Gun safes protect guns and other valuables from theft and fire. Here are 10 things to consider before purchasing one
In this economy, a gun safe is one of the wisest investments you can make. According to the FBI, guns top the list of stolen items thieves target in home burglaries. Alcohol, cigarettes and prescription medicine rank second, followed by video equipment (TVs, cameras and recorders). Stereo equipment comes in at No. 4, and rounding out the Top 5 are jewelry and cash. All of the above can be stored securely in a quality gun safe, protected not only from thieves, but from a catastrophic fire, as well.
If your main concern is protecting children from an accidental discharge or transporting guns safely within the home or vehicle, other options are available, such as quick-access pistol boxes and minimum-security safes and strongboxes. These allow you quick access to weapons in the event of a break-in, but do little to stop a determined thief.
A gun safe buys you time against thieves and fire. Most break-ins last 10 minutes or less, and a gun safe buys you time as police are dispatched. These break-ins are typically during business hours when no one’s home ”between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and thieves don’t want to still be in the home when the police arrive.
Yet, generally speaking, the more security features a gun safe has, the better. Realistically, fire poses more of a threat to your guns than does theft. There is an average of nearly 400,000 residential fires annually, which translates to billions of dollars in property loss each year. Fireproof insulation is critical, and several types are available.
The more you know about the various theft- and fire-prevention features available for gun safes, the better informed you will be when purchasing a gun safe. Here are the six things you need to know about fire protection.
1. BOLT LOCKING SYSTEM
The “bolts” are what lock the door securely to the frame (or body) of the safe. They are thick, steel bolts that extend from the door and into the frame behind the door jamb that lock the door securely when the locking handle is turned. The more bolts, the merrier. Also, the longer and thicker the bolts, the better.
The term “bolt coverage” refers to how many sides of the door have locking bolts. Many gun safes use bolts on just the one side of the door opposite the side with the hinges. Yet, the best-case scenario would be many bolts on every side of the door, as this would eliminate any chance of a thief prying the safe open by ensuring the tightest possible seal, and it would also prevent the safe from warping in the event of a fire.
2. METAL THICKNESS
How much is enough in terms of frame thickness? Gun safe bodies are typically 12 to 7 gauge (.081- to .144-inch), and sometimes as thick as 3 gauge (.2391-inch). Stay away from 12 gauge; 10 gauge should be very minimum, but we would recommend 8 gauge or thicker. What’s the good of having strategically placed bolts for locking the door to the frame if the frame is so thin it can be bent away from the bolts with a couple of pry bars?
Ditto for the door thickness. Most thieves attack the door, so the thicker the door and the sides it has bolts in, the better. We recommend 5/16-inch (.3125-inch) or thicker. More on door construction as it relates to fire protection later.
3. ANTI-PRY TABS
Speaking of prying, anti-pry tabs, which are reinforced brackets located along the top and bottom of the pin-bar brackets, are said to increase a safe’s protection against a pry attack by up to 300 percent. Most of the reputable safe manufacturers equip their safes with anti-pry tabs and gussets on the inside of the door.
Three types of locks are available for gun safes: mechanical, electronic keypad and biometric. Mechanical (or dial) locks that open by dialing a combination on a hand-turned wheel. They have no electrical parts and therefore require no power source. Three- and four-wheel locks are the most popular mechanical locks, and they are considered the most reliable safe locks available.
Electronic locks, which are usually powered by 9-volt batteries, provide quicker access than mechanical locks and allow you to change the combination, which is probably why they are more popular than mechanical locks.
Simply enter a numeric combination on a keypad and you are in. Some allow you to input multiple-user combinations. Their only drawback is that they will not open in the event of a dead battery. However, they do retain the combination/s. Batteries are usually accessible, but not always. When they are, you simply replace them and you’re good to go. You might want to think twice about buying a safe with an electronic lock whose battery is not accessible.
Biometric locks provide even quicker access by using biological recognition technology, which allows for the use of fingerprint rather than a digital or mechanical combination to open them. Just put your finger over the scanner and the lock opens.
A couple more tips regarding locks: Look for UL-listed locks that employ spring-loaded re-lockers. Avoid American-made digital locks work great. Among the most reputable are LA GARD and Sargent and Greenleaf. Stay away from Chinese-made digital locks.
5. LOCKING MECHANISMS
The actual mechanisms that lock, rather than unlock the safe, can be broken down into three types: direct-drive cam, over-center cam and gear-drive over center mechanism. Of the three, the over-center cam best protects the lock against side bolt punching.
Some models employ a slip clutch mechanism that prevents the lock from breaking in the event the handle is torqued. Such models use heavy-duty linkage capable of withstanding an incredible amount of torque through the handle without suffering any damage to the lock system or bolts.
A re-locker is a spring-loaded trigger mechanism that locks out the safe’s bolt system when any kind of tampering is detected. Most commonly, they take the form of small, hardened pins that are positioned along the boltwork in the door and when fired, they snap securely into pre-drilled holes in the frame.
If the locking mechanism is drilled, punched or torched, or its back plate is punched off, the safe’s mechanism will lock up permanently, keeping the locking bolts from retracting. The safe will remain locked even if the lock has been completely destroyed. Some safe manufacturers offer models with two relocking systems. Again: There’s always safety in numbers.
A hardplate is a small plate located between the door and the lock and it designed to protect the lock from drilling attacks. Hardplates are made of dense material designed to destroy drills. The more layers, the better.
Some upper-end safes are equipped with a glass relocker that shatters and locks up the mechanism when drilled. Some go the extra distance by employing two hardplates: one for protecting the lock and the other for protecting the independent relocker or one big hardplate to protect the entire area.
8. FIRE RATINGS
Residential fires usually reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit rather quickly. After that, windows blow out and holes emerge in the roof, so temperatures don’t typically get any hotter. Still, it takes time for the Fire Department to arrive and put the fire out, so buying time is the key.
Different safe companies use different laboratories to test and rate their safes in terms of how long they can prevent internal contents from reaching flashpoint temperatures of less than 350 degrees.
In case you were wondering, paper chars at 402 degrees. Also, electronic media, such as CDs, tapes, etc., will lose information when subjected to intense heat. We recommend storing them in a firebox or media cooler within the safe to keep them from reaching temperatures exceeding 125 degrees.
Still, none of these tests take radiant heat into consideration, which is the biggest killer of safes. Oven tests don’t measure cool-down time, so there are a lot of discrepancies among ratings, as they can be manipulated.
The average rating is 30 minutes at 1,200 degrees, while the average fire lasts 25 to 45 minutes. Yet 75 to 80 percent of gun safes are rated for 30 minutes. How smart is that? Anyone living in an urban area would be wise to buy a safe with a minimum fire rating of 60 minutes.
Keep in mind, however, that the farther you live from the city, the longer the wait and the less probability firefighters will arrive in time to save the house. So, if you live in an urban dwelling, it would be wise to purchase a safe with a two-hour rating.
9. FIRE LINER PROTECTION
Just like metal thickness, the more fire-liner protection, the merrier—especially in the door and ceiling. A generous amount of water-retaining insulation sandwiched between two thin layers of sheetmetal behind a heavy-gauge layer of steel body armor, is the best possible barrier against heat damage.
The most commonly used firewall used in gun safes is gypsum board, otherwise known as sheetrock. Some manufacturers use two layers. Other firewall protection includes ceramic wool and a mixture cement and vermiculite.
The various manufacturers we interviewed stated their cases for the fire protection they employ; many pointed out the drawbacks of the barrier they are not using. Sturdy Safes, for example, offers protection consisting of an outer barrier of 7-gauge steel backed by 1 inch of 2,300-degree ceramic wool and 2 inches of 1,000-degree high-temp glass compressed by a 14-gauge steel inner liner.
10. HEAT-EXPANDING DOOR SEALS
An effective safe should also have a heat-expanding door seal placed around the door frame. Palusol is the industry standard. It can expand up to nine times its original size during a fire to block out heat and smoke.
Palusol gaskets should be custom fit to each safe to ensure there are no air gaps. What’s important to remember is that the less gap, the better for keeping out heat and smoke, and to prevent prying.
SIZE AND LOCATION
Always buy bigger than what you need. You’ll find that you are always adding more guns, ammo and the like, and it doesn’t take long to fill a safe when your spouse is adding photo albums, jewelry, etc. Some manufacturers offer side-by-side his/her models to eliminate that problem.
Location is another issue. Although gun safes come in a variety of attractive colors and custom wraps are available it’s probably wiser to put the safe somewhere out of sight. The more time a thief has to spend looking for the safe, the less time he will have to try to open it.
Finally, there are pros and cons for both internal and external hinges. Some would argue that external hinges allow the door to open wider, providing for greater access. Others would argue that internal hinges prevent a thief from cutting or torching the hinges while providing additional protection against door prying. Still, a good, well-protected locking system is the key to safeguarding your safe against an attack.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
One of the many manufacturers we spoke with, Sturdy Safes, argues that when determining a safe’s fire rating, controlled laboratory testing doesn’t always paint the entire picture.
The Central Valley Arson School, located near Fresno, California, was started by fire investigator Jim Jones and provides training several steps above what firefighters normally receive. Typically, a home that has been marked for demolition is selected as a guinea pig for fire training. Those comprised of the most wood rate highest on the list.
The home is completely furnished as it would be if it were occupied, and Sturdy Safes was allowed to place several safes comprised of different fire linings and other components within the home to conduct its own testing. Class begins with a fire started from the TV set, which is allowed to burn for two minutes before the Fire Department puts it out. The school trainees are then sent in to investigate the source of the fire.
At the end of the day, all of the windows and doors are knocked out, and they even punch holes in the roof so that rollover occurs in just two minutes. The house is doused with 30 gallons of kerosene, and then set ablaze. The result is an accelerated burn, where temperatures reach peaks faster, and with all of the wood, the house burns even longer all the way to the ground.
According to Sturdy Safes, radiant heat isn’t something you can measure in lab tests. You have to allow the house to burn to the ground and then allow the safe to cool to determine when something in the safe fails. Some of the safes failed, and some didn’t, but that is how they determined the thickness of their safes, the fire liner and other components they use in their safes today.
Stealth Safe Company