by Richard Mann - Thursday, December 26, 2013
Whether for added security at home, on the road or in your luggage, a small handgun safe is a wise investment…if you know what to look for.
At the family farm, Grandpa always had his pistol close by. That Smith & Wesson Model 10 hung on a nail in the cabin protruding from a floor joist over grandma and grandpa’s bed. Any of us kids could have stood on the bed and reached the pistol, but we didn’t. We knew better, and nothing was worth the whoopin’ we’d get if grandpa found out.
There was another reason we didn’t bother grandpa’s pistol. Anytime we’d ask—if he wasn’t busy—grandpa would let us handle or even shoot his revolver. This took the mystery out of the equation, and I carry on that tradition with my children. But, I don’t leave pistols hanging around the house on nails. If it’s not on my person, it’s generally in a safe. This is not a matter of trust; it’s common sense.
The affordability of compact handgun safes has negated the old ways of storing a gun. There is no longer a good reason to hide a pistol in a closet, dresser drawer or under the mattress. Some handgun safes cost less than $30 and are infinitely more secure than drawers or a nail and the threat of a whoopin’. Some are small enough, they not only provide security, but are also very concealable and portable. Access to these safes can be with a key, a secret code and even your fingerprint.
Interested in knowing more about them, I asked every manufacturer I could find to send samples for testing. Four agreed to participate: GunVault, Secure-It, Stack-On and V-Line. I’ve had the test safes for more than six months, and during that time I’ve used each model on a daily basis for several weeks to get a feel for them. When this process was complete, I gave my 11-year old son a hammer, a flat-tip screwdriver and 2 minutes to try to break into some of the safes.
After all, if you’re considering a handgun safe, you should be curious about the level of security they provide, how easy they are to access, how versatile the safe is with regard to where it can be used and, of course, price. Let’s address the question of security first. My son broke into the first safe he tried to open.It took him about 90 seconds to breach one of the very compact, key-lock safes. He tried the same approach on a biometric safe, but after 2 minutes was unsuccessful. Then, he got out the hammer. After that, he was four-for-four on gaining unauthorized access.
The lesson learned here should be all of these handgun safes are more of a barrier to a handgun as opposed to absolute security. That does not mean they are worthless or cannot be trusted under certain circumstances. However, it would be a mistake to assume a handgun in any of these safes cannot be stolen or improperly accessed by another human. That being said, I currently use versions of three of these safes in my home, one in my vehicle and my wife’s and another when I travel by plane.
The smallest, book-style safes from Secure-It and Stack-On seem well suited to airline travel. I won’t get into TSA regulations or the rules of various airlines, but let me say this: I fly from home on United, and when doing so I can lock up a handgun in one of these small, lightweight safes and drop it in my checked baggage. I’ve never had a problem at any airport when using this method. Most of these safes also come with a cable that allows you to secure it to something in a motel room or wherever you are staying. But, this type of safe was the easiest to breach.
There were two types of coded safes tested—models that have a series of mechanical or electrical buttons that must be pushed in a certain sequence to gain access. All of these safes provided flawless operation, if you entered the correct code. The electrical safes are battery powered and battery failure can be a concern. Some have an audible alarm indicating a low battery, but all the electric-lock safes can also be opened with a key.
Mechanical safes have the advantage of working without electricity. If you’re storing a handgun for an extended period or only plan to access it in case of an emergency, the mechanical option has merit. Regardless, it is critical to remember your code with either the electric- or mechanical-lock safes. You do have the key backup with the electrical safes, but not for the mechanical models. Write your code down and remember where you put it.
Some of the safes come with mounting screws and hardware. This allows them to be attached to something, like under a table, desk or even to the floor. Break-in was not attempted with any of these safes while mounted—had they been, it may have made access more difficult. Mounting these safes would also make it exceedingly more difficult for a burglar to just carry your safe away. Unlike the cables that come with some of the smaller safes, which could be defeated with a pair of side-cutters, these mounted safes are a much better option for theft protection.
Finally, there are the biometric-lock safes. These models use technology that memorizes and reads your fingerprint. They are obviously electrically powered and do not require you to memorize a code. They must, however, be operated consistently. You have to place and pull your finger over the same spot every time, exactly the same way, or you will not be able to gain access. This takes practice, and after weeks of use, it still sometimes required several attempts for me to gain access to the biometric units. If you get frustrated, all the biometric safes do have a backup key lock.
Based on what I’ve learned working with these 10 safes over the last several months, I believe they are all useful in certain circumstances. Here are 10 suggestions for general use:
• Mount safes intended to be stationary to the floor or heavy furniture.
• Memorize any codes, write them down and keep them with the key.
• If you use multiple safes, use models with the same locking mechanism and set all codes the same.
• Periodically check safes with electronic locks to verify battery power.
• Work with biometric-lock safes on a day-to-day basis to ensure competency opening them.
• Small, key-lock, book-style safes are best used for complying with regulations, not preventing access.
• Select a safe based on how it opens and where you want to place it.
• For long-term storage, consider mechanical- and key-lock safes, or at a minimum, long-life batteries.
• Select a safe at least large enough for your handgun, spare ammo anda flashlight.
• You get what you pay for—select the most expensive safe that meets your needs.
GunVault MicroVault Biometric
This is a very compact safe made of 20-gauge steel that can be slid under a bed or in a nightstand. It comes with a cable to secure it to a fixed object, and it’s small enough to fit inside a briefcase. Access is gained via a fingerprint scanner or with a key. The biometric fingerprint reader can store up to 30 fingerprints and has a tamper alarm to let you know if someone has attempted to gain entry. I was able to gain access on my first attempt 80 percent of the time. Time to open: 2 seconds. MSRP: $229.99
GunVault MiniVault Deluxe
This safe weighs 9 pounds, is made from 16-gauge steel and is opened with either a key or by consecutively pushing buttons on the finger pad on the top of the unit. It is battery-powered electric safe and also comes with a cable that will allow it to be secured to a fixed object. An AC-power connection is an option, and there is an internal light to help you find your gun in the dark. A taller, shelved version is also available. Time to open: 3 seconds. MSRP: $169.99
Secure-It Handgun Storage Safe
The Secure-It line of handgun safes is best described as very small, compact and portable. These steel, book-size safes are available with a key or combination lock. In truth, you get what you pay for when it comes to security—a bit of effort with a hammer or pry bar, and you’re inside. That doesn’t mean these safes aren’t useful. I routinely use one (or one like it) when traveling by air. I can drop my Diamondback DB380 and a box of ammo into the padded interior, throw it in my checked luggage and be gone. Time to open: 3 seconds. (A roll-dial combination lock is optional. Time to open: varied.) MSRP: $30
Stack-On Portable Security Case with Key Lock
For all practical purposes, this safe offers the same level of security as the Secure-It safe at about the same price. It won’t withstand an eager burglar or a determined kid, but it will meet most regulations concerning air and vehicular transport. Like the Secure-It safe, it comes with a cable to secure the safe to a fixed object. Time to open: 3 seconds. MSRP: $39.99
Stack-On Personal Safe with Motorized Electronic Lock
This safe weighs 18 pounds and comes with screws, allowing it to be attached to the floor. It has a push-button, electric-code entry mechanism with a key override. When the programmable code is entered, the door opens via a motor, exposing the two-level interior. There is plenty of room inside for storing a handgun, spare ammo, a flashlight and a few other valuables. Both the bottom and removable steel shelves are padded. Time to open: 3 seconds. MSRP: $119.99
Stack-On Quick Access Safe with Biometric LockThis biometric-lock safe can store up to 28 fingerprints. The lock was tested 30 times in a row and failed to open four times. All biometric locks tested had about the same failure rate, which was actually user error—if you don’t slide your finger across the scanner just right, they will not open. A key is provided as a backup in case batteries run low, and large lag screws are provided for attaching the safe to the floor. Time to open: 4 seconds. MSRP: $199.99
Stack-On Drawer Safe with Motorized Electronic Lock
This is a programmable, motorized, electronic-lock safe that has a 12-button keypad. When a button is pushed, a beep sounds, but this feature can be turned off. It is a larger safe, measuring just more than 2 inches deep and 10 by 16 inches square. The Drawer Safe has predrilled holes and lag screws for mounting to the floor, though the lid opens upward, limiting potentially convenient storage locations. That said, there’s enough room inside for a handgun, flashlight and at least 100 rounds of ammunition. Time to open: 4 seconds. MSRP: $110.99
Stack-On Portable Steel Case with Electronic Lock
This is another programmable, motorized, electronic-lock safe, but a very compact model. As small as it is, it is not lightweight, tipping the scales at 6.5 pounds. There are three soft-touch buttons on the lid of the safe that, when touched in a sequence of your choosing, activate the motor to release the lock on the lid. Like all the tested electronic-lock safes, there’s a key backup. This could also serve as a good travel safe in a vehicle, but would add undue weight to airline baggage. Time to open: 3 seconds. MSRP: $89.99
V-Line Top Draw
This is a 10-pound safe with more than 1,000 possible manual combinations. It uses no batteries and can be paired with a quick-release mounting bracket that can be attached to the floor or a fixed object. A heavy-duty cable lock is also standard. The Top Draw is a somewhat archaic looking safe, but it is very well made and very functional. It was as secure as any of the electronic-lock safes based on our safe-cracking experiments. Time to open: 2 seconds. MSRP: $188
V-Line Desk Mate
This unique design is purpose built for mounting under a desk or counter. It comes with a quick-release mounting bracket and utilizes a mechanical lock with more than 1,000 combination possibilities. It is a bit thin for my hands, but there is a pullout tray to make handgun access easier. The door flops down when the combination is entered and is recessed to prevent prying. When properly mounted, this may be one of the most difficult safes to crack. Time to open: 4 seconds. MSRP: $199
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