What to Look for in a Gun Safe

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This article is continued from the previous page…  Click here to jump Back to the Beginning.

Gun Safe Locks

Lock Ratings

UL certifies both mechanical dial and electronic keypad locks under UL 768 Standard for Combination Locks.

Key locks are certified under UL 437 Burglary Resistant Locks and Locking Mechanisms.

UL 768 listed gun safe combination locks are usually referred to by their Groups I or Group II designations.

The video below shows the inner workings of the S&G 6730 mechanical combination lock to get you familiar with some of the terms in the UL 768 specification.  Unfortunately the focus isn’t very good.

UL 768 Standard for Combination Locks

These are the UL 768 Standard requirements:

  • Common Construction Specifications
    • At least 1,000,000 different (theoretical) combinations.  This dictates dial numbering from 0 to 99 for a 3 wheel combination lock regardless of the lock’s accuracy.
    • The lever shall fit snugly on the post and shall be secured tightly. The fence shall be perpendicular to the plane of the tumblers.
    • Clearance between the fence face and the tumbler wheels shall not be less that 0.025″ when the bolt lever is raised by means of a driver cam, and not less than 0.015″ when the bolt lever is raised by means other than the driver cam.
    • Tumblers shall be placed at right angles to the tumbler post.
  • UL 768 Group 2
    • Tolerances for a three-number wheel lock are 1.25 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
    • Tolerances for a four-number wheel lock are 1.50 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
    • Performance Specifications
      • Combination wheels are set at various combinations to ensure the lock will operate normally but will not open with the dial turned beyond the acceptable tolerances.
  • UL 768 Group 1
    • Tolerances for a three-number wheel lock are 1.00 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
    • Tolerances for a four-number wheel lock are 1.25 dial graduations on either side of the correct number.
    • Punching of a Group 1 lock shall result in the lock bolt becoming immobilized by mechanical means.
    • Immobilization is not required in locks where punching does not defeat the locking action.
    • Performance Specifications
      • Resists against manipulation and unauthorized opening for 20 hours.
      • The time specified above may be one man working for 20 hours, two men working for 10 hours, and so on. Lock experts may be called upon to participate in these tests.
      • Manipulation protection shall include advanced features not found in conventional designs.
      • Manipulation tests shall include:
        • Expert manipulation techniques
        • Walking the tumblers
        • Feeling the tumbler gates
        • Sighting variations on the dial
        • Any other techniques developed during testing
        • The weight of instruments or detection devices used in tests will not exceed 50 pounds (22.7 kg).
  • UL 768 Group 1R
    • Compliant with all Group 1 requirements.
    • Performance Specifications
      • Secure against radiological attacks for 20 hours with a radioactive source not exceeding the equivalent of 10 curies of cobalt-60 at a 30″ (762 mm) distance.

Since UL 768 was developed for mechanical dial combination locks, not all of the UL 768 specifications apply to electronic locks.  Most electronic locks that meet UL 768 will meet Group 1.

Group 1R locks aren’t common on gun safes.  Their gate materials are made out of plastics to prevent x-ray imaging.  Most gun safe owners would prefer to have metal for reliability, although plastics have come a long way.

Get a gun safe with combination locks of UL 768 Group II or better.  A UL 768 rating will ensure that your combination lock offers protection from basic attacks.

Keypad Gun Safe Lock

La Gard Basic Series Electronic Keypad Combination Lock

An electronic keypad lock may look like a burglar could just remove the keypad and hotwire the lock using the wires.  But in a UL rated electronic lock the keypad is just a keypad, much like the keyboard on your computer is just a keyboard.  All the wires that run outside your safe do is transmit the button numbers and battery power to the lock.

If the battery dies the combination is remembered because it is stored inside the safe. The electronics which hold the combination and the motor/solenoid that actuates the lock deadbolt are also protected by the relocker and anti-drill hard plate.

Unrated Locks

Unrated Electronic Keypad Wear Showing Combination Hints

Guessing my combination? Want a hint? Wear on Unrated Electronic Keypad Lock

On a non-UL 768 rated electronic lock, the manufacturer may have decided to save money by building the lock electronics into the keypad so it can actually be hotwired.  Or the combination electronics not be protected by the hard plate so that it is possible to drill a hole and grab the solenoid or motor wires and hotwire them directly.  

Non-UL rated locks may have an infinite number of weak points.  How easy is it to break into an unrated electronic lock?  Click here to see some video examples with electronic handgun safes.

Even if no one ever tries to break into your non-rated keypad lock, the keypad will be cheaply made and wear out fast.  Electronic locks aren’t as reliable as mechanical locks period, so get the best rating you can if you get an electronic lock.

If your gun safe doesn’t have a RSC rating and/or the lock doesn’t have a UL rating, it will almost always have a cheap Chinese lock.  These locks are unreliable and prone to early failure.  Safe technicians get a significant amount of business from lock outs caused by malfunctioning Chinese locks.

Keep in mind that safesmith blueprints are not available for most cheap gun safes without a RSC rating.  This makes it unlikely that a clean, reparable entry to open your gun safe can be made.  You’ll have two dubious options:  Either pay the safe technician by the hour to attempt a clean entry that he/she can’t guarantee.  Or, go the cheaper faster route and open the gun safe with brute force, destroying it in the process.  Either way you’ll be faced with a serious bill that probably costs more than the bargain gun safe, and have to buy a new one on top of that.

Lock Manufacturers

There are only a few brands you need to know for mechanical dial and electronic combination locks: La Gard, Sargent & Greenleaf, Kaba Mas, and AMSEC.

With that said, one benefit of UL768 locks is that they’ve all been independently tested.  Realistically the UL768 rating is more important than the brand.  Each brand and specific model will have it’s own statistical quirks and issues.  But none of the rated locks will be a mistake.  Note that hybrid electronic/mechanical locks, discussed below, are a possible exception due to historical reliability issues.

Sargent & Greenleaf is an American company that’s been around since 1857.  S&G was bought by Stanley in 2005, and this may be having an effect on some of their models. Kaba Mas is now owned by a Swiss concern.  La Gard is a brand of Kaba Mas, so the two are the same company.  These brands are solid.  AMSEC also has its own branded line of UL rated locks.  AMSEC is discussed in more detail in the best gun safe comparison.

For mechanical dial locks, S&G is the industry standard. Safe technicians report having few problems with La Gard as well.

For electronic keypad locks, La Gard‘s are slightly less problematic than S&G, although both have their individual issues.  Recently S&G has started using plastic gears and lower cost parts in its locks.  These changes seem to be related to increased failures in their electronic models, even more reason to go with La Gard for an electronic lock.  La Gard also has a range of products for different budgets.

Other Brands

Avoid cheap electronic locks.  These locks are known for failing relatively quickly.  The keypads wear out quickly and the locks inside the gun safe also fail, representing a large number of the calls safesmiths get to drill open locked gun safes.

Beware of logo imitation from imported Chinese locks, especially on cheap gun safes.  Some import safes have little La Gard (LG) or Sargent & Greenleaf (SG) look-alike logos on the lock.  If you look closely they will not match real logos on genuine locks.

Replacing or Upgrading a Gun Safe Lock

Many gun safe companies have exclusive agreements with one lock manufacturer.  S&G locks for example are standard on Liberty, Browning, Champion, and Fort Knox gun safes.  The standard gun safe S&G locks are usually lower end units, although many companies offer upgrades.

If you want a different lock installed, safesmiths can install almost any lock on almost any safe.

Safe technicians may have their own alliances with different brands and personal opinions.  Whichever direction someone tries to steer you in, make sure you make the final decision as an informed consumer.

If you are replacing a gun safe mechanical dial combination lock, the UL 768 Group II S&G 6730 is the industry standard and the minimum performance level you should consider.  The equivalent La Gard 3330 mechanical dial lock would also be a good choice. The 3330 is still all-brass internally, while S&G has started using plastic parts in their mechanical dial locks.

If replacing a keypad gun safe lock go with a La Gard or other brand listed above.  The La Gard Basic II electronic keypad lock is simple, easy to use, reliable, and reasonably priced.

If you have hand tools and basic mechanical ability you can replace many locks yourself.  Beware that this means that you assume all responsibility and liability if the lock doesn’t work correctly.  Also, the manufacturer’s warranty will be voided.  The warranty only covers the lock and keypad anyway so it’s not the end of the world.  If changing a lock and risking being responsible for a lock-out is more risk than you want to take on, have a safe tech do the work.

Gun Safe Lock Types

The two most popular types of locks for gun safes are electronic keypad locks and mechanical dial locks.  The modern mechanical dial combination lock was invented in 1878 and hasn’t changed much since then.

A couple gun safe manufacturers offer gun safes with both an electronic keypad and a mechanical dial lock, which can give you the best of both worlds.  This has been a common setup on vault doors, where they are configured so either lock will open the door, or so both locks are required to open it.  You can consult a safe technician about having a second type of lock installed on your gun safe to duplicate a dual lock arrangement.

La Gard used to offer the hybrid 2441/6441 model.  This one lock had both an electronic keypad and a redundant 4 wheel mechanical dial lock.  These were discontinued in June 2012 due to reliability problems.  Recently AMSEC introduced the Duo lock, which may befall the same fate.  It would be reasonable to steer away from the AMSEC Duo until more is known about its long term reliability.  

Key locks and biometric fingerprint reading electronic locks are also available.

Quick access handgun and long gun safes have another option, the proven mechanical Simplex-type pushbutton combination lock.



 Lock Bolt Pressure Issues

Safe Combination Lock Deadbolt and Bolt Work

Bolt Work inside the door of a vintage True Safe.  The rectangular box with deadbolt is the Mechanical Dial Lock.  The handle on the outside turns the round metal piece to the right of the lock.

All locks are susceptible to issues caused by bolt pressure.  Some are more susceptible than others.

When locked, locks have a deadbolt which extends into the bolt work.  This deadbolt prevents the locking bolts from being retracted (see picture).  Even slight pressure from the bolt work applied to the lock deadbolt can cause issues with the lock.

Bolt pressure will especially shorten the life of electronic locks.  Unrated electronic locks usually have electromagnetic solenoids with plunger deadbolts.  Bolt pressure will cause higher current draw in the solenoid.  Over time this can lead to overheating and premature failure.

Higher end electronic locks have motors used to retract the lock deadbolt.  The motors use gearboxes to give them enough torque to retract the deadbolt in spite of bolt pressure.  Over time, the bolt pressure load can cause the plastic or metal gears to strip, drive nuts and fasteners to work loose, and motors to overheat and wear out.  Once the gears fail or strip off of the shafts, the gearbox will effectively be stuck in neutral.  Then the motor will be unable to retract the deadbolt.

To prevent bolt pressure issues with your lock:

  • Hold the handle against the closed position before entering your combination in the lock.
  • Learn the operation of your bolt handle.  Know the proper handle position for fully extended locking bolts.  Then you will notice if the handle position is not right, and the bolts are not extending fully.  This is a sign of residual pressure on the lock deadbolt.
  • Make sure nothing interferes with the closing of the door.  Avoid putting anything on the door which applies pressure to the bolts when the door is closed.  This includes extra DIY door gaskets.
  • Ensure nothing gets closed between the door and jamb, like rifle slings and straps.
  • Keep the inside edge of the door jamb clear so that noting is stuck between the locking bolts and the jamb.  This is especially important on the floor of the gun safe.
  • If drywall fireproofing or door panes become loose, fix them immediately.  This is a common cause of interference with the bolt work.

If you think there are issues with your bolt work, open the door and test it.  Eliminate any possible interference on the locking bolts from the door jamb.  If the locking handle won’t turn with the door open, there may be a detent to prevent you from shutting the door with the locking bolts extended.  Check for a detent release pin or lever on the hinge side of the door, or on the top or bottom.

Make sure the lock works and releases smoothly.  If it does, look at the door and jamb to figure out what’s causing the bolts to bind.  Be careful about locking the door if you’re having issues.  You don’t want to get locked out by a failing lock.

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What do you think? Leave a comment below, your thoughts are welcome.

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Comments

  1. herbert says:

    I am not sure wҺgere you’re getting your info, but good topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or understandіng more.Thankѕ for fantastic
    iոfo I was lookinɡ for this info for my missioո.

  2. FYI, that lock on my safe was a S&G digital lock that failed. It was NOT a knock off, it was the real deal. Here is the specific lock that was originally on my safe.

    S&G was bought by Stanley at which point they started shipping that work over to China. The fact is, even S&G electronic locks suck and will fail. If I could have retained possession of the original lock I would have so I could have found which component actually failed. As I detailed in my analysis given the behavior, ever the solenoid or electrolytic cap failed. I just wasn’t able to validate which given the limited time I had.

    • Hey Barron,
      Thanks for providing your writeup on the drilling open of your Liberty gun safe. I’ve been increasingly hearing about S&G electronic lock failures, and the plastic gears and parts they’ve started using. I didn’t know that S&G had been bought by Stanley, but you’re right; Stanley bought S&G in 2005. Even with the issues, S&G electronic locks are still better than most of the rest of the market–but La Gard is a better choice in an electronic keypad lock.
      I share your misgivings about electrolytic caps and their limited lifetimes. I’m an engineer and would be happy to check out the solenoid and cap in your lock if you still have it. Just sent me a message and we’ll set it up.
      Thanks again! Jaime

  3. If you call yourself a responsible gun owner it is your duty to keep your firearm and ammunition secured in a high quality gun safe. I got mine from Godby Safe and Lock at their store down in Lantana, Florida. Check out their variety http://www.godbysafeandlock.com

  4. anonymous coward says:

    There are even fewer combinations on mechanical locks than you think; with tolerances of 1.0 on either side and three wheels you’re not trying “nine” combinations at once but 3*3*3=27 combinations at once. There’s somewhere around 33.33^3~=37000 combinations.

    The situation is of course worse with sloppier tolerances, a 100-position dial with 1.5 graduations on either side has an effective security of only 25 positions. That’s only 15625 combinations for three wheels or 390625 combinations for four wheels.

    Thanks for the excellent website.

  5. I’ve been wanting to get a new gun safe for my dad. His old one has some rust forming on it, so it really needs to be replaced. I would hope to find something that will not have the same problem. The Fort Knox box looks like a pretty good option. I should look into it some more.

  6. C.D. Carney says:

    I love this series of gun safe articles. It has allowed me to determine the safety value of my safe. It also lets me know what to look for in my next “big and bad” safe. Oh, and “You did bolt your safe down, right?” Whoops, lemme rectify that real quick…

  7. Starting with a bigger safe is a good plan. Most people that buy guns will buy more than one. I myself have a good handful of guns.

  8. Dallas says:

    Author – I think there is a typo in this sentence:

    “If the gun safe you’re looking at doesn’t have hinge size locking” – I think “size” should be “side”.

  9. Don S. says:

    I’ve just started looking into gun safes and was looking to find a good source of information and I have found it. lots of good intel here, thanks! Now that I’m a little bit more informed I have crossed off almost 2/3’s of the safes I was looking at. A “true” safe is what I’ll look for now not the junk you find in the “Big Box” stores.

  10. D. Lawcock says:

    What is your opinion on the SafeLogic Xtreme lock by Securam? I have a TL-30 safe with a Kaba Mas X-09 lock. I don’t want to get locked out by a failed motor and like the mechanical dial back-up that this lock offers as well as the ease of the digital keypad, much faster than the X-09.
    Also in your chart for digital keypad VS mechanical should gunsmith read locksmith in the changing combinations section?

    • Steady says:

      Stay away from digital locks, the X-09 is no longer in production, not even for the government. The new x series is the X10- a much better lock if an individual like electronic locks. Beware these electronic locks only like environment controlled areas (A/C no humidity, no dust, and maintenance). This is also going to depend on the price you would want to spend on an e-lock. A good one in the neighborhood of $1000.00 just for the lock not to include shipping. I am a firm believer that firearms should always be behind a mechanical lock. No battery to replace, no plastic part to wear out (for a good one) and you can get into it when you need to.

    • I installed the safelogic extreme by secure ram on a tl 30×6
      The problem I had was the door was 6 3/4 inches and the spindle came
      with a 6 inch spindle. I also had to order an extended plastic sheath for
      the spindle for covering the wiring.

      I ended having a metal guy add key stock to the spindle and
      therefore made it longer.
      I have had no problem with the lock.

      I have had the battery weak after one year and the lock would not
      open the swingbolt. The redundant dial was used and worked fine.
      Of course as soon as I installed another industrial 9volt batt…all
      things were fine.

      On my safe I have two locks…one orginal Lagard dial and the new one.
      I just keep the dial on day open when I am home and have instant access
      with the electronic one.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWXHgrNs3Ss

      Good luck,
      Wayne

  11. Ron S. says:

    Firstly I found your info extremely useful and interesting.
    Question; What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a “key bypass” on an electronic lock? Thanks a lot, Ron

  12. After reading the author’s entire treatise on gun safes, I am completely discouraged and disheartened at having even begun to think that a gun safe was a wise idea. I have come to the conclusion that unless you can afford a True Safe, anything else is a waste of time, money, and floor space in your home. I am going to leave my guns in the decorative glass door cabinet they are in now since apparently a so-called gun safe offers no more protection from a determined thief than what I have now. Maybe there will be less physical damage to my premise if he doesn’t have to work so hard. Opening a savings account tomorrow to begin saving for a real safe. This was a very informative and in-depth treatment of the pros and cons of gun safes. Much respect for the author since it seems he has left nothing to question about the subject. Thanks.

  13. Martha says:

    Please remove my account from your mailing list. Thank you.

  14. Scott Crockett says:

    That was a fantastic article! Thanks!

  15. I think you’re not giving enough credit to UL-listed electronic combination locks, particularly in terms of longevity. I recently bought a 14-year-old TL30 commercial safe which had two combination locks installed at the factory–an S&G Group 2M mechanical lock (I don’t see the model marked on the case, but it should be a 6630), and an S&G 6120 electronic lock. The 6120 case was marked with the manufacture date, confirming that it was installed from the factory.

    The safe was used in a jewelry store. The mechanical lock was opened at the beginning of the day, and locked in the evening. The digital lock was used any time the safe needed to be opened during the day. There was dirt on the keypad around the digits used in the combination, but 30 seconds with some 409 and a paper towel took care of that. There was no visible wear on the keypad, and I’m 99% sure the previous owner never changed the combination. I guess it’s possible that the keypad was replaced at some point, as it isn’t separately marked with a serial number or date code, but I don’t see anything indicating this. The lock itself works perfectly after 14 years of several openings daily.

    With that said, I did just proactively replace the lock with an AMSEC model (another manufacturer of electronic locks that I think is worth a mention). Some safe techs whose opinion I trust have reported considerably better experience with the AMSEC locks than the S&G electronic locks, and near 15 years is a pretty good service life anyway.

    • Hi Dan,
      You are absolutely right. This article was due for a refresh and I just got around to it. Keypad wear is primarily an issue for unrated electronic locks, including the one pictured in the article. As you noted, though, that doesn’t stop smudges and grime from giving clues to the combination of UL listed locks, even with no keypad wear. And I’ve added AMSEC explicitly to the brands list. Especially since S&G’s modern offerings aren’t all living up to their former reputation.
      Thanks!
      Jaime

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