Improvised Weapons

Improvised weapons
January 27, 2021  
Categories: Learnin'

During the 29 years that I worked in my state’s prison system, staff working inside the walls and fences were, as a rule, unarmed. Only in the last few years of my career were we issued OC spray to defend ourselves, and that was due to a few staff being murdered (one happened to be a federal corrections officer, not at my institution). We were searched every day, having to pass through a metal detector each day to ensure that we were unarmed.

The ironic thing is that the inmates were searched far fewer times than staff was! As the years passed, more metal detectors were put in place inside our facilities to search the inmates, but even so, they were searched less often than we were.

The inmates’ job was to “get over” on us, which is to say, beat the system. Sometimes there was a goal in getting over, while other times, they just did it to be recalcitrant. Whatever their aim, many of them did it daily and they did it well.

Situational Awareness is something that I preach constantly, regardless of whom I’m instructing and what the topic might be. It will keep you alive. Lose focus, and you get hurt or die. Period.

As such, I watched the inmates all day, every day. I learned their habits, mannerisms, and ways of thinking. Every chance I got, I used the information I learned from them to be successful at my job.

But with weapons banned on the inside, how did the inmates get them? 

Good question!

The truth is that weapons are all around us, every day. And prison is no different. Inside a prison, there is nearly everything that you’d find in a small town: there are kitchens, housing areas, chapel, school, dispensary, dining halls, offices…the list goes on and on. And these areas contain implements that you’d find in your house, and the areas need to be cleaned.

This article will explore not only improvised weapons found in a prison but also weapons that you can find in your house or environment at work or even a hotel, should you be staying away from home.

Improvised Weapons

Inmates have nothing but time on their hands, for the most part (some do have jobs in prison). They watch staff incessantly. Aside from that, they invent things.

Prison is filled with every kind of predator you can imagine, preying upon each other. As a result, there is a desire for implements that will protect one inmate from another (or others). The environment is more vicious than you can imagine. These are some of the improvised weapons that I saw over the years.

Impact Devices

One very popular weapon that inmates used very often was the “Lock-In-A-Sock”, and it was made just how it sounds: a padlock is dropped into a sock, and there you have it.

Lock in a Sock - impact device, improvised weapon

A lock in a sock is a nasty impact device made with common items.

A mace! Inmates used padlocks to lock their cells and their footlockers, so they had easy access to padlocks. On the street, you can do the same, or drop the lock into a pillowcase or any other similar covering. When swung, it is a force multiplier and hits extremely hard.

I’ve seen the results of this weapon many times, and it is devastating. With the implements separated (socks and a lock), it’s not considered a weapon, so you can be “armed” while not being armed. Paracord or a shoelace can also be utilized to wield the lock.

So what if you have no lock to drop into your sock? Other items can be substituted, such as a bar of soap, batteries, coins, or whatever small, heavy objects happen to be at hand.

A similar offshoot is putting some coins into a bandana. Rolled coins work great for this. Wrap the bandana up, tie the ends, and there you go, you have a mini mace.

Improvised weapons change in a rolled up bandana.

A rolled-up bandana and some change can make an impact device. The materials aren’t considered a weapon and are very common.

Batteries can be taped together to form a sort of short baton that works as an impact device. C and D sized batteries work fairly well, as they are larger. This type of weapon was used against one of my sergeants years ago, and he had to have several stitches installed into his scalp as a result.

Prison Shanks

improvised weapons, prison shanks

Prison shanks. On top, a sharpened toothbrush handle. Below is a piece of the handle from a 5-gallon bucket with the end sharpened.

In the prison, we had lots of the plastic, five-gallon buckets that seem to be everywhere these days. Inmates would take the wire handle, break it into a few pieces by bending it repeatedly until it broke. Then they would sharpen the end of the metal pieces on the concrete floor or wall of their cell. Concrete makes an outstanding medium with which to sharpen metal or plastic. The end of the metal would be wrapped in tape for the handle. Sometimes they would use the plastic handle that came with the bucket to form a handle for the shank (homemade knife). It was pointy and only good for stabbing, but that’s really all it needed to do since the vast majority of fatalities when knives are used are from stab wounds. These can just as easily be made on the street as in the prison.

The head of a toothbrush can be broken off and the handle sharpened. Presto, instant shank. It takes about 15 minutes to make. Just sharpen the toothbrush to a point on some concrete. It’s great for stabbing and has the added attraction that it’s all plastic, so it won’t set off a metal detector. Sometimes, inmates would take apart disposable razors, heat them, and then melt them into the handle of a toothbrush to make a sort of straight razor, which would deliver some nasty slices.

Around the prison, Lexan and Plexiglass were used extensively. These are impact-resistant plastics that were used as windows, which helped to make the prison safer. Sometimes work crews would be lax in cleaning up and accounting for small pieces of left-over Lexan, and inmates would swipe it and then make shanks from it. Since it was not metallic, it would pass right through metal detectors without setting them off.

Don’t discount the pen as a weapon.

Ballpoint Pens, the sort that has the plunger that you push with your thumb to make the point come out, can be made into dart guns. Inmates in the Restricted Housing Unit would take them apart, sharpen the shaft of the pen, then use the spring of the pen to launch the shaft out of the body of the pen like a dart. Sometimes, they’d dip the sharpened shaft into feces or diseased blood. For this reason, these sorts of pens were banned from these units.

For a number of years, I took to carrying a tactical pen. Nothing fancy, it was a cheapie model. I didn’t want anything expensive in case it was confiscated or I had to use it to save my life. There are literally hundreds to choose from on the market, ranging in price from about $30 to several hundred.

Tactical pen

The tactical pen I carried in the prisons where I worked.

In lieu of a “tactical” pen (some places, such as airlines, won’t allow them), you might be able to get away with a regular, metal pen. These are available at most office stores and would serve as a weapon in a pinch, but they wouldn’t scream “WEAPON” to the sheeple.

One of my coworkers, a fellow officer, was ambushed and assaulted by an inmate, who used a plain, plastic pen. He was stabbed numerous times and the inmate also ran him headfirst into a metal door jamb. In the end, my friend and coworker needed close to 300 stitches to close up all of his wounds. He told me he was picking pieces of that plastic pen out of his scalp for weeks afterward. Another of my fellow officers was stabbed in the face with a pencil, it nearly took his eye out. Do not discount the pen as a weapon.

What else can be used as an impact weapon?

A simple screwdriver makes a great shank and they’re readily available (again, it’s not necessarily a “weapon”). If you want to get fancy, you can sharpen up the tip.

Any grocery store sells kitchen knives cheaply. While they’re not the sort of tactical knives that many of us connoisseurs enjoy, they are cheap and available and can be dropped in the trash when no longer needed without us having to shed a tear at an expensive investment.

Look in your kitchen drawers to discover how many potential weapons are close at hand.

The key principle here is to use your mind and imagination. You are limited only by those two elements.

A rolled-up magazine can be used as an impact device, as can an umbrella. Neither is typically perceived by others as a weapon.

Many of us wear a belt, which can be used as a flailing weapon, especially if you attach a heavy object to the end of it.

Canes are readily available and make a great impact weapon. If you walk with one, you have the added bonus that many people will assume you are partially crippled, so they will underestimate you. They can be picked up for next to nothing at various secondhand stores or pharmacies and medical supply places.

A 3-hole paper punch that is found on many office desks can make quite an impact device.

Sports implements, such as baseball bats or hockey sticks are available and effective.

Wrenches and tools can be wicked impact devices (if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!). Hammer time!


These days, there are so many flashlights to choose from, the market is bewildering! Mostly, they would not be considered weapons. However, some of the extremely “tactical” variety have impact notches machined into the head, which are designed to cut the target of impact. Be wary of carrying those into secured areas, because they will often be confiscated as a weapon. The lights I carry mostly don’t have the crenelated bezel for this very reason. A little flashlight can make a nice impact weapon.

Improvised weapons - flashlights.

Flashlights are normally not perceived as weapons.

I was once asked why I was carrying a flashlight when entering a facility. My reply was, “So that I can see in the dark.” The person asking the question stopped and was obviously pondering my response so deeply that it appeared to cause him physical pain.

Why use impact weapons?

If you’ve ever struck a person with a hand strike, you probably are not asking that question. Heads are harder than fists. Heads often break hands. Thus endeth the lesson.

A mop or broom handle can make a decent impact device that is readily available. Near the end of my career, I responded to inmates fighting, and one of them had used a broken off mop handle on the other one. He’d stabbed the other combatant in the head with the pointy, broken end.

The scene that I came upon was interesting; there was blood splattered in an area that spanned about 30 yards by 30 yards. It looked as though someone had dipped a paintbrush into a bucket of blood and walked around splattering it in all directions as fast as he could. There had been quite a battle with stabbing, rolling, wrestling, and running. Despite all the blood that made the area resemble a scene from a Freddy Krueger movie, the inmate who had been stabbed merely had a scalp wound that required a number of stitches.

No Limits

All of these examples of improvised weapons were mentioned to get you thinking and into the mindset of all the possible weapons that you might one day use or face, whether on the street or in a prison. This list is by no means all-inclusive; I’ve probably missed hundreds of examples! As I mentioned before, you are limited only by your imagination.

Good luck and stay safe!

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Jim Davis

Jim Davis

About the Author

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

1 Comment

  1. Joe

    The humble cable lock (small padlock with a plastic coated cable attached, used to lock up bicycles) obviates the need for socks or bandanas.


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