This is the second article in the series What You Need to Know Before Buying a Gun Safe.
Myth: Any gun safe is better than nothing.
That depends what you mean by nothing. Most gun safes are not that difficult to break into, which this article covers in detail. I can think of plenty of situations where “nothing” would actually be better than a gun safe:
- Instead of storing your guns in locked cases all around your house, you put them all in your gun safe. Your wife also puts her jewelry in there, and you put your important documents and spare cash inside. Then you come home to your gun safe on the floor, pried open using your own tools. If you didn’t have a gun safe, you wouldn’t have put all of your valuables together in one place. Then the thieves wouldn’t have found them all, but now you’ve lost everything.
- You put a gun safe in your living room. An employee from a big box store drops off your new TV and sees the gun safe. Later he’s at his friend’s house smoking weed and tells someone about “this huge gun safe a guy had in his house.” Your house gets broken into by thieves prepared with cordless power tools who go straight for the gun safe. If you hadn’t had a gun safe, the thieves would never have known you had guns.
- You kept your pistol unloaded, in a locked case. After getting a electronic fingerprint (biometric) handgun safe, you start keeping your handgun in the safe with a loaded magazine for home defense. Your child breaks into after watching a Youtube video or a trick he saw on MythBusters. If you hadn’t had a gun safe, your child probably wouldn’t have gotten your gun. Even if he had gotten your gun, it wouldn’t have been loaded.
- You buy a gun safe and put it on the third floor of your condo but don’t bolt it down. Thieves break in and take the safe. They tip it over and push it down each set of stairs, tearing up your walls and floors as they go. Insurance pays for the guns anyway, but not enough to cover all the repairs. You have to get the drywall, hardwood floors, tile, trim, and paint repaired too. If you didn’t have a gun safe it would have been cheaper and less aggravation. This is a true story from a forum. The owner said that for a couple of guns it would have been much cheaper if he had just left the gun safe door open.
In each of these cases you would have been better off if you didn’t have a gun safe. If it’s ever tested, “nothing” can easily be better than an improperly installed, poorly located, flimsy safe.
Myth: This gun safe has a thicker door, so it’s stronger.
Things are not what they seem in the gun safe industry. As I mention in 16 Reasons to Own a Gun Safe (and 12 Reasons Not To), a couple decades ago gun safe manufacturers started changing their designs to make them look more like commercial safes, while at the same time making them weaker.
Let’s look at a real safe, one with the type of door that many gun safes imitate.
Real Safe Doors, a.k.a. Plate Doors
As an example I’ll use this 3600 lbs Graffunder C-Rate safe, which was bought new for use as a gun safe. The owner was kind enough to give me permission to post the pictures. It represents way more protection than the average gun owner will need, although it still could still not meet the lowest Underwriters Laboratories (UL) burglary performance rating of UL 687 TL-15. An insurance company might require a safe like this to insure a collection worth up to $50,000.
In case you’re wondering, in 2013 this safe cost about $11,000 installed–$7,000 for the safe + $1,400 for shipping to the dealer + $2,400 for local delivery and installation. Don’t get sticker shock just yet. Surprisingly, used safes of this build grade or higher can be found for less than a new top of the line gun safe, which offers much less protection.
Real safes have serious doors. Plate doors like this one are made of thick sheets of metal with a bolt carriage and other parts welded to the back of it. This door is massive with a 1″ thick plate steel outer plate. Yes, that is a solid piece of steel between his fingers. This door alone weighs around 1000 lbs, much more than most entire gun safes. The locking bolts look to be 1″ diameter, which ironically is smaller than many flimsy gun safes use to impress their customers.
A door made of thick steel plate is great, but if the locking bolts don’t have a sturdy door frame to lock into it’s useless.
This door frame is also welded from solid steel plate. That door frame lip between his fingers in the picture is solid steel, extending all the way to the safe wall where it is continuously welded. The door jamb under his ring finger is also solid plate steel continuously welded to the door frame and side wall.
The outer walls, top, and bottom of the safe are 1/2″ plate steel. Then a 3/16″ steel inner shell is welded inside. Finally a 1.5″ thick fire-resistant concrete amalgamate mixture is poured between the inner and outer shell.
Even the thickest of steel can be defeated if a thief can get enough leverage, so real safes also have tight door gaps. Higher end burglary ratings have a maximum door gap specification. This door gap too thin to get a credit card in, so inserting a pry bar or even screwdriver is going to take some magic.
Construction of commercial safes varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but this diagram should give you some idea of how they’re put together. The outer shell is A-36 or equivalent plate steel (1/2″ in the above example), continuously welded together all around. A door frame made from plate steel (3/4″ in the above example) is continuously welded into it.
Fire rated true safes or those with burglary ratings usually use true composite wall construction. A steel inner liner welded inside (3/16″ in the above example). The gap between the two is generally poured with a fire-resistant concrete amalgamate cement (1.5″ thick in the above example), although it can be other materials. I’ll talk more about fireproofing in the next article.
A plate steel locking bolt carriage (1/2″ thick in the above example) is continuously welded onto outer door plate, and holds the locking bolt against the inside of the door frame. For leverage against bending in a pry attack, locking bolts extend far into the door, or are attached to a gusseted locking bolt bar.
You can see from the cross section on the right the concrete amalgamate sandwiched in between two layers of steel, or “composite walls”. The door also has fireproofing but gets most of its strength from solid steel, and therefore the door is referred to as a “plate steel door”.
Gun Safe Doors, a.k.a. Composite Doors
The average gun safe a decade or two ago had a similar construction as a true B-Rate safe (I explain this rating below), just using half the steel (1/8″ outer shell steel and 1/4″ outer plate door steel). This meant that the gun safes were affordable and offered some security from brute force attacks. Because most gun safes were made this way, there wasn’t much difference between gun safes from different manufactures. This made the market very competitive. The introduction of cheap knock-off gun safes from overseas made the competition even worse.
Faced with more and more competition, gun safe manufacturers were under intense pressure to add “special features” for “market differentiation” — in other words to make their gun safe seem better than a competitor’s. Some gun safe manufacturers realized that if the outer door plate looked thicker, they could sell more than their competitors. But steel is the most expensive material in a gun safe or true safe. So, adding actual steel wasn’t an option they wanted to consider.
Instead they got rid of the “thin-looking” 1/4″ (0.2500″) outer door and replaced it with thinner sheet metal wrapped around a sheet or two of gypsum drywall (Sheetrock). This made a door which looked like it had an outer plate of solid 1/2″ to 1″ steel like the real safe above. Unfortunately though the composite door was just 12 gauge (0.1046″) thick steel–2.4X thinner than the “thin-looking” door it replaced! Note that the 12 gauge (0.1046″) steel outer shell and door of most gun safes is thinner than the 3/16″ (0.1875″) inner fire shell of the C-Rate safe above.
Thinning the metal had the added benefit of making the gun safes lighter, which cut shipping cost as more and more were being made overseas. To make this weaker door sound like a benefit, they borrowed terminology from the concrete composite bodies of real safes, calling these doors “composite doors”.
Unfortunately the term is comparing apples and oranges. For one, true safes don’t use composite construction on their outer door shell, which is instead solid steel. Secondly, the gypsum drywall fire board in a gun safe “composite door” offers absolutely no burglary protection, as anyone who’s ever punched a hole in drywall can tell you. The concrete amalgamate mixture in a real safe’s composite body does offer some burglary protection from brute force attacks and even torches.
In an effort to make gun safes even cheaper, gun safe manufacturers started making as much of them as possible out of bent and stamped sheet metal to minimize welding. They bent the outer door sheet around in steps and continued it inside the door, punching it and using it as the locking bolt carriage.
Inside the gun safe body they wanted the door frame to look sturdy like a commercial safe, so they bent the sheet steel so that it looked like thick plate.
Bent sheet metal can’t hold tolerances as well as a plate and door fitting and adjustments costs money, so the tolerances all around the door got looser.
Some other changes were happening in the gun safe industry as well — instead of real safe stores, more and more gun safes were being sold at “big box” stores.
Many of these “big box” stores re-labeled their products to make it harder to compare prices with their competitors. For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods is the exclusive distributor of Field and Stream gun safes, but these gun safes are really just re-labeled Stack-On gun safes.
At a big box store, the employees generally knew very little about what they’re selling, and knew barely more about gun safes than the customers.
Without a knowledgeable salesman there to tell a customer “this one looks stronger, but this safe here is really better”, customers were on their own to compare two gun safes and decide which one was better.Gun safe manufactures realized that “multiple massive locking bolts” sold more safes, especially to uninformed customers. The “bolt work” or locking bolt bar assemblies were made out of the same sheet metal as the gun safes to cut costs. Stubby locking bolts were bolted to the sheet metal with a 1/4″ bolt, made short to save money.
Bigger and bigger cosmetic locking bolts could be now bolted on to justify “premium” price tags, without adding much actual cost (or security). Under the surface of the door, the “premium” models were built the same way as the cheap models for greater profit. Here’s another page with more pictures on the “big locking bolt scam“.
From a security perspective, there are several fundamental problems with the construction of most gun safes.
1. Bent sheet metal and no custom fitting means looser tolerances on the door gap. This makes it easier to get a tool in there. You’ll see in videos below that a small pry bar or a large screwdriver can easily be jammed in, and on some gun safes that is all it takes to get the door open. On the others, the small tool is used to widen and hold the gap to get a big tool in.
2. The outer lip of the door is not solid, and neither is the door frame. It doesn’t take much to bend the steel and collapse the drywall inside the outer step of the door.
3. The locking bolt carriage is thin, and prying attacks can tear the locking bolt holes wider. What good is a 1.5″ diameter locking bolt if it’s held in place by a hole in a flimsy 0.1046″ thick piece of steel?
4. The door frame is also made out of thin steel making it easy to bend away from the door. Once this happens, there’s a lot more room to get some real leverage deeper and deeper between the door and frame.
5. The locking bolts are short and held in place by the locking bolt bar. The locking bolt bar is thin sheet metal and doesn’t have much leverage against bending. This is an easy problem to solve, but this part is inside the door where no one usually sees it. So it’s a place where companies can cut corners without most people noticing.
6. The “composite” construction of gun safe doors and walls is nothing like a true safe. Drywall (Sheetrock) fireproofing adds absolutely zero security, in fact it makes the outer door lip weaker. Some fireproofing concrete amalgamates have low strength compared to normal concrete, but even these mixtures are much stronger than the gypsum which drywall is made of. They also adhere to the steel walls and fill up any voids. In a true composite safe, the strength of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Composite doors and walls” made with drywall have none of these benefits.
Is it really that easy to get into a gun safe with a pry bar? Here is what looks like an old Liberty Centurion model getting broken into in less than two minutes by two guys who aren’t in much hurry.
That is an older video, but many other gun safes have similar pry attack resistance.
Seemingly in response to this video, Liberty has since created their own similar and somewhat misleading marketing video. Instead of the same Chinese Centurion model it shows the stronger American-made version of the Centurion getting attacked. This model had some small anti-pry tabs stamped into to its bolt carriage. Interestingly the American Centurion does not have actual anti-pry tabs shown in the video. Instead, the video shows the stronger tabs of their high end models.
In the Liberty version of the video, you can see the door and frame flexing from the start. However, the guys in the video spend all of their time on the same corner of the door instead of working around to find the weakest point. This prolongs their attack. But even Liberty’s video doesn’t pretend to resist prying for more than 10 minutes. After the “pry test” the video goes into marketing gimmicks which are covered in these articles.
Gun safe manufacturers love to brag about the total thickness of their doors and the size and number of their locking bolts, but these don’t have much to do with the security of the door. The Liberty Centurion above has four 1″ locking bolts.
In comparison here is a Sturdy safe which also has four locking bolts. Sturdy’s locking bolts are actually smaller at 7/8″ (0.875″). And for this video two of them were actually removed.
This safe door stands up to a similar pry attack with only two 7/8″ (0.875″) locking bolts. The difference is that these locking bolts are not stubby cosmetic items. They extend over 5″ into the door where they are supported by a 3/16″ (0.1875″) thick steel 4.75″ wide ‘C’ channel.
You can see all the strength of the safe comes from the construction and the steel in the door, door frame, locking bolt mechanism, and walls.
Gun Safe Bolt Work
Elaborate bolt work systems are mainly designed to impress a buyer enough get his credit card out. Doors with dozens of locking bolts are impressive to look at, but mean nothing if connected to a locking bolt bar carriage, door jamb, and door all thin enough they can be easily bent during a pry attack. This also applies to top, bottom, and corner locking bolts. These “features” are not found on most true safes.
Bolt work with lots of gears and moving parts actually adds more points of failure and mechanical maintenance with a negligible increase in security. Some complicated bolt work systems even give a burglar more options for attacking the gun safe.
High security safes often have only 3 moving locking bolts. These will be located on just one side of the door! The hinge side will have fixed bolts or a welded tongue or wedge.
Any additional bolts beyond that just reduce the mechanical reliability. And any increase in pry attack protection will be negligible. A well-built 3 locking bolt system can be stronger than 30 bolts.
In summary, gun safes are constructed much differently than real safes. Gun safe companies love to advertise things like “bank quality protection.” They make their safes look like a commercial safe, rather than as build them like one. Don’t be fooled.
Later in this series, What to Look for in a Gun Safe has an easy to follow list of things to look for so that you know what you’re getting for your money.
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