Keeping your guns safe (get it? Dad joke) is just as important as exercising your Second Amendment rights. If you’re one of millions of new gun owners in America in 2020, you’re probably looking for a good gun safe. But, like all other things nowadays, shopping for the right one is difficult. There are endless brands to pick from, misleading ads, countless price points, too many features, and loads of specs. Let’s clear it up.

Already learned up? Check out Part 2: Best Pistol Safes.

Part one: Here’s the knowledge you need to be a gun safe pro. It pays to know more than the sales floor guys and the walls of text on all those online product pages. This covers protection ratings and performance against attack, theft, and fire. It cover physical specs like steel thickness, fire insulation, standards used to certify safes, and most of all, all the gun safe locks.

Part two: We’ll start covering top picks for gun safes with honest, unsponsored reviews. First up are handgun safes.


Protection Ratings

Before diving into a plethora of information, let’s start with the absolute foundation: Understanding gun safe specifications. Trust us, you will be overwhelmed (or worse, buy a bad safe) if you don’t know the jargon. Protection ratings are complex and cover a safe’s overall effectiveness. That is, how well does it protect against attack, theft, and/or fire?

Underwriters Laboratories (UL)

You’ll be seeing the acronym “UL” a lot. The Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an American-founded global safety certification company. It tests building products, plastics, wires, cables, and security equipment to include locks and safes. Gun safes that advertise protection against fire and physical attack must almost always be UL-certified to be trustworthy. These ratings indicate how well (and for how long) your safe can protect against attacks from thieves. The available UL protection ratings against attack are:

  • RSC
  • TL-15
  • TL-30
  • TRTL-30
  • TL-15X6
  • TL-30X6
  • TRTL-15X6
  • TRTL-30X6
  • TRTL-60X6
  • TXTL-60X6

RSC is the worst rating. To receive a better (TL-15 or higher) rating, a safe must meet or exceed these standards:

  • Use a UL-listed combination or electronic lock
  • Weigh 750 pounds or more, or have anchor points
  • Have walls made of open hearth steel at least 1″ thick
  • Have continuous welds along seams that penetrate 0.25″
  • Welds and walls must have a tensile strength of 50,000 psi
  • Have no more than one 0.25″ hole for electrical conductors
  • The conductor hole cannot be in view of the door or lock

Entry, or safe failure, means penetrating the door or any wall with a 6″ square opening.

RSC (Class 1, Minimum)

A basic certification provided by UL, the Residential Security Container or RSC is a type of locking storage unit that provides protection against attack by common mechanical and electrical hand tools. The safe or container must withstand “rigorous prying, drilling, punching, chiseling, and tampering for five minutes.” This is less impressive than it sounds. Hand tools for this test include hammers less than 3 lbs., pry bars shorter than 18″, and basic residential tools like screwdrivers.

The RSC rating is considered the minimum protection rating any safe should provide. This is the most common level of protection you’ll find in handgun or “nightstand” safes and portable lock boxes. It’s adequate for keeping family, friends, and opportunistic burglars away from your firearms but will provide only basic resistance against a thief with tools.

TL-15 / TL-15X6 (Class 2)

The next level of UL-certified protection is a TL-15 or TL-15X6 rating. The base rating covers the door, while X6 indicates the same level of protection is provided for all six sides of the safe. This certification is given to safes capable of protecting against attacks with common mechanical and electrical hand tools for a net working time of 15 minutes. Working time is the total time spent by an attacker attempting to break the safe. A TL-15 safe can resist entry much better than an RSC-rated container: It can defeat tools a prepared thief might bring along: Grinders, carbide drills, and high-pressure cutting or crushing tools.

TL-30 / TL-30X6 (Class 3)

The TL-30 and -30X6 rating provides more protection than TL-15, both in time and tools used to attack. In addition to protecting against grinders, carbide tools and high-pressure tools for 30 working minutes, a TL-30 safe can withstand abrasive cutting wheels and power saws. The base rating also applies to the door, and X6 applies to all sides.

TRTL-30 / TRTL-30X6 (Class 3+)

The modern thief could have access to a torch or other high-heat source. So, modern safes are now rated against torch attacks. The “TR” in a TL- certification indicates this. Like tool attacks, torch attack-rated safes can either withstand 15 or 30 minutes of attack before failure. Safes are rated for doors only or all sides.

TXTL-60X6 (A Class All Its Own)

The Mack Daddy of safes in terms of raw protection. A TXTL-certified safe protects against explosive attacks, in addition to providing all the protections of the lesser ratings for no less than 60 working minutes. Yes, it resists explosives for one hour. At this level, you’re working with a safe that that could function as a small bank vault or fallout shelter.


Other Protection Specs

Steel Gauge / Safe Thickness

You’ll see a lot of safes advertising a 12-gauge body or 10-ga. steel door. Gauge is a jazzy way of describing the thickness of the safe’s steel, expressed in the chart below. The higher the gauge, the thicker the steel. Whether cold- or hot-rolled, thickness typically deviates +/- 0.006 to 0.009:

Rifle safes often have layers of steel and insulating material that increase their overall thickness well beyond the thickness of even 3-gauge plating. Handgun safes usually only have a single layer of steel with foam padding. Industry standards say that most long gun safes must have 10-gauge steel walls and a 10-ga. door to provide adequate protection against sustained attack. Pistol safes and lighter lockboxes use thinner gauge steel to balance protection and weight.

Fire Protection

Many safes advertise fire protection ratings. Sometimes, those ratings can’t be trusted. Safes with truly reliable fire protection are certified by UL. Other large safe brands like Liberty use their own testing methods. Smaller handgun safes and all those “Amazon specials” that advertise fire protection ratings should be taken with a grain of salt if they’re not UL-certified. UL fire testing involves heating a safe for 60 minutes and recording its insulating performance with a thermometer. To receive the minimum UL fire rating, a safe’s internal temperature can’t exceed 350°F. Safes with internal temperatures that don’t exceed 125°F receive the highest rating. For reference, the melting point a GLOCK’s polymer frame is 420°F. The length of the test determines the external temperature used.

  • 30-minute safes: 1550°F
  • 1-hour safes: 1700°F
  • 2-hour safes: 1850°F
  • 3-hour safes: 1920°F
  • 4-hour safes: 2000°F

A safe with a fire rating of UL 350-1 can keep its internal temperature at 350°F for one hour when heated to 1,700°F externally. The best possible rating a safe can receive is UL 125-4. That is, it can keep its internal temperature below 125°F for four hours when subjected to 2,000°F. An impressive and very expensive rating. The 30-minute fire rating can be found in some handgun safes, but better ratings must typically be found in long gun safes and heavily insulated rifle cabinets. These are the most common fire ratings found on UL-certified safes. Some may have fire ratings that provide 350°F of internal temperature at 1,300°F or some other lower temperature.

How are gun safes fireproofed?

Know the fireboard used in your home’s walls? Some of that material goes between those layers of steel plating to insulate a gun safe against open flame and heat. It’s not the steel, but the insulating layers of fireproofing that make a gun safe’s door up to a foot thick. Multiple layers must be used to provide adequate protection against a house fire, which can reach temperatures of 1,200°F in as little as five minutes. Those materials include:

  • Sheetrock and fireboard. This is considered “entry-level” material and provides moderate protection. It’s found in budget RSC-rated cabinets and long gun safes with advertised fire protecting ratings.
  • 2300-Degree Ceramic. The high-end stuff. This ceramic fiber provides the best protection against fire, but it is expensive and often found in mid-grade to high-end safes.
  • Cement and Dry Composite. Actual cement can be used, though it’s typically reserved for commercial and industrial safes, and old-school safes from decades past. Today, dry composites that are cement-like but much lighter have replaced traditional mixtures.

Critical points of a safe — door jambs, corners, welds — must be properly insulated, too. To effectively protect against heat, the door must also use special heat-expanding seals.

This cool video from Sturdy Gun Safes shows a rare behind-the-scenes look of how a high-quality long gun safe is effectively fireproofed with all these insulating materials. It provides a great visual for why gun safes (especially their doors) are so thick:


Locks

Your safe’s lock is incredibly important. It determines whether your safe takes one second, a few seconds, or 30 seconds to open. Digital locks require batteries, while mechanical locks can take time. Some use simple keyed tumblers. Others use punch buttons or combinations.

Combination Lock (Digital Keypad/Mechanical Dial)

A UL-listed S&G mechanical lock branded for a Liberty Gun Safe.

On rifle safes, the combination lock is the most popular type of lock. It was made in 1878 to use a series of geared wheels inside a round housing controlled by a numbered dial used to enter the combo. Its basic design remains in production today, though most modern safe combo locks are digital. Around 10% of safes sold each year are fitted a mechanical dial like the one above.

How a mechanical dial combo works

A mechanical combination lock wheel pack. Photo courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The mechanical combination lock is complex, expensive to make, and a timeless piece of engineering. The lock is controlled by a wheel pack. This pack is made of gears, pins, and slots that align and disengage the lock when the right combination is entered. The number of wheels is determined by how many numbers are in the combo. When the dial is turned, the spindle attached to it (not labelled above; the main shaft at the center of the wheel pack) turns a main gear called a drive cam. The drive cam turns a drive pin. The pin rotates until it contacts an arm connected to the first wheel in the wheel pack. The first wheel also has a drive pin which begins rotating until it, too, contacts an arm/fly on the next wheel.

This repeats until all the wheels in the pack are spinning. As the wheels spin, entering each number in the combination forces the outer ring of each wheel to align its slot with the slot on the adjacent wheel, until all numbers are entered and all slots align. The aligned slots allow a final pin resting atop the wheel pack (not pictured; called a fence) to fall into this newly formed channel. With the fence out of the way, the safe’s handle can freely rotate, retracting the deadbolt(s) inside the door when turned.

How a digital combo works

Electronic locks are much simpler in design and execution than a mechanical combo lock. This does not make them any easier to crack and in some cases, they may be more difficult to break than a mechanical lock. Digital locks present the user with a 12-button keypad: Digits 0 through 9 are provided for the combination, with * and # keys used for programming, resetting, and entering the combo. Once the correct digits are entered, a wire carries a signal from the keypad to a separate deadbolt housed in a small steel box inside the door:

An S&G electronic deadbolt

This boxed deadbolt locks and unlocks the handle, allowing the door’s deadbolts to retract. The handle’s deadbolt mechanism is actuated by an electric motor.

Which combo lock is better? Mechanical or digital?

Even if electronic outsells mechanical by a near totality, it’s important to compare the two. Every person’s needs are different, and one lock might provide that distinct advantage you want or need.

Security

Many first-time gun safe buyers want big steel plates, riveted corners, and that signature numbered dial with a big, polished turnstyle handle commanding your safe’s door. Except the electronic lock presents a much simpler, smaller, and more humble appearance. Since most safes sold today are electronic, the first question most ask is, “How reliable is an electronic lock?” It depends. If the lock is rated to UL’s Standard 768, then it will be incredibly reliable. Standard 768 is DoD and ANSI approved and is used to rate electronic and mechanical locks. The electronic lock will repel attack just as well as a mechanical dial. The keypad is not directly connected to the deadbolt that locks the handle, so destroying the keypad doesn’t make defeating the safe’s door easier.

Winner: Tie

Accessibility / Ease of use

The next question is, “Which lock provides quickest access?” The electronic keypad wins handily. With training, the combination can be entered in less than 10 seconds. Even the smoothest and simplest mechanical lock will take at least 20 seconds or more to access. Pressing a series of keys requires basic motor skills in an emergency, but entering the combination on a dial requires fine motor skills. Basically, the electronic lock is less likely to get you killed if seconds count and your hands are shaking.

Winner: Electronic

Reliability / Lifespan

Electronic keypads require batteries to be changed every 3 month to 1 year. Most are expected to operate for 3 to 10 years. This is poor performance compared to a mechanical dial, which obviously requires no power and can run its gears and pins reliably for well over a century with daily use. If you’re interested in a lock that can withstand the tests of time (or a true “SHTF” scenario) mechanical is the way to go.

Winner: Mechanical

Ease of Combination Change

This is something many don’t think about: You might want or need to change the combination on your safe at some point. You might want more than one combo, too. Mechanical safes often require a locksmith to change the combination, since physically changing the wheel pack is almost always the only way to accomplish this. Electronic locks can be reprogrammed with a few button presses, eliminating the need for this costly and time-consuming service.

Winner: Electronic

Extra Features (Bluetooth / WiFi, Logs, Customization)

Everyone likes more bang for the buck. The electronic lock is obviously the winner, but you probably knew that. Most locks allow for multiple combinations to be made and entered. Logs can downloaded to see who’s accessed your safe, and when. Some even provide Bluetooth connectivity to your phone for constant monitoring and peace of mind. Others come with silent alarms that’ll notify you of an attempted entry, or delayed lock-outs to stop curious fingers or prying eyes from guessing your combo. Mechanical locks are both gifted and cursed in their archaic construction. Besides coming with an optional key lock to prevent the dial from turning, they offer few bells or whistles.

winner: Electronic

Quirks

It’s an annoying word, but quirks are what get folks angry or killed. We’re talking gun safes and electronics, so quirks make real problems if they ever come up. Mechanical locks suffer few to no quirks. If you master turning the dial in the correct right-left-right directions and hit each number, nothing will fail you. You can do it hundreds of thousands of times. Whether an EMP just went off or the kids stole the last two AAs, the mechanical combo safe will open. Electronic locks can suffer from quirks. Punch the wrong number and lock yourself out for five minutes. Low battery? Locked out. No battery? Locked. Out. Change the code and forget it? Bust. Type the same code in for two years and wear the combo into the keypad for all to see? No good.

Winner: Mechanical

Simplex Lock

The Desk Mate Handgun Safe from V-Line uses a Simplex lock.

Mechanical and digital combos each have their unique advantages. You’ll be happy to know there is a combination, pun intended, of the two locks available for most types of gun safes. The Simplex lock is found on thousands of bank and casino doors and industrial complexes. It uses a punch pad with five buttons which, when pressed in a certain pattern, create the combination required for entry. Each button on the Simplex lock is a binary command, 0 or 1. The five-digit combination can be anything the user sets: 01010, 00011, 10010.

Pros

The Simplex offers the advantages of a digital and mechanical combination without the disadvantages of either. It provides quicker access to the safe than even a digital lock. No batteries are required, so there aren’t any electronics to fidget with. The combo can be entered instantaneously to provide emergency access. It can also be easily changed by the user, no locksmith is needed. It’ll last for decades, it’s stupid easy to use, and it doesn’t require a steady hand to open.

Cons

There are few cons with the Simplex lock other than its relative weakness compared to high-end digital and mechanical combos. The buttons on the Simplex are easier to attack and destroy than the dial on a mechanical combo, and unlike the remote connection of a digital combo, the Simplex mechanism must be directly connected to the handle to control access. With that said, a well-rated Simplex lock with UL certifications will defeat a thief just as well as any other type of gun safe lock with the same UL rating.

It’s also important to discuss past weaknesses of variants of the Simplex lock. In 2010, lock maker Kaba received litigation and public scrutiny for its Simplex 1000 Series door lock. The lock could be defeated by manipulating the mechanism inside the lock’s casing with a strong magnetic field. A class-action lawsuit was levied against the company over the defect. This has since been remedied, with no reports found of this weakness present in modern Simplex locks.

Biometric Fingerprint Lock

The Gunvault Minivault Pistol Safe uses a biometric lock.

Advancements in technology have made sci-fi the ‘economy’ option in the gun safe world. Biometric fingerlock locks are commonly found on entry-level long gun safes and portable pistol safes, with higher-end safes providing the biometric as an alternative or backup to a combination lock. They work just like you’ve seen in films. Set up the lock by letting it read and store your fingerprint(s). When you want access, press your finger down on the pad. A laser reads the unique signature of your fingertip’s grooves and ridges to provide access.

Pros

It doesn’t get much easier than the biometric lock when it comes to safe access. You could open this type of safe in your sleep. Or when you’re half-asleep and the window downstairs just shattered. Biometric locks read your print faster than you can type in the numbers on a digital combo, making them perfect (and popular) for nightstand safes and pistol lockboxes. These locks come with features, too. Most can store at least 5 prints. Some can store 100 or more. Overkill, yes. Often, you’ll be provided Bluetooth connectivity and some sort of smartphone app to monitor your biometric lock’s status, battery life, alarm system, log of prints and use. These locks are connected via a wire to the deadbolt or locking mechanism like a digital combo, so defeating the biometric scanner doesn’t provide access for a thief.

Cons

Biometric locks are rarely UL-listed and suffer most of the digital lock’s problems: They’re battery-operated and require a power source. They aren’t as durable as other locks and can be broken more easily. Low-end and budget scanners could cause problems for the user, like failing to scan or denying access when you’re in a hurry. It’s a good practice to check user feedback and reviews on the scanner before purchasing any biometric gun safe.

Key Lock

The Most basic lock, the key lock uses the classic key and tumbler to provide access. These are almost exclusively found on small pistol lockboxes, like the Hornady above. These are often used on small pistol lockboxes and portable travel safes. Key locks are also used on entry-level gun cabinets. Gun safes with mechanical locks may have a key-locked mechanism that prevents the dial from being rotated. In this case, the key doesn’t work the deadbolts or provide access to the safe itself.

Pros

Key locks are the most compact and lightweight. Many are TSA-approved, too. They’re great for travel safes for this reason. Key locks are typically reliable. They’re mechanical and don’t need batteries. No programming, and no smartphone app to mess with. They’re usually very affordable, too.

Cons

Key locks are relatively weak compared to other locks and don’t provide much protection against an attacker with tools. If you lose the key, you’re out of luck unless you pay a locksmith who can crack it. There’s no guarantee the lock can be saved if you lose the key, making your safe a paperweight. Those keys can get stolen, too. Key locks take time to open compared to any digital lock. Only the mechanical dial is slower. It’s best to stick with a key lock if you need a highly portable or compact safe and you don’t like electronics, or you’re traveling by plane.

“Briefcase” Combo Lock

It’s an age-old lock, but it’s still in use today. The “briefcase” wheel-driven combination lock is found on small pistol safes and travel lockboxes. Most use three to four wheels that unlock a rotating knob which controls a small lever or deadbolt inside the door.

Pros

While it might seem well suited for little more than an old briefcase, the wheel combo lock provides basically the same benefits of a key lock, without the risk of losing the key. These wheel locks are compact and take up less space than just about any other locking mechanism, so they’re perfect for the pistol owner who needs an ultralight, small locking container for frequent travel. Like key locks, safes equipped with the wheel combo are among the most affordable in the pistol safe category.

Cons

Beyond portability and the lack of a separate key to lose, the wheel combo lock provides no advantage over other locks. These can be easily defeated with little more than a metal blade, and doing so usually provides access to the safe itself. The combination cannot be changed and they afford little security otherwise. These are best for backpackers and on-foot shooters who want to keep prying eyes away from making an opportunistic theft.


Recap & Part 2

This section was a wall of text, we know. Nonetheless, it’s critically important you have a solid reference for the endless specs and advertised “features” gun safes claim to come with. Here’s the important stuff from earlier.

  • The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certifies top gun safes’ protection ratings.
  • An “RSC” rating indicates the UL’s minimum certified gun safe protection.
  • To receive the minimum UL fire rating, a safe’s internal temperature can’t exceed 350°F.
  • Safes with internal temperatures that don’t exceed 125°F receive the highest rating.
  • For reference, the melting point a GLOCK’s polymer frame is 420°F.
  • To receive the minimum UL fire rating, a safe’s internal temperature can’t exceed 350°F.
  • Safes with internal temperatures that don’t exceed 125°F receive the highest rating.
  • About 90% of long gun safes are fitted with digital combination locks today.
  • Biometric fingerprint locks are the most popular access method for pistol lockboxes.

Now you’ve got a good warm n’ fuzzy about all the things that go into a quality firearm safe. Next up, it’s time to look at some of the best safes available for different categories. Part 2 covers best pistol safes. Take a look here.

Good night, and good luck.