What to Look for When Buying a Gun Safe

A gun safe is a significant financial investment. Often, these items will cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and need to provide substantial protection against theft and possibly fire. But choosing a gun safe from the large range of options can be a challenge in and of itself. It can be hard to determine which features are more important and how much you will need to spend to get adequate protection.

While some of the determining factors are based on your personal situation, there are certain points every savvy shopper should consider. Additionally, it is important to understand what the different pieces of information a manufacturer may advertise actually mean and whether they present a real value to you, the consumer. To help you make a smart purchase, here are some guidelines regarding what to look for when buying a gun safe to protect your firearm collection.

Budget

While the most expensive gun safe on the market doesn’t necessarily offer the best protection, you will need to prepare to make an investment if you want to purchase a suitable option to secure your firearms collection.

In most cases, it is wise to assume your safe will cost between 10 percent and 30 percent of the value of the contents being stored when purchased new. Some of the variances depend on the physical size of the safe. For example, a safe designed to hold multiple pistols could be physically smaller than a safe designed to hold the same number of rifles. Since a smaller safe requires less material, it would likely be available at a lower price than its larger counterpart.

It is also possible for the price of a gun safe to change dramatically in a fairly short period of time. If the cost of steel increases, you can expect a safe to cost significantly more than before the market changed. Generally, you won’t find a better deal on a particular safe down the road than you can today, so making the purchase as soon as you are able is often wise.

One way to keep the cost of a gun safe down is to look for a used safe. If a safe hasn’t been compromised, such as by an attempted burglary, then it is still a strong option even if it had a previous owner. In many cases, a person may sell a safe because they needed to upgrade to a larger version or when they sell their collection. That means it is available because it no longer met their needs, and not due to an issue with the safe itself.

When purchasing a used safe, it is important to recognize that someone else had access to the lock. This means you may need to have the gun safe rekeyed, reset or reprogrammed, depending on if it is a manual lock or electronic.

Size

When choosing a gun safe, you need to select a size that meets your needs today as well as any anticipated needs in the future.And you can’t always rely on the advertised capacity when making the decision.Most gun safe manufacturers know that customers examine the supposed capacity when making a decision, but some have chosen to squeeze more firearms into a space, rather than provide an appropriate amount of room for managing the task.

Often, this is more of an issue when a safe comes with an internal racking system instead of just open space, especially if you intend to store rifles with certain features, like long barrels or pistol grips. The stated capacity is often based on firearms that meet specific specs and don’t have any additional equipment like scopes. So, it is better to assume that you won’t get nearly that much storage if you customize your weapons in any fashion or prefer larger models.

It is also important to understand that when a gun safe is filled, not every firearm is easily accessible. Oftentimes guns are stored in multiple rows, with those in the back being covered by those toward the front. When you want to access those weapons, you will need to remove multiple firearms to gain access.

To make matters more complex, the size of two gun safes that list the same capacity may actually differ. This means that you may be able to fit your entire collection into a safe made by one manufacturer, but not another, even if they both state they can secure the same number of guns.

In most cases, it is better to assume that you need significantly more room than the advertised capacity, especially if you hope to store additional accessories, or any other goods you’d like to protect. When in doubt, consider getting twice the storage you require. Review the measurements of the internal compartments when comparing brands to ensure you are actually looking at the same amount of space.

Weight

When you are comparing safes of a similar size, weight does matter. Actual gun safes are typically lighter than true safes due to differences in the materials involved, so the heavier the safe, the harder it will be for potential thieves to break in.

If two safes of similar sizes and ratings, but different weights, are offered at the same price, it is important to look at how the various features differ to determine why the lighter safe has a comparatively high cost. In some cases, the price is affected by aesthetic features, like a particular paint or interior upgrades that don’t provide any additional protection to your firearms.

Typically, when you are buying a safe for your guns, your first concern should be the amount of steel. The steel plates are what actually form the protective layer, so they have a stronger influence on the actual strength of the safe. Currently there aren’t any advanced technologies that make a safe stronger than steel and also lighter. So, if you aren’t sure which manufacturer or model actually offers more protection, let the weight be your guide.

Additionally, in the case of potential theft, a heavier gun safe is harder to remove from your property should they be unable to gain access to the contents before leaving. That means a thief will have a harder time simply picking it up and leaving with it if they don’t have the right tools available onsite.

Security Ratings

Gun safes come in a variety of security ratings demonstrating the level of protection provided.In some cases, you may need a safe that meets specific minimums as set by your state of residence or your insurance company.

In most cases, you will want a gun safe that has a minimum rating of UL 1037 Residential Security Container (RSC). However, this should be considered the lowest level of acceptable protection, and it may be wise to invest in something more substantial depending on the value of the collection.

Minimum

As mentioned above, the minimum level of protection one should look for in a gun safe is UL 1037 RSC. These are typically acceptable if the contents are valued at no more than $4,000, though certain exceptional variants may be rated for as much as $12,000.

Generally, a gun safe at this level will only prevent burglars from reaching the contents for a few minutes, but it can ensure that you meet legal minimum requirements and may be enough to have your collection insured.

Better

A B-Rate safe is the first level designed to defend against brute force attacks, featuring a minimum ½” plate steel door and ¼” plate steel walls. Typically, thieves would need to use power tools to gain entry into the safe, instead of a simple crowbar that may work on a lesser quality safe.

B-Rate safes are typically not offered by manufacturers that only produce gun safes, as these enter the true safe category. However, if your collection is valuable enough, it is worth the investment. These safes can provide protection for a collection valued up to $50,000 and may be required by your insurer depending on your coverage options.

C-Rate safes offer similar challenges to burglars and can offer protection for contents valued up to $200,000, but they won’t necessarily provide protection against power tools either.

Best

To begin finding protection from power tools, you will need to invest in an E-Rate or F-Rate safe, or a UL 687 TL-15 or TL-30. These are designed to offer protection for contents valued up to $1,000,000, depending on the variant, and can prevent access even when many common power tools are used by would-be thieves.

However, the additional level of protection means a higher price tag, so it is important to consider these as investments in and of themselves.

Steel

The biggest factor involved in determining the cost of a gun safe is the steel. This also means it is the first area manufacturers turn to when they need to cut costs.

When it comes to buying a gun safe, the more steel the better.The thickness of the walls and doors play a major part in how difficult the safe is to breach, so this isn’t an area where you want to pinch pennies.

Your first step when evaluating gun safes is to find information on the actual thickness of the individual sheets used in the door and walls. Manufacturers often list total door and wall thickness to mislead consumers regarding the level of protection provided, as this can combine the thickness of multiple sheets into a single measurement.

For example, a total wall thickness of 2” could refer to an outer shell of 14 gauge steel, measuring at 0.0747”, combined with 2” of sheetrock. This configuration offers far less protection than a wall made of 2” steel offers.

Similarly, a door thickness of 4” could include steel, sheetrock, the dial, bolt workspace, inner panel, and even air space. This means you aren’t getting 4” of protection, as many of the components are doing little to prevent thieves from breaking into the gun safe.

Combined steel thickness can also make the construction of the gun safe sound more impressive than it actually is.Generally, this refers to the amount of steel used in two separate sheets that sandwich a sheetrock core. Since the two sheets of steel can be fairly thin, and the sheetrock offers no structural protection, the advertised combined thickness isn’t a true representation of the amount of strength offered.

When you are buying a gun safe, certain minimums should be met.First, choose a safe with an outer sheet thickness of at least 7 gauge, and choose plate doors over composite outer edges. Similarly, the gun safe walls should be at least 10 gauge single sheets.

It is also important to understand that sheetrock and poured concrete amalgamate linings aren’t the same. Sheetrock does nothing to improve the structural integrity of the safe, while the poured concrete amalgamate can offer support depending on the precise mixture involved.

Body Welds

Any time two steel sheets or plates come together, the joint will require a weld. And not all welds offer the same protection.Less expensive gun safes often feature skip-welded edges, a process where the welder manages short sections at a time and would need to come back to fill any gaps to create the continuous weld needed to offer optimal protection.

However, some manufacturers don’t make sure these welds are actually continuous and may even use a plastic filler to make it look continuous when it isn’t. These non-continuous joints are significantly weaker and can be used as a point of entry into the safe by a knowledgeable thief. Additionally, some of the fillers are flammable, meaning they can be simply burned away to reveal vulnerabilities before any force is applied.

In cases where the outside welds are exposed, some manufacturers choose to grind them down to make the safe more aesthetically pleasing. When this is done, some of the metal is removed. While the final appearance is more polished, it compromises the gun safe’s structural integrity.

Higher rated safes, such as B-Rate and above, have more substantial standards that must be met regarding the welds used during the safe’s construction. The level of penetration is more substantial, making it more difficult to use the weld point to access the inside of the safe. Additionally, thicker plate steel handles the heat associated with welding better, allowing the weld to be managed properly without the risk of warping the plate material.

If you are looking for a simple gun safe, look for options that are welded by a robot welder, as the results are often more consistent. Similarly, if the sheet metal is bent around joints, this means fewer welds are required since there are fewer sheets involved. This can also make the gun safe harder to penetrate than some other version.

Bolt Holes

A gun safe doesn’t offer as much protection if it can’t be properly secured.Any safe you consider needs to have at least four bolt holes to serve as anchor points for the safe. When you look at safes, choose an option with the bolt holes located on the outer corners and not the center. These offer more protection as it makes the safe harder to pry up from the floor.

Additionally, the bolt holes need to be reinforced so that it is harder to simply rip out the bolts to dislodge the safe. The strength of the bolts themselves becomes irrelevant if they aren’t secured by a suitably strong sheet or plate of steel in the first place.

Doors

Many people are surprised when they hear that the door and frame of a safe are actually the weakest points in the entire construction. When examining door options, it is always best to choose a plate door featuring a solid outer sheet over a composite door, even if the latter is thicker than the former.

Check out the door jamb, focusing on the lip behind which the locking bolts secure. Some gun safes will just have sheet metal in this area, making it potentially weaker than the rest of the construction. Reinforcements in the area provide extra protection, making them a desirable characteristic.

You also want to review the thickness of the door gap when comparing safes. The thicker the gap, the easier it is to get a pry bar into the space, making it vulnerable to brute force entry. Some of the highest rated true safes feature gaps so thin that even a credit card won’t fit into the space, making them especially difficult to pry open.

Similarly, a recessed safe door is also harder to pry open, making it a valuable point of comparison when examining multiple options that may meet your needs.

Door Hinges

Gun safes can feature two primary forms of hinges: internal and external. Internal hinges restrict the door swing to no more than 90 degrees. Often, a section of the fire lining must be removed to accommodate the hinges, creating a weak point when it comes to fire protection.

Additionally, if the door is opened with too much force, the door jamb can bend if the construction isn’t strong enough.Internal hinges also cannot be removed or adjusted if the need arises, which can cause issues down the line.

External hinges offer a variety of benefits. First, you can open the door a full 180 degrees, making it easier to access the contents when you have it open. Second, they can be adjusted if they come out of alignment, prolonging the life of your safe based on the ability to service them. Third, if you need to move the safe, the door can be removed, making for a lighter load when it is being carried. Finally, some thieves may believe they can gain access to the safe by removing the hinges, leading them to waste time trying to accomplish the task only to discover that the door still won’t open.

Door Seals

It is important to know that not every gun safe has a door seal, which automatically makes the contents vulnerable to damage. Door seals help prevent the buildup of moisture in the safe, and a seal must be present if the gun safe is going to offer any fire protection, including protection from smoke, water spray from firehoses, or hot gasses, all of which can damage the contents.

Safes offering fire protection should feature intumescent door seals, as these expand when exposed to heat to help protect the contents from damage associated with a fire.

Locks

Gun safe locks come in different styles and with different ratings.Mechanical dial and electronic keypad locks, both considered part of the larger combination lock category, are certified under UL768 Standard for Combination Locks with key locks certified under UL 437 Burglary Resistant Locks and Locking Mechanisms.

UL 768

UL 768 combination locks all meet the specific standards.This includes the potential for a minimum of 1,000,000 different combinations, often requiring a dial wheel numbered from 0 to 99 when a three wheel combination lock is used. Additionally, the fence must be perpendicular to the plane of the tumblers, and the level must fit tightly on the post and be suitably secured. The tumblers must also be at a right angle to the post.

There are also several tolerances regulated by UL 768 standards, dictating the amount of variance that is considered acceptable when stopping in the proximity of the correct number on the dial. Further, electronic locks that meet the standard prevent thieves from simply removing the keypad to access controls directly associated with operating the lock.

Combination locks that don’t meet the UL 768 standards can have a variety of weak points that leave your contents vulnerable. For example, electronic locks without a rating could be hotwired to open the safe and combination locks may lack hard plates to prevent thieves from drilling holes to access various mechanisms. Additionally, the locks may be generally unreliable or even prone to failure.

Choosing a Lock Type

If you are choosing between an electronic or manual combination lock, electronic options are often considered more accessible. Often, they can be opened more quickly and are easier to operate under stress than their mechanical counterparts. Many keypads are also lit, making them easier to use in the dark than a mechanical version. The door automatically locks when the safe is closed again, making it highly convenient for securing contents quickly as well. So, if you are looking at a gun safe that facilitates home defense, an electronic keypad is often a better choice.

However, a mechanical lock may be more reliable, and likely doesn’t have the same wrong code penalty that may be associated with a keypad variant.Furthermore, mechanical locks don’t require batteries, which can lessen the amount of maintenance required to keep the lock operational.

Key locks offer protection, though they could potentially be picked by a skilled burglar with the right tools. In most cases, gun safes will offer one of the combination lock options over a traditional key, as they are typically considered more secure. The owner’s accessibility of a safe using a key lock is dependent on the key being nearby, which may not be especially convenient for purposes like home security. It is important to note that, like mechanical combination locks, key locks require very little maintenance.

Bolt Work

The locking bolts that secure the gun safe door as well as the linkages, handles, and relockers are vital components.Some manufacturers look to impress potential buyers by creating highly complex bolt work, though this generally doesn’t offer any more protection. Typically, it is better to select simple bolt work over more complex variants as fewer moving parts means it is less likely to fail.

The number of locking bolts doesn’t indicate a different level of protection, but the design of the bolts and how they are supported by the door are highly relevant. Ideally, the bolts need to be highly resistant to bending under brute force attacks.Longer bolts or thicker bolt carriages offer a higher level of resistance than shorter or thinner variants. Those that use locking bolt bar gussets or anti-pry tabs can also offer additional protection.

Safes that feature relockers have mechanisms in place to immobilize the bolt work in the case of tampering. Typically, these should be located on the lock assembly, and are considered a requirement for UL 768 rated locks.

Fire Ratings

If your intent is to choose a gun safe that offers fire protection, then you are likely better off bypassing traditional gun safes and exploring true safes instead. There currently isn’t a gun safe on the market that meets the minimum Fire Endurance requirements as defined in the UL 72 Class 350 rating.

How well a fire safe will perform depends on numerous factors. First, the type of insulation involved plays a large factor, as well as the thickness of the insulation and total coverage area. Second, the construction of the body of the safe is important, as non-continuous welds automatically make the contents vulnerable to damage. Third, the door seal plays an important role. Finally, the actual structure of the safe, including the thickness of the outer shell steel, also determine how well the safe holds up to a fire.

Fire Insulation

There are four primary types of fire insulation commonly used in safes.The best option is poured concrete amalgamate, followed by ceramic wool fiber or high temperature fiberglass, fiberglass reinforced gypsum drywall fireboard, and the worst option, standard paper-backed gypsum drywall. When comparing fire safes featuring the same insulation material, the thicker the insulation, the better.

It is also important to select fire safes featuring continuous coverage in regards to insulation. Any thick areas or weak points make it easier for the contents to be damaged in the case of fire. Further, look for gun safes featuring a continuously welded inner shell for additional protection against moisture that is released from the insulation and to provide an additional barrier should a fire occur.

Other Features

Gun safes can include a variety of other features designed to entice consumers into selecting that product. For example, most manufacturers offer some level of warranty, which can provide an additional level of financial protection should the contents be damaged due to a failure associated with the safe’s construction. The interior may include a range of conveniences, such as shelving and racks designed to make organization easier to manage.In some cases, the safe may even include an internal electrical outlet, giving you the option to connect a dehumidifier inside the gun safe to protect your firearms or other contents. Other safes may have built-in lighting to make it easier to see the contents without having to turn on lights in the room.

While some of these features may be considered desirable, they shouldn’t take priority over more functional aspects such as the steel construction or fire insulation. When you do choose a gun safe, make sure you get the best option you can afford that will meet your needs based on the number of firearms you own, the value of your collection, and any legal or insurance requirements to which you must adhere. In the end, your collection is a significant financial investment, and it deserves the best protection your money can buy.

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