Quick Access Handgun Safe Buyers Guide – Locking Styles, Design, and Construction
Objective and Criteria
I own various styles of gun safes with different purposes. For example, a safe I use for long-term firearm storage meet other criteria than a safe I use to stage a handgun for emergency access.
A handgun safe in which I stage a firearm for emergency access has the objective of maximizing the speed of access while also maintaining an acceptable amount of security.
With that in mind, what are the criteria of that safe that help me achieve that objective?
- A locking mechanism that is fast to open
- A locking mechanism that doesn't require fine motor skill
- A locking mechanism that is manipulated easily in the dark
- A style that opens on its own and quickly
- A safe that is small enough to fit in the place where I feel the need to stage a gun
- A safe that is durable enough to deter access
- A safe that can fasten to the staging location to prevent theft
Here we will look at issues in safe construction and design that impact these 7 critical criteria.
Buttons and Locking System
Handgun Safe Lock Styles
Handgun safes come in many shapes and sizes, and an important consideration is the style of lock. The below graphic shows 4 standard locking systems used by safe manufacturers today:
First, let's consider the locking system used in the safe., We care about an inaccessible firearm while still allowing fast and easy-opening to quickly access to the gun.
- Gun Safe Lock With Buttons: This is my favorite and in my opinion, the superior style of lock for a quick-access handgun safe. They are fast to open. They require almost no fine motor skills if you have practiced opening the safe. In the dark, you can still feel your way to the buttons and manipulate the lock. A potential downside is that your safe runs on batteries. If your batteries die, you have to resort to the key backup. This risk is mitigated by changing the batteries regularly and buying a safe that has a low battery indicator or alert.
- Key Gun Safe Lock: Depending on a key to open a safe sounds like a terrible idea. First, you must retrieve the key, then attempt to insert it into a tiny hole. You could miss the keyhole, insert the key upside down or even snap your key off in the lock. Access is not as fast as other options because you have to find/retrieve your key. Additionally, these safes are difficult to manipulate in the dark and require fine motor skills.
- Combination Gun Safe Lock: In my experience, these styles of locks are the most tedious. Even when I'm calm and have good lighting conditions, I still sometimes fail to enter the correct combination. These safes require fine motor skills and ample light to operate. Even if you overcome those two issues, access is undoubtedly slower.
- Biometric Gun Safe Lock: We see many manufacturers using biometric locks in their safes. Biometric locks are simple to operate and require no fine motor skill. There are no combinations to enter or remember. Simply press and wait. On the downside, they aren't perfectly reliable. If your hand is too dry, too sweaty, too bloody, or you happen to have just cut your finger, your safe may not read your print, and the safe may not open. I will include Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) locking mechanisms in this category. If you have accessed a door or gate using a keyfob or keycard, you used RFID technology. In addition to keyfobs and keycards, companies integrate RFID technology into watches or rings.
I should note that all of these locking systems generally have a key override. The key access is a backup in case batteries die or you have an issue opening your safe.
Handgun Safe Button Layout
Even among “digital button” locking systems which I have professed above to be my favorite, there are still a few things to consider. The layout of these buttons has an impact on how easily and quickly you can open the safe.
Look at these different options, common in the marketplace:
Is there any doubt which of these styles is best? The #2 and #3 options above force you to effectively “hunt and peck” with a single finger, while the #1 option allows you to put all 4 fingers naturally on the keypad and enter your combination. All of these will probably work. However, the hunt and peck method is slower, more prone to errors, and requires some lighting to see the keypad.
Many of these safes have illuminated buttons, but the buttons only light up after pressing the first button. If you just tap any button in to get the buttons to light up, you could potentially lock yourself out. After several seconds the safe resets and you can try your combination again.
It is my opinion that perhaps one of the more essential factors in a quick-access safe is having a 4 finger digital button locking system. As of this writing, several manufacturers offer something that meets those criteria, including GunVault and SnapSafe.
Style: How It Opens
A few years ago, I did a research study in which I tested various styles of safes to determine which provides the quickest access to the gun. Many of the insights I gained led to the above comments about the locking mechanisms but another important consideration is the way the safe opens.
Here are my thoughts on various styles of safes:
Top Access / Clamshell
This style of safe shines in a compact space. Underneath the seat in your vehicle, in a drawer, etc. However it is slower to open and access the gun than some of the options below. Not a ton slower, but around 1/2 to 1 full second slower if you use two hands. If you are limited to only one hand, it will be much slower as you first have to lift up on the safe “lid” and then access the gun with the same hand.
Side Access – Spring Loaded Door
This safe is the best, in my opinion. With my various tests, this style of safe was always the fastest. In addition to the gravity that helps the door open on it's own, many of these models are also spring-loaded, forcing the door open in microseconds.
You might think it would be slower or less natural because you have to reach into the safe to retrieve the gun from the side vs an open-top, but my tests showed that was not the case. This was the fastest style safe every time. Also, the new generation of the GunValut MiniVault has a slide-out drawer (above picture) that they claim increases speed to gun by 20%. It was not available when I conducted my research a few years ago.
Side Access – Manual Door
These safes are the slowest of the styles I'm comparing in this article. To open the safe and access the gun is a three-stage process. First put in the combination, Second turn a knob or lever to disengaged the lock. Third, pull open the safe door.
These tend to be popular when people want to wall-mount their safe (more below on mounting), but they slow down firearm access considerably.
These safes are generally side-mounted to a wall, nightstand or desk. When the lock is disengaged the “drawer” slides down with the help of gravity and presents the gun for access. My tests did not show these in a very favorable light. They are slower to open and acquiring a good grip on the gun can also be challenging based on how the gun sits in the safe.
Sometimes the location of your safe has to dictate the style that will work in that location.
Durability & Vulnerability
I have concluded that there isn't a single safe on the market that can't be picked or forced open with enough expertise, time, and tools. Even more so, with smaller handgun safes. Larger safes have very thick steel walls, bolt locks, and very few obvious vulnerabilities. Because of their price point the size of their construction, small safes are much more vulnerable.
The first way you prevent access is in the quality of construction and use of materials. Steel has become the standard for safes over plastics and composite materials. For some applications, a composite or plastic safe may be sufficient, but there can be little doubt that steel will be more durable.
Further, steel comes in various degrees of thickness and strength generally measure in gauge—the thicker/stronger the steel the lower the number. So 16 gauge steel is better than 18 gauge steel. Most steel handgun safes from my research are either 16 or 18 gauge. When given a choice, I would prefer 16 gauge.
I would rather this article not be a lesson in how to break into different safes. I'll just say that people can pick most locks, and sometimes there are other vulnerabilities in the construction that make it easier to slide something into a gap or hole that allows one to open the safe. Generally, however, I think most handgun safes are adequately secure against average criminals that generally lack the proper training or tools to break into the safe in the moment.
Securing The Safe
That said, if the criminal can pick up the safe and walk away with it, they can take their time to open it with whatever tools they have. This scenario will be a problem.
This is why any safe should be adequately secured so the safe itself isn't vulnerable to theft.
Generally, safes are secured by mounting them directly to an object or using a security cable to tether the safe to a secure object.
When you shop for a safe, consider where you will place that safe and how you are going to secure it. Handgun safes often come with pre-drilled holes in the steel via which you can use some screws and washers (often included) to bolt the safe to a piece of furniture or studs in a wall etc.
Alternatively, many safes are compatible with (and sometimes come with) a security cable. The steel cable is wrapped around a heavy or difficult-to-remove object, and the lid/door of the safe closes over the cable. The above shows a safe tethered to the seat of my Tacoma. (Click here for more thoughts on vehicle storage specifically)
Handgun Safe Conclusion
The gear has to match the mission. Consider the safe's objective, where to stage it, and how you may secure it. These criteria can guide you in selecting the best safe for you. I hope these considerations bring to light some ideas you may not have previously considered.
Whatever safe you end up purchasing take time practicing the fast opening of that safe. Replace the batteries every 6 months when you replace smoke detector batteries.
As you shop for a gun safe please click here and consider the products we stock and sell as part of your shopping process!
Let me know in the comments below if you have any additional questions or considerations you think I failed to address.
Thanks for this.
For all of the ‘reviews’ focusing upon the color, finish, reliability and more, you’ve answered the important questions. The very first to address my questions regarding the issues of operation under duress and likelihood of failures associated with keys, manual combination locks, etc.