the true Bean handcuffs the Tower Bean model had a release button on the lock case that set the lock. The key was different, a small round double bitted key instead of the flat key of the original Bean model. Most significant was the swivel that connected the two handcuffs. This was the first Tower handcuff in may years that did not feature the familiar three linking rings. It was also another feature taken directly from the original Bean design. The swivel must have been popular, because the swivel also appeared on the Tower Double Lock handcuffs, the first major design change in thirty years.

Tower Swivel Model

Tower Double Lock Swivel Model

The swivel model is marked "Tower's Double Lock" but it is often identified as the Union Hardware model. This was due to the fact that the Union Hardware Company marketed the handcuffs under their own name, the Tower & Lyon designation having disappeared. Union Hardware manufactured and sold Tower's double lock swivel model until the late 1930s.

Tower Detective Swivel Model
Tower Detective Handcuff Swivel Model

The Tower Detective handcuff also received the swivel update. Like the swivel equipped double lock handcuff, the swivel version of the Detective handcuff is often refered to as the Union Hardware model.

In 1912 the first Peerless handcuff patent was issued to George Carney. The Peerless handcuff was the first to feature the swing through ratchet, solving once and for all the premature locking problem. With a swing though ratchet, the handcuff is never locked unless it is closed about a wrist. The Peerless models were light weight and easy to use. They rapidly captured the market and established the basic handcuff design still used today. The popularity of the Peerless design finished off the both the Tower and Bean designs. Union Hardware maintained production into the 1930s, but no further design changes were made.

The Imitations. Tower & Lyon were certainly not above copying their competitors. The Tower Bean's Pattern handcuff is a direct copy of the original Bean pattern. But the copying also went the other way. Both the Tower Double Lock and Detective handcuffs were copied and sold by other companies. Cheaply made imitation Detective handcuffs are quite common.

Tower dectective copy
Imitation Tower Detective Handcuff

The copies are distinctly inferior. Instead of discrete notches cut into the bow they have locking grooves cut across the bow. Some of the copies used the distinctive Tower three rings, but others used three conventional chain links. These imitation Tower handcuffs are quite common, perhaps as common as the originals. They obviously were made in great quantities. The handcuffs were likely not patent infringements since the seem to have appeared well after the 1882 Tower patent would have expired.

tower double lock copy
Imitation Tower Double Lock Handcuff

The standard Tower double lock model was also copied. The example shown here has several distinct differences from the original. The keyhole points backwards instead of downwards. The end of the bows is rounded smooth instead cut off like a genuine Tower. The two cuffs are connected by a conventional three link chain. Overall the quality of the cuff is pretty high although not comparable with the quality of an original Tower. Unlike the imitation Detective handcuffs, which are pretty common, the imitation Tower Double Lock handcuffs are rather rare.

Tower Leg Irons. From the very first Tower manufactured leg irons in addition to their handcuffs. Like the handcuffs, the first Tower leg iron was a bottom key model with a small key hole on the bottom of the lock case. These leg irons were manufactured until the introduction of the double lock model.

Tower Double Lock Leg Iron
Tower Double Lock Leg Iron

There was also a Tower Detective Leg Iron, a larger version of the handcuff. Tower double lock leg irons seem to have lasted in popularity longer than the Tower handcuffs, perhaps because there were no early Peerless legirons. Indeed Tower leg irons were also made in the 1920s by a company named Balco. They were very similar to the originals, but featured perfectly round rings instead of the bent rings used by Tower.

Balco Leg Irons
Balco Tower Style Leg Irons

Tower Ball and Chain. One of the most fascinating restraints ever made is the ball and chain. Tower made these in a variety of sizes with weight ranging from 12 to 50 pounds. Presumably the 50 pound size was presented as a extra reward to special prisoners.

ball and chain ad
Tower & Lyon Ball and Chain Ad

The ball and chain came with either a single leg iron or with a pair. The standard chain length was six and half feet. Authentic ball and chains are much less common than are home made ones which have been made by taking a standard leg iron and attaching one or both cuffs to a iron ball.

ball and chain
#1 Tower & Lyon Ball and Chain

Tower Lyon Thumbcuffs. In addition to their popular handcuffs and leg irons the Tower & Lyon Corporation also patented a thumbcuff in 1909. The Tower Lyon thumbcuff has a unique design quite unlike the much more common Gill design that appeared twenty years later.

tower lyon thumb cuff

The Tower Lyon thumb cuff has two "U" shaped shackles that fit into a central lock case. Both the shackles and the lock case are serrated to better hold the thumbs. Properly applied the thumbcuffs are quite secure, but a knowledgeable prisoner or a talented magician can easily defeat them.

Tower Inventions that Never Made it. John Tower and the company he founded took many of their ideas from others. The original Tower handcuffs were based upon the Adams and Phelps designs. Later cuffs copied various Bean designs. But this does not mean that there were no Tower innovations. An examination of the Tower patents show many innovative ideas including some that were incorporated into later handcuffs manufactured by others. Unfortunately, many of these innovations were never manufactured by Tower. Let us examine some of these inventions that were never actually incorporated into an actual Tower product.

Independent Spring Catches. In a March 5, 1878 patent John Tower patented a handcuff improvement that introduced the idea of a flat key lock with two independent spring catches. The idea was to make shimming of the cuff more difficult by requiring both catches to be shimmed simultaneously. This idea was a new one, but one never actually used by Tower. However the idea is often used today. For example the Smith & Wesson High Security Model 94 handcuff and most current Hiatt handcuffs feature three independent catches.

Tower 1878 patent
The 1878 Tower Patent Featured a Flat Key and Two Independent Catches (e and e').

The Tower Kahlke Handcuff. In 1887 E. D. Bean patented his famous Bean Giant handcuff, perhaps the most famous American handcuff of all time. It was a rigid handcuff that held the wrists close together, very difficult for a prisoner to unlock even if handed the key.

 Bean Giant
Bean Giant

Five years later Henry W. Kahlke was issued a patent assigned to John Tower for a handcuff similar in concept. Known by collectors as the Tower Kahlke Handcuff, this handcuff design featured two swing bows that entered a central lock case side by side from opposite directions. Like Bean Giant the Tower Kahlke design appeared to be quite secure. However, it is not known if any Tower Kahlke handcuffs were ever actually made by Tower. But we do have one at least version of the fascinating handcuff. Modern day locksmith Ian McColl has custom manufactured his version of the Kahlke handcuff. They are very well made handcuffs and they show the soundness of the original design.

tower kahlke
McColl Tower Kahlke Handcuffs

The Lock Release Lever. Bean handcuffs featured a unique release button that needed to be depressed in order to actually lock the handcuffs. This button solve the "premature locking" problem. The Tower response was the "patent stop" discussed above. However, this solution does not appear to have been very popular and patent stop models were never sold in large quantities. In 1899 John Tower patented his own lock release model. It was essentially a standard double lock handcuff with an added release lever on the bottom that needed to be depressed to actually lock the handcuff. This model was never manufactured.

Lock Release Model
The 1899 Tower Featured a Lock Release Lever (A).

The Double Lock Plunger. The popular Tower double lock handcuff solved the shimming problem by securely freezing the bolt in a doubly locked position. The problem with the design was that the key needed to be inserted into the lock to double lock the handcuff. The same problem plagued the early model Peerless handcuffs. Later Peerless designs solved this problem by use of a plunger on the end of lock case that can be depressed to double lock the cuffs. It is great idea still in use by many manufactures today. But most interestingly, this was not a Peerless invention. It was a Tower invention. In 1909, three years before the introduction of the Peerless handcuff, H. E. Wood patented the double lock plunger for the Tower & Lyon company. Wood's design was essentially identical to the double plunger adopted by Peerless years later. However, Tower & Lyon never used the idea.

Tower 1909 Patent
The 1900 Tower & Lyon Patent Featured a Double Lock Plunger ( f6).

Value. Tower handcuffs are not particularly rare. Mint examples of Tower Double Lock handcuffs are worth $200-250, but a typical used example would sell for only $100-150. Single lock models are less common, but sell for about the same amount. A bottom key model in good condition is worth $150-$200, the earlier models worth a bit more. Handcuffs with the "patent stop" are somewhat harder to find and sell for $250-300. The imitation Tower Double lock handcuff is not common and is worth more than a real Tower, in the $400-500 range. Tower leg irons are priced about $100 more than the corresponding handcuff. The Balco leg iron is worth about $500.

Tower Detective handcuffs can be bought for $100-150. Swivel models are less common and worth a little more. Imitation Detective handcuffs go for less, perhaps $75-100. A Detective leg iron is much less common than the handcuff and would go for perhaps $750. The Tower Bean handcuff is less common that the original Bean Cobb handcuff, a nice example would sell for $150.

A Tower & Lyon thumbcuff is a rare item and worth $1200-1500. Specialty items like the Tower three way handcuffs are also rare and worth perhaps $750. However, one must be careful to check the authenticity of an three way handcuff set. Many, including the one shown above, are not factory originals, but are custom made outside of the factory. An authentic Tower Ball and Chain is worth at least $500-750 depending upon size and condition, but home built models are much more common and not worth very much.