Here’s everything you need to know before buying a gun safe
When buying a gun safe, it’s important to know why you want it. The most common and logical reason is to, well, store your firearms. But you can’t just walk into a gun shop and buy the first safe you see or the safe that appeals most to your visual senses. That would be making an uninformed decision which could lead to issues and ultimately, regret, in the long run.
So, we’ve written this review to help you get started and to provide you with the correct know-how on what to look for in a gun safe when making a purchase.
What to Look For in a Gun Safe Quick Specs
|Security Rating||Gun Safe (Security Container)||Exceptional Gun Safe (Security Container)||True Safe|
|Container Type||UL RSC||UL RSC||B Class or Higher|
|Wall Thickness||12 gauge||7 gauge||1/4″|
|Door Thickness||8 gauge||3 gauge or thicker||0.5″|
|Door Seal||Palusol Intumescent, Full Length||Palusol Intumescent, Full Length||Palusol Intumescent, Full Length|
|Body Welds||Continuous, Full Penetration||Continuous, Full Penetration||Continuous, Full Penetration|
|Lock Type||Dial or Electronic Keypad Combination||Dial or Electronic Keypad Combination||Dial or Electronic Keypad Combination|
|Lock Rating for Mechanical||UL 768 Group II||UL 768 Group II||UL 768 Group I|
|Lock Rating for Electrical||UL 768 Group I||UL 768 Group I||UL 768 Group I|
|Combination Lock Manufacturers||La Gard, Sargent & Greenleaf, Kaba Mas, AMSEC||La Gard, Sargent & Greenleaf, Kaba Mas, AMSEC||La Gard, Sargent & Greenleaf, Kaba Mas, AMSEC|
|Fire Insulation||Gypsum Drywall||Fiberglass /|
|Fire Insulation Thickness||1″||1.5″||1.5″ or thicker|
|Inner Fire Liner (Steel)||No||Yes||Yes|
What Should You Consider Before Buying A Gun Safe?
What do you want to store in your gun safe?
It’s a simple question but some people might take a minute or two before giving you an answer. The most obvious reason for getting a gun safe is to store your firearms, but it’s not always the only reason.
Many folks get gun safes first for their guns, and second for their valuables.
However, some people have an array of accessories for their firearms as well as a good amount of ammunition. These things should also be taken into consideration when deciding on a gun safe. Although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a separate safe to keep your ammo and valuables in, at the same time, you could buy a larger safe instead of having two.
What’s the value of the items you wish to keep safe?
This is important to think on as you wouldn’t want to store items valued at thousands of dollars in a safe that doesn’t have a high-security rating. Just because it’s called a ‘safe’ doesn’t mean that whatever you’re keeping locked away will be kept safe and out of the hands of thieves.
Will the safe be used on a frequent basis?
What I mean by this is, will the safe be opened and closed every day or once in a long while? You should think about how often you open your safe, so you don’t limit your options.
For example; if you use the safe to store your trusty daily self-defense gun, then you’re probably opening and closing the safe at least twice a day. If it’s used to store a home self-defense weapon or your hunting rifles, then it’s probably only being opened once every few months.
Depending on what you use the safe for, you’d want to consider grabbing yourself two safes. One for your larger firearms that aren’t being used frequently, and the other to store your daily carry-on.
Where do you want to keep the safe?
This must be one of the first things you should take into consideration before buying a gun safe. Do you know where you want to keep the safe? Are there any weight or size limitations that you should take note of? Will the safe fit through your doorways when it’s being delivered to your house?
If you want to insure your weapons or valuables that you’re going to keep in your safe, then you should check with your insurance company or the company to see if the safe meets their requirements for insurance.
The Size of the Gun Safe
The size of the gun safe is an important factor to take into consideration, especially when it comes to storage space and the amount of space it takes up.
Manufacturers of all sorts of goods have a way of tricking potential customers into buying their products. For example, they’ll advertise that their products can hold this amount of goods or can sleep that number of people.
In most cases their claims will be true, however, it only fits the bare minimum requirements. This means that if a safe says it can store 5 or 8 long guns, it’ll probably store that number of guns but then those guns will have to be void of and modifications.
If you have any sort of modification on your gun, like a scope, a holographic site or whatever else, that could possibly limit the number of long guns or carbines that you’ll be able to store inside your safe.
Apart from that, if you do manage to fill up every slot inside the safe, it’s bound to be a really tight squeeze. And if your guns are tight for space inside of the safe, gaining access to a specific firearm will prove to be a mission every single time.
For example, if you want to remove a certain gun from the safe because you feel like having a day at the shooting range or it’s time for your annual hunting trip, then odds are that you’ll first have to remove most of the firearms first in order to get to your desired choice. On top of it all, because you’re constantly having to remove your guns and put them back, you’re risking the possibility of causing some damage to your firearms by bumping or knocking them into each other as well as scratching the barrels or stocks.
So, it is highly recommended against filling a gun safe to full capacity as it makes simple tasks more difficult and increases the chances of you dinging one of your precious guns.
As a rule of thumb, when deciding on a gun safe, double the number of guns you want to keep inside of it and find yourself a safe that can house that number of guns.
When deciding on your safe, it’s vital to know what the true dimensions of the safe are. Sometimes the advertised size of the safe can be a little off. The exterior dimensions won’t always be an accurate or exact representation of what’s being advertised.
Sometimes the exterior dimensions will be off by half an inch — sometimes more. Speculation for this is that manufacturers are competing with one another, so they’ll “adjust” their dimensions to match that of their competitors.
If you’re planning to build around your safe and not have an already-prepared spot for it, then it’s best you go and measure the safe in person instead of going by the advertised dimensions. We’re not saying that all companies falsely advertise their products, we’re just saying that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
When buying a safe, many folks compare the exterior dimensions and completely forget about what’s going on inside of the safe. When you’re comparing safes, always remember to compare the interior dimensions.
Even if the safe looks big enough on the outside, if it has great fire protection, then the walls will be thicker which leads to less storage space on the inside.
Rather Safe Than Sorry
We’ve all heard that bigger is better. In some cases, it isn’t, but in most cases it is. In this particular one, bigger is definitely better.
For example, if you’re enthusiastic about guns, chances are that you’re going to fill up your safe in a few years (if you haven’t already done so). So what do you do when you’re sitting with a safe full of guns and a desire to acquire more but you can’t because you don’t have the storage space for it?
Well, you could either stop collecting more guns or you could just buy another safe. If you’re like me, the first choice isn’t an option that I’d consider — not even close.
So the next option would be to buy another safe.
If you’re planning on collecting guns but haven’t really gotten started on that or if your safe is already quite full, then perhaps you should consider going big — really big.
Remember, it’s not just guns that you keep in your safe. Many people keep all kinds of stuff in there. Apart from guns, most people store ammunition, cleaning equipment, jewelry, binoculars, scopes, and other kinds of valuables.
If you can afford to go big on the gun safe, then we highly recommend that you do. After all, a high-quality gun safe will be the investment of a lifetime.
Security & Burglary Ratings for Gun Safes
Gun safe security ratings are vital when it comes to insurance coverage that’s available to you. In some states, like California, you are required to get a safe with a security rating of UL 1037 Residential Security Container (RSC).
Whenever you buy a new safe, if your guns are insured, ask your insurance company what their burglary and security rating requirements are. This could prove to save you money in the long run as you would possibly pay less when you have a safe with a higher security rating.
However, if you don’t have any insurance on your firearms and would like to consider that as an option, below is a table that provides you with some idea of what the replacement value of the contents of your safe would be should anything happen to it.
|REPLACEMENT VALUE OF CONTENTS (USD)||RECOMMENDED RATING|
|Up to $4,000||UL 1037 Residential Security Container|
|Up to $12,000||*Exceptional UL 1037 RSC|
|Up to $50,000||B-Rate|
|$50,000 to $200,000||C-Rate|
|$200,000 to $500,000||E-Rate or UL 687 TL-15|
|$500,000 to $1,000,000||F-Rate or UL 687 TL-30|
RSC Gun Safes and Below
A residential security container is just that, a secure container. Technically speaking, an RSC is not a safe, it is a container for your firearms. However, for a container to get a UL 1037 RSC rating, it has to be able to withstand a 5-minute attack from one man using a quarter-inch drill bit and other basic hand tools.
Although, what may take one man to do in little over five minutes may take two men half that time to do, especially if they’re using crowbars and an assortment of power tools.
So, you could buy a cheap safe, but that doesn’t mean that it will have a UL 1037 RSC rating. If that’s the case, you’ll be better off grabbing yourself a locker or gun cabinet.
When it comes to selecting an RSC safe, you’ll have an array of choices to choose from seeing how the prices of these can start quite low—as low as $200, if not lower—and then you’ll get some on the other end of the spectrum which could end up costing more than $10,000.
Experts in this field would agree that the difference between the lower end and the higher end RSC safes are not that vast. An expensive RSC safe could last a few more minutes longer against an attack than a cheaper option would.
There are also different security measures that will possibly push the price up a bit more, like biometric scanners and so forth.
However, with the knowledge of an RSC safe being a glorified container, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. There is a higher classification of RSC safes, and that is Exceptional UL 1037 RSC. The exceptional RSC’s are able to withstand a fair amount of physical attacks aimed at breaking through the safe.
Now we’re getting serious. When you have an expensive collection of firearms, you wouldn’t want to keep it stored away in a safe that you know won’t do a proper job of keeping intruders out.
True safes start with a B-Class rating. B-Class safes should have at least 1/4″ thick steel plate walls and 1/2″ thick steel plate doors. True protection against attacks start with B-Class rated safes and going by the door and wall thickness, it’s no wonder.
But don’t think that B-Class safes are entirely penetration-proof. The rating above B is C. C-Class safes offer better protection than that of B-Class rated ones, but it’s not entirely invincible against the right set of power tools.
If you’re looking for a safe that would withstand attacks from power tools, then you’d be looking at getting a UL 687 TL-15 rated safe.
Setting A Budget for Your Safe
Knowing how much you’re going to spend on a safe is an important decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. When looking at the prices of gun safes, you should consider the total value of everything that you’re going to store up inside of that safe.
If the total value of what you’re going to keep inside the safe exceeds $5,000, then it’s only logical to get a safe that would cost you between 10-30% of the total value of its contents. However, it should be the original retail price of the contents by which you should measure, not the current retail price.
For example, if your firearm collection has an original retail price of $10,000, then you would have to look at a safe that costs between 10-30% of that. So, if your collection has a current retail price of $8,000, then you shouldn’t work the percentage out based on that number.
The 10-30% rule is just a guideline to help you make the best decision for your buck and for the safe keeping of the contents of your safe. You wouldn’t want to keep $10,000 worth of firearms and accessories in a $400 “Made In China” safe, would you?
The 10-30% rule depends on the insurance, the type of guns that you keep in your safe, and the value of your firearms.
For example, handguns are a favorite among thieves and are therefore a high-risk weapon. On the other hand, bolt-action rifles have a lower risk of being stolen. But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest in a proper safe for your bolt-action rifles.
The price of steel keeps rising, so investing in a safe that seems expensive today won’t be a bad decision in a few years time. If you can afford to, buy the best safe you can today, and save the money in the long run.
The Weight of the Gun Safe
If you’re unsure about the quality of the safe that you want to purchase, a surefire way of being sure about its quality is to check its weight. A true safe will always weigh heavier than an RSC gun safe — even the top of the line ones.
You could take two safes that are just about the same in size and compare their weight. The heavier safe will undoubtedly be of better quality than the lighter one.
However, if you find two safes of the same size, same price but different weight, then you should have a deeper look. The lighter safe will almost surely have a fancy finish or more cosmetic features than its heavier counterpart. Don’t be fooled.
If your aim is to keep the contents of your safe protected and out of the hands of criminals, then you should always go for the heavier, dull-looking safe over the fancy one sitting next to it.
So, as a rule of thumb, always check the weight differences between the safes that you’re interested in buying.
The weight differences between an RSC gun safe and a B-Rate safe of the same size can be vast, even up to 1,000 pounds in difference.
The only downside of having a heavier gun safe is when you have to move. If you’re moving a lot due to work responsibilities, then having the heavy safe might not be a wise decision to make.
Gun Safe Steel
The most expensive part of a safe is the steel. This is because it’s the first line of defense against burglary.
To ensure that you have a top-notch gun safe, it’s important to check the thickness of the walls and of the door. Without meeting the minimum requirements of steel thickness, any safe could be broken into within a matter of minutes.
Most gun safe manufacturers mislead their customers and potential customers by providing false information, in a sense.
They’ll state that the door is this thick or the walls are that thick. Although what they’re saying is the truth with regards to thickness, the underlying story is what’s misleading.
The total wall thickness would often time be advertised as being two inches thick. Although this might tickle your fancy, the outer shell would be made from something like 14 gauge steel with a few layers of drywall.
Despite how impressive it may sound to boast two-inch thick walls, it’s still not as impressive as having two-inch thick steel walls. Don’t get caught in this trap.
Many safes have the appearance of sturdy-looking doors, but in reality, their bark is bigger than their bite.
Although the doors may look robust and sturdy, only a small portion of the safe door is actually steel. Most of the door is just drywall covered in sheet metal. Just like with the walls of the safe, the door might be advertised as being this-many-inches thick, but that doesn’t even come close to representing the steel thickness.
Here’s another gimmick that marketers like to use; combined steel thickness. They advertise the combined thickness of the different sheets of steel to make it sound like the steel being used in the safe is actually quite thick.
Although this may sound impressive at first, the outer sheet may be something like 10 gauge steel and the inner sheet will be about 16 gauge steel. And these two sheets will then also be separated by some drywalling.
Have someone equipped with the right tools and they’ll break right through that safe in a matter of minutes.
Here are some guidelines that you could follow when looking at the thickness of the steel for a gun safe.
Generally speaking, the walls of any gun safe are always made of thinner steel than the door is, making it the “easiest” part for a thief to hack through.
With the safe keeping of the contents of the safe and keeping intruders out being your number one priority, getting a safe where the thickest wall sheet is no-less thicker than 10 gauge steel is a must.
We know that 10 gauge steel isn’t the thickest, nor will it be able to withstand a brute attack. However, if you place the safe strategic and intelligently, then having 10 gauge steel is more than enough.
What we mean is that if you bolt the safe down while blocking access to the walls and the top of the safe, then you’re already well on your way to keeping the baddies out.
When looking at the thickness of your safe door, you should be looking at 7 gauge steel for the thickness of the outer sheet of the door. Having a thick outer sheet is always a good thing.
Having a door with an outer sheet made of 7 gauge steel is better than having a door made of 12 gauge steel wrapped around some drywalling.
A joint properly welded with full penetration is stronger than the base metal. When welding steel, the area around the weld can get hot pretty quickly, causing the steel to expand and possibly deform the steel.
In order to avoid this from happening, a welder would do something called skip-welding. Skip-welding is when a welder welds short sections at a time and later coming back to fill the gaps until a continuous weld is complete.
With cheaper gun safes, skip-welds are not connected and are therefore typically filled with a plastic filler compound, making the integrity of the safe much weaker. As if that wasn’t enough, the filler compound used is oftentimes a flammable product. So in the event of a fire, the outside of the safe would open right up due to this cheap fix.
Many gun safe welds present a problem when the weld is cosmetic. In many cases, welded joints will be ground down and polished, but with base metals that are thin, it’s not uncommon that the joint gets damaged as a result from over-grinding it. Whenever that happens, they simply need to weld it and grind it over again, but that’s too time-consuming.
When it comes to welding, some companies take the risk of cutting corners. One such example is that of using cold welds.
A cold weld allows for faster and longer welds before the metal starts to deform. However, with cold welds, the penetration is much less, making the weld weaker than the surrounding metal. To illustrate, for someone trying to break into a gun safe that’s been cold-welded, all they need is a hammer and voila!
Because of this, the UL 687 ratings require a continuous 1/4-inch penetration weld.
However, as welding is a time-consuming process, some companies make use of bending sheet metal, which eliminates the need for welding joints together.
As human nature, most people tend to go for the item with the most attractive price. In other words, the cheapest product. With gun safes, we know that buying the cheapest could result in potential problems in the event of a fire breaking out or an intruder trying to get his hands on whatever you’ve got stowed away in your safe.
When you’re inspecting gun safes before making your decision on which one to buy, have a look at the welding quality and if you’re unsure, ask the store help for more info or just get in touch with the safe manufacturing company.
Holes for Anchoring the Safe
To make the most out of a gun safe’s security, it needs to be bolted down into the ground. A safe that isn’t anchored doesn’t offer the same amount of security that a bolted-down safe does.
When selecting your safe, it should have proper bolt holes which should be at the outer corners of the base. This makes it harder to jimmy a pry bar underneath the safe. Be careful about the country of origin in which the gun safe is made in.
Some Chinese-manufactured safes place the anchor point in the middle of the base. This would make it way too easy for someone to get a pry bar underneath the safe. So be on the lookout for safes with center-based anchor points. The moment you see that, turn around.
Gun Safe Doors
Gun Safe Door and Frame
Gun safe doors and frames are one of the weakest areas of the safe. When looking at the doors of any safe that you wish to purchase, avoid composite doors at all costs.
If the safe door has a solid out steel sheet, then that would be more preferred than a composite door, despite looking thinner.
The majority of safes on the market have a pretty large door gap — big enough to fit a tool in for prying. If possible, these safes should be avoided.
If you have a look at true safes, you’ll find that their door gap is so small that in some cases you won’t be able to fit even a credit card in between the door and the doorpost. In terms of security, having such a small gap between the safe door and doorpost is essential.
With such a little gap, it would be impossible to jam a pry bar or any other tool into the door gap.
Although there might be a competition of aesthetics when it comes to door hinges being internally or externally located, they have absolutely nothing to do with security, provided the gun safe is properly made.
Internal door hinges only allow the door of the gun safe to open 90 degrees. This can eventually become a hassle if you’re opening your safe on a frequent basis to remove or replace your firearms. Internal hinges can’t be adjusted either, so this means that doors with internal hinges can’t be removed.
Having a gun safe with external door hinges allows the door to swing open 180 degrees, which is what you’ll want if you’re constantly removing and replacing your weapons.
External door hinges can also be adjusted and removed. This is beneficial for when you’re moving the safe. You’ll be able to remove the door and thus lighten the body of the safe by quite a bit.
Door seals help the dehumidifiers inside of your safe to keep the moisture to an absolute minimum. A gun safe without a door seal is an absolute no go. Stay away if possible.
Other than working as a safeguard against moisture, door seals provide protection against fires, smoke, hot gasses, etc. If a fire does break out and your gun safe happens to be in the midst of it, without a door seal, the contents of your safe that are not made of steel, like wooden and composite gun stocks and any paper (emergency cash perhaps?) will quickly burn to ashes.
If the safe you’re looking at has a door seal, check that it has an intumescent door seal. This kind of door seal expands with heat. The hotter it gets, the more it expands. This helps a lot to keep any smoke out of the inside of the safe.
Gun Safe Locks
UL certifies both UL 768 Standard for Combination Locks for mechanical dials and electronic keypads. Key locks, on the other hand, are certified under UL 437 Burglary Resistant Locks and Locking Mechanisms.
UL 768 locks are referred to by their groups as Group I and Group II.
UL 768 Standard for Combination Locks
In order to be certified as a UL 768 Standard for Combination Locks, a specific set of requirements must be met first.
General Construction Requirements:
- The clearance between the tumbler wheels and the fence face must not be less than 0.025″ when the bolt lever is raised by means of the driver cam, and no less than 0.015″ when the bolt lever is raised by any means other than the driver cam.
- The lever must be secured tightly and must fit snugly on the post. The fence must be perpendicular to the plane of the tumblers.
- There must be up to 1,000,000 theoretical combinations. This means the dial numbering is from 0 to 99 on a three-wheel combination lock.
- Tumblers must be placed in the right angles in relation to the tumbler post.
UL 768 Group II:
- The tolerance for a three-number wheel lock are 1.25 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
- The tolerance for a four-number wheel lock are 1.50 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
UL Group I:
- The tolerance for a three-number wheel lock are 1.00 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
- The tolerance for a four-number wheel lock are 1.25 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
- The lock bolt of a Group I lock will become immobilized if the lock is punched.
- The lock must resist against 20 hours of non-authorized access.
- Protection against manipulation must include advanced features that aren’t found in conventional designs. These manipulation tests include:
- Walking the tumblers
- Expert manipulation techniques
- Feeling tumbler gates
- Sighting the variations on the tumbler
UL 768 IR:
- Is compliant with all of Group I requirements.
- Is secured against 20 hours of radioactive attacks that do not exceed 10 curies of cobalt-60 at a distance of 30″.
UL 768 was developed for mechanical dial locks, so not all of the UL 768 specifications are applicable to electronic locks. However, most electronic locks will meet the specifications of Group I.
Then there’s the matter of Group IR locks. This group isn’t a very common thing on gun safes seeing how the materials are made out of plastic to prevent x-ray imaging.
When deciding about the lock rating that you need to get when purchasing a safe, get one with a combination lock of UL 768 Group II or better. This will ensure the best amount of security against intruders.
Electronic keypads may not seem as reliable as their mechanical dial counterparts are. Many seem to think that you could just rip the keypad off and unlock the safe via some computer trickery. These people have seen too many movies.
The keypad to a UL rated electronic lock works very much the same way that a keyboard works for your computer. So that means that there is absolutely no information stored within the keypad of the electronic lock.
Electronic locks that aren’t rated UL 768 will often have the lock electronics built into the keypad. Whenever this is the case, the manufacturer obviously tried to cut costs at the expense of the gun safe security.
With non-UL 768 rated locks like this, it’s possible for someone to hotwire the lock by removing the keypad. Non-UL 768 rated locks present a high possibility of being breached if the intruder knows what they’re doing.
But even if there’s no risk of anyone breaking into your gun safe, you’ll still run the risk of the electronics malfunctioning at one point or another if it is cheaply made. When it comes to the reliability of locks, mechanical locks always come out on top above electronic locks.
Always be on the lookout for safes that don’t have an RSC rating or for locks that don’t have a UL rating. When this is the case, these locks will almost always be made in China and be of much lesser quality than those made in the USA.
These locks will be in risk of locking out, forcing you to either get the help of a locksmith which could end up costing you an arm and a leg, or you could just simply try opening the lock yourself with the help of some brute force. Option two might end up costing you less than getting a locksmith to open your safe, only to have your safe lockout again in a few weeks time.
When you’re on the lookout for the best lock manufacturers, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for these following companies: Sargent & Greenleaf, AMSEC, La Gard, and Kaba Mas.
The upside of UL 768 locks is that each one is individually tested. This makes the UL 768 rating more important than the brand or manufacturer themselves.
When looking at the best in the industry, Sargent & Greenleaf have set the standard for mechanical dial locks. S&G have been in the lock making business since 1857 but were acquired in 2005 by Stanly and have reportedly outsourced work to China which could have an effect on the quality of their locks.
As for electronic keypad locks, La Gard has the edge here. La Gard is a brand of Kaba Mas, which is located in Lexington, Kentucky, USA.
S&G have reportedly had issues with their electronic locks (this most likely has something to do with outsourcing work to China), making La Gard the wiser choice when looking at electronic locks.
As mentioned earlier, steer clear from Chinese gun safes and locks. Don’t even think for a second that you’ll be able to make a good buy because the safe looks okay.
Often you’ll find on Chinese safes that they try to imitate the logos of known and trusted American lock manufacturers. These imitations have fooled many but when the safe has a lockout a few months or weeks later, then you’ll know.
However, despite the similarities in these logos, if you have a closer look and know what to look for, then you’ll be able to easily spot the difference.
Replacing/Upgrading A Gun Safe Lock
Many companies offer upgrades to the locks on your gun safe, however, some safe manufacturers have exclusive agreements with only one lock manufacturing company. For example, S&G locks are found on Fort Knox, Browning, and Liberty gun safes.
All you need is a locksmith to have a new lock installed on your gun safe if you wish to make an upgrade from your current lock.
Remember that if you’re going to upgrade to an electrical keypad, then La Gard is the go-to option as they have more reliable electronic locks than most other brands on the market.
If you have all the correct tools and know-how, then replacing the lock yourself is a doable thing. However, if you do proceed to make the upgrade or replacement yourself, then that means that you assume all responsibility for if the lock doesn’t work. The warranty will also be void if you do proceed to do the installation yourself.
Although, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. There’s nothing wrong with getting someone to do the installation for you.
Gun Safe Lock Types
When you think of two gun safe lock types, you’ll almost always think of a mechanical dial lock and an electronic keypad lock. After all, these are the most popular locks being used on gun safes today. Since its invention in 1878, the mechanical dial lock hasn’t changed much in its design or mechanics.
Some safe manufacturing companies make use of a mechanical dial and electrical keypad lock on their safe doors. This provides added security measures as some of these safes require both the mechanical dial and electrical keypad to be unlocked first before the safe door can be opened.
However, some safes might have both locking mechanisms on the same safe door but will only require either one of the locks to be used to open the door instead of using both.
In 2012 La Gard discontinued their 2441/6441 hybrid model due to reliability problems that it presented. It made use of a four-wheel dial lock and an electronic keypad on one lock. AMSEC has recently also introduced a safe lock of the same nature as the La Gard hybrid called the Duo Lock.
The Duo Lock hasn’t been on the market long enough to say whether or not it will have long-term reliability issues, so beware when going for the Duo Lock.
Mechanical Dial or Electrical Keypad?
When deciding on a gun safe, we’ll always look at the locking mechanism first. Some people may choose an electronic keypad due to its look and seemingly more modern feel. And then you’ll get those who stay true to the old school and always go with a mechanical dial.
Both of these locking mechanisms have their give and takes. Refer to the table below.
|SPECS||MECHANICAL DIAL||ELECTRONIC KEYPAD||WINNER|
|Reliability||Very little problems||Problem with majority of locks||Mechanical Dial|
|Security||Great if rated Ul 768||Great if rated Ul 768||Tie|
|Maintenance||Lubricate once in few years||Replace batteries yearly||Mechanical Dial|
|Combination Visibility||Can’t be seen in dark||Buttons on keypad light up||Electronic Keypad|
|Opening Time||Under 45 seconds||Under 10 seconds||Electronic Keypad|
|Opening Under Stress||Fine motor skills required||Locks out for multiple wrong codes||Electronic Keypad|
|Number of Combinations||100,000 to 4,000,000||100,000 to 1,000,000||Mechanical Dial|
|Survivability||Very good||Susceptible to EMP’s, needs batteries||Mechanical Dial|
|Changing Combination||Requires locksmith||Easy, can store multiple combinations||Electronic Keypad|
|Lifetime||More than 100 years if maintaned||3 to 10 years||Mechanical Dial|
|Sales||10% of gun safes||90% of gun safes||Electronic Keypad|
|Warranty||5 years to Lifetime if maintained||1 to 3 years||Mechanical Dial|
|Common User Issue||Forget to turn dial to re-lock||Keypad wear pattern||Tie|
If there’s one thing to be said about mechanical dial locks, it’s that they’re as reliable as it gets. If the mechanical dial lock on your gun safe is properly maintained, it will literally last you an entire lifetime. And if the safe is passed down to one of your children and they maintain it with proper care, then the mechanical dial lock will more than likely last them a lifetime too.
With regards to electronic keypad locks, there are quite a few things that could go wrong. Having an electronic keypad lock could almost certainly guarantee that you’ll have to get your safe drilled open at one point or another during its lifetime. This might not happen to everyone but many can testify that they’ve had their safe drilled open because there were some issues with their electronic lock.
Not only will you run the risk of having the electronics malfunction but the lock itself is prone to fail within a few years of use — typically between 8-15 years.
If you buy a safe with an electronic keypad, always buy a spare keypad in the event that the keypad on your safe fails or gives you problems. Just don’t keep your spare keypad inside of your safe.
With electronics, there are a lot of things that could go wrong; electronics and solenoids could fail, the motor gears could strip, corrosion inside of the keypad could develop if you’re living in a region with high humidity or near the coast where the air is salty.
If you start experiencing problems and issues with your electronic lock, keep the door of your safe open until you can get the electronic lock fixed. We know this isn’t proper safety practice, but it’s better than having your safe drilled open.
With that being said, looking at an electronic keypad lock in comparison to a mechanical dial lock, there’s really not much persuading needed to tell you which one is the better and more reliable option.
However, I’m not knocking the idea of having an electronic keypad lock entirely. I’m just simply stating that for reliability, there really is no better longterm option than having a mechanical dial.
In this comparison, we’re only looking at UL 768 Group I or Group II rated locks. So we’re not even going to consider unrated locks as an option.
Security-wise, both locks offer about the same amount of security. However, if both mechanical dials and electronic keypads were subject to a fire, then both locks would melt or burn up externally. If that happens, there’s no way you’ll get the safe open other than calling a professional in to help you.
As mentioned earlier, mechanical dial locks can last a lifetime if maintained properly. Mechanical dial locks should be lubricated every 5 years. This is usually done by a locksmith who has to come out to your house for the process. This could cost you anywhere between $75-125.
With electronic keypad locks, you’ll have to replace the batteries every year. The convenience of replacing batteries is that it can be done without the help of a locksmith. Batteries can be replaced from outside the safe, usually behind the keypad. If the battery dies, the safe will not be able to open but the combination will still be remembered.
Regardless of what lock you use, the locking mechanism needs to be lubricated anyways. However, even if you only lubricate mechanical dial lock once every 10 years, it will still work fine. You wouldn’t be able to get away with replacing the batteries on an electronic keypad lock once every 10 years.
It’s clear which one of the two safe locking mechanisms wins here. When you’re in the dark, having the keypad light up sure does help out quite a lot when trying to access the contents of your safe.
The same can’t be said for dials. You’ll need some sort of light to be able to see the numbers.
Electronic locks on a gun safe are a convenience, which is why they’re so popular with many gun safe owners.
Opening a mechanical dial safe can take anywhere between 20-45 seconds. While on the other hand, electronic keypad locks can be opened in under 10 seconds.
Opening Under Stress
As we’ve just read, opening a safe with a mechanical dial takes a more than a few seconds to do, not to mention some decent motor skills. For that reason, don’t keep your home defense weapon inside a safe with a mechanical dial.
Opening a mechanical dial safe takes a while, but opening it under stress would seemingly take a lifetime for someone who isn’t trained to react under pressure.
On the other hand, having a safe with an electronic keypad lock in such a situation would be much easier to open than having to focus on getting the combination right by turning the dial under stress. But that’s not to say that keypads won’t have their own set of problems in such situations.
Some locks have a time-out period of the combination is entered incorrectly more than 3 or 5 times, leaving you locked out of your safe for a period of time.
Number of Combinations
The number of combinations that your safe lock can have is very important, especially if you have children.
Dial locks usually come in 3-4 wheel types which have 3-4 digits to the combination of the lock. To meet UL 768, each wheel on a 3-digit dial is marked from 0 to 99. This means that there are 1,000,000 theoretical combinations.
We say “theoretical” because of the mechanical tolerances of these numbers. To illustrate, if you have a lock with a 1.0 number tolerance, the lock wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between 10-03-25, 09-02-24, 11-04-26. This means that if you dial one combination, you’re pretty much dialing 9 other different combinations.
If you look at it that way, the correct number of possible combinations that you’ll have for your dial lock would be something like 111,111. That’s a pretty big drop from the theoretical 1,000,000.
Dial locks also have dead zones. This means that the last number in a combination would be restricted to numbers ranging from 0 to 90. This prevents any issues from happening inside the lock.
Electronic keypad locks don’t have issues such as dead zones or tolerances, but getting into an electronic lock by entering keys instead of turning a dial is so much easier and quicker that it could potentially present a risk of entry by your children. But this could be avoided if the electronic lock has a “timeout” or lockout feature in place. This prevents the incorrect code to be entered too many times.
Having this feature could prevent a child from getting access to his/her parent’s gun safe. 30 minutes is all it takes for a child with a clever brain to gain access to the contents of a safe, provided that the safe has an electronic lock.
It won’t take too many tries for a child to eventually get the correct combination. For that purpose, it’s unwise to use a birth date or anniversary as a combination for your safe.
A mechanical dial lock is the way to go if you’re preparing for an all-out attack or an apocalypse.
If that ever does happen, then having a mechanical dial lock in place is a much more secure option than having an electronic keypad. In the event of a nuclear weapon taking out the power grid and rendering the electronics of your gun safe lock useless, you would have a pretty hard time getting to whatever it is that you’re keeping safely tucked away inside your safe.
Changing the Combinations
Want to change the combination to your mechanical dial lock? Well, you’d might have to call a safe technician for that. It’s unfortunate that mechanical dial locks are so troublesome when it comes to changing the combination. However, the dials usually don’t show any sign of wear, so it would be impossible for someone to gather which numbers are used in the combination.
So the need to frequently change the combination on a dial lock is rare.
On the other hand, we have electronic locks. Changing the combination on an electronic lock is much more simpler and hassle-free than doing so on a mechanical dial lock.
The majority of electronic locks come with a master combination that could be used to unlock the safe in the event that you forgot your combination or to reset your current lock combination.
Some electronic locks allow you to store multiple combinations which will give you access to the safe.
On that note, it’s important that you change your combination with your safe door open. Many people forget their combination as soon as they’ve changed it. This can have some detrimental consequences.
Again, if maintained with proper care, mechanical dial locks are bound to last a lifetime, and even if they aren’t maintained, they’ll most definitely outlive any electronic keypad lock on the market.
It’s not hard to believe that the more modern electronic keypad locks are more popular than the old school mechanical dial locks are. Electronic keypad locks outsell mechanical dial locks 9 to 1.
But despite the tremendous sales volume of the electronic keypad locks, these locks aren’t found on the high-end gun safes, instead, they are more common on low-end gun safes.
High-end gun safes are typically found with mechanical dial locks.
The warranty depends on which type of lock you purchased. Mechanical dial locks have different warranties to electronic key pad locks.
Most mechanical dial locks dial locks have a warranty ranging from 5 years to the lifetime of the owner. Electronic keypad locks usually only have a warranty that ranges from 1 to 3 years.
It’s important that you note that the warranty of a lock is usually honored from when the lock is manufactured and not when it is sold. It’s important that you know this because the safe could have sat in the showroom for quite some time before you buy it. And by the time that you do buy it, there are only about 2 years left on the warranty (that is if you get a safe with an electronic keypad lock).
As you would expect, safe lock manufacturers have a set of conditions in which if all are met, they’ll honor the warranty. But if even one of these conditions are not met, then the entire warranty would be void.
It’s uncommon for a gun safe manufacturer to cover the most expensive part of a lock in their warranty. This is usually the labor of a locksmith drilling the safe open.
If there’s anything you should take away from this, it’s that you should buy the best quality gun safe lock that you can afford. This, in the long run, will potentially save you heaps of cash and you’ll also get a pretty sweet warranty too.
Common User Issue
When a mechanical dial lock is unlocked, then all the tumblers are lined up and allows the safe to be opened. When the safe user closes the safe, they should always remember to turn the dial in order to lock the safe again. Many people have forgotten to lock the safe after closing it by turning the dial.
As long as the dial remains unturned after the safe’s been unlocked, then anyone can have access to the safe.
The above issue doesn’t occur with electronic keypad locks. However, due to the ease and possible frequency of changing the combination, people could easily forget their new combination after changing it.
Lock Bolt Pressure Issues
Locks typically have a deadbolt that extends into the bolt work when the safe is locked. Some locks can present issues that are caused by bolt pressure.
The life of electronic locks can be shortened by bolt pressure because bolt pressure causes a higher current draw in solenoid, which can lead to overheating and failure.
However, high end electronic locks make use of motors to retract the deadbolt. These motors us gearboxes to retract the deadbolt despite the pressure of the bolt. Although, due to the pressure and load caused by the bolt, it can lead to the gears being stripped over time and cause motors to overheat and eventually wear out.
Here are some things you can do to prevent any issues with your lock:
- Check that nothing gets closed between the door and door fame.
- Check that nothing interferes with the closing motion of the door.
- Keep the handle in the locked position before you enter the combination of your lock.
- Check that the inside of the door frame is clear and that nothing gets stuck or in the way of the locking bolts.
- Get to know what the proper position for your bolt handle is when fully extended. This way you’ll quickly notice if something isn’t right and that the bolts aren’t fully extending.
If you think that your bolts have issues, it’s best that you test them out to be sure. If you have the door open and the bolts won’t come out when you’re trying to turn the locking handle, this meant that there could be a detentpreventing the bolts from coming out. Check to see if you can find a detent release pinon the hinge side of the door.
The locks and bolts should always work and operate smoothly. If it doesn’t, then you should check the door frame to see if anything is hindering it. If your lock and/or locking mechanism is giving you trouble, then you should think twice about locking your safe door.
Gun Safe Bolt Operation
When talking about bolt work, we’re referring to the locking bolts which keeps the safe door closed and locked, the handle and linkages which operates the locking bolts, relockers, and the linkage that is immobilized by the lock deadbolt.
Locking Bolt Size
First off, let me stay that you shouldn’t necessarily pay attention to the size of the locking bolts. Most of the time, the door frame of the safe is quite weak, so don’t pay too much attention to the locking bolt size.
It doesn’t matter if you have a plethora of locking bolts to keep your safe’s door locked. What matters is the design of the locking bolts and how they are supported by the safe’s door.
Many of the top safe manufacturers in the world only make use of three moving locking bolts on the hinge side of the door as well as on the opposite side.
What’s important is is the level of resistance that the bolts have against being pried. The bolts should not bend or become deformed from a prying attack. Locking bolts that extend deep into the door have a lot of resistance against prying attacks.
However, even if the locking bolts extend far inside the door and are resistant to deformation as a result of being pried, it won’t be of any help if the door and door frame are weak and susceptible to being bent.
The Bolt Work Designs
I don’t know if you’ve see some bolt work and designs in some safes. Some of them are way too unnecessary and complicated that it makes you wonder why it’s even in production.
If you’re a little too impressed by all the complicated mechanics that move the blocking bolts, like too many gears and moving parts, then perhaps you should should steer clear. Gun safe manufacturers who have bolt work like this are only trying to impress the customer with the visuals.
Safe’s that have fancy bolt work are often times the least secure when it comes to prying attacks.
KISS — Keep it simple, stupid.
Bolt work should be kept as simple as possible. Simple always works best.
Shear Pins and Clutches
Gun safe bolt work can easily be damaged if excessive force is placed on the door handle. Manufacturers have found an affordable way around this issue so that they don’t have to spend more money by adding more steel to the bolt work.
So, instead of beefing the bolt work up, they instead limit the amount of force that the locking handle can endure in order to add protection to the bolt work. They do this by incorporating clutches and shear pins.
For use in a gun safe, a small hole is usually drilled in the shaft of the internal bolt handle in order to insert a pin. When enough stress (force) is applied to the bolt handle, it causes the shear pin to break.
When this happens, the bolt handle spins freely, sometimes even coming off. If a shear pin is broken, you’ll need a professional to come and drill your safe open.
Unfortunately, shear pins are a once off deal. So, gun safe manufacturers have come up with something else instead — a clutch.
A clutch works almost the same as a shear pin except that it doesn’t break when enough force is applied to it. However, the lock handle will still spin freely if an excessive amount of force is applied to it.
A clutch will allow enough force to open a safe that’s unlocked. On that note, it won’t allow enough stress to be applied that it breaks the bolt work of a safe. Although, if a clutch does fail, then you’ll need a safe specialist to come drill a dreaded hole in your safe.
Clutches need to be adjusted after the first installation. This is usually done by a safe specialist or technician. However, clutches are found more commonly on low-end gun safes, meaning that the clutches often never get adjusted because the safes are usually installed by the owners themselves.
If you experience a broken shear pin or failed clutch mechanism, don’t worry. These things happen more often than you know. For example, if there’s something in the door frame like a gun sling, and you close the safe door, you’ll probably need to apply extra force to get the locking bolts in the locked position. This could cause a shear pin to break.
With true safes it’s a little bit different. True safes are designed in such a way that the locking mechanism won’t fail in circumstances involving a large amount of force.
Also known as a hard plate, anti-drill plates are there to protect the locks from drills. Anti-drill plates are made from a hard material that is able to shatter and disable drill bits before they can even reach the safe’s lock.
Anti-drill plates need to be properly hardened, circular, cover the area of the lock and relocker, and must float freely in order to properly work.
Anti-drill plates should be located between the door skin and the lock, positioned at an angle for any drill bits they may come its way. Along with being positioned at an angle, the anti-drill plate should also be loose, circular, and super hard. If it meets these requirements, it’ll prevent any drill bit from getting through.
And if the drill bit does manage to get through, then the hard plate will bind the tip of the drill bit, snapping it right off.
Although anti-drill plates are such a wonderful prevention tool, it’ll only work so well if the gun safe is made out of quality, thick steel. Many gun safes are made with thin sheet metal that are easily drilled through.
Don’t get entirely caught up in the hype of an anti-drill plate. Many gun safe manufacturers will boast about the hardness of their hard plate but forget to mention how thin the steel that covers their safe is. Although it may be cheaper to buy a safe with a hard plate than a safe with thicker steel around the the safe, you need to consider which of the two options will be more worth your money.
If a gun safe has external hinges, then it should also have hinge side locking. If it doesn’t, then you should definitely stay away from that safe.
An alternative to hinge locking bolts are to have a tongue on the door on the hinge side. The idea is that even if the hinges are removed, the door will stay shut.
Relocker immobilize the bolt work if there’s any tampering going on.
The best location for a relocker should be on the lock assembly because it’s a fragile part of the bolt work. The reason for this is because the mechanical dial lock will often get hit with a heavy object like a pry bar or a hammer.
Locks that are rated UL 768 Group I and II typically have internal relockers. They immobilize the lock deadbolt in the event that the shaft is punched out. The relocker is activated if the rear cover of the lock is broken off.
Bolt work relockers make use of a hardened spring-loaded plunger that is connected to fragile steel cables. These cables can be severed by being cut or attacked otherwise, which then triggers the relocker. Other relockers use glass plates that shatter when being drilled through, while others are triggered by high levels of temperature.
If a relocker has been triggered, then a safe specialist will need to be called in to reopen your safe. And when the safe is opened, then they’ll have to repair any damage done to it.
It’s recommended that all gun safes have a relocker of some sort, however, a relocker won’t add much to the security of the safe if the walls of the gun safe aren’t thick enough that you can just get through with an axe.
A lot like hard plates, gun safe manufacturers talk about how many relockers they have in their safe, and putting a relocker in a safe is also cheaper than having the safe made out of thicker, higher quality steel.
Unless the safe is made out of top quality, thick steel, then having a relocker would be of much benefit. This is the case with true safe — thicke steel for the walling and door as well as having a relocker for added security.
Safes that are rated TL-15 and higher will have a relockers installed in a random spot to make it even more difficult for any intruder to get into the safe.
The Bolt Work Handle
This is pretty straightforward; avoid anything that will attract any unnecessary attention to your gun safe. The less flashy the gun safe, the better. With that being said, if you prefer to have a flashy accessory attached to your safe, then go ahead.
I’d rather prefer to spend the money you would on a flashy handle to get a safe that would be more reliable instead.
Fire Rating On A Gun Safe
Most conventional gun safes on the current market don’t meet the minimum requirements of fire endurance rating of UL 72 Class 350. There are a few things that will determine how well a gun safe will managed in a fire. Those things are:
- Welds — If a safe is welded by means of non-continuous body welds, then it will open up in a fire which will allow hot gasses and smoke to enter into the safe.
- Door — The doors need to be sealed with intumescent door seals.
- Fire Insulation
- The thickness of the insulation,
- The type of insulation,
- The coverage of the insulation,
- Reinforcement of the insulation,
- Structural integrity of the insulation.
- Structural Integrity
- The door and body of the safe must be strong enough and able to resist any deformation caused by high temperatures. And in more sever cases, they need to be able to withstand anything falling on top of the safe such as beams and other heavy objects in the event of a fire.
- Outer Shell Steel Thickness
- Thicker steel on the outer shell of the safe will not only add to its structural integrity but will also retard the increase of heat in the event of a fire.
Type of Fire Insulation
In life there are only a few things that you can cut corners with, and your gun safe isn’t one of them. When looking at a gun safe, try to get the best fire insulation that you can afford — don’t go cheap because you think “oh well, what are the chances of a fire anyways?”.
Here is a list of the most common types of fire insulation (from best to worst):
- Poured concrete amalgamate.
- High temperature fiberglass.
- Gypsum drywall fireboard reinforced with fiberglass.
- Paper-backed gypsum drywall.
Poured concrete amalgamate not only provides great fire insulation but also offers some level of structural support to the safe’s design.
If you’re going to have gypsum drywall as your fireproof solution, then having it reinforced with high-temperature fiberglass will be best. The gypsum drywall will fall apart in a fire, but the fiberglass will keep it together in any such event.
However, as time goes by, gypsum drywall can fall apart which could possibly interfere with your gun safe’s bolt work.
Thickness of Fire Insulation
The thicker the fire insulation material, the better. In this case, always go for thicker.
When having gypsum drywall as a fireproofing solution, having the sheets overlap one another as well as interlocking, will help to block the transfer of any heat during the event of a fire.
Always look out for cutouts in the fire insulation or any thin areas.
Inner Steel Liner
Having a continuously welded inner shell is a must for any decent fireproof safe. This shell will protect the contents of your safe any moisture that the fire insulation releases as well as adding an extra barrier that prevents any heat and steam exchange during a fire.
However, conventional gun safes don’t typically have inner steel shells.
Other Features for Gun Safes
Gun Safes Made In the USA
When buying a gun safe that was made in good ol’ USA, you’re saving on money, not compromising on quality, and you’re supporting American business and well as its workers.
If you’re buying a gun safe from overseas, you’re either going to risk buying something that is of subpar quality or you’re going to pay an arm and a leg to have it shipped over to the States.
And if that’s not enough to convince you to buy a locally made gun safe, some Chinese gun safes have fake UL RSC (Residential Security Container) rating stickers as well as faux locks. If there’s something that Chinese companies are good at, it’s replicating an original product, but they’ll change this or that to make it seem not 100% identical to the real deal.
Sometimes they’ll even try to recreate the problem of the original product to try and match its authenticity, but it reality, this only makes things even more complicated and even less reliable than it already is.
So, think twice before buying Chinese.
However, we should always beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There are companies who boast that their products are made in the USA, but is it really?
Some companies, including gun safe manufacturers, will claim that their product is “Made In USA” but all they’ve really done was import 95% of their product from China or some other country with dodgy labor laws, assemble the items in the US and say “Here you go — made in the US!”
A product that can fully boast the “Made In USA” tag, has to actually be made in the US.
Warranties are often used by marketers to “seduce” potential buyers into actually buying their products. Something with an appealing warranty often sells better than a product with a less appealing one.
Gun safe manufacturers could state in their warranty that they’ll replace your safe with a brand spanking new one if it’s broken into or gets damaged in a fire. However, many folks, including gun owners, have house insurance. Things covered in their homeowners insurance will also include their safe and its contents.
Although warranties are appealing and play an important role for the sale of a product, sometimes the things contained in a warranty will never even happen or the chances of it happening are rather slim.
Who wouldn’t like a fancy interior for their gun safe? Just like the warranties are a high point for marketing, so are gun safe interiors.
Gun safes come with an array of customizations that can be chosen from. These features can set you back quite a bit and are often not even necessary. And if they are useful or necessary, you could buy the same customization for cheaper and install it yourself instead of paying the gun safe manufacturer to do the installation for you.
Having electricity inside of your safe isn’t such a bad idea. For one, having an electric dehumidifier requires a minimum amount of maintenance, if any. You may be spending quite a few bucks getting an electric outlet installed in your gun safe will save you money in the long run, especially when it comes to having a dehumidifier in your safe.
Another reason to consider having electricity within your safe is so that you can have a light installed. For those of us who have our gun safes hidden out of sight in a space where there is a little amount of light shining, having an LED light within the safe is extremely helpful.
LED light are cheap and easy to install. Some come in kits that have motion sensors that can be installed in the safe so that the light comes on each time the safe door is opened.
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t use lighting that would generate a lot of heat. This heat can cause damage to the insulation of your gun safe as well as cause shorts.
If you want to have an electrical connection within your safe or if you’re looking at a safe with an electrical connection, then it should be wired through a sealed hole at the bottom of the safe. Holes also need to properly be grommeted in order to prevent any electrical short. This will help to avoid electrical fires inside your gun safe.
Remember to never plug any devices in your safe that aren’t going to be used or that will just plainly be unnecessary. Just stick to lights and a dehumidifier.
Personally, I’m not one for a flashy gun safe, this isn’t to say that I oppose the idea of anyone having chrome or a gloss finish on their safe.
In some instances you have to think about practicality. For example, if you’re going to keep your gun safe stored away out of sight, will it really be worth it to have a fancy finish or cosmetic features? Well, if you think so, then go ahead and pimp your safe out. I’d rather spend that extra money on a more secure and higher rated gun safe.