How to Choose the Right Gun Safe
This gun safe buying guide is meant to do one thing: Strip away all of the industry jargon and simplify your gun safe purchase. Here’s some of what this guide will do:
- Explain what the key features of a good gun safe are and why.
- Help you decide what features you can live without depending upon your budget. Let’s face it, you (and me too!) may want the
$5,000 gun safe, but sometimes you just can’t afford it. I want to make sure you get the best gun safe you can buy based on your budget.
All of my reviews on this site are based on the 24 key features covered in this buying guide.
Here are the Gun Safe Buying Guide 24 Key Features:
|Security Features:||Fire Protection:|
|UL Security Rating||Fire Rating Agency|
|Steel Thickness||Fire Rating|
|Inside Bolt Holes||Door Seal|
|Door Hinges||Insulation Type|
|Locking Bolts, No.||Other Considerations:|
|Locking Bolt Sides||Interior Lighting|
|Locking Bolt Size||Water Resistant|
|Lock Rating||Basic Features:|
|Lock Type||Interior Dimensions|
|Lock Manufacturer||Exterior Dimensions|
Security Features – Gun Safe Buying Guide:
All of the factors in this section contribute to how easy (or hard!) the safe is to penetrate. If you are only concerned about your 4 year old getting to your guns, buy a gun cabinet. Otherwise, these security features are critical to understand when choosing your next safe.
UL Security Rating
Most decent gun safe manufacturers have submitted their safes to the Underwriters Laboratories (UL)for security testing. UL is an independent product safety certification organization that has been testing products and writing standards for safety for more than a century.
The following ratings are the most common ones you will typically see.
There are three main UL tampering ratings you will see on residential gun safes: RSC, TL-15, TL-30. These ratings deal with how long a particular safe door can withstand an attack. None of these ratings test a safe’s ability to withstand side or top tampering.
- Residential Security Container (RSC): This is the most common rating you will see for residential gun safes. It means
that the safe cracking experts at UL have tried to break into the safe door and FAILED for at least 5 minutes. The safe has
been subjected to prying, drilling, punching, chiseling, and other tampering techniques.
- TL-15 Burglary Classification: These safes were able to withstand 15 minutes of intense tampering
from the UL safe cracking experts. The experts use a variety of common household tools to attack the safe.
- TL-30 Burglary Classification: These safes were able to withstand 30 minutes of intense tampering from the UL safe cracking experts.
Don’t be fooled by other UL ratings such as Class B or Class C ratings below. These ratings only refer to the safe construction, not their ability to withstand an attack.
- B Rating: This rating only means that the safe has a certain construction. The doors have less than 1 inch thickness and the body construction is less
than 1/2 inch thick. The safe must be of steel outer construction (no plastic safes).
- C Rating: Again this rating only refers to the actual construction of a safe. No fire or safe cracking tests have been done. The door must be at
least 1 inch thick and the body construction must be at least 1/2 inch thick. The safe must be of steel outer construction.
There can be other UL ratings, but you almost never see them on any residential gun safe.
Women often say that size doesn’t matter, however, when it comes to the size or thickness of the steel in a gun safe, it definitely does.
Steel thickness is typically referred to by the industry term “gauge.” Take a look at this handy reference table which converts the gauge number
into its actual thickness in inches. Interestingly, please note that the HIGHER the gauge number is, the THINNER the steel.
Most inexpensive or poor quality safes use higher gauge steel. Why? Steel is expensive. By using thinner steel, safe manufacturers can save money.
As you can guess, thinner steel does not do much in the way of theft prevention. 12 gauge steel can be pierced with a good hand ax. 10 gauge steel
can be easily compromised by with a decent power cutting saw.
Another consideration is that some gun safes will use different gauge steel on the walls versus the doors or top. It doesn’t take a
genius to figure out which part of the safe the thief will attack.
Inside Bolt Holes
Even safes as heavy as 750-1,000 pounds can be easily moved by industrious thieves. Thieves would much rather get your safe back to their lair
where they have unlimited time to work on getting it open.
Bolting the safe to concrete or other hard surface makes it harder for thieves to remove. A thief crunched for time may leave the safe and
focus on easier loot, rather than risk taking a lot of time to break the bolts. Again, as stated at the beginning of this guide, one of your
goals in getting the right safe is to DELAY a thief. Bolting your safe down with interior bolts will help accomplish this goal.
A good safe will have interior bolt holes predrilled so you can more easily secure the gun safe to the floor. Most safes will already have this feature, because
most safes are transported on a pallet which is bolted to the safe. However, on occasion there are some safes that are not transported in this fashion, so make sure
POP QUIZ: Would you rather have a safe with interior or exterior door hinges? The answer to this question is like asking a handgun owner
whether 9mm or 45cal. is the better caliber. Opinions strongly vary and there is no clear answer.
Interior door hinge proponents argue that if the hinges are inside then they cannot be hacked off, possibly making it easier to breach the safe.
They also claim that anyone who says exterior hinges are strong enough to withstand an attack is simply full of it.
Exterior door hinge proponents claim that if the safe has the proper type and configuration of locking bolts, who cares if the hinges are sheared off.
The safe won’t open anyway. They also point out that outside hinges allow the safe door to be opened wider, offering easier loading and unloading of the safe.
Who’s right? Too close to call.
Recommendation: This one is your choice, so long as there are locking bolts on all FOUR sides of the door.
Locking Bolts – Number
Locking Bolts are the metal cylinders that slide from the door of the safe into the walls. Many safe pundits argue that the greater number of
locking bolts the better.
Many safe manufacturers really over load the door with locking bolts. Some Fort Knox safes have up to 28 bolts! The issue is, do all these extra
bolts make the safe more impermeable?
My opinion is it depends. As discussed more fully below, you want bolts on all four door sides. You want at least two bolts on each side. Thus, a
minimum of 8 bolts is needed. It would be better to have at least 10 bolts with two on top and bottom and three on each side.
With this factor, you are generally more concerned with making sure you have the minimum number of bolts, not the upper limit.
Locking Bolt Sides
As touched upon in the previous section, you absolutely must have bolts on all four sides. This is because if the safe does not have bolts on
one side, a thief can much more easily pry the safe door open.
This issue is especially important if you have outside door hinges. If the door hinges are sheared off and the door does not have locking
bolts on one side, then you can kiss your guns, and anything else in the safe, good bye.
One other point is that some of the larger and better made safes actually have diagonal locking bolts in the corners. While this feature is
not critical to avoiding a break in, this is a very good feature to have if all other aspects of the safes you are looking at are even.
Locking Bolts Size
The actual size of the locking bolts also is the subject of some debate. Nowadays, almost all safes have at least 1 inch diameter bolts. This
size should be the minimum diameter you should settle for. It is very rare to have larger than 1.5 inch diameter.
A Re-Locker is a locking device within the safe that is engaged if a sensor is triggered during an attempted break in.
The re-locker “freezes” the locking bolts in place.
Why is this important? In some lower quality safes, a thief can drill a hole by one of the locking bolts. Then, he can apply
pressure to this one bolt, which then slides all of the other locking bolts back into the door. Voila! The door can now be easily opened.
The re-locker locks the bolts in place to prevent this easy access. Re-locker systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer so there is no easy way to evaluate whether one is better than another. As such, just make sure the safe does have a re-locker mechanism.
Most good gun safes have an UL lock rating. The terminology of the rating will vary depending upon whether the lock is a combination
lock or an electronic lock.
UL 768 – Standard of Safety for Combination Locks
The standard for COMBINATION locks is UL 768. This standard tests the resistance of the lock to manipulation and decoding, but not forced entry.
There are three main ratings you are likely to see.
- Group 1 rated locks have a high degree of resistance to manipulation.
- Group 1R rated locks have the same rating as Group 1, except they are also resistant to radiological attacks.
- Group 2 rated locks have a moderate resistance to manipulation.
UL 1034 – Standard of Safety for Burglary Resistant Electronic Locking Mechanisms.
The standard for ELECTRONIC locks is UL 1034. Like the combination locks, this standard only tests the resistance of the
lock to manipulation and decoding, not forced entry. There are two main ratings you are likely to see.
- Type 1 rated locks are highly resistant to manipulation.
- Type 2 rated locks have moderate resistance capabilities.
I would strongly suggest a Group 1 rated combination lock. However, a Group 2 rated lock is adequate. If you go electronic, which is
fine, make sure it is a Type 1 lock. Electronic locks can be finicky, so make sure you get the better rated electronic lock.
Personally, I like combination locks. They are much more likely to work for generations without any problems. I am willing to
sacrifice the speed and ease of use from a digital lock for the durability and longevity of a combination lock.
A good digital lock will last a long time, 10 years or more. If you would prefer the ease of use and speedy access to your guns, then
go with the electronic lock. However, be aware that you will likely have issues down the road with repair and/or replacement.
Most safe manufacturers do not make their own locks they purchase them from specialist companies. The most common combination lock specialist manufacturer you will see is Sargent & Greenleaf, sometimes referred to as S & G. This company makes excellent combination locks and I would highly recommend that you get a safe with this brand lock that is Group 2 rated or better.
The better digital or electronic lock manufactures are S&G, Kaba Mas and La Gard. Again, make sure you get a Type 1 rated electronic lock or better.
Okay, you’ve spent all this money getting a great highly rated digital or combination lock that is highly resistant to manipulation.
But, what happens if there is a forced entry attempt? How do you protect against that?
Well, you make sure the safe has some form of lock protection. The lock controls a bolt which keeps the gears from moving and unlocking the door.
Thieves can drill through the safe door by the lock and simply remove or manipulate the bolt to allow the gears to move, thereby allowing the door to open.
A good safe will add an extra plate of steel in front of this bolt to make it harder to manipulate. Remember, time is the thief’s enemy. The longer it takes him to drill through the added locking protection, the more likely he is to get caught or give up. Either one of which is a good thing.
You will note that some manufacturers don’t use a simple steel plate, but have come up with alternative ways to protect the lock. This actually can be a good thing. For example, Remington, among others, uses ball bearings in their lock protection plate. When the thief drills into the ball bearings, it tends to snap the drill bit. Nice!
A clutch mechanism is part of the door handle assembly. It prevents a thief from being able to force the door handle with a lever (pipe, etc.) and break the internal locking mechanism, thus opening the door. Instead, when the door handle begins to experience excessive force, the clutch mechanism will cause it to slip harmlessly.
Obviously, you do not want to spend a thousand dollars or more on a safe that can be opened by simply inserting a crow bar on the handle to force the door open.
That would be foolish and you are not foolish. As such, buy a safe with a clutch mechanism.
Some safes use a shear pin. If the lock is forced, a pin will engage that keeps the lock from turning. Personally, I would prefer the clutch mechanism.
Fire Protection – Gun Safe Buying Guide
Now that you know what to look for to protect your safe from the bad guys, let’s look at a more probable foe: FIRE.
In 2009, there were 377,000 residential fires in the United States. By comparison, there were 56,409 home burglaries in 2009. Thus, fire protection
for a safe is arguably even more important than preventing theft because it is the more likely loss scenario.
Interestingly enough, determining a safe’s fire retardant capabilities can be somewhat difficult. There is almost no industry standard. Even independent
laboratory testing can vary.
To make matters even more confusing, some safe manufacturers state that a safe has “UL listed” insulation, or something to that effect. The problem is
that the insulation may be UL rated, but the safe has not been tested. This is a direct mischaracterization of the safe’s fire retardant capabilities.
Here are the best practices for making sure you get the right fireproof safe.
The average residential fire burns at approximately 1200° F. The fire typically reaches that temperature within 10 minutes. The average fire department response time to get to a fire is approximately 5 minutes on the east coast and slightly longer in the west.
Once the fire is discovered, reported, the fire department gets to the fire, sets up and begins to put out the fire, you are talking a fairly lengthy period of time.
So, let’s take a look at how this translates into your gun safe purchase.
Fire Rating Agency
Many safe manufacturers do their own fire testing. It is also not uncommon for them to do no fire testing at all. Preferably, you want a safe that has been independently tested by a major rating agency.
The two primary rating agencies are Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Intertek Group. Omega Point Laboratories also used to be a top rating agency but they were purchased by Intertek in 2005. Hertiage Gun Safes uses a company called ITR.
If your insurance company requires you to store your guns in a safe, check to see if they require you to have a UL tested and rated safe.
A great explanation of the difficulty in rating fire safes is provided by the Champion Safe Company:
Examine fire test claims made by safe manufacturers can be confusing and misleading. Unfortunately no universal standards exist
for fire testing in the safe industry. Each manufacturer tests its own products at different laboratories to varying standards. Furnace
ramp-up times, thermocouple placement, the addition of water, safe position (vertical vs. horizontal), and use of shields can all be used to produce more favorable ratings. Some companies test to half hour standards while others test for longer periods of time. Of course, the longer the test, the more it indicates about the quality of a safe and its fire protection. Half hour fire tests don’t measure the endurance of a safe and provide for minimal ratings. Here’s why. Up to half of the test is spent ramping the furnace up to the desired temperature–the safe is not subject to the full intensity of the fire and heat for the full test. Then the heat transfer gradient must be considered. Very little temperature change occurs inside a safe during the first 10 minutes of a test–maybe 10° F or 20° F. It takes time for heat to transfer. Obviously, 30 minute fire tests don’t reveal very much about a safe’s fire resistance.
When looking at fire temperature ratings, please keep the following in mind. Paper chars around 405° F. However, the paper becomes brittle at lower temperatures. Guns will begin to be damaged starting at approximately 500° F. You want to aim at keeping the interior safe temperature at no more than approximately 350° F.
Also, as stated above, a house fire burns at approximately 1200° F. At a minimum, most fires will get this hot within 10 minutes and
burn for at least 30 minutes. Again, think about the time it takes to discover and report a fire, followed by the response time of the fire
department and subsequently extinguishing a fire.
As such, you will commonly see safe companies tout their safes ability to withstand heat at 1200° degrees or more.
Underwriters Laboratory Fire Ratings
UL fire ratings have several classes. Depending upon the class, the safe is subject to heat ranging from 1460° to 1700° F.
For a Class 350 rating, the test measures how long a safe’s interior temperature can remain below 350 degrees, typically 1, 2, 3 or 4 hours.
There is also a Class 350 one half hour rating. The 350° F rating is suitable for guns and paper, but not suitable for electronic media.
For a Class 150 rating, the rating and testing is the same as for a Class 350, except the interior temperature of the safe cannot go above 150° F.
For a Class 125 rating, again it is the same as the above ratings, except the interior of the safe cannot go above 125° F. 125° F is
suitable for electronic media.
Intertek has two main ratings.
ETL Semko. This rating simply means that the safe will perform as claimed by the manufacturer. For example, if the manufacturer says the safe interior will remain below 350 degrees for 1 hour when exposed to exterior heat of 1200° F, then ETL Semko confirms that this is true.
ETL 1/2-Hour Fire Endurance Test. This test subjects the safe to temperatures of 1400° F for 1/2 hour. The interior must remain below 350° F.
I could not find a suitable explanation of the ITR standards.
Admittedly, all of this information on fire testing may be a bit over kill. However, there are a lot of traps for the unwary when trying to evaluate the fire resistant capabilities of a safe.
Bottom line is that, at a minimum, you want to make sure the safe interior can remain at 350 ° F or less for at least 30 minutes, preferably one hour.
I don’t care how much fire resistant insulation a safe has, if the door isn’t properly sealed, your guns are toast. Literally.
A good seal also will help keep out humidity which causes rust. So, a good door seal is important.
Some safes have no seal at all. Others use a rubber seal. A rubber seal is okay, but not the best. Your best option is to look
for a seal made of Palusol.
Palusol is “heat activated”. This means that when it gets hot (think fire) it expands 5-9 times its original size to block out the smoke and
heat. You may also see the term 3-in-1 Premium Palusol or triple fin Palusol. This means that it is slightly better than normal Palusol and includes sealing protection from “cold” smoke.
The type of insulation appropriate for gun safes is another one of those topics that generates vastly different, and very strong, opinions.
However, it really doesn’t matter because most residential safes only use one type of insulation.
Most residential safes use several layers of fire rated fiberboard. The thickness of a given fiberboard can vary widely. For those that don’t
know, fiberboard is simply gypsum board or sheetrock, just like on your walls.
Just for your knowledge, commercial grade safes typically use a concrete based liner.
I don’t spend a lot of time on the thickness of insulation. My theory is that you should look for a safe that has been fire rated by the appropriate agency.
Other Features – Gun Safe Buying Guide:
Interior lighting of a safe is important for two reasons. First, sometimes bad guys come at night. Having an interior light allows you to access your weapons easier, yet still allows you to possibly not alert the bad guys you are coming. Second, if you store your safe in a basement or other poorly lit area, it is real handy to have an interior light.
So, this feature is not critical, but still very handy. I prefer the lighting to be LED strips, but other lighting is okay. This feature is not overly common, so sometimes you have to add it yourself.
Okay, your safe survived the fire, but what about the flood (or the water from the firefighters hoses)? This feature is not common at all. Only Sentry Safe has patented water resistant safes. These safes remain water tight for up to one hour in six inches of water or subject to a 1,000 gallon fire hose for 15 minutes.
Other solutions to this problem if you don’t want to buy a Sentry Safe is to raise your safe up off of the ground, such as a raised concrete slab. This is particularly important if you have your safe in the basement. After all, where do you think all that water from the fire hoses goes?
For the record, I do not recommend buyng the Sentry safe just for the water resistant feature.
Obviously, excess humidly leads to rust, so you want to try and make the safe as dry inside as possible. A dehumidifier is not typically a standard item, but you should look for a safe that has a prewired option.
Basic Features – Gun Safe Buying Guide
First, buy a safe that is bigger than your current gun collection. After all, if you buy one gun, you buy a dozen. Make sure your safe is big enough to at least support your reasonable expansion possibilities. At least 18 guns capacity is a good place to start, unless of course you have more guns than that currently.
Second, make sure the safe is tall enough on the inside for longer guns. You should get at least 58 inches high on the inside. This will hold a 30 inch gun plus allow for some space at the top for a shelf.
Figure out where you will be putting your safe and measure the space. Most gun safe sellers provide free delivery, but if you screw this up and need to return it, the freights on you! I wonder what it costs to repackage a safe and ship it back to the store? Don’t find this out the hard way. Measure twice, order once!
Again, I recommend a minimum of 18 gun capacity, more if you already have a substantial collection. Remember, not all guns are the same size. Some have scopes or other features that will diminish the storage capacity of a safe. Just because the safe says it has 18 gun capacity, doesn’t mean you can actually fit 18 of YOUR guns in it.
A safe weighs what it weighs, but it does matter. The heavier it weighs the harder it is to steal. Look for a safe that is at least 750 pounds, preferably over 1000 pounds. Also, if your safe location is not on concrete, you may want to make sure the floor can carry the weight of the safe.
This is a lengthy gun safe buying guide, yet as you can see, there are a lot of considerations to getting the right safe.
All of the reviews on this site use this gun safe buying guide as the basic method of attempting to compare safes using the same criteria. Hopefully, you will find it helpful.
Gun Safe Buying Guide Sources: