Things to Consider When Buying a Gun Safe
By J. Robbins
Anyone with a valuable collection of guns needs to protect that investment. As a gun owning citizen, it is also your responsibility to keep those guns out of the hands of people who donít know about gun safety, such as children. The best way to do this is to invest in a good gun safe. Choices range from inexpensive metal cabinets to complex, heavy gauge gun safes weighing thousands of pounds and costing thousands of dollars.
Your goals will determine what you need to purchase. For instance, if all you want to do is keep the guns away from children, a locking metal cabinet will probably suffice. If you are concerned about fire, you need to look for a safe rated for high temperatures for an extended period of time. If your primary concern is theft by burglars who may be talented at defeating a safe, you need a heavy gauge steel safe (with multiple locking bolts) that is very difficult to remove from your home. Most people look for a safe with a combination of these features that fits their budget.
Heavy gauge steel is one key to preventing theft. With steel, the smaller the gauge number, the thicker the material. 12 gauge steel is common on less expensive safes. The drawback to the light 12 gauge safes is that (supposedly) you can take a heavy axe to the back or sides and actually hack your way in. The good thing about a 12 gauge safe is the weight will be closer to a (more) manageable 500 lbs. or so. This means a couple of guys with an appliance dolly can move it around, but that also means a couple of thieves could steal it just as easily.
Ten gauge steel is a much better choice and heavier gauge steel would be even better. It is very difficult to defeat 10 gauge steel without a torch or a plasma cutter. However, as the gauge goes up, so does the price and the weight. Only after you get into the $1,500 or higher price range do you find 10 gauge steel and such safes usually weigh a thousand pounds or more. If you plan on moving a safe that heavy, it will be a good idea to hire some professionals, especially if you plan on moving it up or down stairs.
The door and locking mechanism is where thieves usually begin their attack. Locking the door to the rest of the safe is done with large steel pins (draw bolts). The larger these pins and the more numerous they are, the more difficult it is to defeat the safe. One inch pins located on the sides of the door are standard and are adequate for most gun safes. Larger pins or more pins cost more money. High quality safes often have pins in the corners of the doors, as well as the top and bottom. Often the corners are where a thief begins to pry in order to force the door open. Pins in the corners, top and bottom makes a more complex design, which costs more money.
Fire rating is a critical consideration. Most fire resistant safes meet basic fire protection standards, with the minimum being able to withstand a 1200ļ F temperature for up to 30 minutes. This means the temperature inside the safe shouldnít exceed about 275 degrees during those 30 minutes. Paper should be able to survive those temperatures and your guns should come out okay. A more expensive, premium safe might be rated at 1200į F for up to 100 minutes. The response time of your local fire department would be a consideration. If you live close to the station and they can respond within a few minutes, a 100 minute rating might be more than you need. In addition to heat, smoke can also damage the contents of the safe. Make sure the safe you purchase has a fire seal. This will appear as a flat strip of material around the perimeter of the door, which expands to seal the door when it gets hot.
The location of a safe within you home will contribute to how burglar proof it will be, as well as how hot it might get during a fire. In a basement, out of sight is the best location to prevent theft. If a thief doesnít know you have a safe, it isnít an attractive target. Often a thief will steal the entire safe and then crack it somewhere else. If they have to pack it up a flight of stairs, that is a major deterrent. During the initial stages of a fire, the basement is one of the coolest places in the house. If you donít have a basement, then locating the safe in a closet out of sight is the next best choice. If that is not an option, place it in a room with no or limited view of the safe from outside windows.
All safes can be cracked, but it takes time. If you live in a rural area with few neighbors and your house is often left un-attended, you will want the best safe you can afford. If you live in the city with neighbors you know, you could probably get away with a less expensive safe. Thieves know that the longer they spend in your house trying to get into a safe, the more chance they have of getting caught. An inexpensive safe will defeat most thieves. However, if you are known to have a lot of money and an expensive gun collection that might be targeted by professional thieves, you had better go with the best.
Common sense goes a long ways toward protecting your valuables. Most thieves target homes they know have valuables in them. Keep your guns out of sight when you load them into your car. Donít brag about your collection, or invite everyone in to show them off. The more people that know about your safe, the more likely it is for word to spread to a thief who will target you.
The type of locking mechanism is a choice you will need to make, along with the style of handle you turn to open the safe. Electronic locks are very convenient and faster to get unlocked if you need to access your guns in a hurry for self defense. (A better choice for home defense would be a small bedside safe that opens with a thumbprint scan.) While electronic locks are popular, most problems with safes are associated with electronic locks. Mechanical dial locks are simpler and usually trouble free. A high quality dial lock can last several generations. Either type seems to be equally safe, but you must change the battery of an electronic safe on a regular basis. Any type of handle will retract the pins to allow opening the safe, so it depends on what look you want. The three and five spoke chrome handles are nice to look at, but they do increase the price.
Chrome handles add a nice touch and so does a glossy paint job. However, those glossy paint jobs add a real premium to the cost of a safe. If you are going to hide the safe in a closet where most of it will be out of sight, you might want to consider a safe with a dull paint job. Often the same safe will be offered with different paint jobs and the dull paint version will cost hundreds of dollars less.
Where the hinges on the safe are located is a consideration. Some have external hinges and others have internal hinges. Manufactures of internal hinges claim they are more difficult for a thief to defeat, while those that use external hinges claim it doesnít matter. From my observations, you can cut the external hinges off a decent safe and you still couldnít get the door open without a lot more work. Check out a commercial bank safe and you will more than likely see external hinges. I donít think it really matters if the safe is otherwise well constructed.
The advantages of external hinges is you can open the door a full 180 degrees. You can also remove the door to lighten the load while you are moving it. The weight of the door is about 30-50% of the entire weight, depending on the size of the safe. This could be a serious factor on a very heavy safe that has to be moved up several flights of stairs. Certainly, someone who changes jobs and moves around a lot might want to consider this. Some safes are designed to be completely broken down for easy transport.
The capacity of the safe is a very important consideration. Everyone I have talked to says that whatever the number of guns the manufacturer claims you can put in there, cut that in half. Based on my own experience with the gun safe I own, I totally agree. For instance, a typical 30 inch wide gun safe will be advertised to accommodate 24 guns. If all your guns are lever actions with no scopes, you may be able to squeeze 24 of them in there. However, if you have scopes on your guns, own mostly bolt action rifles, or have a few AR-15 style guns, there is no way you can store 24 long guns in there. I have ten guns in my 24 gun safe. At the most I figure I could get two more in there without clanking them together every time I tried to remove or replace one located anywhere other than right at the front of the safe.
With some of the higher end safes, you can select different configurations inside the safe. If you plan to put a lot of guns in there, go with the maximum number of racks and pass on all the shelves. If shelves to store handguns or other valuables are a priority, you should probably go with a taller safe that has shelves above the gun racks. Some safes offer a gun rack on the back side of the door and if that is an option it could be worth the price. Some safes offer hooks on the back side of the door and if you have lots of handguns that could be a worthy option. It all comes down to how much you want to spend.
Before you buy a safe, ensure that there are holes drilled in the floor so you can bolt the safe down. If you live in a climate with high humidity or plan to have the safe in a garage, be sure there is a hole in the back for the electrical cord of a de-humidifier. If the safe is going to sit on concrete, put anchor bolts in the concrete and secure them inside the safe. It is also a good idea to put blocks under the safe to keep it away from the moisture in the concrete; otherwise the bottom of the safe may rust.
If the safe is going inside the house, you will want to bolt it to the floor for safety reasons and to prevent theft. Because the door is so heavy, a safe can tip over when the door is wide open. This is especially true if it is sitting on carpet. If safety is your only concern, you can drill holes through the floor and bolt the safe to the floor using large washers and nuts. (Make sure before you drill the holes there are no water pipes, electrical wires or anything else under the floor.) If theft is a concern, you will want to reinforce the way the bolts secure the safe to the floor. A determined thief can actually rip the bolts out of the floor. One way to do this is to span a 4x4 or 2x6 across the joists and secure the bolts to that instead of just to the sub-flooring. If possible, use oversized washers inside the safe. It is possible to rip the bolts out of the bottom of a safe made with 12 gauge steel.
Before you make the purchase, consider the overall size of the safe you want to buy. Can you get it to where you want it? Make sure you measure door openings and calculate any corners you have to make when moving the safe. Consider how much weight those basement stairs can support. Measure the actual safe at the store. Donít count on the advertised dimensions of the safe being 100% accurate. The safe I purchased was one inch taller and one half inch wider than the brochure claimed. Consider how you are going to get it across carpet. Safes that weigh a thousand pounds or more can cause carpet to bunch up as you roll it across. You may need to lay plywood strips down to protect your carpet.
Safes can be purchased in many different stores. Many retail and home improvement stores now carry them. Selection will be limited, but often you can find very good prices on entry and mid level safes. If a high end safe with a high gloss paint finish is what you want, you will need to visit a sporting good store, or order one online. Internet purchases will often include the price of curbside delivery and for a little more money include delivery inside your home. This is money well spent.
Whatever you decide on, make sure you keep the combination confidential. Thieves have gotten into safes by finding the combination written down on a piece of paper stored in a desk. On the other hand, make sure you donít forget it. Most mechanical safes have the combination set at the factory, but you will have to jump through lots of hoops in order to prove you own the safe before they will give the combination to you. It might be a good idea to store the combination of your safe in a safe deposit box at a bank if you are forgetful.
A good gun safe should be a one time purchase if you plan it right. Make sure it is big enough to accommodate the guns you currently own, as well as those you expect to buy in the future. Whatever safe you buy, it should bring a welcome sense of security.
Copyright 2008 by J. Robbins. All rights reserved.