In law enforcement, the term “burglarious tools” (or, less fancifully, “burglary tools”) is used to describe items that you catch a guy with and assume he’s committing burglaries. The most common burglarious tools are gloves, hammers, pry bars and bolt cutters. Once you get into a higher class of burglar, you start finding stuff like power tools and pick sets, but what’s most common is most common for a reason. Most burglars in this country use stolen hand tools and cotton work gloves in their pursuits of your property.

I say this because a lot of responsibly armed Americans like to keep what can be called “egress tools” in their vehicles. While I wholeheartedly agree that carrying such items is a good idea, I would also caution you that the line between egress tools and burglarious tools is often dictated by the interaction you’re having with a law enforcement officer. To a certain extent, “burglarious tools” are whatever he or she decides they are — at least as far as arrests go.

WRECKING CREW: The Estwing Latthammer (far left) is an exceptional E&R tool, as are screwdriver style pry bars and any strong, heavy claw or geologist’s hammers (far right).

Why We Need Rescue Tools

Your egress and rescue (E&R) tools aren’t about “breaching” or “infiltrating” anything. These are the tools you would use to remove the lock from a shed in which a child is trapped. You would use these tools to cut an opening into the side of an occupied structure that had partially collapsed in the wake of an earthquake or tornado. These are the tools you would use to extract a person from a vehicle damaged to the point that the hatches won’t open. And these tools are no different than your sidearm and knife in that how you transport and use them will dictate how the legal system views your possession and use of them.

As with everything else we discuss in this publication, it goes without saying that you should always carry a flashlight and keep a headlamp in your vehicle. As far as technique goes, the FDNY’s Forcible Entry Manual is available for free online. Even a casual flip through it will land you far ahead of the game during a crisis.1 Most importantly though, when you’re trying to defeat a lock during an emergency, chances are you shouldn’t go after the lock. You should probably go after what the lock is connected to.

This is what’s happening when a SWAT team smashes a door open: They’re not going after the lock on the door. The team is using that lock to break the doorjamb. When I discuss “popping padlocks,” I’m not talking about actually breaking a padlock. I’m talking about using tools to break the locked padlock and the hasp to which it is connected off of whatever the hasp is connected to. This would also be a good time to mention that if you are assembling an E&R kit, you should include a set or two of clear eye protection and some broken-in work gloves.

Bearing all of that in mind, let’s get underway.

(Pry) Bar Hopping

Pound for pound, this is one of the most important pieces of general emergency gear a private citizen can keep on hand. Whether you elect to keep a traditional crowbar, a flat carpenter’s pry bar or a CERT Bar from CountyComm in your vehicle, it will be the most inexpensive and unobtrusive piece of lifesaving gear you’ve ever dropped in the jack compartment. Even one of the old 45-degree tire irons that were so frustratingly bad for their intended purpose is worth more than its weight in gold when you need to pop a padlock or pry a door open.

As is so often the case, if you’re not going to buy an American-made hand tool, you’re asking for trouble. Like other striking and prying tools, if it is available for $3.99 at the local Chinese cheesecake factory, it is probably not your best option.

The units that look more like giant screwdrivers than gooseneck wrecking bars make excellent additions to your emergency gear, especially since they fit through a padlock’s shackle far more conveniently than other types of pry bars. I would recommend the 17- or 25-inch screwdriver-style pry bars available online and in larger hardware stores. Remember that you’re looking for a bar that has one end that is thin enough to get into the shackle of a padlock and that is long enough to give you decent leverage when torquing against the lock and wrenching it off of whatever to which it is attached.

Other Options

You have other options though. The advantage of flat carpenter’s pry bars is that they are light, and you may already have one in your garage. The disadvantage is that they aren’t nearly as good for separating a lock’s hasp from a doorjamb. But anything will be better than nothing during an emergency. The full-sized CERT Bar from CountyComm deserves honorable mention in this category because it is not only small enough to fit in a glove box and get into tight spots but also has a notch for shutting off gas valves. This can be an extremely important feature after a tornado or earthquake. You only have to spend a few seconds on a Google search for “natural-gas explosion” to see what you might be preventing.

A 20-plus-ounce straight-claw framing hammer will be a good addition to any kit if for no other reason than, like a pry bar, it may already be in your residence. But it is not ideally suited to the prying and cutting tasks so common in egress and rescue. A geologist’s hammer and other specialty hammers, on the other hand, are.

What you’re after is a spike that is narrow enough to slip into a padlock’s shackle and robust enough to rip wood screws out of wood and lag screws out of lead anchors. This is possible with some claw hammers, but not like it is with Estwing’s Latthammer — its German-pattern roofing unit. The Latthammer is made in the U.S. and is as strong and reliable as everything else Estwing builds. For perforating a wall in order to effect an escape from a sheet-steel building, one of these and another hammer with which to strike it is as good as you can get without buying actual firefighter’s tools.

Bolt Cutters

The “wide-jaw” version of these hardcore shears is primarily used when you don’t really have the option of going after what a lock or chain is connected to — such as when the lock or chain in question is attached to a heavy steel gate or concrete structure. Though the models that are most widely available today are from countries — China and India — that are notorious for garbage steel, there are a few mods you can make so that you’ll end up with a far more reasonable and powerful piece of equipment.

Slight Adjustments

I learned this one from an infantry NCO who spent a decent amount of time fighting in Iraq:

Use a hacksaw to cut the handles off of your $35 hardware-store bolt cutters just above the rubber grips. Then, ring the steel tubing from which the handles are made with glow-in-the-dark tape right above the cuts. Once you’ve done that, source other steel tubing only slightly wider than the handles themselves — antenna mast was convenient for this fellow, but you will likely use gas pipe or other heavy tubing.

Cut that tubing to 2 or 3 inches short of the length of the bag in which you will be storing the cutters. (You’ll want the pipes to be at least 16 inches long.) Then, wrap both ends with duct tape to help reduce clanging. Once thus taped, ring the ends of your brand-new “cheater pipes” that are to mate with the cutters in the same glow-in-the-dark tape to make assembly in low light easier.

Though you can spend more than $100 on a truly lifetime set from a company like Knipex or Klein Tools, this is one of the times you don’t have to go high-end unless you’d really like to. If you basically destroy your bolt cutters with a single use, that’s fine. You were facing a disaster so dire that springing another $35 for a new set is going to be more than worth the money. The key is to buy the unit with the widest set of jaws you can find without spending the kind of money that you would have to were you outfitting your local fire department (again, unless that’s your idea of a good time).


If you poke around online enough, you might be able to find video of a bloodied Concealed Carry Magazine Executive Editor Kevin Michalowski trying to break a vehicle window with a folding knife that was advertised as having a “window-breaking tip” on it. While this is certainly doable, if you’re looking to keep a window-breaker in your vehicle, buy a dedicated unit with a spring assist.

What this will do is reduce the amount of dexterity and strength you’ll need to break out a vehicle window to escape or rescue whoever is inside. As with all window-breakers, strike at the edge rather than in the center of the glass. Strikes to the center will allow the window to flex more than a shot to the corner. I prefer the models from Zak Tool that have the glass-breaker on one end and a handcuff key on the other, though you can save a few bucks and get the plain model. (More on the handcuff key in a moment.)

Either way, what such a tool does is use a spring and the weight of the breaker itself to concentrate enormous amounts of force on the window without you having to wind up and swing. You just hold the pointy end against the glass, pull on the other end until the spring is at extension and then let go.

Most importantly, stay away from a keychain-mounted glass-breaker. If you ever have to use it, it will likely either be in your pocket or hanging off of your vehicle’s ignition — neither a particularly good location if you’re in an upturned vehicle or trying to rescue someone from one. Worse yet, affixing it to a set of keys can actually make a spring-actuated model malfunction.

Defeating Restraints

As much as anti-gun folks like to bray about how easy they think it is for kids to get guns in this country, I’ll tell you this: A poorly supervised 11-year-old cannot go to a swap meet and buy a pistol for $10. He can, however, go to a swap meet and buy a set of Chinese-knockoff Smith & Wesson M100 handcuffs for $10. As a teacher, I always carried a handcuff key on my key ring because some crummier kids have a nasty habit of handcuffing each other to things: chainlink fences, school desks — you name it. This can be an excellent item to pick up when you’re looking for that last $3 to spend in order to get free shipping.

Similarly, like a headlamp, a set of EMS shears should already be in your vehicle. The reason I am including them in this discussion is because just like some really crummy kids like to handcuff people to things, similarly crummy kids like to duct tape people (and animals) to things. If you are called upon to free a trapped person or animal from such a situation, you do not want to try to do so with a knife.

ODDS AND ENDS: When rounding out your rescue tools kit for your vehicle, consider adding low-cost items like EMS shears, glass-breakers and handcuff keys.

You-Know-What of All Trades

Though pneumatic bottle jacks transport more easily than what I was always raised to call “tractor jacks,” the latter are a lot more versatile. Those from Hi-Lift are made in Indiana and are standards in the fire service community. You may also recognize them as the jacks you see mounted to the bumpers and roof racks of serious off-road vehicles (or those that the owners wish to appear to be serious off-road vehicles).

A Hi-Lift has too many rescue uses to list here, but as with all other serious pieces of equipment, you will need to be properly trained in how to use it in order to avoid injuring yourself or others. Before you do anything else, check out the 11-minute video “10 Ways to Keep Your Hi Lift Jack from Killing You” linked on Page 54. It’s as good a place as any to start. Your local fire department may also have some excellent pointers for you and may even offer jack safety classes. Once you’ve gotten some time in working with them, though, and once you can operate them safely, you will be simply amazed at what they can help you do.

So Where Do Tomahawks Fit In?

While plenty of servicemen have used tomahawks overseas in wartime, the most common use for one in a law enforcement or private-citizen context is as a quick, easy way to pop a padlock off of a door. That spike end isn’t for vanquishing your enemies in battle. It is mostly used for hooking into the shackle of a padlock and then, with the leverage generated by the handle, breaking the hasp off of the surface to which it is connected.

Tomahawks are very popular in “tactical” circles — and for good reasons ranging from cultural to practical. If you want to buy a tomahawk, then I want you to buy a tomahawk. But do not think that you have to buy a tomahawk in order to be set as far as E&R tools go. It’s an option, but a quality unit is often a lot more expensive and less safe to handle than a quality axe and framing hammer.

Stay Ready to Get Out

Watch the Video ‘10 Ways to Keep Your Hi Lift Jack From Killing You’ by Dirt Lifestyle on YouTube.

You can just as easily buy yourself an Estwing and a CountyComm online as you can dig a camp hatchet and a long-forgotten tire iron out of your shed. You can simply toss them behind the seat of the truck, or you can buy an E&R-specific toolbox or tool roll. Rather than those tools living in your garage, they will live in your vehicle.

Or you can spend thousands of dollars on professional-grade firefighting and EMS gear and drive around in what amounts to a stealth search-and-rescue vehicle. As with every other area of the responsibly prepared lifestyle, you can spend as little or as much as you want.

But like with your sidearm, the most important aspect of these tools will be whether you have access to them when you need them and whether you know how to safely operate them. The foot-long pry bar under the seat of your vehicle will always beat the chainsaw back in the barn, and showing up to an emergency just in time to injure yourself doesn’t help anyone.


(1) John Vigiano, New York City Fire Department Forcible Entry Reference Guide: Techniques and Procedures (New York: New York City Fire Department, 2006), Believe it or not, consulting this incredible resource won’t cost you a penny.


Zak Tool: