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Gun Safe Bolt Work
The term bolt work refers to the locking bolts which hold the gun safe door closed, the linkages and handle which move the locking bolts, the linkage immobilized by the lock deadbolt, and any relockers or other security features.
Bolt Work Design
Bolt work in many gun safes is very complicated and intricate, unnecessarily so.
Impressive looking bolt work with lots of moving parts, locking bolts, and gears is generally included to wow buyers, not to make the safe more secure. Even 100 locking bolts on a door made of thin bent sheet metal isn’t going to keep a thief out very long.
The bolt work should be as simple as possible.
Anyone who has ever used electronic or mechanical devices under pressure or in combat can attest that simpler is usually better. The fewer moving parts and lubrication points the better.
Locking Bolt Number and SizeThere is no locking bolt size currently available which is too small. But, almost all gun safe door jambs are too weak. So, don’t pay attention to the locking bolt size.
The number and size of locking bolts doesn’t really matter. Some of the best safes in the world have only 3 fixed locking bolts on the hinge side and 3 moving locking bolts on the other side.
What matters is the design of the locking bolts, and how well they are supported by the door itself.
Especially important for gun safes is the resistance of the locking bolts to being bent by a prying attack. In a pry attack the bolt work must prevent the locking bolts from being bent towards the front door panel as the door is getting pried open.
Locking bolts which extend far inside the door or thick bolt carriages supply a lot of leverage to resist prying. Alternatively locking bolt bar gussets and anti-pry tabs can make a big difference in a pry attack.
Of course all of the anti-pry features in the world will make no difference if the door and door frame is too weak to resist deformation.
Shear Pins and Clutches
Most gun safe bolt work is so delicate it can easily be damaged by excessive force on the door handle. Instead of beefing up the bolt work, manufacturers use a cheap workaround.
Their goal is to limit the amount of force which can be applied to the bolt work by the locking handle in order to protect it. The most common methods are shear pins and clutches.
Shear pins are common on outboard motor propeller shafts and other power equipment. When used in a gun safe, a small hole is drilled into the internal bolt handle shaft to insert a pin. This pin transmits all of the rotational force to the bolt work.
If enough force is applied to the bolt handle, the shear pin breaks causing the bolt handle to spin freely and often come off. Shear pins are one-shot devices. Once they’re broken you will need a safesmith to drill open your gun safe.
A broken shear pin can be infuriating; so many gun safes come with clutches instead. Unfortunately a broken clutch can also be infuriating.
A clutch mechanism between the handle and bolt work will allow the handle to spin freely once enough force has been applied. The nice thing about a clutch is that it’s not a one-shot device like a shear pin. In theory it allow just enough force to be applied to open an unlocked gun safe, but not enough to break into a locked gun safe. If these clutches fail then you’ll still need a safe technician to drill open your gun safe.
Some clutches need to be adjusted after first installation by a safe technician. Unfortunately clutches are most common on lower cost gun safes which are installed by the owners themselves, so these clutches never get adjusted.
Failure of shear pins or clutches is not uncommon. Your child may try to play pirate with the locking wheel of your gun safe or hang off the handle. You may close the door on a rifle sling or empty cartridge case and need extra force to retract the locking bolts. A shear pin may break before the door opens and a clutch may prevent you from getting enough force.
Bolt work should be robust enough to withstand a large amount of handle pressure without clutches or shear pins.
The bolt work of true safes is designed so that it will not fail catastrophically in a brute force attack. The handle may break off. But even a pipe wrench on the locking handle shaft shouldn’t damage the bolt work enough to open the safe, if it’s damaged at all.
Hinge Side Bolts
Any gun safe with external hinges must have hinge side locking.
If the gun safe you’re looking at doesn’t have hinge side locking, run — don’t walk — away; if the hinges are cut the door will fall off.
Locking bolts on the hinge side do not have to move. For simplicity fixed hinge side locking bolts are better. As an alternative, the door may have a tongue or wedge welded on the hinge side. The point is to clamp the door shut and prevent it from being opened if the hinges are removed.
Anti-Drill Hard Plate
An anti-drill plate or hard plate is used to protect the lock and main relocker from drill attacks. This small plate made of a hardened material is most commonly used to shatter, bind, or otherwise disable drill bits and other boring tools before they reach the lock.
To work properly a hard plate must be free floating, properly hardened, preferably circular and cover the entire lock and primary relocker.
The box that the combination lock sits in should be mounted to a frame welded to the door, and the hard plate should be slid in between the lock and the door skin so that it sits at an angle. The hardness, angle, looseness, and circular shape of the plate are designed to prevent the drill bit from getting enough purchase, or to bind up the pointed tip of the drill bit and snap it. Some safes alternatively include a cavity of loose ball bearings behind the hard plate.
A hard plate is important, but doesn’t add much security to a gun safe with inadequate steel.
The point of a hard plate is to protect the most vulnerable area of the safe to direct access. However this only really works if the steel of a gun safe is thick enough that drilling holes is time consuming.
The sheet metal of most gun safes is so thin that a large circle of holes can be drilled and punched out on any side of the gun safe. Even that would take more time than prying open the door or hacking through the wall with an ax or Sawzall.
Hard plates are a common marketing point on gun safes. It is much cheaper to include a small mythical kryptonite plate hardened to 10,000 Rockwell C than it is to put more actual steel in the walls and door. Instead of talking about how thin the steel sheet in their safe is, they distract you by bragging about the hard plate.
RelockersRelockers are designed to permanently immobilize the bolt work if tampering is detected.
The most important location for a relocker is on the lock assembly itself, which is one of the more fragile parts of the bolt work. Most mechanical dial locks will get hit with a hammer or pry bar during a break-in.
Locks rated UL 768 Group I and many Group II’s have internal relockers which immobilize the lock deadbolt if the shaft is punched out. Usually this relocker is activated when the lock’s rear cover is broken off by the shaft punching through. The lock bodies also may be scored to break and activate other relockers if the lock assembly is dislodged, damaged, or the lock deadbolt is compromised.
The most common types of bolt work relockers include hardened spring loaded plungers connected to fragile steel cables. Cutting or punching attacks are designed to sever the cable and trigger the relocker. Other relockers are jarred by severe impact or triggered by high temperatures like torch attacks. Some relockers use glass plates to protect from drill attacks, which shatter the glass and trigger the relocker.
If a relocker is tripped, you will need a safe tech to open your gun safe. He’ll use manufacturer blueprints to drill and extract each relocker, open the door, and then repair the damage if possible.
All gun safes should have some sort of relocker, but they don’t add much security to a gun safe unless the steel in the walls and door is adequate.
Much like hard plates, gun safe manufacturers love to brag about the number of relockers they have. Relockers are much cheaper than putting more steel in the walls and door of a gun safe. Because of this they’re added mostly for marketing value.
If a relocker is tripped it will prevent the locking bolts from being retracted. But if the relocker is just spot welded to a thin metal door, the relocker may rip out at the first sign of trouble.
Most gun safes can be pried open with the bolts extended. A gun safe with a dozen relockers is useless if the bolts don’t have to be retracted to get the door open.
For relockers to be useful, it has to be difficult to just hack through the walls or pry open the door.
On true safes, relockers are beneficial. Safes rated TL-15 and higher often come with some randomization in the bolt work construction. The relockers and other components are installed in different random locations to make a skilled drill attack from a thief who has safe technician blueprints to your safe more difficult.
Bolt Work Handle
The type of locking handle is often an option on gun safes. Fancy chrome or gold plated wheels are offered as upgrades. To each their own — if you like these better by all means go for them. With that said…
It’s better to skip fancy handles and spend the money on a better gun safe instead.
Any type of handle will allow you to open your gun safe. Many real safes are utilitarian and have simple lever handles.
Lever handles make a gun safe easier to camouflage as an electrical cabinet or chemical locker. Multi-spoke handles make it obvious that this is a gun safe.
If you’re concealing your gun safe in a closet to improve its security you’re not going to be able to admire a fancy handle anyway.
Gun Safe Fire Rating
Fire ratings are covered in detail in 9 Myths about Gun Safe Fire Ratings.
If you’re looking at conventional gun safes with fire protection, compare the construction of the fire protection and ignore any rating (other than UL 72).
No currently sold conventional gun safe carries the minimum true Fire Endurance rating of UL 72 Class 350. How well a gun safe will do in a fire depends on:
- Fire insulation
- Type of fire insulation
- Structural integrity and reinforcement of fire insulation
- Thickness of fire insulation
- Coverage of fire insulation
- Sealing of the body – non-continuous body welds will open up and let hot gasses and smoke in.
- Sealing of the door – intumescent door seals are a must.
- Structural integrity of the body and door – the body and door must be strong enough to resist buckling and deformation due to high temperatures. They may have to protect the gun safe from falling beams or falling through floors in a fire as well.
- Thickness of steel in the outer shell – in addition to maintaining the gun safe’s structural integrity, thicker steel adds more thermal mass to slow down the temperature rise and heat transfer in a fire.
Fire Insulation Type
Get the best type of fire insulation you can afford. In descending order from best to worst, here are the most common fire insulation types
- Poured concrete amalgamate (best)
- Ceramic wool fiber or high temperature fiberglass
- Fiberglass-reinforced gypsum drywall fireboard
- Standard paper-backed gypsum drywall (worst)
Insulation materials that offer some structural support to a gun safe, like poured concrete amalgamate, are best. These allow a minimum of heat transferring steel gusseting between the inner and outer shells of the safe.
Gypsum fireproofing will fall apart in a fire. If you’re going to go with gypsum drywall based fireproofing, high temperature fiberglass or any other reinforcement which helps holds the drywall together will offer more protection.
Another issue with gypsum drywall is that it can fall apart due to age and interfere with the bolt work, a not uncommon cause of safesmith service calls.
Fire Insulation Thickness
It’s not rocket science…
For a given material the thicker the fire insulation the better.
A gun safe with 1.5″ of gypsum drywall fireproofing will provide more protection than a similarly sized gun safe with only 1″ of the same material regardless of the imaginary self-rated fire ratings.
The more continuous the fire insulation the better. Multiple gypsum drywall sheets should have interlocking and overlapping edges to help block the transfer of heat.
Beware of any cutouts or thin points in the fire insulation. Fewer heat-transmitting steel gussets connecting from the outer shell to the inside is better for fire protection. Of course fewer gussets is worse for burglary protection.
Steel Inner Fire Liner
A properly made fire safe will have a continuously welded inner shell.
The shell protects the contents of the gun safe from moisture released from the fire insulation. In a fire it also provides a barrier to prevent the exchange of the heat and steam released by the fireproofing, and the air inside the safe.
Steel inner shells are not found on conventional gun safes, which barely have any steel in the outer shell.
Other Gun Safe Features and Considerations
American Made Gun Safes, Made In USA
Buying an American made gun safe is a good idea. Primarily it supports American businesses and American workers.
Secondly, a gun safe is a large heavy product. Buying one built far away doesn’t make a lot of sense. Either corners will be cut to make it lighter and cheaper to ship, or it the transportation will cost a fortune.
For me, the biggest reason to buy an American made gun safe is the 2nd amendment. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit dozens of countries and experience a variety of cultures. Some things I liked and some things I didn’t, but in most of those countries I could be arrested for having a small pocket knife with a locking blade.
The fundamental right to self-defense and the 2nd amendment are relatively unique to this country. In China, Mexico, Korea, and other places where gun safes are made, that fundamental right is not recognized by their government; instead their gun laws are very restrictive. I don’t want any part of supporting the economy of such a country to make gun-related products. I also don’t want to outsource an American worker’s job to someone that doesn’t have the freedom to have his or her own gun.
Another reason to buy a gun safe made in the USA is that some Chinese gun safes are being imported with fake UL Residential Security Container rating stickers and counterfeit locks. Intellectual Property Rights are not well respected in China, and Chinese companies are very good at creating copycat knock-off products using lower quality materials. Often they copy not only a product’s features, but also its problems — even making them worse in the process. UL testing costs run into 5-figures US dollars, so these firms are more than willing to copy the $0.05 rating sticker as well.
A gun safe made in China may also have formaldehyde or pyrite in the drywall which can cause corrosion of your guns.
Some gun safe manufactures have creative interpretations of what Made in the USA means. Some buy Chinese gun safes and do nothing more than install a lock or paint them here. You must ask specific questions of the manufacturer like “Do you import any parts of this gun safe?” or “Where are your safe bodies made?” to have any chance of getting a straight answer.
Gun Safe Warranties
The warranty of a gun safe is another feature with more marketing value than real value.
A gun safe manufacturer may offer you a warranty to buy you a replacement safe and pay for shipping if it is involved in a burglary or fire. Sounds great, right?
Most gun owners have homeowners insurance though. Insurance will often pay for opening a locked-out gun safe damaged by a burglar or fire, pay for damage to at least some of the contents of the gun safe, pay for removal and disposal of your old gun safe, pay for the damaged gun safe itself, and pay for installation of your new gun safe.
Warranty claims on safes aren’t that common, except for those related to electronic locks. There’s not a lot to go wrong with a gun safe except
- Catastrophic failure during burglary or fire. A gun safe warranty doesn’t cover the contents or most costs.
- Failure of a lock. A gun safe warranty may cover the lock but doesn’t cover the cost of getting into a locked gun safe.
- “User abuse”, like accidentally shutting the door hard with lock bolts extended. Most gun safe warranties will not cover this damage at all.
Gun safe manufacturers have gotten really good at marketing. They know how to get consumers to take out their wallets, by dazzling with useless features that distract from what’s really important. Virtually no other item in your home is warrantied by the manufacturer for theft of fire. There’s a reason for this. But gun safe manufacturers love to brag about their warranties.
Gun Safe Interiors
Interiors are another prime marketing point for gun safe manufacturers. Gun safe interiors have higher markups than the gun safes themselves, similar to new car interior options.
Many gun safes are available with configuration options including racks and drawers. Often they charge you hundreds of dollars for these features, which you could buy cheaper or make yourself in a couple hours.
Many gun safe owners quickly fill up their gun safes and then realize that the long gun racks that come with the gun safe don’t make efficient use of the safe.
Focus on getting the best protection for your money, and then worry about the interior after that as a bonus.
More guns can be fit inside by removing the racks all together. Put each of your long guns in a BoreStores silicon treated padded sleeve or soft case designed for guns. Then you can stack them with barrels alternating up and down.
This has an additional benefit of offering better protection from moisture and handling damage.
There are a number of better options for your gun safe interior from the aftermarket. These include rotating gun racks, rifle rod storage kits, and door organizers that you can buy to improve the layout of your gun safe.
Interior Electrical Connection
There are two great reasons to have electricity in your gun safe.
Moisture is a serious problem in gun safes. An electric gun safe dehumidifier is relatively maintenance free and offers better protection than desiccants. Desiccants are chemicals which absorb moisture. The downside is that they must be baked out in the oven periodically. Most of us have enough things to worry about without adding another.
Also some desiccants are made from chemicals that are corrosive if the desiccant pack breaks.
It makes little sense to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a gun safe to protect your guns if that same gun safe causes rust because you didn’t put in an electrical dehumidifier.
Finding things in a gun safe can be difficult without lights, especially for those with failing vision. A magnetic door switch and lights that come on automatically when the door opens will make your gun safe much more enjoyable to use. LED lighting is great for gun safes as it has low current draw, is bright, can be stuck almost anywhere, and doesn’t generate a lot of heat.
You can buy LED lighting by the foot and wire it yourself for around $30. Home improvement stores often have under cabinet LED light kits which will work. Alternatively you can buy a gun safe LED light kit with motion detector or door switch which can be installed in about 15 minutes.
A door switch or motion detecting switch will make the lights much more convenient.
Interior electrical connections should be wired through sealed holes in the bottom of the safe to avoid issues in a fire. The hole should be as small as possible. In fact UL 687 burglary rated safes are limited to one hole no larger than 1/4″.
To avoid an electrical fire inside your fireproof gun safe, make sure that the holes are properly deburred and grommeted to prevent electrical shorts. Use high quality wire with robust insulation, not just cheap zip cord. Don’t use lighting which generates a lot of heat like incandescent bulbs and rope lights, as the heat can damage insulation over time and cause shorts. Minimize the current draw of the interior devices. Finally, don’t plug in unnecessary electrical devices inside your gun safe; a dehumidifier and lights should really be it.
Chrome and glossy enamel paint look great on a gun safe. However, cosmetic features add a lot to the price of a gun safe.
The most secure commercial safes look pretty utilitarian with flat gray paint jobs because all the money is in the steel.
If you are going to hide a gun safe in a closet, save a couple hundred dollars and get one with a dull paint job.
The gun safe industry is extremely competitive so manufacturers cut corners everywhere. Despite the high price tags, quality control on gun safes isn’t always the best.
If you can inspect the gun safe you’re buying before taking possession of it, you’ll be better off.
What do you think? Leave a comment below, your thoughts are welcome.