Playing It Safe: Things To Consider Before Buying a Gun Safe

A couple of years ago at the SHOT show I saw a two-story gun safe. It weighed like 15,000 pounds. Had a built-in stair to access the upper portion. Lighting and environmental controls of some sort. I have no idea what it cost, or how many guns it would hold, but I’m sure both numbers were absurdly high.  I’ve seen apartments that were smaller inside.

Now, you may not need a safe that big. I certainly don’t. But if you have more than a couple of guns, or hope to have more than a couple of guns in the future, you may want to consider getting a decent quality safe.

What exactly is a “decent quality safe”? Well, it depends. It depends on what you want it to do. And how big your collection is.

If you just want to keep your kids from having access to your guns, something as simple as a locking cabinet may suffice, though I’d go for a metal storage cabinet rather than a wood display one. There are a number of handgun safes available which are more secure and designed for easy access, but they are small and not intended to do much more than keep your kids away from your home defense firearm.

One step up from that would be a “gun security cabinet” say by Stack On or someone similar. These typically are decent quality but lightweight steel, welded construction and some variety of key lock system. They also usually come with carpeted racks for arranging long guns, perhaps with some adjustable shelving for handguns or other valuables. It’ll keep your kids out, and probably any smash & grab burglar – as long as you keep the thing locked.

But consider – most people are probably more at risk of having a house fire than they are of having a break-in (depending on where & how you live, of course). That means it makes sense to have a safe, which provides some protection from fire. And that means that you should be looking at what I’ll call “actual safes” rather than just a secure storage cabinet.

And here is where things start to get tricky. Some manufacturers make a “safe” that consists of a couple thin sheets of steel sandwiching some sheetrock (also called gypsum board or drywall). This will provide some protection from fire – more than a simple cabinet – but not a lot. And the lightweight sheet steel (16 to 12 gauge) can be breached with a decent axe or saw in a matter of minutes.

Better quality safes use a heavier gauge steel (10 or 8 gauge) and more insulating material in the sandwich – two layers of sheetrock or even a kind of concrete which is poured into the sandwich. What you want to look for when shopping for fire protection is a UL rating that states the safe will withstand a given amount of heat for a given period of time. In this case, longer is better – though that generally comes at a higher price and with additional weight.  Very high-end safes not only provide excellent protection from fire, but they are a lot more difficult to break into. Some are as good as a small bank vault, but you’ll pay for that quality.

Unlike what my doctor tells me, in the case of safes, weight is your friend. More weight usually indicates more steel and/or better fire protecting materials. And that means that it will be more difficult for a dedicated thief to break into the safe. It also means that it would be harder for someone who is targeting your safe to just haul the thing away to break into at their leisure. The downside of this is, of course, that more weight also makes it that much more difficult to get the safe installed where you want it. Weigh the cost of doctor’s bills and lost friendships versus having a moving company install your safe.

Speaking of installation, consider locating your safe where it can be properly secured with floor or wall bolts. This will make it more difficult to tip over or just take outright. Also take into consideration visibility – a hidden safe behind a false wall in a closet is much more secure. And functionality – if the safe is too well hidden or located way out of the way, then it’ll be a pain in the butt to access for you as well as thieves. And be smart – if you have flooding problems in your basement, don’t put a safe there and expect it to remain dry. Humidity build up is a problem for any safe, and do you really want to do that to your firearms?

Most people I know prefer a mechanical combination lock rather than any variety of electronic locks. Personally, I’d rather not place my trust in electricity – power goes out, batteries run down. And biometrics to access my guns? Forget it.

The last thing I want to say is get a bigger safe than you think you need. Seriously. If you’re going to take the step of getting a pretty good safe and then get it positioned where you want it in your home, spend a bit more and get one that will hold more guns than you think you’ll ever have. You won’t pay a lot more for a slightly bigger safe (to a point) and it may well save you the hassle of swapping out safes in the future.