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Survival checklist: Improvised and unconventional weapons

For hundreds of years, unconventional weapons have been evolving into killing tools. In the hands of inmates, the art may have been perfected.

Improvised and unconventional weapons are weapons made with the intent to kill another person, defend or protect oneself, and are found inside a correctional facility will vary from small half-inch to larger sizes, and made from everything like paper, cardboard, plastics, to various types of metals all found within the facility.


These weapons are pointed, sharp, durable and capable of delivering a fatal blow to the human body from puncturing a major artery, to slicing any part of your body open to even breaking bones upon contact. These weapons are made for various reasons ranging from personal protection to murdering or even being a hit man for hide. They are hidden in and on areas of the body that make it sometime impossible to see with just a gaze from the naked eye.

These weapons when used are up close and person and are one of the bloodiest weapons to use, and the scar they leave are both mental and physical. These can also mean various types of protective gear, or masks to limit or prolong the effects or chemical, specialty impact munitions, or even electrical devices. This improvised equipment will help limit or increase the person’s pain tolerance. In another words they make their own protective armor.

Types of improvised weapons and gear


  1. Protective Masks – Using Ripped pieces of clothing various types of equipment can be use like a mask to cover their face. This is used when the inmate knows that the uses of chemical are imminent. See image (R) - Nose Cup, Front and Back of Mask made out of elastic straps from underwear, clothing and shaped pads to physically protect the face.
  2. Armor – This armor is made from everything from book covers, wet/dried paper or molded magazines, pillow cases, and placed on the body were damage is more likely to cause serious bodily injury which could result in death. Inmates often refer to this as “wearing their Skin.”
    See Pictures – 2 Armor Pictures

  1. Small edged weapons, blades – These are made from various pieces of metals like small pieces metals scraped or filed down, or pieces of a razor blade from a shaving kit to fit into a handle of some sort to hold the blade in place while the attack happens. These blades are small, and easily concealed in the hands or other parts of the body. Most times these blades will separate from the handle during the attack which can leave life threatening wound.
    See 2 Pictures – Small key stolen from a guard then wrapped in a piece of nylon to simulate a handle to hold.
  2. Longer Shanks or edged weapons – Like the smaller made weapons these are made from various pieces of metals like the fire extinguisher safety pins, book shelf parts, food trays, or even the hard reinforcement bindings inside the hard back books, metals scraped or filed down, or pieces of a plastic melted down and files, taped, or wrapped in cloth into a handle of some sort to hold the blade in place while the attack happens. These blades are small but fitted into a large handle to help create more distance, or larger when concealment is not necessary. Most times these blades can chip, bent or break after the first cut, or can even will separate from the handle during the attack which can leave life threatening wound.
    See Image (R) – Pen and Tooth Picks, Straighten Safety Pin, Razor and Tooth Brush, Piece of Book Shelf and Part of Shelf as a sword
  3. Impact Weapons or other bludgeon devices – These weapons are used to crash, strike and break the bones and skull of their victim. Made many things like rolled towels filled with harder objects like soap, or cans of food, to a piece of wood or cardboard and a piece of metal or aluminum and placed together to simulate an hammer or pick.
    See image (R) – Rolled and filled towel with soap, and the man made axe of a piece of wood and aluminum shelving sharpen and held together with pieces of cloth.

Tactics to watch for

No doubt, technology acts as an extra set of eyes to keep watch on our incarcerated inmates. But any correctional officer will tell you that there’s no substitute for direct supervision that is done in person — in other words, an inmate watched in your presence.

Change of behavior, body positioning, hiding of hands or a faster-than-normal walking pace are all good cues to alert you to the covert handling of an improvised weapon. However inmates are aware of this as well and may employ distraction tactics, for example a yell or other inmates fighting, and in the extreme, the inmate breaking a limb or faking an illness.

Having a plan for these types of attacks is vital to an officer’s survival, especially if we are the target. Being aware of your surrounding is critical.

In this field, it is what you don’t see that can get you killed!

Edged Weapons Defense Concepts
The use of improvised and unconventional weapons has been a threat even since the first incarcerated inmate. Now, these weapons are synomous with prison culture. Below are a few suggestions to help keep you safe.

  1. Create Distance when possible. Running away is a great tactics when needed and possible. General Custard could have lived longer if he retreated.
  2. Use weapons that are readily available to you: trash bin, buckets, broom stick, mop handles, chair, tables, etc. Weapons of opportunity could give you the edge you need to survive.
  3. Grab the arm of the attacker and break it. Remember, he is trying to kill you, and no one (as far as I know) has ever died from a broken arm — but, officers who have tried to disarm and control the subject while they are still an active threat have not been so lucky.
  4. Verbalize during your encounter; this could help other officers and even another inmate intervene on your behalf.
  5. Practice whatever plan, and make sure you are ready if and when the attack occurs.
  6. Be confident and in control. Adrenaline is your friend, whereas panic is an element of death, not survival.
  7. Practice team and single officer defense tactics – at times a team response can be more deadly
  8. Know your facility - Try to place yourself in areas where you are aware of the escape routes
  9. Listen to the signs, your gut feeling, what your eyes and heart tell you – Sometimes that is all we have
  10. As Coach Bob Lindsey says, “You have a choice to be an ‘if/then thinker’ or a ‘when/then thinker.’” Be ready for when it happens.

Good luck out there, and remember — Be safe, be strong and stay alive!

Dave Young writes on a diverse topics dealing with crowd management, chemical and specialty impact munitions, protocol and selection of gear and munitions, ground defense tactics, and water-based defensive tactics.