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GUN SAFES

Gun safes are the preferred method of storing and securing firearms and ammunition.  Most gun people find that they gradually evolve to this same conclusion, following a personal history of stashing firearms in closets, under beds, and other sundry places.  

Even the classic gun cabinet, typically equipped with a glass panel intended to allow display of firearms, has fallen into disfavor due to the potential for gun theft.  It is behooving for gun owners to act responsibly and do whatever possible to keep firearms out of the hands of curious, untrained children, as well as criminals.  Gun safes fill this need.

When a prospective purchaser initially encounters the myriad of brands, features, options and accessories presently available to the safe-buying public, some confusion may arise.  You will find, however, that it is relatively easy to distill the abundance of information and "sales hype" into a few key topics areas upon which you can make an informed decision.

With respect to locks, select a safe that has a UL listed combination lock rather than a key lock.  Such a lock will be one or the other of the following: manually rotated or electronically operated through use of a keypad.  The key lock integrated into some manually operated combination locks prevents the dial from being rotated, an additional factor of safety.

The purpose of the bolts in the locking mechanism is to prevent the door of the safe from being pried open.  Even if the door hinges are destroyed or cut off, lock bolts on each side of a recessed door will still maintain the integrity of the safe.  

As a generality, it is virtually impossible to break into a quality safe by disabling its system of locking bolts.  Consider seven bolts to be the minimum number needed to adequately secure a safe.  Three would be located on each side of the door and one at the top.  

Additional bolts provide additional security, but the relationship is not linear, meaning twice as many bolts does not provide twice the level of protection.  Most manufactures tend to increase the number of bolts in their model line as quality increases from basic models to premium models.  Bolts in more expensive models also tend to be located in the corners and bottom of the door. 

Bolt size is not an overriding factor, but you will find that most safes are equipped with bolts of 1-inch diameter or so to give the impression that they are virtually immune to a successful attack by sawing. 

Good safe design incorporates a shield which blocks the bolts from view, further inhibiting a frontal attack with a saw.  All other things being equal, use of square versus round bolts is a manufacturing decision that really has little bearing on the overall integrity of the safe.  Assuming that the locking system of bolts is adequate, steel thickness is probably the single most important aspect of the safe's construction that a prospective buyer should contemplate.

In addition the thickness of steel, consider technological advances which will deter a burglar by slowing down the attack to the point where the risk of detection is too great.  Such features include:  hidden hinges; recessed door; drill defectors; positive locking systems; hard plates over the locking mechanism; central placement of the door handle to disguise the direction of door swing; hard plate with recessed ball bearings to deflect a drill attack; and quality combination dial by Sargent & Greenleaf, or its electronic equivalent; and clutch drive or shear pin mechanism on the door handle which will slip or shear if excessive force is applied, preventing transfer of force to the locking mechanism.

 

To select a gun safe to fit your personal needs, a number of questions need to be resolved.

 

Are you trying to secure your firearms from untrained children or determined thieves?

The prying eyes and probing fingers of young children may be thwarted by metal gun cabinets, which basically resemble our old upright high school lockers.  The main concern for the buyer is to investigate the locking mechanism to ensure its integrity.  

Combination locks are superior to key locks not necessarily in their performance but because hidden keys may be discovered by inquisitive children.  Should you desire a key lock, however, consider the high security type such as Medeco.  A metal gun cabinet is not a gun safe, and affords little or no deterrence to a thief.  Lighter cabinets tend to be made of 14 gauge steel or less.

Do you live in an urban area or in the country?

Burglars are by nature opportunistic creatures.  When invading the residence of another, two overriding concerns motivate their behavior: to avoid being shot by the occupant and to avoid being caught.  In a burglary, time is of the essence.  The location of a person's residence, urban versus rural, impacts on the selection of a gun safe because of its impact on time.  

An urban burglar, when confronted with a gun safe that appears to be of fairly substantial construction, may attempt a tentative penetration with a screwdriver or pry bar, but will quickly conclude that the effort is futile.  Not wishing to make noise, the burglar will typically restrict his attack on the safe to the use of a few hand tools.  The more likely outcome, however, is for the thief to survey the situation and retreat from the residence because of the abundance of other unsecured valuables in the neighborhood that can be obtained with considerably less effort.

Minimum thickness for urban residential theft protection is 12 gauge.  While maybe not capable of thwarting a thief that is extremely motivated, the 12 gauge safe nevertheless provides adequate security against most urban break-ins.

An unoccupied rural residence offers the thief ample opportunity to attempt an invasion of the safe.  Because noise is not a concern, power tools, sledge hammers, wedges, chisels, mauls and axes, and possibly cutting torches may be brought into play.  Hence, the ability of a safe to deter a sustained attack must be greater in a rural environment than for its urban counterpart.  In rural areas, a heavier safe of a least 3/16 inch thickness will deter most attacks with tools.

Do you own your own home or are you renting an apartment, condo, townhouse, or single family dwelling?

Within one's own home, a person has total control over the property.  Hence, determination of the size and placement of the safe is merely a function of financial, aesthetic, and structural considerations.  

A rental situation may impose a number of additional concerns, including possible stair access constraints, possible floor loading limitations, and property modification restrictions.  These may suggest that a safe will have to be lighter and smaller than optimal.  Further, it is doubtful that safe can be secured or bolted to the floor, a desirable aspect when the smaller safes are involved.  It is desirable for the potential safe purchaser to investigate any constraints imposed by their unique living arrangements.

A light safe that can't be bolted to the floor is an invitation for a thief to steal the entire safe, defeating its security at leisure at some remote location.  Consider hiding the existence of such a safe, perhaps locating it in a closet or other unobtrusive place.  If discovered by happenstance, a burglar hopefully won't have the either the time or the tools to deal with it.  As a minimum, make sure that the safe is not visible from an exterior door or window. 

If the weight of the safe is sufficient to require use of a refrigerator dolly or pallet jack and several brawny friends or relatives to move it initially into the home or apartment, it may not be that easy for a thief, working solo, to abscond with it.  Weight, a deterrent to theft, can be increased by storing ammunition in the lower portion of the safe.  

This practice is also useful in stabilizing an unbolted safe itself, because the heavy door on some models tends to upset the balance of the safe when the door is opened.  Placing a thin board under the front bottom lip of the safe to tilt the safe slightly backwards will also help keep the safe from tipping over forwards when the door is opened fully.

As an alternative to purchasing a gun safe in a rental living situation, consider acquiring a mini safe or mini vault.  These small lock boxes, while entirely too small to accommodate long guns, are ideal for handguns.  They offer a great degree of security from young or inquisitive children.  

Theft protection is accomplished by bolting the mini safe to a piece of furniture such as a bed rail, nightstand, coffee table, bottom of a dining table, or other suitable place.  Because they can be installed in a variety of positions, mini safes can be hidden from sight, yet still be available for instant access.   Most feature quick opening locking mechanisms that rely upon a code being entered in order to function..  

Will you place the safe in a visible or occupied portion of the residence, or will it be hidden from view in a closet, basement or garage?

Some safes are so finely crafted and painted that they become an attractive addition to the decor of the home.  Others possess a strictly utilitarian appearance, and are best located in a garage, basement, or closet where they can perform their storage function out of sight.  The location selected for the safe will largely determine whether costs associated with improved safe cosmetics are warranted. 

 

Does your collection of firearms contain any specimens which would be considered irreplaceable due to their rarity or sentimental value?

Rare firearms, or firearms treasured because they once belonged to a loved one, are irreplaceable.  The level of protection provided by the safe should be correspondingly high.  For greater protection in the country, or when a gun collection is extremely valuable or prized for sentimental reasons, 1/4 -inch thickness may be desirable.  Such a thickness will preclude the ability for a thief to compromise the safe with hand tools.  Forced entry into a heavy safe of this nature would require industrial-type equipment such as drills and grinders or an acetylene cutting torch.

Do you wish to protect firearms and other valuables from fire?

Determining the ability of a safe to withstand fire can be one of the most confusing issues a prospective buyer will have to contend with.  Whether or not to even select fire protection as an option on the safe is the initial question that must be resolved.

If your firearms collection consists of "garden variety" guns that can be easily replaced, investing in the fire protection option for your safe may not be warranted.  Check your home owner's or renter's insurance policy to make sure that firearm damage or loss in the event of fire is a reimbursable claim.  Because most firearms tend to appreciate in value with time, verify that guns will be replaced at today's market value.  Be sure to document the numbers and types of your firearms, prepare a photographic record, and store these records in a place separate from the home.  This documentation should extend to all your valuables and furnishings, not just firearms.

What is the difference between "fireproof" and "fire resistant"?

No safe presently manufactured is considered to be "fire proof".  This is due to the limitations of technologies and materials currently available.  All safes are susceptible to heat and fire damage if exposed to a high enough temperature for a long enough period of time.

Safes can provide varying degrees of fire resistance depending upon the methods and materials of construction.  Certain types of materials have the ability to provide resistance to high temperatures for a limited period of time.  When properly constructed of these materials, a safe can be considered to be "fire resistant".

What level of fire protection should be chosen?

In a residential fire, the peak temperature and duration of the fire are determined by a variety of factors.  These include size of the home, materials of construction, and response time of the fire fighters, among other variables.  Authoritative data regarding the characteristics of a "typical" residential fire do not exist.  However, it is estimated that the peak temperature of the fire will range from 800 to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.  The duration will range from 15 to 30 minutes, a timeframe consistent with the typical time required for fire fighters to contain a residential fire.

Because paper chars at temperatures between 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the internal temperature of the safe must remain below 350 Fahrenheit to protect cash and paper documents.  The safe should be able to provide enough fire resistance to keep the maximum internal temperature below this level, when subjected to external temperatures of 1200 degrees for 30 minutes.

What is Fire Certification?

Several independent testing organizations provide certification of the fire resistance characteristics of a safe.  The most notable of these are Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Omega Point Laboratories (OPL).  Both of these organizations rely on standardized testing protocol, intended to simulate, through use of a furnace, conditions of a house fire.  

The standard methods of testing ensure consistency and repeatability by controlling the temperature rise of the furnace along a predetermined "temperature curve", which provides for temperature increase with time.  Other factors, including placement of the safe within the furnace and positioning of heat-sensing thermocouple devices within the safe, are also standardized.

To be sure that a safe manufacturer's claim of fire resistance is legitimate, always look for the UL or OPL certification.  Be suspicious of other fire protection ratings, because:

  • tests may not have been conducted in an adequate furnace;
  • the furnace may not have been brought up to appropriate temperature in an adequate amount of time;
  • some alternative to a furnace, such as a "heat treating facility" may have been used for testing;
  • the safe may have been tested on its back or side, rather than in an upright position;
  • heat sensing devices may have been placed improperly only at the cooler portion of the safe, at the bottom near the floor;
  • data from heat sensing devices may have been "averaged' rather than relying on the first 350 degree Fahrenheit reading of any thermocouple as an indication of failure.

Beware that some manufacturers may  alternatively post UL certification rating or listing of the  fire insulating material.  This addresses only one component of the safe's construction, not the actual performance of the safe during a standardized  fire simulation test.  Watch for language such as "2000 degree fire protection" or "UL listed fire insulation".

The survival time of the contents of a safe can be increased by placing the safe in an area of the residence where combustible material is decreased.  This usually involves placing the safe in the lowest point of the home, preferably against an outside corner.  In contrast, a safe located on an upper level in the center of the house will probably experience greater heat in a fire.  It will also tend to fall through a burnt out floor.

Another option suited to protecting valuable documents, sentimental papers or cash is to purchase a small additional safe to store inside the larger safe.  This provides a double level of fire protection.

What is Residential Burglary Certification?

Underwriters Laboratory employs the best safecrackers in the country.  This not-for-profit independent testing organization serves to verify that products, including gun safes, or "residential security containers", perform as claimed by the manufacturer.  The team of "burglars" on the UL staff is allocated a fixed amount of time to defeat a safe, using "simple" hand tools such as high-speed carbide drills, hammers, chisels, pry bars, punches, and screw drivers.  

The rehearsed, timed attack begins only after the team has reviewed the  blueprints and specifications of the safe, identifying every potential weakness that could conceivably be exploited.  Safes that survive the onslaught receive the UL Residential Burglary Certification.Look for it in your prospective safe before making a purchase.

CAVEATS

DON'T buy a safe with exterior door hinges, especially the "piano hinge on the side" variety.  While such safes may offer acceptable levels of security, they invite attack by a thief on these perceived weak points.  As a minimum, the aesthetics of your safe will be compromised.  Go for the "impregnable"  look afforded by safes with internally-hinged doors.  The small sacrifice of storage space won't be noticed.

DO bolt your safe to the floor.  Selecting a safe with predrilled floor holes is important.  Likewise, you will appreciate makes which have anticipated the need to bolt by providing interior floor supports and padding which can be folded back or removed easily to accommodate drilling.

DO buy a safe which incorporates a clutch mechanism or shear pin on the handle.  If the handle is forced by a thief, the clutch will slip or the shear pin will sever, allowing the handle to spin freely.  In this manner, no damaging force can be transferred to the safe's locking mechanism.

DO exercise care when drilling through the floor in a carpeted area.  Depending upon the carpet, yarn tends to wind around the drill bit, basically "unraveling" an area around the intended hole.

DO investigate the structural conditions of the proposed safe location and make sure the area is supported adequately.  If it isn't, consider reinforcement.  Jacks intended for trailers generally don't work for floor support in crawl space areas.  They tend to be too short.  

A superior "adjustable floor jack" is available in three models with differing load capacities and vertical extensions from Northern Tool & Equipment Company.  These jacks are well suited to crawl space or basement installation.  The company may be reached at 1-800-533-5545 to request a catalogue, or may be contacted at NorthernTool.com.  Unfortunately, shipping may be as much as the cost of the jack itself.  For a one-time investment, however, the purchase is probably justified.

DO position the safe against a sidewall, in a tight closet, or in a recess in the wall.  The location of the safe within a residence will either increase or decrease its vulnerability to attack.  Because the sidewalls of a safe are generally thinner than the door, positioning the safe in a tight space is desirable.  Lack of room in which to maneuver makes it harder for a thief to attack a safe with tools.

DO acquire the largest safe possible.  It is an inexplicable fact of life that once a gun safe is acquired, it tends to become filled to capacity with not only firearms and ammunition, but also with other valuables.  Hence, if financially feasible, it is a good idea to purchase a safe somewhat larger than you feel you may initially need.

 
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