High-Security Locks: What Makes Them More Secure?

Jan. 4, 2021
A series of standards and different product innovations allow certain cylinders to satisfy the demands of certain applications, such as critical infrastructure.

Essentially, high-security locks provide additional resistance to manipulation, destructive attacks, breaching and off-site key duplication. Electronics added the potential to include audit trails, monitoring and rapid recovery of compromised or expired credentials.

So, what do manufacturers consider when they build a high-security lock? Three things drive the development process:

  • Customer demand or market potential.
  • Promotion of features or inventions that manufacturers developed.
  • Standards relevant to the markets addressed.

In recent years, there has been a heavy focus on patented keys and strategies to limit distribution. This is done with the conventional wisdom that preventing duplication provides “key control.”  Unfortunately, these assumptions have unintended consequences.

Applicable Standards

High-security locks are defined by various Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Building Hardware Manufacturers Association (BHMA) standards. In most cases, high-security cylinders will be installed in Grade 1 security mortise locks, auxiliary deadbolts, padlocks or multipoint locks.

The most common high-security rating is UL437, which covers locks and cylinders. This category is tested for unauthorized opening from bypass, lock-picking, impressioning and destructive entry. Most major North American manufacturers supply UL437 listed locks and have patented and controlled key distribution available.

ANSI/BHMA A156.5 covers basic cylinders, while A156.25 covers electronic input devices. A156.30 is specific to high-security cylinders but not locks. Finally, A156.37 covers multipoint locks.

An ANSI A156.30 listed high-security cylinder can be used if professional surreptitious attacks are anticipated. This standard defines additional issues of key distribution, electronic inputs or manipulation. The A156.30 standard for high-security cylinders provides this caveat: Lock and door assemblies take the grade of the lowest graded component, including ungraded pieces. This means your installation is only as good as the weakest link, including cylinder, lock and door assembly. Remember this. Black-bag attacks are rare, while brute-force attacks are common.

High-security locks also are prominent in blast- and wind-resistant openings as well as safe rooms. Wind, hurricane and tornado issues are covered in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 320 and 361 guidelines. Testing is defined in International Code Council 500-2014 standards. Assemblies can be tested to sustained wind speeds of up to 250 mph and impacts from a 15-pound projectile at 100 mph, the equivalent of an EF5 tornado. The Florida Building Code (FBC) covers standards for Florida High Velocity Hurricane Zone areas for wind speed and flying objects.

ASTM E330 discusses exterior door assemblies in nonimpact regions for wind-only applications. Allegion’s Schlage and Von Duprin brands, as well as ASSA ABLOY’s Corbin Russwin, SARGENT and Yale companies, provide mortise and reinforced multipoint lock assemblies for these applications. Some of these assemblies also carry various blast-resistant ratings. A comprehensive line of extreme-duty multipoint locks is available from Securitech. These have been tested with doors from most North American manufacturers.

Meanwhile, padlocks are rated for surreptitious entry, cycle testing, cut, corrosion, shock and tensile strength by ASTM F883 from the lowest level 1 through the highest level 6. Note this: A statement that a particular padlock meets ASTM F883 must state which levels were met. Commercial products generally meet level 3 or 4 for corrosion, shackle tensile strength and cut resistance. Extreme service padlocks can test up to level 6 for cut resistance and other categories. The Central European Norm (CEN) standard also has a 1 through 6 rating, which is somewhat similar to ASTM F883 but not directly equivalent.

Padlock designs such as the hockey puck and the Mul-T-Lock Hasp eliminate shackle attacks, and we’re seeing an increasing number of electronic solutions there as well.

High-Security Applications

Professional security practice provides cost-effective layers that detect, deter and defend against attack. Where are high-security locks appropriate? Two issues drive this answer. Pick- and tamper-resistant cylinders are useful where detection risk is low and asset value is high.

Much of the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as power substations, water supplies, fuel storage, explosives, chemicals, server farms and communications are in remote locations. These locations generally have monitored alarms, but response time might be rather long. Multiple defensive layers can delay the attacker after the initial alarm is sent. Attacks on remote sites tend to use K-12 saws, carbide wheels or brute force, because there seldom is much risk of detection.

Weapons or munitions storage areas always have been solid, if small, market niches. Military organizations have considerably less concern for external key duplication, because they tend to practice good internal key control and recovery after personnel or building occupancy changes.

Detention facilities are another prominent market. Detainees have unlimited time to fabricate or steal keys. Any area where the value of the assets or the consequences of penetration might invite sophisticated attacks will find high-security locks and door assemblies to be a good investment.

The final and probably largest markets are industrial, mercantile and pharmacy facilities, as well as construction sites. Here, entry-level criminals attempt brute-force break-ins.

In the Market

Now that you’re aware of the standards and applications that guide high security, let’s discuss the products available.

Securitech specializes in extreme-duty locks, using any keying system. This organization has become the go-to source when you really have to defend against physical attack. Its high-security locks are favorites for wind, tornado, hurricane, drug storage, safe-room and high-value applications.

Securitech multipoint assemblies are available with internal or surface, horizontal, vertical and combination bolt assemblies, plus extreme-duty hinge-side stationary bolts.

Schlage builds high-security into mortise and multipoint locks through its UL437-rated Everest 29 cylinders. The patented Everest 29 system is available with multiple cylinder options for open or restricted keyways and is backward compatible to previous Everest keyways. These are available for use in mortise, tubular deadbolt and multipoint locks.

The Everest 29 cylinder differs from the previous Everest version in that the blocking pin was moved from the side to the bottom of the cylinder. UL437-rated Schlage cylinders have hardened steel pins and are tested to withstand extreme physical attacks. Multi-Point Locks provide additional structural security to meet the highest FEMA and FBC wind, hurricane and tornado standards.

ASSA ABLOY has multiple high-security lock manufacturers that make up this group, including Corbin Russwin, Medeco, SARGENT, Yale, ASSA and ABLOY, as well as Israel-based Mul-T-Lock.

Yale makes the 8800 series mortise lock, which can be ordered with the Keymark high-security cylinder. The patented Keymark uses an internal rotating disk that allows a side pin to move from its lateral blocking position. A free-rotating face plug thwarts drill attacks, while bump- or tamper-resistant pin segments deliver UL437 performance.

SARGENT high-security locks use the patented Degree keying system. The latest version cylinder (DG3) uses chisel-point pins, a sidebar and drill resistance to achieve the UL437 rating with its 7900 series mortise locks. SARGENT also provides ASSA ABLOY’s CLIQ hybrid electronic key with the Degree keying system for audit trail and quick deletion or reassignment.

The 9200 series consists of high-security mortise locks for where abuse, vandalism or attack are likely. The M-9200 version with the Mogul cylinder is designed for detention, holding and psychiatric facilities. The FM7300 and 8200 series of multipoint locks handle storm-shelter, safe-room, hurricane and tornado applications.

Medeco has a wide range of high-security cylinders for mortise and rim applications, including the M3 mechanical cylinder and the XT and CLIQ electronic cylinders. M3 cylinders achieve their UL437 rating by including a sidebar that prevents the key from rotating until it’s elevated, rotated and aligned in the correct position. This protects against bumping and picking attacks. Patented versions that use a biaxial design are available.

Mul-T-Lock markets high-security cylinders, padlocks and deadbolts. This brand focuses on institutional and critical-infrastructure users who value high-security keying. UL437-rated cylinders that have telescoping pins and sidebar fingers are available, as is ASSA ABLOY’s CLIQ system.

Corbin Russwin uses the Pyramid patented keying system in its high-security locks. The high-security versions have drill-resistant hard metal inserts in the cylinder and plug, side pins and a bottom locking pin to achieve the UL437 rating for high-security mortise and multipoint locks. The CLIQ system also is available, with high-security keying.

The company also has an extensive line of wind, hurricane, tornado and blast-resistant door and shutter assemblies. The multipoint assemblies use reinforced vertical-rod and strike assemblies to achieve FEMA, FBC and other standards.

ASSA is an original component of the international group. The Swedish company has sold high-security cylinders since the early 1900s. Padlocks, deadbolts and high-security cylinders remain the core business in the Americas. The company has had considerable success with its Mogul cylinders in detention and holding areas.

High-security cylinders use ASSA Twin legacy systems to meet UL437, while the Maximum+ system is patented to 2030. The C4 CLIQ system provides electronic accountability for high-value applications.

ABLOY, another original component, has several high-security key systems for multiple applications, including padlocks. Its PROTEC2 system, which has patent protection to 2031, features a rotating disc cylinder that incorporates false gates and a disc-blocking mechanism to prevent picking. The cylinders’ bump-proof nature comes from the fact that there are no springs or pins to bump. The CLIQ electronic system can be included.

CX5 is a Montreal-based company that manufactures UL437-rated cylinders that resist physical and manipulation attacks. The system has 60 different sidebar configurations per keyway. The standard A2 pinning system doesn’t require expensive specialized key-cutting equipment for the controlled distribution of patented keys.

BEST by dormakaba focused on large organizations that have a lot of people, doors and something of value to defend. Its high-security small-format interchangeable-core (SFIC) system allows rapid and low-cost rekeying.

To meet UL437 standards, BEST developed a complete high-security package. The hardened 5C SFIC core is retained with a double locking lug and an additional set screw. The patented cylinder is retained in the 47H mortise lock with a massive set screw assembly. The hardened stainless steel collar is retained firmly, and a free spinning face disk prevents drilling. Patented keying and authorization processes are available.

Peaks Preferred is the latest version of the Kaba Peaks high-security line of cylinders by dormakaba’s Ilco brand. In addition to having patent protection to 2024, Peaks Preferred achieves its UL437 rating by using a second shear line inside of the cylinder, including a patented pin that functions only with a Peaks patent key. It’s available in mortise, rim and other cylinders.

ABUS, a German company, is famous for its padlocks, bicycle locks and other security items. The company provides a broad range of padlocks that have high-security SFIC, large-format interchangeable-core and conventional cylinders.

Its Vitess locking system includes the Intop pin that works with a Vitess key and a coded profile rib and multiple paracentric profile to prevent lock tampering. It’s patented to 2034.

Marks USA’s HI-SECURITY system is available in several types of cylinders, including mortise and rim. Locks include hardened pins and a sidebar locking mechanism, while keys have a laser-cut wave.

The CyberLock high-security system for a wide range of applications includes electronic cylinders and CyberKey smart keys. The keys are programmed with access privileges for each user and contain a list of locks the user may open with a schedule of days and times that they’re allowed to have access.

When a CyberKey meets a CyberLock, the cylinder is energized, and information is exchanged to determine whether the key has access to that specific lock. If authorized, the lock opens. The lock and key each records all access events.

Stay Under Control

Key control is possibly the most important issue with high-security locking systems. The term “key control” has been used loosely in the locksmithing community to describe patented key and distribution strategies to limit off-site key duplication.

Security professionals know that preventing external duplication is just the tip of the key-control iceberg. The so-called elephant in the room, however, is that employee and guard keys also are misplaced, lost, loaned, borrowed and stolen. People are hired, transferred and depart. Offices, rooms and buildings are renovated and repurposed. Keeping up with these internal changes, regardless of which high-security key system is used, is by far the most critical key-control element for commercial markets.

At the end of the day, high-security locks have an important role for many of your customers.  Just make sure you’re providing a realistic complete solution, rather than an image.

Cameron Sharpe, CPP, worked 30 years in the commercial-lock and electronic access industry. Contact him at [email protected]

About the Author

Cameron Sharpe

Cameron Sharpe, CPP, worked 30 years in the commercial lock and electronic access industry. Contact him at [email protected].