This article will help you avoid wasting money on a handgun safe that looks secure, but can be opened with paperclips, coat hangers, or just bumping them (videos below).
Bottom Line on Handgun Safes
Most handgun safes are used for quick access self defense weapons. Therefore, pistol safes hold less expensive contents than full-size gun safes.
Naturally most consumers don’t want to spend $750 on a safe to protect $750 inside it. (If price is less of a concern for you, I do include more expensive options below too.)
For full-size gun safes, I say “Expect a gun safe’s or (true safe’s) original retail price to be around 10% to 30% of the replacement value of the contents.” Since handgun safes don’t store as many guns as full-size safes, the ratio will be on the higher side. Even so, a pistols or two, holster(s), extra magazines, ammo, and a defensive flashlight will easily put the small gun safes I recommend into that 10% to 30% range.
Basically handgun safes are trying to hit a pretty low price point. To me, the best way to meet a low price point is to avoid bells and whistles, while focusing on the most important requirements. As the old Navy expression goes, K.I.S.S. (“keep it simple, stupid”).
For small gun safes, that means I recommend focusing on security and reliability instead of electronics. Here’s why…
Handgun Safe LocksThe locks are the worst part of most small gun safes. Generally pistol safes have cheap unrated locks which can be compromised easily (videos below). Unrated meaning that the lock has not been independently verified by Underwriters Laboratories. UL has standard tests for safe locks.
Mechanical dial or electronic keypad combination locks on small gun safes will not carry a UL 768 rating, because these locks cost too much to meet most pistol safe price points. This is especially true of electronic keypad and biometric locks, which I recommend avoiding. For more info, I have a dedicated article on biometric locks.
Problems with Non-UL Rated Electronic Locks
For starters, many cheap electronic handgun safes use electromagnetic solenoids to lock the door. I hesitate to call these locks, so I’ll call them latches.
You can compare this type of “lock” to the latch on a screen door.
A spring loaded plunger protrudes to the door latch. This can be directly, or through a mechanism. Entering the combination energizes a coil, retracting the plunger.
The mechanisms vary, but these models have one thing in common. When no electricity is applied to the solenoid, all that holds the plunger locked is a small spring. The spring must be weak, because a battery-powered magnet must be able to overcome it.
Simply bumping the worst of these gun safes can overcome the spring holding the plunger, opening the door.
UL 768 rated electronic locks generally use a motor with a reduction gearbox to actuate the deadbolt, or a stronger solenoid and spring. Properly rated locks cannot be bumped in this way. Safe experts at UL test for this type of design flaw before approving safe locks.
Also, spring loaded latches can be unlatched by poking areas of the mechanism, as shown below. This same principal is why most homeowners insist on deadbolt exterior locks in addition to traditional latching door handles.
Too Many Holes
Another major problem with the vast majority of small electronic handgun safes is that they have too many holes in their steel exterior. Often, the holes are used for routing wires or attaching plastic parts. These holes may appear to be covered, but are easy to access. Other holes can be found where sheet metal seams come together but are not welded. Some units also have extra unused mounting holes.
Regardless of why they’re there, holes make breaking into a handgun safe much easier. The worst part is that this type of tampering will usually open it without doing any permanent damage or indication it was opened.
Any holes can be used to poke inside and access the latching mechanism or electronics, as shown in the video below.
Combination Reset Button
Most electronic handgun safes have a reset button inside. After pushing the reset button, typing in a new code will open the handgun safe.
The buttons can be reached through a hole, or by prying open the door a little bit.
If the reset button can be poked, the door will open as shown below.
Wafer-Style Key “Backup” Locks
A lot of small gun safes have wafer-style key locks. These are advertised to allow backup access to the safe. However, the locks also add another way to break into the safe.
Jamming something into a wafer lock and wiggling it while twisting will open many of these locks.
This video shows all three of the entry methods described above.
Choose your tool; this small electronic gun safe can be opened with a drinking straw, a screwdriver, a strip of metal, a pair of pliers, or two pieces of wire. All methods leave no indication it was opened.
In addition, a commenter on YouTube pointed out that the white tape on the bottom covers a hole which can be pulled off to open the safe with no tools, just a finger.
Yet another small safe opened by poking around a coat hanger and a metal strip, leaving no indication it was opened.
Most of these videos were found in this article How to Break into Almost Any Gun Safe with Straws, Paper Clips, Coat Hangers, and Even Children!
If you’re looking at other handgun safe models, Dave at Handgun Safe Research has been making lock picking test videos for a variety of handgun safes. You can find ways he defeats more models there.
There are dozens more of these “lock picking” and “safe cracking” tutorials online. If you don’t think your kids could figure this out on their own, there’s a good chance they may run across one of these videos.
Small Gun Safes Locks and Gun Safety
Do actual children ever actually break into small gun safes? While not frequently, tragically yes.
In one high profile case, an officer’s toddler and/or his babysitter somehow got into his police department issued handgun safe. The results were tragic.
I used to link that local news video here, but it has now been taken down by the news station. I considered including another instance, but thought better of it. Rather than bring any more attention on a family who has already suffered a terrible loss, I’ll continue, in the interest of preventing a future tragedy.
Good Handgun Safe Locks
Electronic combination handgun safe locks/latches are discussed above. Many companies also offer biometric fingerprint locks for handgun safes. In general, these locks have all of the same issues of the electronic handgun safes above — and then they add even more. If you’re interested in these types of locks, you can read my article on biometric gun safes.
The majority of electronic handgun safes use inexpensive, lower-reliability electronics technology like you find on “disposable” consumer gadgets. If you’re interested, the biometric safe article has a detailed summary of reliability differences between commercial and military electronics.
Guns should be secured with UL 768 Listed combination locks, robust key locks, or Simplex style mechanical combination locks. For more detail see recommended types of locks.
Simplex style mechanical push-button locks are great for office and vehicle handgun safes. One drawback of Simplex locks is that they only have one or two thousand possible combinations. Because of this, they’re not the best choices if you have unsupervised teenage children who might methodically try to enter every possible combination after school. If children do not have unsupervised access to your small gun safe, or if the handgun safe is empty all day because you’re carrying your pistol, this may not be an issue for you.
Small Gun Safe Security
Now that you’ve seen how easy it is to break into many of the pistol safe locks, let’s try to find a decent one.
Unfortunately most small gun safes are very flimsy. If someone wants to apply brute force, the majority can be opened with a kick. The rest will pop open with fingers or a screwdriver.
Common construction materials are thin stamped sheet metal and plastic. Many are actually weaker than the old fashioned cash boxes used for petty cash, or to sell hot dogs at high school football games.
Handgun Safe Fire ProtectionSome small gun safes claim that they have some fire protection. For the majority of products marketed towards firearms, this is nonsense.
There are small true fire safes. However small fire safes have several limitations for use as fireproof handgun safes.
Depending on interior size, it takes several inches of fireproofing to achieve a true UL fire safe rating. Square interiors are more efficient to fireproof than long thin ones, so most small fire safe models will be square-ish. As a result, even small true fire safes are bulky.
The most common real fire safe fireproofing material is a concrete mixture. So, small true fire safes will usually also be heavy. Fire ratings are discussed in detail in Myths About Fire Ratings.
If you do find a small fire safe which works size-wize, you’ll be in the same situation a reader was. The lower price point fire safes will have questionable unrated locks.
Small inexpensive fire safes are intended to secure occasionally accessed paper valuables like birth certificates. How often do you use your birth certificate?
These locks are not intended for life and death situations, like a self-defense pistol. They’re also not intended to be opened several times a day for your carry pistol.
Even with unrated locks, small fire safes still often cost as much as the self-defense pistol you’re trying to protect. This is due to the fire proofing and testing required to achieve a real fire rating.
In a fire, the pistol will be covered by most homeowners insurance minimum firearm deductibles, or your free $2,500 NRA member insurance anyway. BTW, for some reason NRA member insurance must be activated (use the link).
These stock guns are, by definition, cheaper and easier to replace than the expensive custom race gun you built for shooting steel. Your trophy guns can be better protected in your full sized gun safe.
If you’re looking for a pistol safe for a defense weapon, choose one which doesn’t pretend to offer fire protection. Then put an unmodified gun inside that you could replace if you had a fire.
An important consideration about fires and handgun safes is ammunition cooking off. Normally, the main concern with ammo cooking off is the damage it will do to other objects in the gun safe (e.g. guns). This topic is discussed in Myth: Ammunition is protected in my fireproof gun safe. Rounds which cook off in an ammo box or in a magazine will not pierce most storage containers.
Handgun safes, however, are more often used to store loaded weapons. If a round cooks off “in the pipe”, it could pierce many of the flimsy electronic handgun safes. This is a special concern for revolver owners. Fortunately most self-defense ammunition is designed to fully expand upon contacting a much softer target than steel, limiting penetration.
Regardless, if you want to store a loaded gun(s) in a handgun safe, it’s better to chose one which could stop the round you intend to leave chambered. Or, at least keep the gun pointed in the safest direction (no pun intended) inside the handgun safe.
Installing a Handgun Safe
Guidelines for installing small gun safes were covered in the article Where to Put a Gun Safe. Due to their inherently less secure nature, location is important. Up high is best if you have children. And, bolt it down.
Best Handgun Safe for Home
Here are three options for quick-access handgun safes depending on your budget.
1) Best Pistol Safe for clever children and a limited budget
If you have clever children and a limited budget, get a robust pistol lock box with a good key lock, or go with a creative solution.
Some of the creative solutions include getting a large toolbox or locker. If you’re handy, build a closet gun safe, hidden gun safe, or locked hiding spot as described in the previous article. All of these options will keep your guns and your children safer than any of the flimsy electronic handgun safes shown above. And, many of them will save you money. Your state laws may restrict some of your options.
2) Best Quick-Access Gun Safe for the Money
Check out these Simplex handgun safes if your situation doesn’t include unsupervised children who might methodically attempt every possible combination.
A robust American-made pistol safe with a Simplex type lock is a great choice for a home defense weapon for many gun owners. They’re also perfect for vehicles and businesses.
Old-school Simplex pistol safes are generally better constructed than the tsunami of flimsy Chinese electronic handgun safes. In addition, they’re much more reliable.
Simplex locks, first patented in 1960, are mechanical push-button devices with user-changeable combinations. You never have to worry about replacing batteries or flaky electronics with these models.
Simply put, they are the revolvers of small gun safe combination locks. They’re an easy to open lock that “always goes bang”.
Fort Knox Personal Pistol Boxes
Fort Knox manufactures an impressive set of handgun safes, which are made in the USA. All of their small gun safes have 3/16″ (0.1875″) steel doors and 10 gauge (0.1345″) steel bodies. This is thicker steel than you’ll find in the majority of full-sized gun safes. The safes come with four pre-drilled mounting holes on the bottom side, interior carpet or padding, and a Lifetime Warranty.
A reliable Simplex-style lock is employed. Most models use Kaba Mas brand locks with round buttons. One of my FTK-PN’s has a lock made by the Illinois Lock Company with square/diamond buttons.
The only holes in the body are the mounting holes are on the bottom of the gun safe. That’s the side you’ll bolt down so that a thief can’t just pick it up and take the safe. Even if the holes weren’t blocked by being bolted down, poking inside won’t open these units like the ones above.
For example, to change the lock combination, the correct combination must first be entered before pushing the reset button. So, even if someone could access the combination reset button, they could not use it to open the lock. For additional security, the combination reset button is protected by a steel tab anyway, making it harder to access.
The lock actuates a deadbolt mechanism instead of a spring-loaded plunger. This prevents the type of bump attacks shown in the videos above. I have deliberately not included pictures of the locking mechanisms here for security.
The Fort Knox Original Pistol Box FTK-PB Handgun Safe is a top-opening model measuring 12.5 x 10.2 x 4.5 inches. It’s the largest of the handgun models listed here. Due to the thick steel it weighs in at 22 lbs. For one-handed operation in a self-defense situation, the heavy 3/16″ thick steel door has a gas strut installed. The interior of the pistol box is padded.
For those who wanted a side-opening version, Fort Knox created the Personal Pistol Box FTK-PN Handgun Safe. It is narrower and taller than the Original Pistol Box at 12.5 x 9.5 x 5 inches. The side opening-door allows it to easily be bolted up high, out of the reach of young children. It uses the same thickness steel as the Original, but weighs in a little lighter at just under 20 lbs. Like the others, it’s also American-made.
The door on this model has spring-assisted hinges which swing the door open on its own when mounted horizontally. If you want to mount this model vertically, the springs do not have the strength to flip the door up and open from the closed position. This isn’t a problem though because it only takes a light tug on the knob to flip the door open when mounted vertically. Either way, you get one-handed access with the door held open, out of your way.
On a recent family vacation I actually brought a FTK-PN for the rental house. A 22 lbs handgun safe loaded with pistols, holsters, flashlight, and ammo doesn’t make for the lightest luggage. A smaller, lighter model would have been better for this application, which brings us to the FTK-AUTO.
The side-opening door of the FTK-PN would be convenient for a car or truck, but that model is a bit large for many locations in a vehicles. For that there is the Fort Knox Auto Pistol Box FTK-AUTO Handgun Safe.
The 9.5 x 6.5 x 5 inch size makes it easier to mount and conceal in a vehicle. It still has the same steel thicknesses as its bigger brothers, weighing in around 12 lbs.
It’s smaller size and weight make it more portable. More portable can mean easier to steal if you don’t bolt it down. But a portable handgun safe has advantages as I mention above.
Prefer a shotgun for home defense? Fort Knox still has you covered with their Shotgun Safe–one of the few fully-enclosed quick-access Simplex shotgun safes. Even though it’s much larger than the pistol boxes, Fort Knox didn’t skimp on the steel. It has the same 3/16″ thick steel in the door and 10 gauge steel in the body. The safe is 9 x 5 x 45 inches and tips the scales at 36 lbs.
V-Line Handgun Safes
If you’re looking to lock up a pistol in your office, two V-Line models are designed to be mounted to the underside of your desk. The Desk Mate is designed for one pistol.
The Hide Away is bigger and could fit a couple pistols.
Shotlock Shotgun Lock
If you want to secure a shotgun for home defense, you don’t have to enclose the entire gun. Another option is to secure the trigger assembly and receiver with the ShotLock Shotgun Solo-Vault. It’s also a California DOJ Approved Firearms Safety Device.
Titan Gun Vault
Titan created a Simplex handgun safe with a holster inside. When you open the cover, the holster reliably presents the gun’s grip to you so that it’s easy to grab. The Titan Gun Vault is California DOJ Approved.
Titan’s handgun safe has an innovative provision for storing ammunition separately if your state laws required it. They also sell a piggyback ammo box compartment to lock your magazine or speed loader. Opening the door unlocks both the gun and the ammo at the same time, presenting them for quick loading.
See the video below for a demonstration.
3) Best Small Gun Safe for Home
The best small gun safe for home is actually a wall safe or jewelry/home safe with a UL 768 Group I or II electronic keypad lock.
These safes start in the hundreds of dollars, as the locks alone are $80 or more. You can also find used jewelry safes cheaper. Home defense pistols are small, so you have a lot of flexibility as to what size used safe you can pick up.
An electronic keypad makes access fast for your home defense weapon. But these UL 768 locks have the security of more possible combinations than a Simplex-style lock. You can also use it to keep your medications away from your kids, but conveniently in your bedroom.
A wall safe is easy to hide behind a picture or mirror. A home safe can be bolted to the floor, or built into a wall or piece of furniture. Because small safes are so portable, it’s even more important that you anchor them. For example, this burglar stole a jewelry safe from an apartment using the victim’s desk chair.
Sturdy Safe just entered the small gun safe arena with their “The Cube” Pistol Safe model 2020. These units have exterior dimensions of 24″ x 19″ x 20″. In typical Sturdy fashion, they’re available with or without Sturdy’s style of fireproofing. Interior dimensions change depending on fireproofing and steel thickness.
Sturdy Cube 2020 pistol safes are available with different steel thicknesses, starting at 3/16″ body and 5/16″ door. The thickest steel currently offered is 4 gauge body (.2242″) and 3/8″ door.
These models come standard with UL 768 Group II S&G mechanical dial locks. Other lock options are available as well, including dual locks and electronic keypads. Prices start at $790 without fireproofing or $990 with fireproofing.
Sturdy takes a unique approach to gun safes and fire protection. Their products emphasize security much more than cosmetic appearance, giving you a lot of bang for the buck. The Cube 2020 is constructed similarly to their full-size gun safes. For more information on Sturdy and their construction, see the detailed full-size Sturdy vs. AMSEC BF gun safe review.
If you’re interested in security for valuables, a burglary rating of B-Rate or better is preferred. Compared to a gun safe, a true safe is a much better place to store other precious items like the missus’s jewelry. It could also get you a discount on your homeowners insurance.
The AMSEC WS1214 wall safe has B-Rate construction and is also available with a proper UL 768 electronic lock.
If you’re looking for a bigger general purpose safe with both burglary and fire protection, the little brother of one of the Best Gun Safes is a great choice. The BF true safes (BF1512, BF1716, BF2116, BF3416) have both B-Rate construction and a UL 72 Class 350 1 Hour Fire Endurance Rating.
If you want to protect your expensive DSLR digital camera and family photos from fire, get one with an appropriate Class of UL 72 rating.
What do you think? Leave a comment below, your thoughts are welcome.