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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.