Types of Gun Safe Locks
A major decision point when selecting a suitable gun safe is the type of lock that is used to secure the door. While there is a wide range of lock designs, they fundamentally fall into three major categories: mechanical dial combination, electronic keypad combination, and biometric.
Each design provides different benefits and drawbacks.
To help determine which is best for you, here is an overview of what each primary design has to offer as well as a final recommendation based on the information presented below.
Mechanical Dial Combination Lock
A mechanical dial combination lock is one of the oldest designs available.However, it is still used today thanks to its superior reliability and the fact that it doesn’t require a power source to function properly.
Most mechanical combination locks use a three-digit numerical combination to gain entry. The authorized user spins the dial or dials based on the manufacturer’s instructions.
When only a single dial is used, it is common to begin by turning the knob to the right until the indicator aligns with the first number in the combination. Then, turn the dial to the left, passing the first number once and then stopping when the second number aligns with the indicator.
Finally, turn the dial to the right, aligning the third number with the indicator.You can then open the safe.
Since the unlocking process can be somewhat time-consuming under the best of circumstances, mechanical dial locks aren’t always ideal for storing firearms that are also intended to be used for home defense.
Additionally, if the combination isn’t entered correctly by mistake (such as accidentally moving the dial past the number that was supposed to line up with the indicator, the lock first has to be cleared before the combination can be attempted a second time.
Clearing normally requires the dial to be turned to the right for three full rotations before you can begin with the first number.
It is said that unlocking speed can be cut down by finding a lock that has a combination where the first number falls below 40, the second number between 0 and 25, and the third number between 25 and 40.
Based on the number of available combinations, following that advice does not compromise security but may allow the lock to be opened in as little as half the time when compared to combinations that fall outside of those parameters.
The majority of mechanical dial lock combinations are preset by the manufacturer and cannot be easily changed by the owner.
Often, if you do need to change a combination, it requires the services of a professional locksmith.
This can be less than ideal if you need to modify the combination quickly because you suspect the original was compromised.
Similarly, if you forget the combination, you may require a locksmith to gain entry and either discover the current combination or reset it.
Not all combination safes come with backup keys. While this can be beneficial as you don’t have to worry about someone simply finding the keys to gain entry, it does mean you’re at a bit of a loss should you forget the combination or the dial mechanism fails.
In some cases, the manufacturer can provide the combination based on the serial number associated with either the lock or the safe itself if you do happen to forget it.
Mechanical dial locks do have exceptional lifespans as there is no reliance on electronic components or parts that are known to degrade in a relatively short time. This means a single lock, when well cared for, can last a lifetime.
However, some of the maintenance must often be managed by professionals. For example, realigning the tumblers may mean you need to contact a locksmith to ensure the process is handled properly.
However, there are rarely any breakdowns or lock failures associated with dial combination locks, making them highly reliable.
These locks also have shortcomings.For example, once you close the safe, you have to spin the dial to engage the lock. Failing to do so can leave the safe in an open state.
It’s also somewhat difficult to open the safe quickly during an emergency as the lock can only be manipulated with so much speed.
Further, since the lock provides no inherent light source, it can be hard to use in dark or even low light conditions.
Electronic Keypad Combination Lock
Also referred to as digital locks, electronic keypad locks allow authorized users to gain access based on the successful entry of a selected numeric code or PIN.Once the correct code is entered, the lock disengages, and the door can be opened.
Electronic keypad locks can often be opened fairly quickly, making them a popular choice for gun safes when home defense is a concern. However, each safe may have slightly different features that make using the lock easier or more challenging.
For example, many, but not all, keypad locks are backlit. This makes it easier to see the keys in dark spaces as well as at night. It is a preferred set up when the firearms stored within the safe are intended for home defense use since the safe can be easily opened without the need for additional light.
Many digital locks also have the ability to silence the keypad, helping to keep your actions private if you need to access a handgun, rifle, or shotgun but do not want to alert people nearby.
As an added security feature, an electronic keypad lock may also have a time delay lockout that engages when multiple incorrect codes are entered within a specific amount of time.
The intention of the lockout feature is to prevent someone from getting into the safes imply by guessing the right PIN. Most of the lockout timers are fairly long (when considered in the context of an attempted theft), requiring approximately 10 minutes to pass before an additional attempt can be made.
Depending on the safe model and manufacturer, once the lockout timer expires, one of two scenarios may occur.
First, it may allow for multiple unlock attempts to be entered before reentering lockout mode. For example, if it initially takes three incorrect codes to cause the lockout, once the lockout period expires, you would get another three attempts before it would lockout again.
The second option after the lockout is triggered causes the lockout timer to start again with every subsequent incorrect code once the first time period elapses. For example, if it took three wrong PINs to trigger the lockout, once the timer expires, a single incorrect PIN would again start the lockout timer.
More advanced time delay features on certain safe models give the owner the option of setting the lockout duration, often within a range of one to 99 minutes. Time delays can also be applied after successful openings, preventing the lock from being reopened in short succession.
Depending on the manufacturer, safe owners may be able to program in their own numeric code, or the PIN may be set in advance by the manufacturer. Certain safes are also capable of storing more than one PIN, allowing multiple users to choose unique numeric codes that are easy for them to remember.
While electronic keypad locks are strong options for safes, it is important to note that they aren’t as reliable as a mechanical lock. First, they are traditionally battery powered, so a dead battery will prevent the keypad from working.
They are also more susceptible to water and fire damage. Safes of this nature traditionally come with backup keys, allowing the contents to be accessed even if the keypad fails.
However, the key-based entry may not be ideal during incidents where a firearm is being obtained for home defense.
A biometric lock is technically a variant of the electronic design. Instead of having the user enter a numeric code or PIN, the lock disengages when a stored fingerprint is detected.
The safe doors traditionally feature a small scanner that reads the fingerprint of the person wishing to open the safe.
If it is determined to be a match, the door opens, providing access to the interior.
Safes featuring biometric locks provide a number of advantages when compared to other designs.
First, the speed at which one can gain entry often outpaces any other lock option available.
In some cases, when a recognized fingerprint is detected, the door can be opened in just a few seconds. Additionally, most of the scanner emits at least low levels of light, making it easy to use in the dark.
This makes a biometric lock a strong choice when used to secure firearms for home defense.
Biometric safes are also some of the most secure options available. Since it requires a registered fingerprint to gain entry, there is no way to simply guess the right combination, which is technically possible with the mechanical dial and digital keypad combination locks.
However, since most biometric safes use batteries and electronic components can fail, most of these safes include backup key-based entry, so it is critical that the key is properly stored to ensure the security of the safe’s contents.
Some biometric safes also feature backup PIN-based entry, technically providing three options for opening the safe when the need arises.
The setup time for a biometric safe can be notably longer than other options as you have to program in the authorized user fingerprints before the biometric lock can be used.
However, once this information is set, it is typically held long-term, even if the battery dies.
Additionally, it is common to be able to hold numerous fingerprints. In fact, some can hold more than 100 unique prints.
This can be ideal for safes that will have two or more authorized users or if you want to store multiple fingerprints for the same user.
However, if a user’s information needs to be removed from the safe, it is possible that all fingerprint data will need to be reset to do so.
If that is the case, the entire setup process will need to be repeated to restore the fingerprints of those who should still have access.
Certain biometric locks also include other features, like the lockout timer found in other digital locks as well as entry tracking systems that log when a fingerprint was used to attempt to access the safe.