This article was written by Jim Wurster, a professional locksmith who lives and works in Montana. Jim started in security work in the 1960’s when he joined the U.S. Army and became a Military Intelligence Coordinator. He has been around, and used, firearms all his adult life. He has lived most of his life in the northern rocky mountain west, and was a professional alpine ski instructor, part-time, for 21 seasons.
I asked Jim to write this article to give us all an overview of the different options that are available for firearms storage, and am grateful he took the time to do it.
Not all firearms security in the home is provided by hard goods, or ‘things.’ Generally speaking, things cost money, and money is not always available to meet needs in a conventional way. The conventional way to secure a firearm in the home is to lock it up. However, lockable, secure, storage containers cost money. We’ll get into how much money for how much protection later on. But now, we’re going to look at alternative methods to buying hard goods storage containers.
Alternative Storage Methods: Stealth
The success of stealth heavily depends upon the preparedness, attitude, and thought process of the person relying on it. The idea here is not to deeply dwell on training, whether personal or situational, it’s how to effectively secure the firearm in the home without relying on hard goods. However, given the previous statement, it’s impossible to adequately pose stealth parameters without at least touching upon the personal preparedness aspect.
What I’m not going to do here is list a number of good places to hide a gun. All that does is give anybody who reads this article an edge in where to search. I hope to give you rather, a mindset that allows you to secure the gun in a place that’s within reason of your personal situation. Obviously a single female in a controlled-access condo can have substantially different parameters than a single parent with two young children who resides in a one bedroom frame in a bad neighborhood. The first might keep a Kel-Tec in an oven mitt; the second should regard that as a bad idea.
If a person does not hold a carry permit, then usually the firearm is left behind when the owner leaves the home. This also holds true when a person holding a carry permit goes to a place where carry is not allowed, perhaps the courthouse, bank, or a dining establishment where alcohol is served. Maybe the top won’t go up on the Bimmer convertible, or all the windows aren’t in the old Camry, but in either case storage in the car isn’t an option. In any event, the gun gets left at home, and there’s no safe in the residence.
If at all possible, don’t limit yourself in either imagination as to where to hide, or the number of places in which to hide a firearm. Selecting several places in which to hide your gun is frequently advisable as situations constantly change within the home. As an example, if you’re returning to home and are concerned about a follow-in assault, a gun by the bed isn’t much help. On the other hand, having the gun near the front door doesn’t make much sense for your overnight protection. Presuming you don’t sleep across the door. Fido should do that, you should enjoy a good night’s sleep in bed.
One of the first places you should consider concealing the gun in the home is on your person. It remains at hand and concealed as you move through your home and do normal things, such as answering the door. Simply because you may not be allowed to exit your home legally carrying the gun is no reason not to avail yourself of the advantages of doing so in the home. It’s hard to lose and immediately available. In-home carry also prepares you for obtaining a carry permit. You get to work up your wardrobe to carry properly in the privacy of your home. You gain the very valuable experience of having the gun on your person and doing everyday things in a normal environment. Then, if and when you do carry in public, you’re used to having the gun on your body and won’t be nearly as prone to making public mistakes.
On the other hand, where would you not normally be found carrying in the home? The two obvious places are, of course, the bath and your bedroom. They are most likely the first sites that you should turn your attention to when using stealth to secure your gun.
Security by stealth presents conflicting parameters. Ease of access vies against the possibility of being found by the casual break-in thief. Another very real danger is the ability to out-clever yourself in hiding the gun. By that, I mean if you have to twist this, to open that, and move the other thing to get at your gun in an emergency situation, you may not have the time, or the ability to do so. The adrenaline rush of an emergency can degrade the fine motor skills and short-circuit thought processes. Athletes train to be able to use their natural adrenaline to enhance their performance. Unless you are also skilled in doing so, don’t make things tougher on yourself when you really need to have things simplified. The twist this, to open that, and move the other thing, method of security has its place for longer-term storage, not for an immediate access situation. You may fantasize that you truly can get to the gun quickly, but reality can do extremely harsh things to a fantasy. Practice obtaining the gun immediately using a random trigger, such as the next time the phone rings. Get the gun; then answer the call. Probably not a good idea to do this with guests in the home though.
I’d suggest obtaining a relatively low-cost stiff nylon holster that properly fits your exact gun. Then, the creative use of Velcro and imagination should allow you to position the rig in several different areas of the home while it remains out of sight, yet is immediately available. Depending on the placement of the Velcro and your wardrobe, the same holster may even double as your in-home-on-your-person carry holster.
The first cousin to stealth is the low-cost lock-box, of which many examples are available for under $40.00. The reason these two are related is this: The box itself must be hidden. An inexpensive lockbox has virtually no security in and of itself. Unless it’s screwed down to something, a thief can merely pick it up and walk off with it. If it is attached to something, usually a large screwdriver or a small pry bar can open one in just seconds. They are almost universally made of thin sheet metal or a heavy plastic and all of them have cheap, easily compromised locks. I’ve personally purchased an example of the heavy plastic briefcase style at Wal-Mart for under $20.00. The heavy plastic style is usually less expensive than the metal boxes, but is larger and therefore harder to conceal. Some of the plastic boxes tout themselves as fire-resistant or some such language. Don’t believe it. The thermal protection is absolutely minimal; don’t rely on it for any protection above that of a bad sunburn. Tissue paper could also be said to be ‘Fire Resistant’ it just doesn’t resist very well. It does take some effort to get tissue aflame, just not much of an effort. That may be an extreme analogy, but I hope it gets the point across.
The next level of in-home storage usually thought of is the under-a-hundred-dollar ‘safe’ found in many discount stores. These are usually a very bad idea for storing a firearm in the home. Most of them use a moisture-bearing insulator to provide thermal protection from a home fire. While many of them will indeed keep the interior temperature below 350 f over a stated period of time, it’s the water that’s doing the work of keeping the interior temperature down. That water will also do an excellent job of humidifying the interior even though there’s not an active fire. Guns + humidity = rust. And the moisture isn’t too good for documents over any length of time either. A solution is to use resealable plastic bags for the contents, and then double bag them at that. But, there goes any thoughts of immediate access to anything in the container.
Another downfall of this type of supposed security is the portability of the unit. Generally, they are light enough for one person to carry off. Frequently, they are equipped with wheels. Now, screwing them into your structure also compromises whatever fire insulating ability they might have. In my opinion, they simply aren’t worth the money.
Small Fire Safes
Above the discount-store fire ‘safe’, is the true, small, home, fire safe. These can be had for about $300.00 and up. Up usually tops out at around $750.00. I sell the USCAN and AMSEC brands of these. I tend to prefer the USCAN units for this type of situation because they can be had with a burglary base. The base screws into your structure, and the safe clips into the base. Once clipped in, there it is, it’s not easily reversible. These, however, are fire safes first, and don’t offer high-strength burglary protection. I don’t suggest storing valuables in these where the amount of value exceeds the amount you paid for the safe. What they do quite well, however, is provide excellent fire protection. The better ones in this category will withstand an exterior temperature of 1750 f for an hour without allowing the interior temperature to rise above 350f. Most of these units are also less than 200 lbs., and need to be either secured to the structure in some way, or hidden.
With the true fire safe, we are talking about hiding a container that’s usually one to two cubic feet of volume in size. This is a different proposition than merely hiding a handgun. Securing one to the structure usually is done with lag screws into wood, given a burglary base. Units without a specific burglary base may have a single hole in the bottom that can be either plugged, or allow a lag bolt to be used to secure the container. One or the other must be done, or there’s no fire protection. However, securing to the structure can be done without forfeiting damage deposits and such with careful preparation.
Locate the unit in an out of the way place. The back corner of a closet is good, but is a known placement site for a small in-home safe. How about sacrificing some storage capacity instead and locating it in the back corner of a kitchen cabinet? Think about alternative sites such as the one I’ve just mentioned. Out-think the thief; just don’t brag about it to anybody. ANYBODY!! An old security saying was: ‘Loose lips sink ships’. Talk about how clever you’ve been and today’s version might be: ‘First I got smart, then I got stupid, and then I got robbed’. Explaining to the cops that there was a gun in the safe isn’t going to be fun either. Regardless if having the firearm in there was legal, they still aren’t going to be happy knowing that another criminal laid hands upon one. It tends to color the tone of their relationship with you as a victim. Particularly if it becomes known, and it will, that your own mouth was the cause of the thief knowing just where to find the safe.
A fire safe will not usually be of a size to readily accommodate long guns. Therefore, those on a limited budget frequently opt for a gun cabinet. These are of sheet metal construction and have one, or sometimes two, basic keyed locks. It’s best to seriously consider attaching one of these to the structure you live in. They do not weigh much in and of themselves and are therefore easily portable. Even full of guns and ammo, a two-wheeled dolly is all that’s necessary to move the container. As for security, conceal it if at all possible. If somebody finds it, it’s a matter of minutes to compromise it. I’m talking a 12 year old with no knowledge of forcing an entry, but the attitude to do so and minimal access to household tools. Cabinets usually run from around $100.00 up to $300.00. Better yet, find a double door steel locker, that’s being sold by the school system or military facility near you and pay a fraction of the new cost. Most come with a locking L-handle, or have a padlock hasp attached.
A first cousin to the gun cabinet is the import ‘safe’. These use the thinnest gauge sheet metal for the body, back it with gypsum board, and put a massive door on. The door will have a good-looking but very cheap mechanical dial lock. The door may very well out-weigh the rest of the container. I have seen this with my own Mark 1 eyeball, and had the thing try to fall over on me too! These will cost between about $250.00 and $500.00, and are most certainly not worth the money.
Residential Security Containers
Residential Security Container
Let’s take a moment and think about the actual protection provided by a container that can be defeated in five minutes and one second by one person wielding a hammer and a screwdriver. No power tools listed, and no mention of the time it takes if there’s two bad guys. Most RSC’s use gauge sheet metal as the exterior wall, ten to sixteen gauge. The better ones use 3/16′ steel walls, but that’s still 25% thinner than the U.L. minimum to meet a B safe classification.
In my opinion, if you are considering buying one of these things commonly marketed as a ‘safe,’ you’d be better off making a serious evaluation of your needs/available funds ratio and opt for a real safe. Anything is better than nothing when it comes to protection, but carefully examine all the options before spending big bucks for minimal security. Also my opinion, and that’s all it is, is that the best of these currently on the market is the Winchester brand, made by Granite in Texas, and usually sold at Sam’s for something in the mid-hundreds range. With an RSC, buy what provides what you actually need for the least amount of money possible. The real world protective differences among them are minimal. The fancy options are insanely expensive when balanced against the protection provided.
Recently I had a person ask the Liberty dealer, who was at the same gun show I was attending, what his ‘Presidential’ unit would cost to get in, equipped exactly as the brochure showed it. The answer was $4,400.00 in real October of 2006 money. My comparably sized true safe is slightly larger, and at 1850 lbs, weighs about 750 lbs. more. However, the product I’m selling did not have the gloss enamel exterior, interior lights, or artwork decals.
What a true safe, that does meet the U.L. classification, will offer is this: As a minimum, ” plate steel construction on all six sides of the container. In the particular comparison of the Liberty against a B17 safe, the B17 has a one-half inch solid plate steel door, and ” plate steel on the other 5 sides. But it doesn’t end there. The B17’s ” plate is backed by 2′ of a proprietary concrete and vermiculite mix, which is backed by a 16 gauge continuous sheet steel liner that seals the insulator, containing the vermiculite, from the interior of the safe. The insulator contains the vermiculite to provide the ability to rapidly wick heat away from somebody applying a torch to the exterior in an attempt to burn through the wall. And that ain’t all folks, there’s more to a true safe than most people imagine. My point is though, that you can certainly pay a substantial amount of money for an RSC, but get around 20% of the burglary protection provided by a U.L. rated true safe. It’s that five minutes of RSC sheet metal protection vs plate steel thing.
The rule of 80/20 most certainly holds true when the subject of relative fire protection is raised. Good true safes meant for home use should include thermal insulation as part of the package. Any of them worth considering should meet or exceed the U.L. one hour fire protection standard. Not the ‘Omega Test’, or the ‘3000 degree pyro-plastic ultimate test’, or even the salesman’s smarmy personal guarantee of protection. U.L. one-hour, as a minimum.
The U.L. one hour minimum test is essentially this: Safe goes into the furnace and the gas is lit. The furnace interior temperature is brought up to 1750 f, before the 1 hour timer starts. Therefore, for one full hour, the safe is subjected to 1750 f. At the end of the hour, the internal transponder is read. In order to pass this test, the internal temperature cannot exceed 350f at any time. But, the end of the timed hour is not, repeat not, the end of the test. The gas is turned off, but the safe remains in the sealed furnace. The safe must then cool down to laboratory ambient, 68 f, without the interior of the test safe exceeding 350 f, at any time, during the entire test period, meaning ramp-up, timed hour, or cool down.
Most RSC’s will be rated at 1200 f for 30 minutes. And there’s no legal mandate as to how the 1200/30, Omega, Pyro 3000, or any other thermal protection test that I know of, is conducted.
True safes are not cheap. The B17 I spoke of above recently sold at $4,250.00. But it’s a large unit at 1850 lbs, 72′ tall, 40′ wide, and 27′ deep. Still, it was $150.00 less expensive than the Liberty quoted at the gun show. Didn’t have glossy enamel paint though. The smallest home true safe I have in my showroom costs slightly less than $3,000.00. Larger safes cost more money, but it isn’t a 1:1 ratio. Actually, interior space is the cheapest part of a safe. If at all possible, buy a little larger than you think you need. It’s much better economy to buy once, than to trade in or buy a second unit.
There are home safes available for any purpose that offer more protection than a B rated unit. However, in the vast majority of cases, they aren’t necessary, and to provide information on them in this article would be just be gilding the lily.
To sum up, think sneaky, keep your thoughts to yourself, and examine all the options before paying good money for protection.
The author of this article, Jim Wurster, can be reached at Central Lock & Key, 300 Central Avenue West, Great Falls, Montana 59404