July 17, 2017
The concept of handgun security is continually popular as new gun owners need a secure place to store their firearms and existing gun owners have a habit of buying more guns — and their guns often outgrow their safes.
Traditionally, secure firearm storage meant a floor safe, period, but today's gun owners have a much wider range of products to choose from. Storage options for handguns can be divided into four categories: floor safes; transport/quick-access safes; dedicated vehicle storage; and the always useful "other" category. There is a bit of overlap with some of these categories, which is a good thing for the consumer. Let's start with the most basic.
These are safes that are too big and heavy to transport without heavy equipment or a number of men, and while the quality of steel and internal locking mechanisms have changed over the past 100 years or so, the main difference between 18th century safes and today's versions are the ways in which they are accessed.
Instead of a combination dial, many modern safes use a digital keypad. There are two things to consider when looking for a floor safe for your guns: size and features. Size doesn't just mean how many guns it
can accommodate but also what type. Long guns take up a lot of room, so if all you own are handguns and you have no plans to buy a rifle or a shotgun, you can probably buy a relatively small safe. One example would be Browning's Home series safes (browning.com). Ranging from the size of a microwave to that of a dorm room refrigerator, they will easily fit inside a closet, out of the way and out of sight. Be advised, though, that no matter what size safe you buy you will have it filled with valuable stuff before you know it, so when in doubt, buy the larger one. That said, floor safes by design are really heavy even when empty, complicating delivery and installation. The smallest Browning Home safe, which is only 20x18 inches, weighs in at 210 pounds.
Security and fire resistance are the two most important features to look for. No, a house fire won't burn hot enough to melt the steel in your guns, but enough heat for enough time will seep into the safe and char wood grips/stocks and melt polymer before your important papers even begin to crisp. Do your research to find out the heat resistance of whatever safe/brand you might be interested in; they are usually advertised as "X minutes at X degrees."
Many companies have entertaining videos on their websites showing how well their safes stand up to fires, men with crowbars, explosives and so forth, but more important are the actual specs—type of steel and thickness, type of hinges and so forth. These specs are easy to find, making it simpler to compare competing designs.
While there are a number of great companies out there — Browning, Cannon, Pendleton and Liberty are just the first that pop into my mind—not all safes are created equal. Even different model safes from the same company may be made to different security/fire resistance standards, so, again, do your research.
Many more expensive safes offer features some people probably aren't even aware are an option, such as carpeting and LED lighting. Such luxury features are nice, but be aware they add a lot of cost to a safe without adding any security.
I recently was at a Colt event where the company showed off several new Colt-branded floor safes made
by Liberty Safes (LibertySafe.com). Not only did the safes have a "piano" (high gloss) exterior finish, they had recessed LED lighting inside. These safes were absolutely beautiful, but the smallest one had a suggested retail of about $2,500. And it's possible to spend a lot more.
Perhaps the nicest safes I've ever seen—both from a luxury and security feature standpoint—are from Pendleton (PendletonSafes.com). Powered rotating shelves both on the inside and the top of the safe, brilliant white interior, LED lighting, and an active dehumidifier (heater with a fan) are just a few of the luxury touches. The tops and bottoms of the safes are made of the same steel as the front and sides, which means they're stronger than a lot of other safes on the market. Further, their partially round design not only increases security but also makes then handy for placing in corners.
Pendleton safes are made to order, including options for a handgun-only configuration, and they're built in Georgia. While a far cry from inexpensive — the base model starts at about $6,000 — you get what you pay for with a Pendleton.
These small safes, meant for a single handgun and light enough to be portable, are what I consider the modern version of strongboxes. Most people buy these as a secure way to store a loaded handgun—keeping it out of the reach of kids or unauthorized people but still having it quickly available.
The original "quick access" entry method was a key. Then about 30 years ago some enterprising engineer
came up with the idea of a push-button combination, something that didn't require a key and could be worked in the dark by someone awakened in the night by a strange noise. Pushbutton combos evolved into hand/finger-shaped pushbutton displays, and today's quick access safes feature radio frequency ID (RFID) and even fingerprint scanner access.
If it's small and light enough to pick up, what's to prevent a criminal from just stealing the box and opening it at his leisure? These safes can either be screwed into a wall stud or are sold with a cable that can be used to secure the safe to your bed or some other piece of furniture. I've even seen one strongbox with a steel shackle so you can "cuff" it to an immovable object.
The idea here is not so much an impregnable device but one that requires time and effort to defeat — two things most burglars avoid since they want to simply grab and go. Some people use these types of safes in their vehicle, and a cable allows the safe to be secured to the metal frame of the car seat and safe from
theft. I also call these "transport" safes as well, because most of them are advertised as meeting TSA requirements for handgun safety in checked luggage.
Security products in this category will most likely be advertised as "meeting or exceeding the ASTM requirements." The American Society for Testing and Materials has a standard (F2456) for a "youth resistant firearms container." To meet the standard, a product has to pass 12 common-sense tests that include attacks with saws, screwdrivers, hammers, torqueing and a drop test, among others.
I've experimented with a number of different entry methods and found them to all work, but in my opinion the best option for quick access in the dark are safes with RFID entry. While I've examined safes in this category from a number of manufacturers, most of my experience has been with the security products made by Hornady (hornady.com). All of its products meet or exceed ASTM standards, and the RFID-accessed RapidSafes are really neat.
The RFID chips come in a key fob, wristband or stickers, and I think the stickers are the best idea of all. Everyone always has their phone with them or nearby, even when in bed, and if you put the RFID sticker on your smartphone case you've always got an instant-access key to your gun safe.
Our editor has a GunVault Speed-Vault (GunVault.com), which features a drop-down/out door with a foam cutout designed to hold a pistol or revolver. His is the biometric version, which means its activated by fingerprints (there's also a manual key override). He likes it but cautions that the fingerprint scanner requires regular use; the more "swipes," the better the software recognizes an authorized person —resulting in fewer failures to activate. The company offers a less expensive keypad-operated model, too, as well as several other quick-access styles.
Another take on the single handgun strongbox is the lockable handgun holster made by Jotto Gear and sold by the NRA (nrajottoGear.Gojotto.com). The "holster" is made of steel and can be mounted just about anywhere from the side of your bed to the cargo compartment of your vehicle.
The holster covers the trigger guard of the pistol so it can be safely stored loaded and quickly accessed with the use of a key.
Dedicated Vehicle Storage
Many of the small safes detailed above will fit nicely inside a vehicle. The cable tie included with most of them can be wrapped around the frame of a car seat, preventing the safe's removal without use of bolt cutters or a hacksaw—tools most car thieves won't have.
A company called Gum Creek (Gumcreekcustoms.com) markets its small safes specifically as vehicle vaults for handgun storage when you're not in your car/truck. (It also sells holsters designed to mount inside your vehicle, but easy/quick access to a firearm inside your vehicle is an entirely different article.) Lockable tool boxes that sit in the beds of pickup trucks are common, and while anything that locks can in a pinch be used to securely store a firearm, I'm not sure I would want a gun of mine bouncing around in a container filled with power tools.
The 900-pound gorilla in the vehicle/firearm/secure storage category is, literally, Truck Vault (TruckVault.com). The Truck Vault units — beefy slide-out locakable storage cabinets are built tough enough that the top of the cabinet can be walked on and will hold a lot of weight, which makes sense considering the top of the Truck Vault becomes the new "floor" of your vehicle's cargo area.
I know a pro shooter who loves the Truck Vault unit in the back of his Ford Raptor, and numerous police departments use them in their SUVs as well. Apart from cost the only real downside to Truck Vault units is they permanently take up square footage in your cargo area.
I think I could fill this entire article with alternate options for securing handguns. For instance, there are companies that make custom furniture such as desks and book cases with hidden compartments, but that kind of furniture is well beyond the price range of most people. Luckily we have options like the products from Tactical Walls (TacticalWalls.com). This company manufactures shelves, mirrors, clocks and even tissue boxes with hidden compartments specifically intended to house firearms — all at a reasonable price.
A floor safe is almost impossible to hide; its security lies in its strength. While most Tactical Walls products offer locking devices, their security lies in their innocuousness. They just don't look like anything other than furniture, and while Tactical Walls eliminates the cost of custom furniture, this doesn't mean its products are cheaply made.
My two favorite products are its mirrors and shelves. The mirrors have a compartment in back designed to fit in the standard 16-inch gap between 2x4s in a wall, and the mirror slides to the side to reveal the compartment. The shelves have a lower half that drops down like a jaw. Originally the locking mechanisms on these products were deactivated by magnets, but Tactical Walls has upped its game and now offers RFID deactivation.
I have a Tactical Walls shelf in my house, and you'd never know by looking at it that it is anything more than a shelf. But in just a second I can open it and have access to the firearms hidden inside. My teenage sons (who have been instructed in its use) call it the "spy shelf" because it's so cool. Tactical Walls is far from the first or only company to offer these kinds of products. Jotto Gear makes a Home Defense Cabinet for the NRA similar to Tactical Walls' mirror unit, with either key or fingerprint access, but I think the Tactical Walls unit looks nicer.
Whether it's a more traditional floor safe, a modern quick access lockbox or a "spy shelf," today's gun owner has never had more options for securing a handgun either at home or on the road. And that is a good thing.