The Los Angeles Handgun - Rifle - Air Pistol Silhouette Club

IHMSA News Feature Article
Published in The IHMSA News, the Official Publication of The International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association
Published monthly except November/December - January/February
IHMSA on the web at http://www.ihmsa.org
 
Choosing A Gun Safe
By Todd Spotti
 

     Itís an unfortunate fact of modern life that gun owners are at significant risk of having their guns stolen. Something like 4,000,000 homes are burglarized every year in the United States. Itís also been my personal observation that gun owners seem to be particularly targeted by burglars because guns, particularly handguns, can be quickly sold on the street or they can be used by the thief to commit armed robbery or worse. I doubt if a year goes by when I hear of someone I know directly has had their home broken into and their guns stolen. So what can you do? How can you protect your guns and other valuables? Well, a quality gun safe is a good first step. 

     Thereís a large number of manufacturers out there that make gun safes, and all of them without exception say that their product is the very best you can buy. Consequently, shopping for a safe isnít easy with all the claims and counter claims that are thrown around. So what Iím going to attempt to do in this article is discuss the features and standards you should consider when shopping for a safe. 

     First a couple of general comments. TIME. TOOLS. KNOWLEDGE. These three simple words are the keys to how resistant to entry your new safe will be. Never forget them when shopping for a safe.

Time

     Given unlimited time, there isnít a safe in the world that canít be broken into. Consequently, many thieves prefer to steal the safe itself, and then work on breaking it open at their leisure in some hidden location. Thatís why itís absolutely critical that gun safes should be bolted to the floor (ideally a concrete floor) from the inside. Many safes come equipped with the necessary hardware and the holes pre-drilled in the bottoms. Make sure any safe youíre considering does. If it doesnít, donít buy it. 

     The lamentable fact is that an unbolted safe, even those weighing a 1,000 pounds or even more, can be easily and quickly rolled out of your house by using materials found within the home itself. For instance, tilt a safe over on a half a dozen or so golf balls and you can push it out the door like it was on a bed of ball bearings. Broken off broom sticks and mop handles have also been used as rollers to move a safe. When thieves have the time, they can be very inventive.  If they know ahead of time that you have a safe, theyíll probably even bring a moverís dolly along to make the job easier. Always bolt down your safe! 

     You should also seriously consider adding a home alarm system to go with the safe to protect your property. When an alarm is ringing at over a hundred decibels, the element of time has been effectively removed from the equation and the thief will be under intense pressure to leave the area as soon as possible.

Tools 

     If you live in an isolated area, or if the safe is located in an isolated area, thieves now have the opportunity to use heavy tools on the safe at their leisure.

     Heavy sledge hammers or power hammers can crack and break welds. In fact, because some manufacturers want to make their safes as esthetically pleasing as possible, welds are often ground down and polished to the point that theyíve lost a significant portion of their strength. Any welded joint is a possible entry point to a thief with the tools to exploit it.

     Additionally, power chisels can often easily cut through the thinner side walls and backs of many safes. Multi horse power carbide saws, drills, and grinders will also do the job. However, the big disadvantage to the burglar using all these tools in a home is that this is a very noisy process. Ripping into a safe with a carbide grinder or saw would create so much noise that neighbors, several houses away, would be instantly alerted that something unusual was happening in your home. But, if there are no neighbors around, the thieves have it made. Consequently, donít isolate your safe. Cutting torches can also be used to burn into the sides and back of a safe. However, if itís a fire resistant type, the job will be a slow one.

     For inexpensive gun cabinets, a pry bar will easily do the job of popping the door open. So while these products are useful from keeping guns away from young children, their ability to keep out a determined teenager or adult is nil.

     Bottom line on tools - thieves aren't going to haul heavy equipment to your home to crack your safe unless itís located in an isolated area. Theyíll more likely remove the safe (if they can) and work on it at their leisure. Once they have it, the right tools will get them in eventually.

Knowledge

     If your property should be targeted by a experienced, professional safe cracker. Forget it. Itís gone. However, the chances of that happening is just about zero. Most break-ins are done by teenagers and other low level amateurs looking for property that they can quickly grab. A quality safe which is bolted to the floor will probably be bypassed by the casual thief who will go after TV's, stereos, and other easy loot. Itís the mid level thief that we have to worry about.

What To Look For - Design

     Construction design is by far the most important element. And what is the best construction design? Itís one with no welds what so ever. In other words, a safe that is one solid seamless unit. Such a safe would be strongest you could buy with no weak points in the body to exploit. However such a design doesnít currently exist. 

     Many modern gun safes will feature a seamless molded body, however the tops and bottoms will be welded on. In other words, theyíre three piece assemblies - resulting in a total of 8 welded seams (4 top & 4 bottom). The only company that I know of that comes close to the ideal is Liberty Safes, which has a new model for 2002 with only two welded seams i.e. a single seam at the top and one at the bottom.  

     When checking a safeís welds, ask the salesman if they were done by machine or by a person. Robotic welders do a much more uniform job over the long run. 

     Secondly, you have to look at metal thickness in the body, and on the door. Most safe doors will feature much thicker metal than the bodies. Consequently thieves with the time and tools will often attack the body of the safe rather than the door. Thicker is always better. 10 gauge steel is about as thin as you ever want to go, and 3/16th inch steel is usually as thick as it gets for a home safe. Not surprisingly, the price of the safe will be directly related to the thickness of the steel.   

     Be aware however, that when judging a safe, donít forget what we said previously about the importance of safe design. For instance, a near seamless safe made with 10 gauge steel is probably going to provide more security than another made by simply welding five metal plates together and hanging a door on it. The first is a very strong unitized module and the second is a kluge even though it may be made of thicker steel. Ideally, we want both seamless construction AND thick steel.  

What To Look For - Doors

     Now letís look at doors. As mentioned before, most safe doors use steel thatís sufficiently thick and hard enough to resist most types of direct attack for a reasonable period of time. First, you want to see whether the door hinges are located inside or outside of the safe. If theyíre outside, obviously theyíre available to attack. Also obviously, if theyíre inside the safe, theyíre not. Now many manufacturers of safes with outside hinges will tell you how strong they are, how thick, how hard, etc. etc. But the plain and simple truth is that inside is better. 

     You also want to insure that the door has locking bolts on all four sides with at least 4 bolts on the two sides and at least one bolt top and bottom. If a safe has bolts only on the left side (no matter how many) and outside hinges, the hinges can be cut or burned off and the door removed. If the safe has bolts all the way around, even though the outside hinges are removed, the door will still be locked in place by the bolts. Be sure to avoid safes with bolts on only one or three sides.

     Let me also make a quick observation about the number of door bolts. Generally speaking more is better. However, things can be overdone. Iíve seen safes with 27 bolts. Do all those bolts provide a proportional amount of protection to their cost. I seriously doubt it.

     Eight bolts on a door work just fine, and 12 is better still. However, anything over 12 probably isnít worth the cost.

     As far as the diameter of the bolts are concerned, as usual, itís a size thing.

     Iíve seen good safes where the bolts are 9/16ís of an inch. However, in this day and age, you should be able to get one inch bolts on just about any half way decent safe. 1.5Ē bolts are about as big as they get on home gun safes. In summary, we want inside hinges and at least 8 one inch locking bolts going all the way around the door. 

What To Look For - The Lock

     The combination wheel mounted to the outside of the door is connected by a shaft to an inside locking mechanism. It is extremely important that the inside mechanism be well protected as thieves will often attempt to completely drill out the device in order to either destroy it and/or render it inoperable.

     The inside locking mechanism contains a small bolt that engages the gears that operate the large locking bolts that go around the door. When this locking bolt is in place, the gears in the door canít move. Consequently, most quality safes will have a small, hardened steel plate on the inside of the door directly in front of the combination lock mechanism to protect it from someone drilling through.

     A hardened plate will definitely provide an additional degree of protection to the mechanism. However, if a thief has the time and the tools, the lock mechanism can be eventually drilled out. Liberty and Ft. Knox safes have taken an interesting approach to this situation. Instead of a single hard plate, they provide a hardened steel plate sandwich containing 100 steel ball bearings that are free to turn between the two layers of metal. If a drill bit should penetrate the door and the top hard plate, it now encounters the ball bearings. Because the ball bearing surfaces are round, very hard, strong, and free to spin, the bit is deprived of a solid, even surface to grab against. Consequently, the bit will slip off the bearings, chatter, and break. A very effective, innovate idea.

     The inside locking mechanism should also be equipped with a relocker. This is a feature with a sensor that automatically secures the door in the locked position when someone tries to drill or punch out the lock. Itís one more layer of security protecting the door. 

     The outside combination lock wheel should also have a steel protective collar around it to insure a large pipe wrench canít be attached to the dial and the mechanism broken open by twisting.

     Along the same lines, the outside door handle or star wheel should have a clutch mechanism on it to allow it to slip if someone applies excessive force by slipping a pipe over it and uses it as a giant lever to attempt to break the locking mechanism. 

     Lastly, be sure that the door is equipped with at least a UL rated type II combination with a key lock. 

Fire Resistance

     There are something like 380,000 residential fires every year in the US - one every 83 seconds. The temperatures inside a burning house have been estimated at 1200 degrees or more. Under those conditions, a non fire resistant gun safe is nothing more than a big metal oven. The chocolate brownies you enjoy so much were baked at 350 degrees. Imagine what 1200 degrees would do to them.

     Never the less, adding fire resistance to your safe is a big decision. First, we have to realize that there is no such thing as a fire proof safe. Even the very best canít protect its contents from unusually hot fires for long periods of time. Then there is the fact that the additional cost is significant. Fire resistance isnít cheap. The thick insulation material also reduces the amount of usable space available in the interior of the safe.

     However, if youíre going to use your gun safe to also store valuable papers, documents, or other items that could be damaged by fire, obviously fire resistance is something to be considered seriously.

     Some safes and lock boxes use concrete as an insulator, and it works just fine for that purpose. However, concrete is really an unsuitable material for an insulator on a gun safe. The fact is that concrete is a fairly porous substance and can trap and hold humidity quite well. You obviously donít want to subject your guns to an enclosed humid environment for long periods of time. Instead, look for safes that use Underwriters Laboratory (UL) rated fire board as insulation.

     So what standard should a fire resistant safe meet? First some facts. Paper chars at 405 degrees. It also gets brittle and therefore unusable before it chars. Consequently, the temperature inside a safe should not rise to more than 350 degrees. Itís also estimated that in urban areas, a fire department will respond to a fire and contain it within 15 to 30 minutes.

     OK. So what we want then is a safe where the interior temperature will not rise to more than 350 degrees while being exposed for 30 minutes to a typical 1200 degree house fire.

     Quality fire resistant safes such as the new 2002 line from Sentry and Liberty safes have had their products certified by both Underwriterís Laboratories, and Omega Laboratories. Both are independent, highly regarded testing facilities that use standardized test procedures to ensure repeatable results.

     On the other hand, some safe companies, self certify the fire resistance of their own products. Sometimes, this is accomplished by paper analysis rather than actual testing. Bottom line - go with an independently certified safe. 

Warranties

     Most safes come with a standard materials and workmanship warranty. Some for a certain period of time, and some for a lifetime. At least one manufacturer has a ďsatisfaction guaranteedĒ warranty. However, Iím not really sure what that is. If my safe should be broken into, obviously Iím not going to be satisfied. So what are they going to do about it? They donít say. Liberty Safes, the largest manufacturer of these products, has a replacement warranty policy. If your safe is damaged by fire, or attempted break-in, or is actually broken into, theyíll repair or replace it free. You have to ship it back for examination with a police report however.

Last Thoughts

     Buy the biggest and best safe that you can. When I bought my first safe many years ago, I thought it would meet all my needs for the rest of my life. The trouble was, that since then I kept buying guns and not selling any. Result? The number of guns I owned quickly outstripped the capacity of the safe. That, in turn, forced me to buy another safe. Think big.

     Always buy the best you can, even if you have to stretch a little to do so. You wonít be sorry. Quality is always the most cost effective way to go in the long run. This is especially true if you live in a rural or semi rural area where your property is isolated.   

     Donít tell every Tom, Dick, and Harry that you have lots of guns and other valuable property in your home. The word will get around to the wrong people sooner or later. Also get to know and be on good terms with your neighbors. Nosey neighbors who are always aware of whatís going on in the neighborhood and who are willing to report suspicious behavior or strangers in the area are like gold. 

     Consider getting an alarm system. As mentioned before, a good alarm system takes away the burglarís most valuable resource - time. Get a dog. Theyíre the best burglar alarm in the world and the best deterrent to thieves. Yes, itís true. They really are manís best friend. Unlike the rotten teenagers who live down the street, they donít lie, they donít cheat, they donít do drugs, and they donít steal. They also work cheap. Someone once tried to break in my house at 3 in the morning several years ago. The dogs did a real number on the guy. We found a bloody pants leg in the yard from his trousers which was then used to identify him when he showed up at the hospital emergency room. Take good care of your dogs because theyíre taking good care of you.

     As true when buying any product of substance, do your research and look for the features discussed here and you should feel the satisfaction of knowing that your guns and other property are as protected as you can make them.

   
Good luck and good shooting, Todd

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Warning: All technical data mentioned, especially handloading, reflect the limited experience of individuals using specific tools, products, equipment and components under specific conditions and circumstances not necessarily reported in the article or on this web site and over which IHMSA, The Los Angeles Silhouette Club (LASC), this web site or the author has no control. The above has no control over the condition of your firearms or your methods, components, tools, techniques or circumstances and disclaims all and any responsibility for any person using any data mentioned. Always consult recognized reloading manuals.