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Find a gun safe to resist fire, burglar tools

Jan. 10, 2013 - 09:23AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 10, 2013 - 09:23AM  |  
An Armory gun safe.
An Armory gun safe. (Armory)
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Security is not absolute, and even the best safe can't provide absolute protection against unauthorized entry.

Given the time and tools to do the job, determined attackers will find a way into your safe. All you're doing is holding them off long enough that they might be scared off by the sound of your car in the driveway or approaching sirens.

So the first thing to understand when buying a safe is that you're buying time, not impenetrability.

Similarly, a safe's ability to resist fire is not absolute. Fire protection is measured in the duration of sustained heat a safe can be expected to withstand.

Looking at the extremes of firearm security, options range from $2 cable and trigger locks all the way up to walk-in vaults that protect a collection against fire and sophisticated burglary.

While gun safes are pretty low tech, that doesn't mean there isn't some innovation happening in the industry.

In addition to its Safe-e-lert system, Liberty Safe is announcing a new line with flat locking bars in place of traditional round bolts. Liberty says the bars are about six times stronger on pry tests than the bolts used on other entry-level safes. The bars' added surface area "provides greater contact, increasing strength. The military has used similar rectangular bars, and that's why we call them military-style locking bars."

If you own, or plan on owning, more than a couple of firearms, it makes sense to store them in a dedicated safe. Hiding guns from kids doesn't work; trigger locks don't secure guns (only the trigger); and cable locks are easily cut.

GearScout has spent hours sifting through specs and talking to manufacturers and gone bleary-eyed paging through forums to glean the key points for choosing the right gun safe.

Safe vs. locker

Reasonable security starts with a safe. Safes are generally resistant to rudimentary attacks with tools, thanks to their heavy-gauge steel skins, considerable weight and protected multibolt locking systems.

Be mindful of the distinction between safes and cheaper, lower-security lockers, sometimes called storage containers. Containers may have the outer appearance of a safe, but they offer little more protection than a high school gym locker. They're usually made of thin-gauge steel and are more lightweight, have simple locks and lack fire protection.

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Lockers are a relatively inexpensive way to keep kids and guns apart, but it only takes a few minutes to get into one with a screwdriver and a hammer.

Fire rating

Fire is likely more of a concern than theft. Trouble is, fire-rating methods vary widely among gun safe makers. The gold standard of laboratory certification and testing is from UL, but few gun safe makers go to the trouble and significant expense of obtaining a UL rating.

The issue is how long it takes for a fire to build heat. Some tests build heat slowly over the course of an hour to get a timed fire rating — but a house fire will crank up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in just 10 minutes.

A safe's ability to withstand fire comes from the fire-resistant lining in its walls. Some manufacturers will list the UL rating of the gypsum board used in the safe's construction as a measure of the safe's fire rating, but this is not the same as a UL fire rating for the safe; the board itself may resist fire, but the safe may not. To be effective, the safe's door must have the same level of fire insulation as its walls and top.

Solid construction with heavy steel and good welds helps resist not only tool attacks, but also fire damage. In a house fire, the building may collapse on your safe, crushing it and popping it open. Fire protection that will last an hour or more will give your valuables a better chance of survival in a total burn-down.

Stronger under fire: Look for Palusol brand door seals that swell in the presence of heat. They've been used and trusted for years.

Double up: If you plan on keeping valuable documents in your gun safe, put them in a small fire container and put that in the gun safe for added protection.

Tool rating

Gun safes can provide protection for bearer bonds and a stash of loose diamonds, but their larger size makes them harder to secure and not ideal for stowing $100,000 in liquid assets unless you invest $5,000 or more in a true UL-rated safe that can withstand attacks from all sides with hand tools and torches.

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Gun safe tool ratings apply to the front of the safe, mainly the door and lock. TL10, TL20 — these mean the safe will take about 10 or 20 minutes to open with common tools such as concrete saws, grinders, drills and pry bars.

While truly high-end security safes carry a UL tool rating that applies to the entire safe, full UL ratings are hard to achieve within the budgets of most gun safe buyers.

That's not to say you can't get a very good level of protection in a lower-priced safe. Look for relocking assemblies; lock plates; thick steel walls and anchoring; thick doors that resist prying; good, continuous welds; and a weight that will stop a thief from simply stealing the entire safe.

The right gauge: The safe's skin is measured in steel gauge — 14- to 10-gauge steel can be cut quickly with hand tools or cheap power tools; 8-gauge steel and below will take much longer to cut open.

Don't be fooled by beefy external hinges. If the safe has locking bolts that secure the door on all four sides, the hinges aren't part of the safe's security. Lower-priced safes with bolts only on one side will have internal hinges. Make sure these are strong and able to withstand a pry attack from the outside.

Locking system

Electric locks have become much more reliable in recent years, though mechanical locks are still likely to last longer.

E-locks with hand-driven mechanical linkages are preferable to older electric locks that use failure-prone motors to drive the bolt assemblies. E-locks are also faster and more convenient, allowing access to the safe in a few seconds versus the 20 to 30 seconds needed to spin a combination lock.

But keypads do fail, and the ability to set your own combination can cut both ways — if you set it, you're responsible for remembering it.

Independent of the combination system, look for extra protection for the lock in the form of drill plates, relocating systems and slip clutches that prevent a brute from spinning the spokes of the door handle to bend or break the internals.

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Getting more high tech: Some manufacturers are adding new technology to increase security. Liberty is introducing its Safe-e-lert system this month. It uses your home's wireless network to alert you to tampering or unauthorized access via your smartphone.

Heavy is better

Depending on their construction, safes of similar sizes can vary in weight by thousands of pounds. What good is a safe that can be wheeled out of your house on a hand truck?

The lighter the safe, the more important it is to have it bolted down. If you go heavier, make sure your floors can handle the weight. A good minimum weight is 750 pounds.

Plan on paying $125 to $400 to have a heavy safe delivered and bolted down by a pro.

Before you waive the delivery fee and go the buddy-and-a-six-pack route, talk to people who have tried this themselves — then settle in for tales of tipped safes, broken bones, sagging floors, holes in walls and irreparably damaged friendships.

Bolt it down: Look for pre-drilled holes for anchoring to floors and walls.

Maximize the space

A dozen shotguns or flat-topped bolt-action rifles lined up in a safe look great, but storage ratings are useless when it comes to scoped rifles — and even more so for a collection of awkwardly shaped ARs.

Adjustable interiors can accommodate upright rifles, plus provide shelves for pistols or valuables; you can maximize the space even more with hanging door panels.

The most important rule is to buy a safe that's about twice as big as what you think you'll need. Collections grow, and there will be no end to the list of things you'll want to safeguard once you have a safe in the house.

Keep it dry: Look for a safe with AC power inside or one drilled to take a power cord to run a dehumidifier. If there's any moisture in the air, rust will attack your guns. Power is also helpful if you want your safe's interior lighted.

Security doesn't come cheap

Name-brand protection from Liberty, Cannon, AmSec, Browning and others will run $500 and up.

Less expensive options exist. Just be aware of the tradeoffs — fewer bolts, thinner steel, lighter weight.

If you're clear on the security you are trying to provide, these tradeoffs may suit you. For example, someone with a few guns who works at home likely will need a much lower level of protection than someone who leaves a safe unattended for days or weeks at a time.

What to shoot for: A good starting price point for a strong, heavy safe with a decent fire resistance is about $800.

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