This article will help you avoid buying a biometric gun safe that’s not only not secure, but unreliable as well.
Keep reading to find out why buying a fingerprint gun safe is generally a bad idea.
Weak Gun Safes
The biggest problem with biometric fingerprint locks is that they’re generally only found on cheap gun safes costing a couple hundred dollars. The keypad alone for a proper commercial lock costs many times the more than an entire biometric handgun safe (more on this below).Most small gun safes can be compromised by a variety of low-tech methods including paperclips, screwdrivers, or even just banging on them. Adding an economy biometric lock to a weak gun safe doesn’t make it any more secure. Many biometric gun safes also have flimsy key locks as “backups”. The key locks can often be opened with a standard screwdriver or strip of metal.
The issue of fundamental security issues on devices with cheap fingerprint readers isn’t just limited to gun safes. This biometric fingerprint door lock was opened by just sticking a paperclip in the “backup” lock.
Also, biometric handgun safes are electronic and run on batteries. In addition to the other reliability issues of biometric locks (discussed below), battery-powered devices are fundamentally less dependable than all-mechanical devices. White it’s true, that the majority of full-sized gun safes today are sold with battery-powered keypad combination locks. However, small handgun safes are primarily used for quick access to a self-defense weapon. For self-defense, reliability is more critical than for a full-sized gun safe just used to store a gun collection.
Let’s talk about the technology of the locks themselves. Biometric is a term for using a physical or behavioral characteristics to identify a person. Biometric security systems use fingerprints, eye retinal or iris structure, hand geometry, facial recognition, and even the blood vessels under your skin to identify you. The biometric with the highest theoretical security is eye retinal structure, as seen in spy movies.
For gun safes, the biometric most often used is a fingerprint. The idea is that someone may be able to get a hold of your gun safe combination, but in theory they won’t be able to imitate your fingerprint. Also, marketers say you’ll never forget your combination because it’s literally at the tip of your finger.
Sounds great, but in reality biometric gun safes have serious issues.
Biometrics in general are still evolving and standards are still being developed. Performance testing and rating criteria like UL 768 don’t yet exist.
Commercial grade biometric keypads for UL-rated locks are indeed available from reputable companies like Sargent & Greenleaf and La Gard. The fingerprint reader in these devices turns your fingerprint into a combination. So, you can often replace your existing electronic keypad with a biometric version without changing the lock inside your gun safe.
However, UL does not have a standard for the performance of biometric fingerprint sensors and electronics themselves. As such, UL doesn’t actually test how good the fingerprint reader is at telling “good” fingerprints from “bad” ones. The FBI is working on standards for fingerprint biometric systems, but these are not as mature or widespread as the ratings for other UL listed locks.
Fingerprint readers are fundamentally limited by the biology that they attempt to verify. Burns, cuts, and blisters to your fingers can change your fingerprint. Imagine fighting off an intruder to rush upstairs to get your weapon. But then you’re locked out of your biometric gun safe because your fingers are cut up. Or, being locked out because a potholder slipped yesterday taking something out of the oven.
Many people who work with their hands regularly have cuts or abrasion on their fingers that can cause their fingerprint to change. Workers and musicians also often have ridges, calluses, and parts of the fingerprints that are worn off. These can all cause issues with a biometric fingerprint scanner, especially a low quality one.
This is why many units recommend enrolling multiple fingers in the lock. But this raises the question if trying multiple fingers to open a biometric lock really faster than a keypad or mechanical pushbutton combination?
The prices are coming down, but good Biometrics are still expensive. Why?
The answer to that question can be broken up into two parts: the cost of the fingerprint reading sensor itself, and the cost of reliable electronics to run the sensor. Let’s take a look at this in detail.
Fingerprint biometric systems are based on two types of technology: imaging or capacitive sensors. Imaging systems actually have a specialized “camera” which takes a “picture” of your fingerprint. Capacitive systems use a specialized electronic sensor to detect the ridges in your finger.
You could think of the difference in quality between the grades of fingerprint biometric sensors in terms of digital cameras. Digital cameras have specifications for resolution (expressed in Megapixels) and sensitivity (seen as “snow” or “static” in low light). Fingerprint biometric sensors have similar specifications.
There are a few basic price levels of biometric security locks:
- Military quality biometric systems – Prices are dropping, but these still cost $5,000 or more just for the sensor and electronics (not including the lock). These are the actual types of devices depicted on spy movies. Generally, military systems do not bother with fingerprint biometrics, but instead use more reliable eye biometrics. The devices that do use fingerprints employ imaging type technology with other sensors to verify that an actual live finger is present. High security military systems can require both numeric combinations AND biometrics to identify someone. Biometrics are often really just another security layer on top of a combination, not as the primary method of identification.
- Commercial quality biometric systems – like those from La Gard, S&G, and Kaba Mas are available. These systems offer reasonable security and accuracy for a gun safe. Unfortunately they also cost between $750 and $1000 for just the keypad! The keypad houses the fingerprint reading sensor and electronics, but the lock and deadbolt itself is sold separately. La Gard’s system uses imaging technology. S&G uses a capacitive sensor. The cost is why you don’t see more biometric keypads on full-sized gun safes, even though most already have La Gard and S&G locks. This begs the question: if biometric locks are so good, why aren’t they standard equipment on top gun safes instead of small, cheap pistol boxes?
- Economy quality biometrics – like those found on most $100 biometric gun safes. These systems use cheap capacitive sensors, of lower quality than the other grades. The electronics are also lacking in reliability terms. Economy biometric security devices don’t really compete with each other, they compete with old fashioned locks. That makes the consumer biometrics segment very price competitive. In other words, the lower the price, the more types of locks they get installed on. The electronics are generally bare bones as each manufacturer tries to maximize market share, even at the expense of quality. To be fair, due to integration of biometric fingerprint sensors on smartphones, the quality of these economy sensors is improving. But notice the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and other smartphones include a biometric iris scanner instead of fingerprint sensor.
So why are quality biometric sensors more expensive? Let’s look at the price levels again using the digital camera analogy. Comparing an economy biometric sensor to a commercial/military one is like comparing the camera on a flip-phone with a professional photographer’s Digital SLR. True, both are digital cameras, but you wouldn’t try to take professional wedding pictures with a flip-phone. And unlike this camera analogy, there is a big difference in reliability in the rest of the electronics.
Reliability of Gun Safe Lock ElectronicsA reader commented that military electronics (like those mentioned above) are overpriced. It is true that there is waste in military programs. Adherence to the litany of FAR, ITAR, and other regulations adds administrative and managerial overhead to DOD projects beyond commercial ones. However once military electronics reach TRL9 (Technology Readiness Level 9) and have been successfully fielded, military electronics are almost bulletproof.
It is very difficult and expensive to design and manufacture military electronics, which must conform to specifications like MIL-STD-810. During selection of electronic parts, MTBF (Mean Time Before Failure) requirements must be met through design analysis, which limits parts selection. Usually the more reliable parts are more expensive and harder to find, so you have to buy more to cover parts shortages. Eutectic (Lead) Solder, now banned in consumer electronics by RoHS, may be required in some military/aerospace applications to prevent “tin whiskering” and other long term reliability issues. This further limits part selection, or may require additional expense like “re-balling” BGA (Ball Grid Array) parts.
A range of temperature specifications such as Storage Temperature, Operation Temperature, and often Temperature Slew will be required for military electronics. Low military temperature ranges are usually -55 or -40 °C, with high temperatures commonly 125 °C. These all need to get validated through “Qual Testing” (Qualification Testing) of actual prototypes. For thermal slew testing, the device is generally put into an environmental chamber and set to one temperature extreme. Then the chamber rapidly heats or cools the device at a certain rate of degrees per second. The rates are fast enough that liquid nitrogen assistance may be needed to achieve rated slew in the cold direction.
Next will be Mechanical Shock requirements or “Shock & Vibe”. Vibration specifications can include Random, Transportation, Sine, Mixed-Mode, Gunfire, Transient, etc.. Acceleration requirements can include Drop, Axial, Longitudinal, Setback, Angular, etc.. Sometimes your prototypes come back from Shock & Vibe testing rattling, because parts were shaken completely off the circuit boards. Some programs require simultaneous Temperature and Shock & Vibe testing in special environmental chamber with a shake table in it.
Environmental tests usually include Humidity (condensing and non-condensing) and sometimes Splash, Water Spray, Immersion, Salt Fog, Altitude, Sand and Dust, Explosive Atmosphere, Solvent, Detergent, and others. Since many military systems are in use and/or stored for many years, Anti-Fungal Specifications may force more expensive circuit board materials and/or Conformal Coatings. These construction materials ensure PCBs don’t grow fungus and short out over time. Some programs require Nuclear / EMP Survivability and Radiation Hardness. ESD (ElectroStatic Discharge) Testing may be required to verify that static electricity from your finger won’t fry it. ElectroMagnetic Interference (EMI) / Compatibility may also be required to make sure it doesn’t interfere with other electronics and/or vice versa (like vacuum cleaners used to mess up the TV reception). Then there are super-specialized application requirements, and Usability.
Accelerated Life Testing is then usually required, designed to simulate years of abuse in a short time before field testing. When you finally do testing with field users, all kinds of things you didn’t anticipate pop up–it gets hooked up wrong and shorts out, mounts fail, parts break off, sand gets in it, it won’t work with gloves, etc.. The problems need to be addressed and then back to more testing. Over time the reliability of the design evolves and is proven. This process is similar to the maturation of favorite firearms designs like the 1911 and Remington 700.
Once the design is Qualified, the integrity of each unit manufactured must be verified by Acceptance Testing. Many military electronics require that every unit shipped must be tested to all the critical specifications, with fully traceable test results supplied with each unit. This means every unit that leaves the factory has a certain number of “Burn-In” hours and extensive, expensive testing. This is not to mention the calibration and documentation of the test equipment itself.
By comparison, even robust commercial electronics are fragile (I’ll consider the iPhone mentioned by a reader as a commercial example). Operating Temperature ranges for economy electronics are usually 0 to 85 °C or lower. That may seem like plenty, but in the real world of winter, snow, summer sun, heating and cooling vents, radiators, being stuck in confined areas/bags, and hot batteries, it’s easy to hit temperature extremes. BTW, the important temperature is the Junction Temperature of the silicon integrated circuit deep inside the case. The circuits inside the case may be 10 or 20°C (18 to 36 °F) hotter than the outside. Increasing the temperature rating buys you lifetime; in the same environment, 125 °C rated parts last longer than 85 °C ones. Just like a 2000 m rangefinder ranges more reliably at 800 m than a 1000 m one. That’s why quality commercial electronics like the iPhone will be tested to a wider, Industrial Temperature range.
You can take a military PVS-14 night vision goggle off your helmet and beat someone with it on the battlefield and it will still work. You can’t say the same for an iPhone. Many commercial electronics are Drop Tested from 1 or 2 meters on concrete. However, with the exception of Transportation Shock, they receive less Shock & Vibe Testing. Many people are walking around with shattered screens on their phones. A little water splash will send you back to the Apple Store. Economy electronics receive little if any Shock & Vibe testing, except unfortunately by the user in real life.
Commercial electronics are fully ESD and EMI tested, but economy electronics skimp here. Commercial electronics do receive extensive user testing. Economy electronics aren’t user tested much, which is why you sometime think “who designed this piece of junk?” after trying to use it for the first time. After Qualification Testing, there is much less Acceptance Testing performed on commercial electronics, i.e. testing of the actual unit you buy. It’s too expensive to Burn-In every iPhone for hours or put it in a below-freezing environmental chamber to make sure it still works. Instead, expensive Automated Test Equipment (ATE) and dedicated teams of Quality Assurance (QA) Engineers can compensate with clever testing. This clever testing is only possible where high manufacturing volumes or profits can pay for it. Commercial electronics are tested to be fully functional and always work out of the box. Economy electronics may get to you with obvious manufacturing issues, because they weren’t checked at the factory.
If a product is unreliable, won’t there be so many returns they would have to stop selling them?
Generally the more something costs, the fewer are sold, and the more likely it is to be returned if it breaks. Because of this, higher-quality but lower-volume electronics companies get more “feedback” when their products break through returns. They are also more motivated to fix the problems to maintain profitability and customer trust. Commercial safe lock companies are a great example of this. They sell many locks to fewer customers and have to worry about their brand’s reputation.
By contrast, manufacturers of cheap electronics sell only one unit each to many different customers. They don’t risk as much if their product fail. Many people consider cheap consumer electronics below a certain price to be “disposable”. After all, is it worth the time of finding your original receipt, UPC, the box it came in, standing in a return line or paying for shipping just to get another piece of junk like the one you just had to cut open? Can you even find that little folded warranty flyer to figure out if it’s still under warranty? Cheap product manufacturers know that most online buyers fill out their product review within the first month. If it breaks in the second month (which has happened to me), will the users go back and update the online review they wrote? Solid, reliable designs stay around a long time. Cheap product designers come out with new ones every year or two; they can change the outside, slap a new name on it, and not worry about product failures haunting them.
In summary, there are major differences between military, commercial, and economy electronics which account for the cost difference. The testing an iPhone receives is far far superior to low cost economy handgun safe electronics, so the two aren’t really comparable. It just costs too much to do all that design and testing work to sell a few hundred handgun safes, when the new handgun safe electronic lock fad will come out in a couple years and make this year’s design obsolete. Even with the superior reliability, most people only keep their iPhones a couple years anyway. Biometric gun safe shoppers may not have the same assumption. I have my great-grandfather’s old hardware store 22 LR rifle, but none of his “electronics”. “You get what you pay for” does carry some meaning with electronic locks.
Mechanical dial combination locks have been the standard for over a hundred years, but are inherently analog devices. Each number has a tolerance of up to ±1.5 numbers on UL 768 Group 2 locks, so that a combination number 20 can actually be entered as any number between 18.5 and 21.5. This reduces the true number of possible combinations, and the security.
Electronic keypad locks are completely digital and don’t have this limitation. A “2” has no tolerance on it, either you press the button or you don’t. If you press a slightly different combination the lock will not open.
Biometrics are effectively taking a step back to the analog world. The biometric fingerprint reader analyzes the line pattern on your fingerprint and compares it to the ones you programmed earlier. These lines don’t represent a discrete series of numbers like an electronic keypad. There is a tolerance on each piece of information that a biometric gun safe uses to identify your fingerprint.
In the analog world of fingerprint identification, the tolerances are adjusted to compromise between security and accessibility.
False negatives cause the lock not to open when an authorized person tries to use it.
In addition to cuts, burns, and abrasions, all sorts of things can obscure your fingerprint. Moisture, dirt, oils, blood, lotions, sunscreen, stains, ink, glues, and all kinds of other materials can cause problems.
If that’s not bad enough, biometric locks (especially cheap ones) can be susceptible to the angle of your fingerprint and which part of your finger you use. If your finger is at an angle or rolled slightly you may get locked out.
If the identification tolerance is too tight, it can lead to false negatives. In a false negative the correct person is locked out. This is a problem most people notice, so manufacturers try to avoid it. False negatives could be deadly in a self-defense situation.
To prevent customers from getting frustrated with being locked out of their new biometric gun safe and writing bad reviews, manufacturers prefer to make the tolerances as loose as possible.
If the tolerance is too loose, false positives result, where prohibited people get access. This is very dangerous. But, the owner isn’t as likely to notice this as quickly as he or she is to notice getting locked out.
Looser tolerances also make “spoofing” or tricking all types of biometrics easier. For example, most facial recognition locks on computers and smartphones can be tricked with a photo of the person.
MythBusters was able to trick a commercial biometric fingerprint lock a number of ways. First they used complicated methods like a ballistics gelatin fingerprint imprint and then a latex fingerprint imprint. Finally they tricked the lock with just a simple photocopy of a fingerprint! The lower quality a fingerprint sensor is, the easier it is to spoof.
Problems with Biometric Fingerprint Gun Safes
The economy biometric fingerprint locks found on quick access gun safes have a lot of issues. Those with tighter identification tolerances are sensitive to the angle of your finger, and cuts or dirt on it. These products recommend in their user manuals to take imprints of multiple fingers at lots of different angles in case it doesn’t work when you need it.
Once you get your biometric lock all programmed and working fine, the issue remains that you don’t have any idea how secure it is. Many people write gun safe reviews bragging that their new biometric gun safe always lets them in. But who does it keep out?
With a mechanical dial lock, you have an idea how many true combinations it has and how long it takes to enter each one. For a dial combination lock, it takes about 20 seconds to enter each combination and there are often 200,000 effective combinations. This means it will take 555 hours or 23 straight days of entering combinations to have a 50% chance of opening it. Those locks also don’t give any feedback if the combination was entered wrong by turning the knob the wrong direction or the wrong number of turns, adding to your security.
With an electronic combination lock, you have a wrong code delay penalty. It may only take 2 seconds to enter each code, but after entering the wrong one 5 times you may be locked out for 10 minutes. That means each code effectively takes 2 minutes to enter with probably 1,000,000 possible combinations. A 50% chance of opening the lock then requires over 16,900 hours or 706 straight days.
But your biometric lock may open in 5 minutes using the fingerprint that you left on the glass of the fingerprint reader. The security of a handgun safe is especially important if you have clever children who might enjoy the challenge of seeing if they can pick daddy’s safe open with some information they saw in a YouTube video. (I would have loved this challenge as a kid, even if there was nothing interesting inside.)
One father wrote a biometric gun safe review on Amazon for his Barska model. His son was able to open it in 10 minutes using a trick he learned on MythBusters. Wiping off his fingerprint off after using the lock make his kid’s trick less effective, but he understandably returned the fingerprint gun safe the same day he received it.
Biometric Fingerprint Locks are Not More Convenient
With all of these issues, what potential benefit do biometric fingerprint locks offer? Not much. Opening a digital keypad combination lock takes 2 seconds. Biometric locks take 1 to 2 seconds. Is pushing buttons on a keypad that much more inconvenient?
Sure electronic keypads can wear out in daily use, so you have to change the combination to avoid wear patterns. But you should wipe your fresh fingerprint off of a biometric fingerprint reader anyway to eliminate the possibility that your kid can use it to open the safe.
How Important is it Really?
A reader commented below questioning if an average homeowner really needs the same security as military applications. In other words, are consumer grade biometrics good enough for most homeowners? Actually the point of this article is that the average homeowner doesn’t need any biometrics at all, but let’s look at this another way.
Securing firearms is a literally matter of life and death. If someone gets your gun that shouldn’t, especially a young child, it could result in a tragedy. If you can’t get your gun in a self-defense situation, which is probably why you bought a quick-access handgun safe in the first place, just as much is at stake. Either way, lives are on the line.
For self-defense, few gun owners think military-grade is excessive. In fact, the most popular home defense weapons all have a military and law enforcement history. Revolvers date back to the 1800′s and were used by militaries for centuries. The slide-action “pump” shotgun started life as the M1893, invented by John Browning. Browning also designed the M1911 pistol for the US military over a century ago. Striker-fired pistols date back to the Ortgies at the end of The Great War. The AR platform is of course a military-pattern rifle which is still in use by many armed forces. Most common home-defense weapons date back to battlefields around the time of World War I, albeit with some material and manufacturing upgrades. None of these guns rely on batteries to fire. Biometric fingerprint locks do not share the same pedigree, and rely on batteries to open.
Those employing guns for self-defense are understandably attentive to preventing jams, double-feeds, stovepipes, failures to feed, etc.. A system is no better than the weakest link, and the probabilities of failure compound.
If someone keeps a reliable military-grade gun, in an unreliable consumer-quality handgun safe, then they just defeated the proven military-grade reliability of their weapon.
Best Biometric Gun Safe
I recommend gun safes without biometrics.
The maturity of the technology isn’t where it needs to be yet. Economy biometric locks are not secure or reliable, and the reliable ones are expensive.
The payback in terms of convenience is low. Getting in a biometric lock takes just as long as competing types which are more reliable and more secure.
Fundamentally they are battery-powered electronic gadgets. The latest electronics rarely make it more than a few years before winding up in the trash. On the other hand you will probably pass the gun inside on to your child. This is a mismatch in reliability and longevity that should think about before trusting your gun to a biometric handgun safe.
So if biometrics aren’t a good choice, what is? For most people who don’t have money to burn, a creative solution or sturdy, reliable pistol box makes the best handgun safe. My recommendations for small gun safes can be found here.
If you have your heart set on a biometric fingerprint lock, expect to spend much more than most biometric handgun safes due to the cost of a good biometric lock. The best biometric gun safe will have a biometric keypad from a reputable commercial lock manufacturer: La Gard, Sargent & Greenleaf, and Kaba Mas.
The Wardog Premium model gun safes offer an upgrade to a biometric S&G UL 768 Group 1 electronic keypad. It’s maybe the only small gun safe offering a commercial grade fingerprint lock.
The truly best biometric gun safe would be to upgrade the electronic keypad on a Sturdy Cube or jewelry safe. This option, for those who don’t mind the cost, gives you the speed and convenience of an electronic keypad and a fingerprint biometric. And now you have a reliable commercial lock and much more secure safe.
What do you think? Leave a comment below, your thoughts are welcome.