Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about home gun safes. The series will dive into detail about locks, mounting/hardening you safe, increased fire protection, specialty safes and higher-rated safes, and buying used safes. There is a lot of information to consider when buying a safe. Follow along with us as we take a deep dive into this subject.
- Part 1: Introduction to Gun Safes
- Part 2: Electronic/Biometric/Manual Locks
- Part 3: Anchoring Your Safe
- Part 4: Fireproofing Your Gun Safe
- Part 5: Understanding The Threats
- Part 6: Specialty Safes & Remodels
- Part 7: Quick-Access Safes
- Part 8: Buying & Selling Used Safes
- Part 9: Moisture, the Constant Battle
Why do I need a safe? This is a question that many gun owners ask. In my opinion, the answer is easy. Bad things happen to good people and good guns all the time. Let’s face the facts: Guns: are high in value, relativity compact and easy to convert to cash on the black market. Also, they are susceptible to damage. I have experienced the horror that is a house fire, and I would never wish it on my worst enemy. I have also had a few guns stolen over the years (two were recovered by the police and returned). Even in the unlikely event that you get the guns back, they never return as they were when they were taken. Mine were covered in scratches and dings, and one of them had an evidence mark engraved on it. These sorts of things can and do happen to gun owners.
If you don’t know how much insurance coverage you have on your guns, YOU DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH! Most homeowner policies only cover a small amount, some as low as $500.00, if at all. I’m not giving out legal advice; this is anecdotal data I acquired a number of years ago. My coverage was $2,500.00, and I had an option to up that to $5,000.00 for a few extra dollars a year. Done. The NRA would give me $2,500.00 of coverage if I activated it. Done. If I wanted to cover additional guns, it would cost about 1.2% the value of the gun annually. Most insurance fell somewhere in this price range.
If you have a gun collection, buying a gun safe is a must. It can keep them out of unqualified hands and also help protect your investments.
It’s important to remember that it’s not all about dollars and cents; my Uncle Jerry was a gunsmith who passed away almost 30 years ago and left me his Union Switch and Signal 1911. I may get a check for it if something happens to it, but that gun is still gone forever. I gave these things some thought and wondered: “How can I self-insure my guns?” A gun safe seemed like a good investment, based on the cost of the safe weighed against its protection from theft and fire. I took some time to make sure I invested in something that would protect my assets.
It is important to understand exactly what a safe gives you. In a sense, a gun safe is a time machine. The better your safe, the more time it will buy you before irreparable damage is done. The harder you make your safe to target by a criminal, more the time it buys you. A crook only has so much time. The better the fire protection your safe provides, the longer your guns remain protected. All fires go out eventually. If either of these threats have more time than your safe can provide you in protection, you lose your guns.
Not All Gun Safes Are Created Equal
In many cases, crooks will be attacking your safe with basic (but effective) tools in their quest to crack your safe.
What makes a good safe? Well, that depends on what you’re trying to defeat. Most of the time, when confronted with theft, you’re going to be facing someone who, shall we say, is not an engineer. They will be coming to the event with what they brought, which will not normally include cutting torches and saws capable of real metal cutting. In fact, the number one instrument of crime is a big screwdriver with a flat tip. This is easy to understand once you get the crook’s perspective. I’ve been told a common theme with them is as follows: “If I get stopped by the cops with a crowbar or bolt cutters, I am going to jail. But a screw driver is just for fixing my car.” Also consider that a screwdriver makes a great weapon; it is the number three item used in violent crime, behind guns and knives. Now, add something hard and heavy to hit it with, and this is likely what they will use to attack your safe.
If you’re worried about a fire, consider that the maximum room fire on average will be about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take. You can get flashover starting at about 1,600 degrees. This means that you should keep the temperature around your safe as low as possible, and (obviously) keep the duration of any fires as short as possible. It actually takes about eight hours for a house fire to reach a maximum burning temperature of about 2,300 degrees.
So how can I tell which safe is the best one? Shopping for a safe sometimes feels like watching a magic performance: “I know I’m being tricked… I’m just not sure how!” They all seem big, with thick walls and locks with unlimited combinations. You look at the doors and they have bolts that seem to be everywhere. So why is one safe less than $1,000.00 while the same-sized one next to it is $2,500.00? Well, let’s take a look at some of the basics of what makes a safe, a safe.
Some Words Mean More Than Others…
An Underwriters Lab (UL) rating on your safe means that it is held to verifiable standard of protection. Not all safes have this.
The “box of the safe” refers to its sides, back and bottom. The thickness of the metal and seams (or the number of seams) are critical to keeping the box intact. The thickness of steel is measured in gauge: The lower the number, the thicker the steel. In most cases, the door will be the primary area of attack. A thinner seam between the box and the door helps to prevent prying, and reduces the number of leverage points. The bolts keep the door shut and prevent warping in a fire. The lock needs to be resistant to drilling and hammering. The fireboard (that provides the fire protection) should cover all sides, and the more layers of fireboard, the better.
Let me break it to you now: Most, if not all, readers of this article do not own a safe or a vault. Most boxes that people call “safes” are really Residential Security Containers, per Underwriters Labs (UL). RSC (Residential Security Container) (TL-5) Rating is the term for a UL-rated container that is capable of withstanding a beating by one man wielding a screwdriver and a hammer, at a minimum. If you don’t see a UL sticker on the inside of your door, you have no recognized rating. Close to half of all safes sold (including brand names you would recognize) fall into this category. All of the ratings these brands use are based on their self-defined systems. They have no industry-recognized standards that can be compared to other brands.
The next thing to consider is the thickness of steel. As noted above, the gauge of steel used is a measure of thickness. As a rule, thicker steel provides better fire and theft protection. A steel security cabinet will be made from 17-gauge steel, while the better safes out there will be 11 gauge or even thicker. How this steel is used makes all the difference. The best manufacturers will use robotic welding and bend the steel, rather than welding side and top joints. This creates fewer weak joints on the sides and top that can be attacked.
Although a closed box would be the safest and strongest, you obviously need to be able to get into it. That is why there is a door, and that door is a potential weak point. The door keeps both thieves and fire out. You want a door with a tight fit, so as to prevent tools being inserted for prying. The safe’s locking bolts should cover all four sides of the box to prevent warping from prying and heat. Check both the size and mounting design when looking at bolts. The seal should expand when heated to form a fireproof seal to keep heat out.
The lock should be UL Listed, and the industry gold standard is Sargent and Greenleaf. The lock should be protected from both punching and drilling. This is done with hard plate and/or ball bearings inserted into the shielding plates. In the future, I plan on devoting a full article to discussing combination locks, electronic key padlocks and biometric locks.
The Risk of Theft
Theft is a far greater risk to the contents of your safe than fire. Each year, the fire protection in America gets better and the likelihood of completely losing your home to fire diminishes. If you can suffer through a story of mine, you will be rewarded with a well-illustrated point. About a year ago, I was visiting my Aunt Sue and Uncle John in Little Rock, Arkansas. They lived in a nice, old, established neighborhood. They informed me that they had recently been the victim of a burglary while they were in Florida. After examining the entry point and outside lighting, I was able to confidently say that the perpetrator was not a stranger to them. I was quite sure that it was someone who had been in their home before. As it turned out, the likely suspect was a hired hand that did some yard work and light maintenance around the home. I’m not trying to portray myself as some kind of Sherlock Holmes, but I was able to spot some things that my detective friends like to call “clues.” First, the lighting on the outside of the home was on a motion sensor, and there was only one approach path (a rear patio enclosure) that would not trigger the light. The entry point was shielded from view to all but one neighbor, who was elderly and hard of sight. They were out of town and had valuable things that were relatively untraceable and easily convertible to cash. These facts could only be known by someone who had been to the property and had inside information on them. It was either such a person, or the luckiest random thief in the history of crime. Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest answer is usually the correct answer.
I tell the story above to explain why I say that when a safe is attacked, the attacker could likely be someone who has been in your house before, and has seen your safe. The number-one theft prevention technique is minimizing the number of people who know about your safe. Step two is to bolt the safe to the floor and walls so that it cannot be moved to a secondary location.
There are a few key numbers that you want to keep in mind when looking at a safe’s resistance to fire. The first number is 350° Fahrenheit, which is the temperature at which most wood products will begin to be damaged. The second number is how long the safe will keep the interior below 350° with a 1,200° exterior temperature.
The first layer of defense is the steel on the outside of the box, which will reflect heat for a given period of time. What’s more important is that the steel will not warp at much higher temperatures, which will preserve the integrity of the safe. This is why bolts all the way around the door are critical to fire protection. The door should have some material between the steel door and steel wall that prevents the heat from licking inside the safe. This can be done with a heat-activated, expanding palusol seal, which is sure to fill any gaps or cracks and is a great option.
The next layer of defense is the fireboard, and how it is installed in your safe matters. The fireboard’s purpose is to create a protected cool area in the safe when it is exposed to heat. It also acts as an insulation barrier. The best safes have CNC machines that cut the insulation to a precise pattern to match that specific safe. I’ve actually seen safes from China that had scraps and odd-sized pieces inserted along door jambs of the safe. I’ve seen gaps that you could put two fingers in along the top walls and floor of some of those same safes. A word of caution here: Most fire safes have a lock only to prevent pilfering. Whether it’s a combination lock or a simple key lock, you are only buying fire protection if there is no UL listing specifically for the residential security container certification.
Shown is a composite safe door with bent seams and waterjet-cut fireboard that exhibits a tight fit. This helps protect the interior during a fire. Image courtesy of Liberty Safe.
What’s In A Name?
It seems like everyone is selling gun safes these days: Local farm and home stores, big-box retailers, wholesale clubs, Amazon and sporting goods stores. I’ve seen countless brand names applied to safes. I mean, Jon Deere makes a fine tractor, but what do they know about gun safes? The sad truth is that plenty of companies, for a small royalty fee, will allow their name to be applied to junk imported here. I will recommend a few boxes you should check before buying a safe.
Is it UL listed?
How thick is the steel?
What brand of lock do they use, and how do they protect it from being drilled or punched?
What is the fire protection rating?
How many seams are welded?
What is the warranty?
Was it made in America?
As I began preparing for this series, I discovered just how much I didn’t know about gun safes. I have owned four different safes, and I am in the process of ordering my fifth, which I decided to acquire based on information I learned while preparing for this article. The safe that I have chosen is the FatBoy by Liberty Safes. It’s not the cheapest safe by any means, and it’s also not the most expensive, but I believe it will offer me the best protection for my guns against theft and fire for the money. Also, another word of advice. AAlways buy one size bigger than what you need today. The number one complaint from new safe owners is “I wish I had a bigger safe.”
For more information, visit https://www.libertysafe.com/.
To buy a Liberty Safe product at GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=liberty%20safes.