By Don Leavitt
Firearm ownership and firearm safety go hand in hand. Lots of attention is given the safe handling of firearms, but safe storage is often only given lip service. “Get a safe” is about as much as is said about it, and while the advice is sound it is also incredibly vague. Going to your local big-box outdoor retailer will give you several options but little in real information, and searching online can be easily overwhelming. So what should you look for? . . .
In the United States, virtually all security container testing is carried out by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and their testing is generally the only one accepted by insurance companies. While this isn’t a concern for gun owners, it does tell us this: If the security rating doesn’t come with a UL label, it should be considered highly suspect. There are several different levels of security tested by UL, and it is important to know how they are tested and what they mean. The most common are:
Residential Security Container (RSC): This is the lowest security rating tested by UL, and is the rating held by virtually all gun safes on sale today. To pass this standard, the safe door must resist forceful opening with hand tools (pry bar, screwdriver, hammer, etc.) for 5 minutes of tool contact time. No testing is done to the body of the safe, but it must be at least 12 gauge steel. No lock requirement.
Surprised? At first glance, that seems like an incredibly low bar to pass. However, it is important to note a few things:
1). The individual performing the test is a UL technician, and breaking in to safes is their job.
2). The technician has access to the design schematics of the safe in question, spend time prior to the test looking for weaknesses.
3). The test is five minutes of tool contact time, meaning they can spend 10 seconds prying, stop and survey their handiwork and review the blueprints for an hour, spend another 10 seconds prying, and only have it count as 20 seconds of the test.
TL-15: Door must resist opening and/or having a 6-inch square hole cut into it for 15 minutes of tool contact time, using hand and portable power tools (including drills and pressure applying devices). Body is not tested, but must be constructed of the equivalent of 1 inch of steel with a minimum tensile strength of 50,000 psi. Lock must be rated UL Group II or better.
TL-30: Same as TL-15 but for 30 minutes. Power saws and grinders are included in the available tool set.
There are several other ratings indicating resistance to torches and explosives, but these safes are uncommon and much more expensive.
How much security do I need?
While we’d ideally want to get the best of the best when it comes to security, for most people this is unrealistic and unnecessary. Sure, a class TXTL-60×6 (yes, an actual rating) safe would certainly protect your items from basically everything, but if you’re just going to fill it up with Mosin Nagants a $50,000 safe is a bit overkill. Before deciding on your level of security, you need to consider what you will be storing in your safe. Guns, obviously, but what else? Gold coins? Jewelry? A valuable stamp collection? Something with more sentimental value, like old family photos?
A good guideline is to look at what level of security insurance companies require for differing content values. These are for businesses, but can still give you an idea of what to look for. A lower-end RSC would not be insurable for business purposes, but is generally considered suitable for up to $1,000 liquid assets (cash and precious metals, etc.) or up to $5,000 in “merchandise” (guns, stamps, and the like). A B-rate would have a 1/2 inch plate door and 1/4 inch plate body, and despite still being an RSC would be insurable for $2,000 liquid assets or $10,000 merchandise. Stepping up to a TL-15 would allow up to $10,000 of liquid assets or $100,000 in merchandise, and a TL-30 would be $30,000/$300,000.
Pretty much any of the safes at your local outdoor retailer will belong in the first category, and for most people these should be perfectly sufficient. If you are a stamp collector (of the NFA variety) or plan on keeping precious metals in addition to your firearms it might be wise to look at higher security options, or even consider buying two safes: a smaller high security safe for more valuable items and a larger, less expensive RSC for the rest. The level of security needed is highly personal and dependent on your circumstances. Level of crime, police response times, and replaceability of items all play in to the decision.
Most gun safes will advertise that they offer fire protection in addition to burglary protection. While UL does rate fire safes, no gun safe on the market carries a UL fire protection label. This has led the various safe manufacturers to have their safes tested at other independent labs to get their ratings. Unfortunately none of these tests are identical and comparing them is difficult to impossible, so we must depend on their construction to determine their effectiveness.
First: some fire protection theory. With few exceptions, all safes provide thermal protection through the vaporization of water in their chosen fire protection material. As temperatures rise, the water in the material vaporizes (absorbing thermal energy) and the resulting water vapor serves as a form of insulation, slowing the transfer of thermal energy to the inside of the safe. The effectiveness of this approach is largely dependent on the amount of water in the fire resistant materials.
Most gun safes use fireboard (essentially sheetrock) for their fire protection, with additional layers providing more protection. This insulation is inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to install. However, as the water evaporates the material tends to crumble, leading to hot spots that can compromise the fire protection. Some companies have internal supports or other structures to prevent this, but only on their higher-end safes.
A few gun safes (and all TL-rated safes) use what is referred to as “cast fill” insulation. The closest analogue most people are familiar with is concrete, but the actual material used varies on the safe. Rather than attaching sheets of material to the body of the safe, this insulation is actually poured into the walls of the safe and cured in an oven. It is a labor and time intensive process, which is why it is not seen on very many gun safes. It is also much heavier, which is good from a security standpoint but bad for manufacturers (freight costs) and a hard sell to a lot of consumers (who have to get it moved and installed). The upshot is far superior fire protection, and a significant increase in security on the TL-rated safes.
If needing to decide between physical security and fire protection due to cost constraints, I’d generally lean more towards greater burglary protection. Getting a small dedicated fire safe for your important documents to place inside of your gun safe can make up for deficiencies in your gun safe’s fire protection, and is ultimately less expensive than trying to increase burglary protection down the road.
Again, the amount of fire protection you need depends on a number of factors. Location of flammable materials, fire department response time, and value of contents all come in to play.
The size of your safe is generally dependent on the size of your collection, and it is here that the marketing materials can again lead you astray. Advertised capacity and realistic capacity are two very different things. Basically, if the safe advertises “24-gun capacity”, replace the word “gun” with “Unscoped .22 single shot rifle”. Actual useful capacity is usually 1/2 to 1/3 of what is advertised, maybe less if you will be storing other items in addition to your firearms. However, some actually strip the interior and stack their rifles like firewood, increasing capacity (not recommended, and not kidding). Ultimately, whatever size you get will eventually be too small so plan accordingly.
Other safe related security concerns
Placement and installation can be just as critical to the security of your safe as its construction. Every safe, regardless of size, weight, or security rating, should be bolted down. This prevents your hypothetical burglars from simply rolling your safe and its contents out of your home and to theirs, where they would have all the time in the world to open it. It also keeps them from laying it on to its back to allow for additional leverage on the door.
If possible position your safe so that none of the body is accessible. The body of your safe is far less secure than the door, so any additional protection you can give it works to your advantage. Additionally, secure any of the tools in your home that can be used to compromise your safe. Most criminals don’t carry around a Sawzall as part of their EDC package so keeping those tools in a JobBox, or even in your safe, makes it that much more difficult for them to break in.
Some manufacturers like to tout the number of bolts in the door and the number of sides with bolts. Ultimately, a well-designed safe door should only need active locking bolts on the side opposite of the hinges, with deadbolts on the hinge side. Active bolts on the top and bottom sides of the door add only marginal security benefits, and aren’t often found on the inexpensive safes where they would be most needed due to the additional cost.
The lock for your safe should be UL listed Group II or better. If a safe you are considering does not have a UL listed lock you can have it easily replaced by a locksmith, as the mounting is standardized. A new lock currently runs between $150 and $200, and will provide much greater reliability and security. The Electronic vs. Mechanical lock debate is much like 9mm vs. .45 or AR vs. AK, it comes down to preference. If going the electronic route, making sure it is from a reputable manufacturer (American Security, Sargent & Greenleaf, LaGuard) will provide some peace of mind regarding reliability.
Finally, a note regarding door hinges. Some manufacturers use internal hinges for their doors, and advertise it as a security benefit. The reality is that any quality safe does not rely on the hinges for security in any way. Generally I’d recommend external hinges, as they allow the door to open a full 180 degrees. Internal hinges generally only open 90 degrees, and create a gap in fire protection where the hinge rests as the door is closed. However, all else being equal a safe with internal hinges is no more or less secure than one with external hinges.
Not all safes are created equal, especially in the crowded and broad ranging RSC market. While all are far superior to leaving firearms in a cabinet or in various hiding places, some are more resistant to burglary and fire than others. Knowing what you need your safe to accomplish and what features to look for can save you from a false sense of security and disappointing performance should the worst happen.