Bump Key vs. Key Bump: One is a Lock Pick Tool, and One is Illegal

If you’re following the news, you may have seen a new phrase rise to prominence on the Internet: the “key bump.” Although the term sounds very similar to bump key, they are not synonymous.

Learning the meaning of both terms, the difference between them, and their respective contexts is critical, as one is a legal tool and the other is a highly illegal activity.

What is a Bump Key?

A bump key is one of the many tools at a locksmith’s disposal to pick and defeat typical house locks, from front door locks to padlocks.

Although bump keys typically resemble standard metal house keys, they are specially cut to bypass the pin-and-tumbler lock’s internal mechanisms. Usually, this lock type is designed to engage and unlock only when the correct key is inserted.

The primary purpose of a bump key is to forcibly bypass these mechanisms and let the locksmith (or a lock out specialist) open the lock. They will also doubly work well after the collapse to covertly unlock storage units and buildings.

Bump keys may sometimes be called “999 keys” because the blade’s ridges are cut to the maximum possible depth in most key-making machines (the 999 setting).

The first bump key patent was published in the United States in 1928 by H.R. Simpson, where it is referred to by its older name, the rapping key. However, the key bumping technique that eventually resulted in the term “bump key” was designed by Danish locksmiths in the late 20th century.

Bump keys are either standalone or found as part of a bigger bump key set, each key featuring slight variations of sizes, lengths, and blade dimensions compatible with different locks. These could be part of your bug out bag kit.

How Do Bump Keys Work?

Bump keys work by exploiting an inherent design flaw in pin-and-tumbler locks. A typical pin-and-tumbler lock features six elements: the cylinder (the lock’s main body), the plug (the rotating element), the shear line (the gap between the cylinder and the plug), and multiple pin-and-spring assemblies (usually five or six).

A pin-and-spring assembly features two sets of pins sitting under a spring. The lower pin is the key pin and is the element that makes contact with the key. The upper pin is the driver pin and sits between the spring and key pin.

When you insert the correct key in the plug, the pins align so they intersect perfectly with the shear line, allowing you to turn the key and disengage the lock.

When you insert a bump key of approximately the same size as the correct key, the blade cut is usually too low to let you turn the key on its own, causing the driver pins to sit past the shear line. To bump the lock, apply a slight amount of force in the unlocking direction, then use a bump hammer or another blunt object to strike the back of the key.

If done correctly, the impact will cause the driver pins to jump upward and above the shear line while the key pins remain under it, giving you the clearance to turn the key and disengage the lock.

If the lock doesn’t open after the first strike, try the following solutions:

  • Try inserting the bump key again. Even when applying the right force, the driver pins may have barely missed the shear line.
  • Try adjusting the force used to hit the back of the key.
  • Be careful not to apply too much strength turning the key, as you might bind the pins between the plug and the cylinder.

Although bumping a lock requires some practice, it is relatively easy and takes less than 30 seconds with a practiced hand. It has a high success rate against most pin-and-tumbler locks on the market.

Are Bump Keys Illegal?

Contrary to popular belief, bump keys have the same legal status in the United States as lockpicking kits and similar locksmithing equipment. They are 100% legal to own at the federal level and in 45 states, D.C., and other American territories.

Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia are the five states regulating ownership of bump keys, subjecting them to the same status as other lockpicking equipment. Here’s what the law says in each state:

  • In Mississippi, although it is legal to own lockpicking equipment (including bump keys), carrying this equipment concealed is illegal and considered prima facie evidence of the intention of committing a crime against property (MS Code 97-17-35).
  • In Nevada, possession of lockpicking equipment is illegal without a mechanic, artificer, or locksmithing license and outside of a work-related context (NRS 205.080).
  • In Ohio, bump keys and lockpicking equipment may be legally considered criminal tools if a person is convicted of using or carrying them on their body for criminal purposes. (ORC 2923.24)
  • In Tennessee, locksmithing is a regulated activity. It is illegal to possess locksmithing tools (including bump keys, legally referred to as “manipulation keys”) or engage in locksmithing activities without a license. (Tennessee Code 62-11-104)
  • In Virginia, possessing bump keys or locksmithing tools without a dealer’s license is prima facie evidence of an intent to commit burglary, robbery, or larceny (Virginia 18.2-94).

However, even in states where possession of a bump key is legal, using one to open a lock that isn’t yours (without the owner’s permission) or conduct unlicensed locksmithing activity remains illegal.

Note: Please don’t assume this is legal advise. It’s not. I am also not an attorney and all questions regarding legality should be directed toward YOUR attorney.

What Does Key Bump Mean?

The term “key bump” rose to national prominence following a podcast interview of Republican politician Madison Cawthorn. He described having witnessed unnamed Washington figures doing a key bump of cocaine prompting many people on social media to ask about the meaning of the term and if it has any relation with the bump key, the locksmithing tool.

On March 30, 2022, the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s X, (then Twitter) account posted a thread explaining the meaning of key bump in response.

In this context, the term “key bump” is a two-word phrase where the operative word is bump, a noun and slang term meaning a small amount of a powdered illicit drug consumed via inhalation. An example application for this word is a bump of cocaine.

The thread continues by explaining the meaning of the word “key” in this context: it is an attributive noun, a noun that looks like an adjective and performs a descriptive role.

In other words, a key bump describes a small amount of inhaled illicit drugs that can theoretically fit on the blade of a key, evoking the intended context and purpose (inhaling a small bump of cocaine off the side of a key).

Doing a key bump suggests consuming illicit drugs in powder form, usually via inhalation. Most drugs intended for this consumption method are illegal. Additionally, inhalation is also proven to cause damage to your nasal cavity, such as inflammation of the nasal lining, and increase the risk of health complications like risk of respiratory tract blockage.


The term “key bump” has risen in internet parlance, drawing curious parallels and confusion with the locksmith tool known as a bump key. However, these terms are vastly different in meaning and context.

A bump key is a legitimate locksmith tool, legal in most parts of the United States, and used for manipulating pin-and-tumbler locks. It’s a skillful instrument in the hands of locksmiths, allowing them to open locks without the original key. Contrarily, “key bump” refers to an illegal act of consuming a small amount of powdered drugs, often cocaine, off a key. This illegal activity carries significant legal and health risks. It’s crucial to understand these differences to navigate the legal landscape and social discussions with informed clarity. This article has shed light on both terms, highlighting their distinct uses and legal implications, emphasizing the importance of discerning the nuances in today’s digital discourse.


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When I lived in NC I had a set of the keys that would open almost any car, I believe it was about 7 different keys they were very thin and came with a manual, they were registered to business I worked for and me, I turned them back in not too long after having them I did not want anyone accusing me of using them for illegal purposes. I believe at the time company I worked paid like $600 for the set, it was mid 90’s time frame.