2 key considerations for buying a gun safe

Try to get the thickest and heaviest safe you can afford, and get one at least one size bigger than what you think you need

We’re all a bit paranoid when it comes to our personal security. We take steps to hide our occupational identity when were off duty and/or traveling to and from work, but what about the security of our expensive — and in some cases, dangerous — duty equipment? 

How many of us take appropriate precautions to secure this equipment when we’re off shift or away from home for an extended time?

I recently had the chance to tour several gun safe companies in Utah and Idaho and would like to express my thoughts on what makes a good gun safe. 

2 Key Things to Consider
While I am not a professional locksmith and have no experience with safes other than for personal use, I have looked at enough products from large “big box” stores, various import companies, and American safe companies to have a solid understanding of what comprises a more secure gun safe.

1.) Steel Thickness: Many companies are building what are known as composite doors, which are a thin, folded, piece of sheet metal with sheetrock inside. The sheetrock is usually covered by another thin layer of steel, carpet, or some kind of organizer pockets. 

Since these doors can contain an inch or more of sheetrock, they look very secure and durable but are, in reality, nothing more than a couple thin sleeves of metal capable of flexing. 

Don’t forget to consider the thickness of the steel in the safe’s body. Steel sheets are measured in gauges and a smaller number means a thicker sheet. A seven-gauge body is much thicker than a 12-gauge body. 

2.) Locking Bolts: Watch out for the metal used to secure the locking bolts inside the door. Many safes in today’s market have 10 or more massive moving bolts that seal the door to the body when the handle is thrown. These bolts might look solid but sometimes the internal workings are very flimsy. 

I recently examined an import safe at a mass retailer with a bent locking bolt. Bolts ride on carriers inside the door that extend or retract the bolts when the handle is turned. The bolt carrier rail inside this door had been bent when the bolt was shut against the door jamb. If it takes such a small amount of effort to bend the internal parts, I question the amount of force the bolt could withstand in an actual burglar attack. 

When shopping for a safe, remove the inner door panel if possible and get a look at what you’re buying. You will be surprised at how thin some of this internal lock work can be. 

Safe from Theft and Fire
While visiting the Fort Knox factory in Utah, I spoke at length with Director of Marketing Doug Tarter,  about safes and safe design. He explained that a thief needs three things to successfully pry open a door. 

The first thing is inferior locking bolts. Bolt work that is easily damaged or bent, like the above example, or bolts that are too short to hold the door in place if the body is slightly bent will not keep the door closed in an attack. 

Number two is a thin flexible door. If the door itself can be bent, the burglar can create a gap around the door jamb and gain access. 

Number three is a thin flexible body. If a thief can pry and bend the body away from the door, he can get into the safe even if the safe has a rigid door. 

Many safes manufactured by better-known American companies such as Fort Knox and Superior are available with a solid .25” (or thicker) rigid sheet of steel in the door. 

Heritage and Summit are selling safes with a reinforced door edge. This is a solid framework of steel welded around the outside lip of the door that can be a half an inch thick or better. While not as durable as a solid sheet of metal, the reinforced edge will usually extend three or four inches and provides a good solid lip to help withstand a pry attack. 

Champion — Superior's sister company — uses a reinforced door jamb to add rigidity to their bodies. 

The Importance of Fire Resistance
This brings me to the subject of fire resistance. Most companies offering fire lining are using cost-effective sheetrock, which provides a level of fire protection at a certain temperature and time. 

Currently, there isn’t any one standard test used by safe companies to fire test their safes. Some companies test in-house while others use an outside agency to test or verify fire claims. Keep in mind that nothing will be protected in that metal box given enough time and a hot-enough fire. 

Regardless, fire protection is important and many experts suggest getting something that’s rated to withstand at least 1,200 degrees for one hour. 

Buy a safe from a respected and established manufacturer that has a history of good customer service. Try to get the thickest and heaviest safe you can afford, and get one at least one size bigger than what you think you need. A safe is a major investment and not something you want to outgrow shortly after the purchase.  

Purchasing a safe might seem like a daunting and expensive endeavor, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve taken another step to safeguard your equipment is money well spent. Big box stores might be selling safes that look impressive on the outside, but don’t forget the old adage, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” 

About the author

Jodi Butts has been a law enforcement officer since 1998. She is currently assigned to patrol duties, having completed an assignment as an instructor at her agency’s basic academy. Jodi is a certified firearms instructor and is also certified to instruct emergency driving techniques to include vehicle immobilization devices and the Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT). Jodi served as a Military Police Officer in the U.S. Army. She earned a Master's Degree in Justice Administration/Public Administration.

Contact Jodi Butts

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