Can you crack the code?

©iStockphoto.com/Justin Horrocks

His sure hand dances over the dial slowly bringing it to rest on the number 32. Pulling off his ski mask, he presses a keen ear against the cold metal door to listen for the last tiny, but tell-tale click. Beads of sweat appear along his hairline and trace their way down his forehead. After a few tense seconds, he sits back with a knowing smile. After entering the last number of the combination, the thief opens the safe as if it were his own?

In the movies, master thieves and spies can deftly defeat a safe in a matter of seconds using little more than steady hands and a good ear. Safecracking isn't really that easy of course, but expert safecrackers really can get through just about any lock mechanism. It's a matter of having the right tools, the right skills and plenty of patience.

In this article, we'll examine the fundamentals of this rare skill and show you the ins and outs of safecracking.

Despite the tried-and-true design of the safe, it contains a fundamental weakness: Every safe must be accessible to a locksmith or other authority in the event of a malfunction or lock-out. This weakness forms the basis of safecracking.

In order to understand safecracking, you need to first understand the safe and the basic mechanisms that are used to protect it. Safes come in a variety of sizes and shapes that are specified for home or commercial use. Most safes fall into two categories: the fire safe and the burglary safe. The construction of a safe is specific to its intended function. Depending on the owner's needs, a safe may be wall-mounted, set into (and seemingly under) the floor or simply bolted to the ground.

Fire safes are reinforced with fire retardant materials but have little in the way of actual protection against unwanted entry. The typical burglary safe is built to withstand a considerable attack. But due to their reinforced steel frames and iron cladding, the burglary safe tends to act like an oven; effectively cooking the contents when exposed to heat or flame.

The most popular method of safecracking is to simply steal the entire safe and move it to a location where the safecracker has the time and tools to take the safe apart and remove its contents. However, when design or circumstances do not permit this, the safecracker must contend with the locking mechanism. We'll look at the locking mechanism in detail in the next section.