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Buying a Gun Safe

The purchase of a safe is an important investment for protecting both firearms and other valuables.


It was the winter of 1994, and I was working my way through college behind the gun counter at a major sporting goods store. One of the reasons folks liked to stop by this location was the selection of quality gun safes available for inspection on the show room floor. It was on one of these cold afternoons that a customer came in to look at safes. He was ready to buy one because he had suffered a tragic, but all too common, break-in.

Fred, as we'll call him, had recently inherited his father's gun collection, and lacking a good place to store the 30 or so shotguns, rifles and muzzleloaders that now belonged to him, he just tucked them here and there, in closets and under beds, like his father had. It was quite a shock for the man when he and his family returned from a short stint out of town to find their home had been pilfered and all of the guns were gone.

The police investigation eventually revealed the robbery was committed by a friend-of-a-friend who, knowing more about the value of antique arms than the owner, decided to help himself to the collection. Because the guns were antiques—many of which lacked serial numbers, along with the absence of photographic or written documentation to identify the individual guns in the collection—there wasn't much investigators could do to retrieve the missing antiques, except to return the five pieces still in the thief’s possession when he was caught. Out of curiosity, and for his home owner's insurance, Fred had the five surviving guns appraised. It turned out that those five guns, if auctioned off, would have paid off his mortgage and a fistful of car payments too. He couldn't begin to estimate what the entire set might have been worth. Thus he was looking for a safe to protect what he had left. This wasn't the first, or the last, break-in story I’ve heard. What surprised me the most was the number of safes we sold to gun owners after the fact. Needless to say, it would have made a world of difference if they had purchased a safe much sooner.

Stories like this one can make the perceived inconveniences of having a big, heavy and relatively expensive, gun safe installed in the home simply melt away. Safes represent one of the best ways for the average gun owner to protect firearms from theft, damage and unauthorized access. However, the wide selection of sizes, interior configurations and security features, can make shopping for a safe a challenge. But measuring the available features against your needs and doing some research can help you make a more informed choice, rather than just the less expensive one. To learn more about what modern safe shopping entails, I contacted Doug Tarter, Marketing Director for Fort Knox Safes of Orem, Utah.

Tarter made some interesting points. "Would you go buy the cheapest parachute you can find from a big-box store, and then go jump out of a plane?” he asked. "Safe manufacturers have no Consumer Reports to give the consumers any help."

There is no universal standard for materials or methods used in gun-safe construction, or any kind of U.S. regulatory system in place, therefore not all safes are created equal. Since most gun safes tend to be a lifetime investment, buying the right safe the first time is the best way to save money in the long run. Here are a few things to keep in mind while shopping:

Safe Size
The most common mistake first-time safe buyers make is to purchase a unit that's too small for their needs. Gun owners tend to look at the firearms they have on hand, check the number of guns a safe can hold, and then buy the smallest safe they can get away with. But when the safe arrives, family members point out that the fireproof safe would be a great place to store jewelry, documents, cameras, scrapbooks and so on. The shooter also quickly realizes that a scoped rifle takes up more space than a one-rifle slot allows for, and it would be nice to add a few more guns in the future. Soon the safe is stuffed and not everything will fit.

The rule of thumb Fort Knox recommends for sizing a safe is this: Measure everything you have or will have to put in the safe, including all of the non-gun items. Once you have this number worked out, identify a safe that will fit the collection. Then, buy a unit that's one size larger. This should prevent the need to buy a second safe any time soon.

Steel Thickness
The overall toughness of a safe is generally quantified by the thickness of the steel used in its construction. The numbers used to gauge steel can be a little confusing because they work in reverse. Just as a 12-gauge shotgun has a larger bore size than a 16- a 20-gauge, a 10-gauge sheet of steel is thicker than an 11- or 12-gauge sheet. Doug suggested that 10-gauge steel is the thinnest metal that should be used in a home safe. Buyers also need to pay attention to the thickness of the metal used in the safe’s door and frame.

Fire Protection
Unfortunately, statistics suggest that one out of six homes are likely to experience a fire. This makes the level of fire resistance a safe possesses one of the important price points buyers should consider. The greater the level of fire protection, the higher the cost of the safe will be. To determine fire ratings, safe manufacturers pay independent test laboratories to cook their products in a controlled setting.

But not all safes are fire tested in the same way, so here are some numbers to help rate the fire rating. The average American home will burn to the ground in about 60 minutes if the fire is left unchecked. Luckily, first responders often arrive within 10 to 15 minutes of a fire being reported, so typically a house is at least being cooled off—if not put out—within that first hour of the fire. The temperature of a burning house can reach as high as 1,100- to 1,300-degrees Fahrenheit. So, a fire rating is generated by measuring how hot the interior of the safe becomes when exposed to high temperatures over a period of time. In other words, if the contents of a safe can survive an hour or more at 1,300 degrees, you've got a solid fire rating.

Locking Mechanisms
As important as fire resistance is security, meaning how the safe is locked and unlocked. The level of theft resistance can also be adjusted depending on the security of the building it's used in. A safe located in the basement of a home with a security system may not need as many locking bolts and redundancies as one placed in a less secure out building like a detached garage.

Also, buyers have to choose between an electronic lock or a mechanical (spin dial) lock. Spin dials have provided 150-years of proven security effectiveness, with each lock offering a million potential combinations to befuddle burglars. These locks are simple and reliable, and less expensive than electronic locks. However, they are slow to open, especially under duress.

Electronic locks feature a number pad instead of a dial. This style of lock increases the possible combinations to 1.2 million and can be much quicker and easier to open. Some companies now offer finger print scanners to complement the number pad and increase access speed. The trade offs for electronic locks include an increased cost and a reliance on battery power. However, they do not decrease the security of the safe. Electronic locks are not any easier to defeat than a mechanical lock, and if they develop a problem they are designed to fail with the safe door frozen into a locked position.

Last, but certainly not least, buyers need to review the fine print of the safe's warranty, if it has one at all. Some warranties only cover portions of the safe, while others may have time limits that apply. The best warranties provide lifetime coverage for key components or the whole safe, but this is usually only available with the more expensive safes.  Depending on where you live, and the brand of safe you have, it can cost anywhere from $600 to $800 dollars to have a locksmith repair a broken or worn out lock on a safe. So the extra expense of a warranty that covers the lock may save you money in the long run.

When is it the right time to invest in a gun safe? There's no hard and fast rule that covers all circumstances, but here's one way to crunch the numbers. Add up the replacement cost (if they can be replaced) of the firearms, documents and other treasured items you would store in a safe. Then compare the cumulative value of your possessions to the cost of a basic safe of the right size for your needs. More likely than not, the items you own, especially if you collect firearms, will easily be worth two to three times more than the safe itself. If you're still not convinced, then divide the price of the safe by the number of years you expect to be using it. Compare this per-year dollar amount to the value of your loot, and you may find that owning a safe is one of the least expensive insurance policies available.

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17 Responses to Buying a Gun Safe

Kent wrote:
January 23, 2013

Wesley, they have an article about the cheaper gun locks and boxes here: http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/safe-gun-storage-options/

Jeff wrote:
January 14, 2013

Here's another link for safe buying info. http://www.6mmbr.com/gunsafes.html

Bob wrote:
January 10, 2013

Bought a Liberty Fatboy from Gander Mountain. 880lbs empty. Anchored into the concrete floor with four 1/2' anchors. Hidden camera facing the safe with security alarms. Hope it all works.

James Neal McWaters wrote:
January 09, 2013

I purchased a new Winchester Ranger 51 gun safe back in April 29, 2012 with Winchester's "Free replacement safe if there is a Fire or Burglary attempt" Warranty. On September 21, 2012 a burglary attempt was made to my Winchester safe at my Residence, Burglar was arrested by Police on site, case closed. However Winchester Safe Company Refused to stand by their warranty and replace my safe because my Driver license address did not match the residence that I own where the burglary took place. I own 3 residence and each one contains a Winchester safe. It is illegal to possess more than 1 Driver's License, I own 3 Residence, Lake House, Farm House, and Penthouse. Winchester Safe Company Weasled out of their Warranty because I own more than 1 Home. The safe withstood being rammed by a hearse, the burglar did not get into the safe, The safe did it's job but the Winchester Safe Company did not! Winchester Safe Company penalized me for owning more than 1 Home. My advice to anyone who is looking to purchase a gun safe, STAY AWAY FROM WINCHESTER GUN SAFE"S!!!!

Bill wrote:
January 09, 2013

IT would be a great Ideai for a tax credit for buying a safe. How many people would get one? It would help us all.

Texas Vet wrote:
January 09, 2013

The basic idea behind a safe is to ultimately thwart or slow a person down from access to it's contents. A monitored burglar/fire alarm is critical for this process. This quickens the time for a response from some kind of professional service. But let's face it, there are not "fail safe" measures. Enough has been said about the daily safety from kids or someone whose not authorized.

Terence J. O'Brien wrote:
January 09, 2013

Patriot Safe Company , Great safe ,10 gauge steel or thicker 1800 Degree + rating several different stills Rating for Gun and documents and a good price and made in America in California . I've got on and love it.

Brad wrote:
January 09, 2013

The one great thing about spin dial locks, Is that if it is in A fire you can still get it open. Digital keypad with wires going internal melt very quickly.

Wesley wrote:
January 08, 2013

In my opinion if you own a firearm then you should own a safe. This article fails to mention the availability of small single handgun safes or any of their features and for someone on a budget it could become intimidating to think of suck a large purchase. To the gentleman in the condo there are a lot of great small safes for apt or condo use. God bless

Huck Finn wrote:
December 27, 2012

The past two weeks have included murders at a shopping mall and a school with guns stolen from their owners. My guns are insured. I'm less concerned with just the loss of property as I am morally more concerned with wanting to keep my guns from being stolen and used to harm people. There is also the potential liability issue.

Rich wrote:
December 24, 2012

As with all else in the ownership category, responsibility for a gun collection becomes an issue of 'safety first'. Liability is huge. A shotgun, a few rifles, and some handguns, plus ammo = security! Even a little is better than none!

John K. Finley wrote:
December 22, 2012

This was a great short introduction to how to find a safe with some basic ideas of how to compare them. There are serious detailed books out there that get into the nitty gritty of what makes them work and how to drill, blast, or feel them open. These books are hard to get for a reason. The writer did a fine job of explaining how to buy the right size safe along with how to judge the price. To the average buyer the next important questions would be: How mush does it weigh, How do I move it ? Do I conceal or display it? I have a collection of safes. Some are so big and heavy that they were free If I could figure out how to move them... One required renting a trailer designed for a bulldozer... The more they weigh and the tougher they are, the easier they are to display... My man cave is an old factory with two burglar alarms. Notice that I did not mention guns...

Jake wrote:
December 22, 2012

If you are measuring a gun safe in gauge, then it is probably easy enough to axe or use a cheap metal saw to cut. Don't expect too much.

Mike wrote:
December 21, 2012

About electronic locks: I'll never own one because any electrical engineer worth his salt could open them with less than $50 in electronic parts.

mike wrote:
December 21, 2012

waterproof properties? what do you consider for the safe weight? living in a condo I am not sure of pounds per square inch but the wooden floor installed may collapse becasue it is built on a platform to prevent noise to the neighbors below. what about a small safe for just pistols or maybe a few long guns that can be stored int eh pickup truck and mobile with a handtruck? thanks again. great article too!!

Tex wrote:
December 20, 2012

"Read everything you need to know about purchasing the right safe for you in this article from B. Gil Horman." I don't mean to be just critical (it was a good article), but I was disappointed that this article only mentioned "Fort Knox Safes" and not "everything" that I need to know ... like other brands. Now I'm wondering if this was just thinly disguised advertising.

Wes wrote:
December 13, 2012

Great article, thank you!