Gun Safe Buyers' Guide
What to Look for When Buying a Safe
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Gun safe, vault, security cabinet, firesafe from Zanotti, Liberty, Heritage, Brown Safe, AMSEC, Cannon, Ft. Knox, FireKing
|Introduction: If you own firearms, you need a gun safe. In some states, such as California, if you don't own a safe, you face potential liability if your firearms are stolen. Purchasing a safe is no easy decision however. There are dozens of safe manufacturers and countless design options. Sorting out the facts from the marketing claims can be difficult.|
Our Gun Safe Buyers' Guide is designed to help you select the right safe, with the right features, at the right price, for your needs.
We identify the most important qualities you should look for in a safe, and help you with the tough decisions, such as "Should I get a digital lock or a dial lock?", "What kind of fire-proofing is most effective?", "How big a safe do I really need?", and "What interior works best with long-barreled scoped rifles?" We review many of the better safes on the market, including innovative designs from Browning, and Zanotti. Plus you'll find expert advice on how to install your safe in your home and how to keep the contents free from rust.
Editor's NOTE about Vaults: If you have a very extensive collection of firearms (over 70 rifles), you may want to consider a custom-built vault room in your home. A vault will be more cost-effective than purchasing multiple giant safes, and vaults can be made very secure against both fire and theft risks. Most of the manufacturers listed here can supply vault doors. But engineering the "ultimate vault" is another topic altogether, so we haven't addressed vault doors in this article.
|Recommended Safe Features for Long-Gun Storage|
Budget $1200-1500 for a safe from a major maker, with external hinges, and an interior at least 58" high.
That gives you room for 30"-barreled rifles with a top shelf for handguns and other valuables. A rotary rack and slide-out drawers are great additions.
Keypad or Dial? I favor rotary dial locks. With minimal maintenance they will function flawlessly for decades. But the digital locks offer quick-access and convenience. If you go digital, get a commercial-grade unit. Fire-lining is worth getting, but a thin layer of sheet-rock doesn't make a safe truly "fire-proof".
|Interior at least 58" High and 30" wide|
Overall Weight 750+ Pounds
8 Gauge or Heavier Wall Thickness
Double-Wall, Composite Door with Relockers
Minimum UL RSC Rated. TL-15 or TL-30 Rating is Desirable
Mechanical UL Group II (or better) Lock with Standard Dial
Or UL Type 1 Commercial-Grade Electronic Lock
Custom Interior Suitable for Scoped Guns with Long Barrels
On-Door Storage System for Non-scoped Long Guns OR
Rotary Gun Rack for Scoped Rifles and ARs
Internal (sandwiched) Insulator, Reinforced if Sheet-rock
Palusol? Heat-Activated Expanding Door Seals
Slide-out Drawers for Handguns
Fire-lined Inner Safe for Paper and Media
Low Gloss, Rust-resistant External Finish
Pre-Drilled holes for Lag Bolts and in Rear for Electric Cord
Overhead Fluorescent Lamp and/or LED Mini-lights on Strings
|DOs and DON'Ts of Safe Buying
DO purchase a safe that is bigger than you think you need.
Your gun collection is bound to grow over time. A good safe is more than just a gun locker--it becomes a secure storage device for your family's other valuables as well. You'll find you quickly fill up even a large safe.
Spend the money for the size, protection, and features you want. Your gun collection may be worth many tens of thousands of dollars. Some people who visit this site wouldn't hesistate to spend $1100 for a custom action or $1400 for a NightForce scope, yet they don't want to spend more than a few hundred dollars on a safe. That's not common sense. If you're on a tight budget, consider a used safe. Unlike many other products, safes don't really wear out over time. When businesses change locations, you can get a very high quality commercial safe for little more than the cost of removing it.
DO spend more for a safe that offers fire-resistance.
But you have to do your homework--you can spend a lot of money for "fire-proofing" that actually is not very effective. Make sure if sheet-rock is used that it is properly installed. If you have valuable documents and media files, it's not a bad idea to purchase a smaller, commercial-grade fire safe to put inside the gun safe. This gives you double protection.
DO look at many different brands of safes before you buy.
There ARE significant differences among brands. For example, Browning offers a unique (patent-pending) door-mounted rifle rack. Zanotti offers slide-out drawers and a modular design that is much easier for an owner to move. Ft. Knox uses an advanced method to secure and stabilize its fire-proofing layers within the safe. Brown offers custom exotic wood interior shelving and safes with commercial-grade burglary protection (much thicker steel with heavy composite doors and walls). Amsec offers a proprietary "DryLight" poured concrete-type fire insulation with greater structural strength than typical sheet-rock panels.
DO investigate the safe's specifications.
Just because a safe is big and heavy doesn't mean it's particularly secure. Heavy-gauge steel is much more resistant to cutting and drilling than light 12- or 14-gauge steel. Some safes on the market have walls so thin they can be penetrated with a fire ax. We recommend 10-gauge steel at a minimum, and 8 gauge is much better. The safe should carry a UL RSC (Underwriters Laboratories "Residential Security Container") or better rating.
DO ask about the safe's safeguards against tampering.
A quality safe will feature extra armor or devices to defeat drilling. Low-grade safes can be opened in a few minutes with simple, battery-powered hand tools. All safes should have relockers to help ensure the safe remains locked in the case of a burglary. Relockers are hardened pins that are triggered during an attack, and cannot be retracted without hours of drilling. The number of relockers on a safe ranges from 2-10+ depending on the safe's size and burglary grade.
|DON'T store powder in your safe. A tightly-sealed metal box with a large quantity of powder inside is a bomb. Store powder in a separate, lightly-constructed cabinet or wood box. The main thing for powder is to keep it dry and away from moisture and light.
DON'T store large quantities of primers in your safe. If one primer goes off it can detonate others, causing a chain reaction. If you have many thousands of primers, don't store them all in one corner of your reloading area.
DON'T leave the wooden pallet on your safe and rely on the safe's mass alone to deter thieves. A 10-year-old kid with a rented pallet jack can move a 1000-pound safe with ease if the pallet is attached and the safe is not bolted down.
DON'T locate your safe in plain view, such as the front of your garage, or corner of your living room. This is just an invitation to theft. And be discrete when you load and unload firearms--so you don't advertise to the whole neighborhood that you have a large gun collection.
DON'T leave power tools or cutting torches near your safe.
|Safe Installation Tips|
Every safe, when possible, should be anchored in place with heavy-duty fasteners. Ideally, use multiple bolts in the bottom of the safe, anchored to concrete or solid foundation. Choose the appropriate lag bolts or anchors for the material below your safe. If you can't mount to the floor, bolt the safe to wall studs. You can locate the position of the studs with an inexpensive electronic "Stud Sensor" available at home supply stores.
If the steel on the bottom of your safe is fairly thin, place a steel backing strip between the bolt heads and the safe bottom. (Large washers will work, but a backing strip is better.) Without such reinforcement, the bolt heads may pull right through thin-gauge steel if the safe is rocked, or levered from the bottom with a pry-bar.
Locate your safe in the corner of a room or in a recess that blocks access to one or more sides of the safe. On many gun safes, the steel on the top, sides, and rear is thinner than on the door. Blocking access to the sides makes it much more difficult to use power tools on the sides, where the safe is most vulnerable. It's also wise to place the safe in a relatively tight space with limited room to manuever. Anything that makes the safe harder to move helps deter would-be thieves.
Many people place their safe in a garage or basement. That's not necessarily a bad idea, but people also tend to store their tools in the same locations. Don't store your power tools next to the safe. One safe-maker told us how a customer's safe was defeated using the owners' own cutting torch which was stored right next to the safe!
Inspect the area around the safe. Avoid locations where there are a lot of wood beams, paint cans, or other combustible material nearby. In the event of a serious house-fire, these items will fuel the flames, increasing the likelihood that items inside your safe will be heat-damaged.
Chris Luchini, co-author of Rec.Gun's guide to Gun Safes, offers some practical advice: "1) Get an alarm system. If the burglars hear an alarm go off, they are less likely to stick round to finish the job. Alarms on both the house and the safe area are a good idea. 2) Hide the safe. If the safe is built into a wall, or behind a false wall and they can't find it, they can't break into it. It may help to keep a cheap gun cabinet around with a couple of junker guns in it, [so] that a thief who knows you have guns will find it, break in and leave disappointed, without looking for your real safe."
Former law enforcement officer Ron Godwin, now Manager of El Cajon Gun Exchange, has investigated many buglaries and safe break-ins over the years. He advises: "Be creative. Stick [your safe] in a closet with a solid core door and a deadbolt (that means the bad guy has to take more time and make more noise getting to your safe). If the closet is in a garage or utility room stick a professional-looking sign on the door such as 'Warning!! High Voltage--No User Serviceable Parts'. Put a smoke detector on the ceiling directly above your safe and run a fake wire so it looks like it is hooked into a security system. Most of the things a bad guy does to break into a safe--drilling into a hard plate, grinding, cutting with a torch--create smoke. If the smoke detector activates there's an alarm and the bad guy doesn't know if someone will respond to it or not. With the possibility of being 'caught in the act', he may just leave."
|IMPORTANT FEATURES of GUN SAFES|
|Size and Weight|
Recommendation: At least 58" interior vertical clearance; at least 750 lbs loaded weight.
A bolt-action rifle with a 30" barrel is about 52" inches long. Therefore, if you want to get a long-barreled gun in your safe, with a bit of room for a top shelf, you'll need an interior 58" or so high. That's what we recommend as a minimum. As far as width, 36" and 40" are common sizes that will give you ample space for a couple dozen rifles. A 36-40" wide interior will allow you to have a 16-gun rotary rack on one side, plus a normal shelving unit on the other. A nice, wide interior also lets you place shorter rifles (or AR-15 uppers) horizontally on an upper shelf. That is a very handy and efficient storage option.
In terms of weight, obviously a 2000-lb safe is more secure than a 500-lb safe. But a one-ton safe requires a professional moving crew to install in your home, and will cost a small fortune because of the huge amount of costly steel in its construction. What is a reasonable compromise?
We asked a number of safe dealers, and most felt that a safe in the 750-lb range offered a good combination of size and security. At this weight, the safe can't be moved with a typical appliance dolly. It will be big enough, with large enough footprint, that it will resist being tipped over. It will be too heavy for a couple of thieves to push up a flight of stairs. Conversely, a 500-lb safe is much easier for a couple men to manhandle, and two strong men can get one into the bed of a pick-up truck using a ramp.
|Safe Construction and Wall Thickness|
Recommendation: Minimum 10 Gauge steel walls, 5/16" solid plate door or 1+" composite door, armor shielding over lock box.
Strength is important in a safe. This is a function of components, design, and construction quality. You want a safe with great exterior strength, because during a fire, the house roof or other structural elements may fall on the safe. If the safe splits a weld or if the door springs lose, your valuables are toast. Chris Luchini, studying the results of the Los Alamos fire, found that one expensive safe failed completely after a heavy beam fell on it, causing the door to spring loose.
Well-constructed safes are built with continuous welds, not "stitch welds" linked with body filler. Citadel Safe Company in Utah notes: "Our safe bodies are welded continuously (no stitch welding). [Some] other safe companies use plastic body filler on their safes in place of welding. This is a very bad practice since plastic body filler is very flammable."
If you want to see how tough a well-built safe can be, check out this Fort Knox Video, showing two Fort Knox safes supporting the full weight of a 25-ton military tank.
Steel is very expensive. That's why low-end safes have very thin steel wall panels, 12-gauge or even 14 gauge. Thin steel does not offer much of an obstacle to penetration. A concrete saw will zip right through 10-gauge panels, and 12-gauge, single-panel steel can be penetrated by a Fire Ax. Commercial-grade safes, used in banks and jewelry stores, use much thicker-grade steel. A B-Construction-rated commercial jewelers safe would feature at least ?" thick solid steel door and ?" solid steel body. That's what it takes to defeat serious safe-crackers.
But the average attack on a residential gun safe is more of the "snatch and grab" variety, by criminals who don't have heavy-duty cutting tools or torches, and who want to get in and out fast. So, it's reasonable to compromise a bit on the exterior shielding of the safe to have a manageable weight and reasonable price. Still, we recommend 10 gauge steel as a minimum, and 8 gauge, or 3/16", is much preferable. Sturdy Gun Safe builds a lot of safes for Law Enforcement and Prison use. Sturdy's "Minute Man" series safes feature 7 or 8-gauge steel walls. You should compare that to the wall thickness on other brands. Thicker steel is definitely harder to cut, and more resistant to break-ins.
Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have a rating system which measures the ability of a safe to withstand attack. At a minimum, a gunsafe should qualify for the UL "RSC" rating ("Residential Security Container").You may see the terms "TL-15" or "TL-30" in sales literature. A TL-15 Rating means the safe door can successfully resist entry for a net assault time of 15 minutes when attacked with common hand tools, picking tools, mechanical or portable electric tools, grinders, drills or pressure devices. TL-30 means the safe door can pass the same test for 30 minutes. Note that this does NOT include attacks on the sides or top. That is a much tougher test, and very few if any, popular gun safes could pass. Click here for a more complete explanation of UL Safe Construction (and burglary resistance) Ratings. The same page explains UL Fire Ratings.
|Locking Device--Mechanical Dial vs. Digital Locks|
Recommendation: UL Group II mechanical dial lock or commercial-grade electronic.
For gun safes, we prefer rotary-combination dial locks, although commercial-grade electronic locks are now very good. While less convenient, and slower to open than electronic locks, combination locks are still more durable and trouble-free than the digital locks found on many low- to medium-cost gun safes. Among the combination locks, the Sargent & Greenleaf model 6730 (UL Group II) remains an industry standard. The director of Sturdy Safes noted: "An S&G 6730 will be working fine when your grandchildren have grandchildren." For home use, we also recommend the standard, high-visibility "front-read" white on black dial. There are "Spyproof" dials which shield the index marks from frontal view. This may be useful for a retail safe placed behind the counter, but at home, it just makes the dial much more difficult to see (you have to look down at an angle).
Avoid the cheap, imported electronic locks. These are known for failing relatively quickly--the keypad internals just wear out. With some of these designs, if the lock fails while the door is closed, you'll have to employ a professional gunsmith to drill your safe and replace the locking assembly and keypad. With any electronic lock, re-program your combination now and then so that keypad wear patterns don't reveal the numbers you push to open the safe. But when you change the combination, be sure to record the new setting.
With a dial lock, choose a design that meets UL Group II (or better) certification. If you choose a digital lock, we strongly recommend that you select a UL Type I, Commercial Grade lock from LaGard, Sargent & Greenleaf, or Kaba Mas. Commercial-grade locks, such as the S&G Comptronic" 6120 or LaGard "SafeGard" are much more robust and are designed to be used 20 times a day or more in retail and banking environments. A good commercial digital keypad lock should give 10 years or more of continuous use before replacement is required. With any digital lock, however, you should replace the battery at least once a year. Normally this can be done without professional assistance.
What do the experts say? We polled a half-dozen safe manufacturers and most of them leaned toward digital locks--but primarily because that's what customers prefer. However, Mark Zanotti of Zanotti Armor tells us "10% of the safes I sell have digital locks, but they represent 90% of the problems down the road. Anything electronic is prone to failure at some point." With digital locks you have to replace the batteries regularly. The keypads can and do fail. Safemakers tell us one common problem with digital locks stems from the ease with which the combination can be re-programmed. Customers reprogram their locks and then forget the combination.
What is the major problem with conventional dial locks? User error--owners forget to relock their safe after opening it. When you shut the door on a digitally-equipped safe, the door locks automatically. However, with a manual combination lock, you need to spin the dial after shutting the door and working the handle. Closing the handle moves the locking bolts, but does NOT re-activate the lock. So all a thief needs to do is turn the handle and he's in the safe. So, if you choose a manual lock, be sure to spin the dial every time you close the safe.
|Bolt Operation and Layout|
Recommendation: 1" (or larger) bolts on all four sides with vault-type cam or relockers.
The number of locking bolts is not all that critical, so long as there are at least two bolts on each of the doors' four sides, and the bolts themselves are hardened steel and of sufficient diameter. More bolts do add a measure of security though, and can be found in a high-end safe such as the Ft. Knox "Yeager", pictured at right. Note the diagonal bolts in the corners. That's a feature normally seen only on high-end bank vault doors. It helps secure the corners of the door more rigidly and bars a prying attack at a location where some doors are vulnerable.
Some companies utilize rounded door corners, or a stepped "jig-saw" door-frame, arguably to make it more difficult to try to bend the door. This can make it more difficult to attack the safe door with a pry-bar. But bottom line, if your safe has a multiple-bolt set-up with sufficient engagement, a prying attack will fail. You should be more concerned about a drill attack on the bolts themselves.
Bolt linkage design is critical to the safe's resistance to a drill attack. As this Browning Video shows, some safes can be defeated quickly and easily by drilling a 3/16" or larger hole opposite a bolt and then pushing the bolt inward. This causes all the bolts to retract, opening the safe. And it can be done in a matter of minutes. Click the video frame for a 6 MB video, or Click Here for a high-resolution (21 MB) version. Most higher-grade Browning, Champion, and Heritage safes resist this kind of attack because their bolt linkage systems do not transfer pressure on the bolts directly to the lock. (To divert bolt pressure away from the locking mechanism, Browning uses a locking-bar system with vault-type cams, Champion uses an eccentric cam, while Heritage uses a "past top dead center" linkage.)
A locksmith will tell you that, given enough time and the right tools, any residential safe can be cracked. However, a safe equipped with relockers is less vulnerable to an attack with mechanical tools. Brown Safe Mfg., which produces many high-end commercial safes, tells us: "All safes should have relockers to help ensure the safe remains locked in the case of a burglary. Relockers are hardened pins that are triggered, in a variety of ways during an attack, and cannot be retracted without hours of drilling."
Recommendation: Safe UL Rated 350?F for 1 hour or better, with fire cladding on all sides.
Over 380,000 residential fires occur annually. Residential fires account for $4.4 billion of property loss each year. So, getting a fire-resistant safe is a good idea. No question about that--but understanding how much protection you're really buying is the challenge.
Fire protection in gun safes is a controversial topic. Many claims are made about the effectiveness of various forms of "fire-lining" or "fire-cladding." Ratings suggesting that a safe will stay below a specified temperature for a given length of time may be unrealistic. However, as a general rule, fire-proofing is a good thing, and a safe that incorporates effective fire/heat protection is worth the extra cost.
Chris Luchini, co-author of the Rec.Gun's guide to Gun Safes, told us: "I live in the Los Alamos area. A few years ago we had a massive fire that destroyed many homes. I had the chance to inspect a number of safes in homes that experienced 'total burn-downs', where the building was reduced to a pile of ashes. I noticed three things. First, in nearly all the safes without any fire-proofing, everything was lost. Second, in some safes where there was no structural reinforcing of the sheet-rock insulation, things were lost in the top half of the safe. Third, I saw some safes that had thick, reinforced fire lining, and these came out pretty good, with most of the contents intact. I also saw a fire-lined safe that failed because the door sprung open when a heavy beam fell on it."
Chris adds: "Realistically, fire is probably more of a danger to your guns than theft. Spend the extra money and get the fireproofing in any safe you buy, or add it yourself later. Many safe manufacturers use common sheet-rock as fire-lining. This is not the best solution, because when heated, standard sheet-rock will crumble. There is a sheet-rock that has fiberglass embedded in it. These fibers will maintain the physical strength of the panel as it is heated. Also, keep in mind that the top of the safe is the part that [takes] the brunt of the heat in a fire. Store everything as low as possible in your safe."
The two most commonly-used insulators in gun safes are sheet-rock (gypsum board), and ceramic wool blankets. Ceramic wool has a much higher insulation rating than sheet-rock. However, when sandwiched between steel plates, sheet-rock can be quite effective. As the safe heats up, water molecules contained in the sheet-rock vaporize and form steam. This conversion of water to steam absorbs heat energy. It also serves to pressurize the safe, sealing it off front heat and flames. The problem with sheet-rock is that, after it releases its moisture, it tends to disintegrate, and migrate to the bottom of the safe, leaving hot spots at the top. Ft. Knox is one of the safe-makers that employs an extra assembly stage to secure the sheetrock within the safe walls. Ft. Knox bar-tacks the sheet-rock panels in a matrix so the insulating material stays in place.
Should You Believe Safe Makers' Fire Ratings?
This is a difficult question to answer. Some claimed ratings are unsupported by actual testing. Some companies, such as Cannon and SentrySafe, use Intertek ETL to test their safes. Other companies, such as AmSec and FireKing, employ Underwriters Laboratories to test their safes. At right is a graphic showing various UL rating levels. Liberty Safe, whose safes are tested by Omega Point Laboratories, notes: "An assumption many people make is that they can compare home security safe fire ratings much like they compare the gas mileage ratings on cars. While there is one test method for estimating fuel economy, there is no single fire test or rating standard for home security safes. Safe manufacturers' fire test methods, standards and facilities vary so widely that a direct comparison is meaningless. Actual house fires get hot real fast1200?F in ten minutes or less. Yet some manufacturers use fire tests where the heat builds to over 1200?F over a much longer time framewell beyond the time it takes a typical house fire to reach 1200?F. The result is a longer fire protection time claim, but it provides an unrealistic expectation of actual fire resistance. In an Omega Point fire test the furnace temperature builds to 1200?F, typical home fire intensity, in ten minutes and is maintained there, exposing the safe to the full heat and intensity of a simulated home fire during the test. The test is over when one of the nine computer monitored temperature probes inside the safe rises 275?F above the ambient temperature--paper chars at 402? F. The results are a rating that is a real measure of a safe's fire endurance under conditions simulating a house fire, not just a factory test."
How is a Commercial-Grade Fire Safe Built?
Brown Safe Mfg., builder of many high-end commercial safes, gives the following advice to its customers: "Be extremely careful when considering a safe with a 'fire liner', 'ceramic fire layer', 'fireboard' etc. You will never find these fire liners in a commercial or high-end safe, simply because they do not work for any substantial length of time. Many of the manufactures are using the specifications of the building material used. For example 'UL listed fireliner' which just refers to the UL rating of the drywall used and in no way means the safe is UL-rated. Also, many of the manufacturers will test the safes in their own labs rather than having an independent (preferably U.L. labs) test the safe.
A true UL-rated fire only safe is made with two thin skins of sheet metal with a water retaining media (typically a concrete and vermiculite mixture) in between. The door jam is highly convoluted with a heat seal. As the heat hits the outside of the safe the fire retardant gives off the retained water as steam. This expands inside the safe and forces the heat out of the convoluted door jamb forming a heat seal. This steam also saturates the contents to artificially raise its flash point.
If you are looking for burglary protection in addition to fire protection, the safe needs to be built with at least B-rated safe construction (?" thick solid steel door and ?" solid steel body.) Due to the thickness of the steel (which will conduct heat) a 2.5" thick fire cladding must be used in order to insulate the steel portion of the safe from the heat of the fire.
This fire cladding is a concrete amalgamate which insulates the solid steel portion of the safe. The fire cladding also has the advantage of adding considerable additional burglary protection (due to being a mix which includes concrete) with added torch, thermic lance and brute force protection.
When comparing gun safes it is helpful to compare the weight of similar sized models from different manufacturers. This will let you compare the actual amount of steel in the safe (as opposed to sheet metal wrapped around wood or drywall)."
Recommendation: Full-length Palusol? Door Seal
Many low-end gun safes are sold without any door sealing at all. That's bad. Door seals are very important. First, a good door seal will keep out moist air, dramatically reducing the risk of rust forming on your firearms and personal articles. Second, in order to resist the heat, smoke, and flames of a fire, your gunsafe needs to have a tightly sealed door and the absolute minimum of external holes. Ideally, your safe should be fitted with a Palusol? heat-activated sealing strip all the way around the door frame. In a fire, Palusol? will expand to eight times its normal size, blocking smoke and heat from entering the interior. Lastly, a good door seal is vital if the safe is to resist liquid water intrusion during flooding, and as the result of fire-fighting. SentrySafe uses a special, proprietary gasket that Sentry claims will keep both flood waters and high-pressure spray out of your safe: "Flood Guard's breakthrough polymer seal locking system keeps water out for up to three days, if your gun safe is submerged in up to two feet of water. And Flood Guard protection is spray-resistant for up to 15 minutes, even if your gun safe is drenched with 1,000 gallons of water from a fireman's high-pressure hose."
|Hinges--External vs. Internal|
Recommendation: External hinges (provided safe is UL-rated 'RSC' or better.)
We prefer gun safes with external hinges. These allow the door to open wider, a full 180 degrees--something you will appreciate every time you open the safe. Additionally, external hinges allow the safe door to be removed for easier transport and servicing. Contrary to some marketing claims, internal hinges do not necessarily make the safe more "secure". Concealed internal hinges give a safe a sleeker, more modern appearance. But if a safe door has adequate locking bolts, the door will stay in place even if the hinges are cut completely off. And with either internal or external hinge design, it is the locking mechanism that is the real security concern.
Brown Safe Mfg., a highly respected manufacturer of commercial-grade safes (as well as residential safes), explains: "When shopping for a gun safe be aware of features that are only seen on 'gun safes' such as internal hinges, fire liners, etc., as they are usually marketing features more than safety features. It is often helpful to look at commercial safes to get an idea of how a safe, which is built for extremely high burglary risk, is constructed. For example, external hinges are a standard feature on commercial safes because the average burglar will waste time trying to cut or pry them. In any quality safe the hinges simply swing the door and shouldn't be part of the security of the safe. Internal hinges usually cause the burglar to immediately attack the lock and other vital areas on the safe."
Recommendation: 18-gun minimum stated capacity, with good access. Consider Rotary Rack for rifles and drawers for handguns.
Safe-makers like to boast about how many guns they can squeeze into their safes. Marketing dictates ultra-high-capacity interiors. Unfortunately this has lead to racking designs that jam rifles way too close together--designs that aren't suited at all for rifles with long barrels, wide fore-ends, or deep pistol grips.
A "24-gun safe" might fit two dozen skinny Marlin lever guns with 22" barrels, but they'll be crammed in there like sardines. This makes it difficult to access the rifle you want without tediously removing others first. And don't even think of trying to "max out" your interior if your collection includes a 32" Palma Rifle, a couple AR15s, or a few 1000-yard BR guns with 3"-wide fore-ends and big scopes.
If you look at safe advertisements, the safes are chock full of small shotguns and un-scoped rifles. You'll never see an MBR Tooley with a long barrel and a big scope. And you'll rarely even see an AR15 because its magwell and extended pistol grip demand extra clearance when stored in a gun safe. In the real world, then, you won't be able to fill a gun safe to its claimed capacity. One of our readers had this comment: "If you think you need a 20-gun safe, buy a 40-gun or larger. If not it will be too small."
So, as a practical reality, most safes don't deliver a user-friendly interior for owners of scoped rifles. What can be done about that? Here are some ideas.
Buy a Rotary Rack--These things are great. Check out this Rotary Rack Video to see how they function. You can access any of your rifles in a matter of seconds, and you only have to move the gun you want. Yes you do give up some storage space. But a Rotary Rack with a 22" base will hold 16 rifles, even ARs and rifles with huge scopes such as the Nightforce 10-42x. On a Rotary Rack, you place the rifle with the scope facing inwards, so you won't be bashing your expensive optics on the sides of the safe anymore. Gun-Racks.com produces high-quality Rotary Racks in 10, 12, 16, and 22-gun configurations, starting at $119.00. We recommend the 12-gun Rotary Rack ($144.00) with a 36" center shaft. That is tall enough to clear the fore-end of an MBR or Tracker stock, and there is enough clearance from edge to center for nearly all scopes. If your scopes have extended turrets, however, it's a good idea to alternate scoped with non-scoped rifles.
Rack your Unscoped Guns on the Door--
If you place your shotguns and unscoped rifles on the door, that will free up a huge amount of space on the inside of the safe for guns that need more clearance. How's that done? Browning Safes has a patent-pending door-mounted rack as part of its "Duo-Plus" interior. It has a carpeted rack with barrel holes at the top, and a short platform at the base of the door, complete with individual slots for rifle butts. This works extremely well for shotguns and iron-sighted rifles. Study the design--you could probably easily build something similar in your own safe.
Build Your Own Rack Shelving--Most gun safe racking units are nothing more than a piece of carpeted particle board or pine. You can easily build a replacement that fits the guns you own, not the guns some marketing director thinks you have. For scoped guns, you need to increase clearance from the sidewalls 3" or more (assuming scope-side faces the safe wall). To ease access, you should also increase the spacing between guns. If you have a number of benchrest rifles with square, 3"-wide fore-ends, consider building a shelf with 3.5" rectangular slots instead of the typical tight half-circle cutouts. This will give you a rock-solid mounting point that won't allow the rifle to bang into its neighbor.
If you have a variety of AR-type rifles, some long and some short, you can build a simple stepped box that sits on the safe's floor. Place your 20+" ARs on the bottom step and the short-barreled ARs on the upper step. This will allow the barrel heights to be uniform where they contact the rack/shelving system. Extra uppers can be stored horizontally on the top shelf (see below).
Install Sliding Drawers--Once you've come up with a long-gun racking solution, the next question is where does all the other stuff go? Slide-out drawers are an excellent solution. If you have an extensive handgun collection, you can store your pistols and revolvers very efficiently inside sliding drawers. A 3" high drawer will have enough clearance to lay the largest handgun on its side, inside a bore-store gun sock. Separate drawers can be used to hold scopes, laser rangefinders, binoculars, and other accessories that don't require a lot of vertical clearance. Another drawer might be used to store jewelry, or a collection of watches. Sliding drawers (which can have individual security locks) will keep these expensive items out of plain view. It's a good idea to place a rubber pad or carpeting inside the drawer.
Zanotti Armor makes an excellent modular safe that offers three or five full-width roll-out drawers in the bottom half of the safe. Brown Safe and Citadel offer optional interiors with custom drawer configurations. And many other companies offer a separate "Safe in a Safe" locking box for jewelry, cash, and other valuables that you don't want sitting out in the open on your safe's shelves.
|Water and Flood Protection|
Recommendation: Mount safe above ground level, use premium door seals, and seal all external holes.
One much overlooked aspect of gun safe performance is the ability to protect the contents from water damage (due to floods, plumbing leaks, or water from fire-fighting). In the aftermath of the flooding in New Orleans, more people are thinking how they can keep water out of their safes. The first thing you can do is create a raised concrete platform. This will also make it easier to access items in the bottom of the safe.
Then, you should ensure that all holes in the safe base or sides are sealed with heat-resistant silicone or similar caulking material. This will also help safeguard the contents from fire damage--you want to eliminate any entry points for extreme heat.
One safe maker, SentrySafe, recently introduced its ProStaff line of safes with "FloodGuard", a proprietary door sealing system using an advanced polymer gasket. Sentry claims its "polymer seal locking system keeps water out for up to three days, if your gun safe is submerged in up to two feet of water. And FloodGuard protection is spray-resistant for up to 15 minutes, even if your gun safe is drenched with 1,000 gallons of water from a fireman's high-pressure hose." The FloodGuard models have been tested and certified by independent laborator ETL Semko to meet SentrySafe's specifications. We haven't immersed a FloodGuard safe to test SentrySafe's claims ourselves, but we are glad that at least one manufacture is looking at this issue. In some house fire situations, the contents of basement-located safes have actually suffered more from flood damage (from the water used to fight the fire), than from the fire itself.
Recommendation: Fluorescent lamp supplemented by LED string or rope lighting.
Interior illumination in a safe is not a luxury, it's a practical necessity. If you've ever prowled around in a dark safe in a dimly-lit garage, you'll agree. Thankfully, there are very simple, inexpensive ways to light up a safe. A combination of an overhead fluorescent bulb and small LED lamps on the shelves and sidewalls will provide all the illumination you could want.
Using the same 120v power cord servicing your dehumidifier, you can attach a low-wattage bulb or fluorescent tube near the top of the safe. The "long-life" fluorescent bulbs will run continuously for months with very low power drain. It's easy to rig a contact switch so the light turns on when the door opens, as with a refrigerator. However, if you leave the light running, it will act like a second GoldenRod, warming the safe and helping it to remain moisture-free.
On the shelves and sidewalls, the best system we've seen employs inexpensive strings of LED mini-lights. These cost $8-$15 per string and are available in the Christmas Supply section of department stores, or you can order them online from Brite-Lite.com. A 70-light LED string draws just 3.6 watts of power. Many safe dealers also sell "Rope Lighting" kits, which have LEDs inside a flexible tube. These kits provide good illumination but rope lighting is more expensive than LED string lighting and is more difficult to bend around corners or drape inside shelving units.
|The Zanotti Take-Down Safe|
Zanotti Armor offers unique take-down safes that are ideal for gun owners who need to move frequently or who live in a location where it is difficult, if not impossible, to position a heavy, conventional one-piece safe. Zanotti safes are very popular with police, military personnel, and other gun owners whose jobs force them to re-locate often. All you need is a hand dolly to move any of the safe's components. Solid steel 3/8" pins hold the safes together, and the safe can be assembled in about 20 minutes with no tools other than a hammer.
Zanotti safes arrive in three or four discrete shipping boxes. For all the neighbors know, you simply received some do-it-yourself furniture. The safe is assembled by the owner, on site, in six simple steps. The heaviest component is the door, weighing 110 pounds in the 16-gun ZAI safe, and 175 pounds in the largest 52-gun ZAIII model. A total of five safe models are offered, ranging from 350 to 925 pounds assembled weight, without interior.
Make no mistake, these are not flimsy gun lockers. Guns Magazine reports: "The panels are interlocked by 3/8 inch, nickel-plated steel "L" shaped pins that slip into steel tubing sections welded to the interior surfaces of the panels. The slip fit is held to a tolerance of .003 inch, and the safes are completely assembled and hand fitted at the factory to insure the panels will align properly when delivered. The body is made from 1/8 inch and 3/16 inch steel; the door from 3/16 inch steel; the locking bolts are 3/4 inch steel; and there is a triple relocking system if the combination lock is tampered with." This is heavier gauge steel than you'll find on most conventional gun safes.
Zanotti offers many deluxe interiors including a system of roll-out sliding drawers in the bottom of the safe. We think the sliding drawers are ideal for storing handguns and expensive items such as cameras and binoculars that you want to keep out of plain view. Mark Zanotti, the innovative creator of these modular safes, wanted us to know that he can also customize any interior to suit the customer's particular needs. If you want an internal "safe in a safe" for added security he can install that. Likewise, he can customize the rifle racks to suit long-barreled rifles with big scopes.
Zanotti safes do not employ a separate layer of sheet-rock or ceramic fire lining. However, with their thick steel walls and tight construction, the safes "do a good job for about 20 minutes in a 1200-degree fire" according to Mark, who added, "consumers need to realize that all safes, no matter what brand, are 'fire-resistant', not 'fire-proof'."
|The Battle against Rust and Corrosion
With any safe, you must take measures to protect the contents from rust and corrosion. A sage once said "rust never sleeps". It's kind of pointless to have a big, expensive safe if your valuable firearms are rusting away inside.|
The first thing you should do is attach seals around the door if your safe doesn't have any. This will block the introduction of moist, humid air from the outside. Any rubber-type seal is better than nothing, but the preferred sealing material is Palusol?, in full-length strips. Palusol? expands to provide a very tight seal in the event of fire.
Next, you should coat your firearms with a proven rust preventative. The three best products we've found are BoeShield T-9, CorrosionX, and Eezox. All provide outstanding, long-term protection against rust without leaving a greasy coating on your guns. Eezox goes on wet, but after the carrier evaporates, it leaves a thin, glossy dry-film barrier that doesn't have to be removed before using your firearms. Eezox is our preferred product for high-polish, blued handguns and rifles. CorrosionX and BoeShield leave a dry, wax-like finish on the metal.
We strongly recommend all firearms be stowed inside Bore-Store gun socks. Bore-Stores are made from a thick, synthetic fleece treated with silicon and rust preventatives. The heavy fleece wicks away moisture from the surfaces of your firearms, while providing very effective protection against nicks and dings. Bore-Stores are relatively inexpensive, and come in a variety of sizes for all types of firearms. We consider them a "must-have" item for in-safe storage of fine rifles and shotguns. You can order BoreStores from Grafs.com, Cabelas.com, or Brownells.com. You can often find them for sale at gunshows and larger outdoor retailers.
Controlling humidity and temperature inside your safe is also very important. Rust forms much more quickly with moist air and when temperatures rise and fall. An electric warming unit, such as the GoldenRod?, is the best means to regulate temperature inside your safe. The GoldenRod? heats to a surface temperature of about 140? F, helping to maintain warm air throughout your safe on a 24-hour basis. Maintaining a warm temperature in the safe lessens the chance that water vapor will condense and promote rust. We have also found that running a simple light bulb in the safe all the time performs much the same function as a GoldenRod?, with lower initial cost. You can use a plain 20-watt incandescent bulb, or to save on electricity bills, use one of the "long-life" fluorescents. Warning: Bulbs can get hot--use only a very low wattage lamp, and be sure to keep the bulb away from papers, wood stocks, fabrics or other contents that can easily ignite.
Desiccant products will absorb moisture out of the air in your safe. They offer handy, inexpensive protection against rust. We recommend putting small desiccant packs in ammo cans and handgun drawers, and a larger desiccant bag or pack on each shelf in your safe. Gun and hobby shops sell desiccants in various sizes, but you can save 80% or more on the price by ordering direct from shipping supply outfits such as Uline.com
The last line of defense in the war against rust is an active anti-corrosion vapor emitter. BullFrog offers vapor phase corrosion inhibitors (VpCI?s), which employ the same effective anti-rust ingredients used by the military, NATO, and major industries. These are available in strips or stick-on cups for small tool boxes and cabinets. For a large safe, use the Bullfrog Rust Blocker Shield. Priced under $10.00, a single Rust Blocker Shield will protect up to 50 cubic feet of space for one year.
Placement in Safe
I recommend that handguns be placed in the top half of the safe, at eye level if possible. This makes it easier to see what you're looking for. Additionally, in the case of a flood or water leak, if your handguns are stored well above ground level, there's a much better chance they'll stay dry and rust-free. Many locksmiths tell us that water damage is more common with safes than fire loss, particularly with safes stored in a basement or storage area below ground level. And remember, even in the case of fire, your safe may end up "ankle-deep" in water once the fire department has done its job.
Gun Rugs and Corrosion Protection
Buy a Bore-Store for each one of your handguns. These are inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes to fit everything from a Walther PPK to a 10" barreled .44 Mag Hunter. Bore stores cushion your pistols and revolvers--keeping them safe from nicks and scratches. The synthetic fleece fabric is treated to inhibit rust, and the fabric wisks moisture away. I have never seen any rust form on guns I've kept in Bore-Stores. Conversely, I've had rust start to form on dies kept in plastic boxes. For $7-$9.00 per gun, a Bore-Store is the best investment you can make. Don't store your precious pistols in plastic gun cases lined with synthetic foam--these can actually "lock in" harmful moisture.
Sliding Gun Drawers
While racks are convenient, I think the best way to store handguns is in pull-out horizontal drawers. Handguns, even big magnum revolvers, are relatively thin, so they fit easily in a drawer. A 3"-high drawer makes very efficient use of space and offers four-sided protection against nicks and scrapes. Drawers also keep your handguns out of plain view, and can be separately locked. (This is especially important if you have kids.) While it's nice if the drawer interiors are carpeted or cloth-lined, if you use Bore-Stores this isn't that important.
A variety of handgun racks are available for in-safe storage. Choose from wood, acrylic, or plasti-coated tubular metal. I've used the latter in my safes and they are hold all types of handguns (both semi-autos and revolvers) very securely. I've found that some of the wood racks crowd the guns too close together. The tubular-type racks, available in four- or six-gun versions, give adequate spacing. In fact, if (as I suggest), you keep your pistols in Bore-Stores the spacing is just about perfect. One other nice thing about the metal racks is that they can be stacked together to clear up space when they're not in use. Another interesting tubular rack is the 12-gun, "double-decker" Rack'Em? design available from SportsMansGuide.com for $27.00.
Gun-Racks.com makes a nicely-crafted, double-tier wood rack with slots for 12 handguns. Rayon-covered, it is gentle on your guns' finish. This two-level rack showcases a large handgun collection nicely. However, it does take up a lot of space in the safe.
If you've run out of space to store your sidearms inside the safe, there are a variety of means to mount handguns on the door. The best system I've seen, used by Browning and others, employs plasti-coated tubular metal cradles bolted into the door. These support the gun front and rear very securely; your guns won't shake loose as you open and close the door. That can happen with simple peg mounts that hang handguns by the trigger guard. (If you use pegs, make sure they are mounted at an upward angle or have a 90-degree bend at the end).
Another door-mount system uses fabric holsters fitted with "hook and loop" material on one side. This attaches directly to a carpeted door. I don't like such door holsters for a couple reasons. First, the nylon holster can, over time, abrade the finish of a high-polish blued handgun. Second, the nylon absorbs moisture which can promote rust. Third, over time, if you rearrange the holsters, the Velcro can lose its grip. Most of these holster designs have an open muzzle. So, if the holster works loose as you're inserting the gun, or if the Velcro fails to hold, the crown can be damaged when the gun hits the ground. Keep that in mind if your safe is in a garage or basement with a concrete floor.
Storage in Foam-Lined Gun Cases
Many handgun owners like to keep their guns in the foam-lined cases provided by the factory, or similar aftermarket products. This is a VERY BAD IDEA. That gray foam inside the case is a moisture magnet. It will soak up water vapor and hold it close to the gun, creating a perfect environment for rust to spread. I have one wealthy friend whose gun collection includes a dozen very expensive Colt Single Action Armys. He stored them inside foam-lined Doskocil cases. When I visited him recently I noted (to my horror) that many of his precious Colts were rusting INSIDE their plastic cases. To prevent this, use a good corrosion inhibitor such as Eezox or CorrosionX, and store your guns out of the box, preferrably inside a breathable Bore-Store gun sock.
|Low-Cost Gun Safes|
Under $400, Less Than 300 lbs
For a basic entry-level safe, suited for those on a very tight budget, we were impressed with the SentrySafe product line. The Model G-4211 holds 14 guns (tightly) and weighs 257 lbs. It will fit in the back of an SUV and can be moved relatively easily by a single person with a strap-equipped appliance dolly. Outside Dimensions are 55" H x 21" W x 17-3/4" D, allowing the safe to fit in most closets--but be sure to bolt it in place. The Sentry has some nice features at the price: a hidden storage compartment in the base, door hooks, and well-designed individually adjustable barrel holders. These barrel holders provide better spacing between guns than the typical wood racks found on most gun safes. The Sentry safes also feature a fully-carpeted, Velcro-friendly interior. There is enough height inside to fit a rifle with a 30" barrel. Shown is model G-4311, identical to the G-4211, except with a digital lock. Purchase a G-4211 from Dean Safe Company for $369.00, or Walmart for $389.49.
Under $700, Less than 600 lbs
Granite Security, maker of Winchester-brand safes, manufactures a bargain-priced safe for Sam's Club. This is available, on a pick-up basis, for $599.99. While we recommend a bigger, heavier safe with fire-lining, Winchester's Sam's Club Safe is much more secure than thin-walled sheet-metal gun lockers, which typically run $200-$400. With 1"-thick bolts, 1" door-jam, and 12-gauge sidewalls, the Sam's Club safe carries a UL Residential Security Container (RSC) rating.
The interior is about 56" high, long enough for 30"-barreled guns if you remove the top shelf or make some cut-outs. Exterior dimensions are: 60" H x 30" W x 22" D. The convertible interior is designed for 12 guns on the left, or 24 guns (using both sides of the interior), or all shelves. (Realistically, figure 8-10 guns per side). At 575 pounds, the safe is heavy enough that it would be difficult for a thief to move with a dolly. The safe comes pre-drilled with three
7/16" diameter holes for 3/8" anchor bolts, plus a dehumidifier access hole. The safe has a UL-listed electronic lock, but we would recommend upgrading to an S&G or LaGard commercial-grade digital lock. Commercial grade locks offer higher-quality keypads with much enhanced long-term reliability.
After studying many safe designs, this Editor believes that a horizontal safe, set up much like a wine rack with internal front-loading chambers, would be ideal for long-gun storage. Each rifle would rest in its own steel-shielded box. Imagine a rack with four vertical rows of five rifle "boxes". The safe could rest on a heavy concrete base with a
swinging door at one end, and the whole unit could be shielded with thick ceramic bricks. The top surface could even be used as a work bench in your loading room.
Right now, no manufacturer offers such a product. However, AMSEC does offer a "stealth" horizontal, top-loading safe. Designed to appear like a normal piece of furniture, the AMSEC HC1854 features a lower compartment for rifles with a removable tray on top. Hydraulic piston arms at each end assist door opening and hold the safe door in the raised position.
Recommended Related Articles
Gun Safes, by Chris Luchini. Rec.Guns article discussing how safes are commonly attacked, and what to look for in a residential safe.
The Gun Safe Maze, Guns Magazine (2003). Good description of mechanical features of premium gun safes.
Gun Safe Buying Tips, and Cracking Safes--How to Buy A Safe Intelligently, Brown Safe Manufacturing. The latter article includes explanations of U.L. Burglary-Resistance and Fire Ratings.
So You Have a Safe, Ron Godwin. Tips, from an experienced former police officer, on how to locate your safe and foil safe-crackers.
Choosing a Gun Safe, Todd Spotti. Excellent article with plenty of common sense advice.
Gun Safe Manufacturers
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