21 March 2013

Selecting a gun safe

Actually not just a gun safe but a place to store a few valuable items and documents as well, since my firearms collection doesn't amount to many pieces.  A place to store them safely means that open storage has just run out of space and the time has arrived to collect the collection plus all the extraneous stuff, like spare parts, manuals, and even the cleaning supplies into one volume that is secure.

I've read a lot of the do's and don'ts of getting a gun safe and I do take to heart that you don't buy for today, but for tomorrow because it is more than likely that you will need to store more than you thought and inevitably collect more items.  If the economy allows any survival at all, that is.  Speaking of cash, you also need a budget for this so you don't go hog-wild.  Money will determine quality, but space will also play a major role in cost, as well.  Thus the first part of the process is determining just how much you have and what space is available to put a safe.  That means you will want to fill up that space with a safe, not purchase a safe to hold your materials.  From that you either get: a closet, a place in the basement/garage, or any other open space that can be cleared out where a safe will not impede the traffic pattern necessary to walk around your abode.  These three choices then dictate certain fall-out decisions on safe purchase, and I had to think through 2 out of 3, not having a garage and the basement is out of room due to my workshop... and yes, some tools will get stored in the safe as they are the ones that would facilitate getting into same.  Those also take up space.

First is a closet, which generally means a 5' high limitation due to the hanging rod for clothes.  If you take that out and have a shelf that is decently high, then a 6' safe is about the maximum height you can get into a closet without contacting someone to install armor plating into the closet and getting a vault door for it.  That latter is a bit much to go through for a closet, so it got nixed right off the bat.  What that left was getting a safe into a closet and only the upstairs ones are available for that, which means you will want to think about if you can actually maneuver a rigid body object up and down the staircase to the upper floor.  In general this is possible with the floor plan I'm living in, so that left a regular safe as an option, although the work of getting hauled up would be one requiring expert movers... who will be required for anything but the one alternative that isn't a rigid body safe: a modular safe.

Your standard 60" x 30" x 24" safe should fit in a double door closet just fine, and that is what I had to deal with.  In fact I could get up to 35" wide with no problems.  And at that size a safe would just barely fit what I have to put into it... still I thought it through and realized that in a closet it is very difficult to get to the sides and rear of the safe to attack it (if you are a criminal) without first having to either remove structural framing members of the doors and wall.  And torching a safe in a closet is a massive fire hazard and quite counter-productive to being inconspicuous.  You don't need the best of side wall thickness, just a sturdy internal frame and safe door, plus bolt holes to put lag bolts in and bolt the safe to the floor.  There are lots of choices, including the modular safe types like from Snap Safe and Zanotti Armor.  A modular safe is one that is made to be taken apart for ease of moving it from room to room and is an excellent choice if you are a renter or a member of the military that gets base changes on a frequent basis.  Instead of a rigid body you get a pallet that has boxes that contain the major walls of the safe that you then just piece together wherever the safe has to go.  This is actually a neat idea... if I could get enough volume out of the closet space, that is.

Size matters and the closet doesn't have enough of it.

Researching for the closet space meant that one other major concern came up – electronic locks.  Any reader of this blog knows that I do not place something like a long-lasting CME out of the question in the near future as those major events appear to have a cyclicity rate and a pre-requisite of a very quiet sunspot cycle, which we are now in.  The answer for that (and an EMP if Iran or NoKo decides to have some nuclear fun) means either a plain old dial lock or a dual lock where either opens the safe (Ft. Knox does the dual bit as separate pieces, and Cannon integrates them into one piece for their high-end safes, such as they are).  Later research would uncover one other way to do this, but I didn't know that was available at the start of my safe quest.

My basement has no real space available and I don't want to deal with a getting my hammer drill out to put in holes so I can install lag bolts.  This is something you need to do with any concrete surface that a safe will be on, and really points out that expert installers actually do have a place in the safe ecosystem.  This is also a concern as I have two half-flights of stairs to get to the main floor of my residence, one concrete the other internal wood construction.  About the maximum any single solid wood construction stair can take is about 1,200 lbs, but a boxed safe can be slid up stairs on 2x4's or a sheet of plywood to distribute the weight.  Also even though this is 'live weight' for putting on a floor, the safe will just sit in one place and the maximum most main level construction can hold is 2,500 lbs (varying on construction, wood, joist spacing, etc.).  Safe movers are a must for this sort of situation, really.  The wall to wall carpeting is in the 'original to the house' state and is getting on 3 decades old, which means I don't really care about the condition of it, overmuch, and the safe should do just fine on what is there.

The 'there' in question is space in the living room that can easily be cleared for a 72" x 40" x 28" safe.  As it isn't really going into a corner, there is only one side wall of the safe that will be inaccessible, although the back will be very difficult to work with for any criminal type as it will be against a shelf overhanging that second half-flight of stairs.  The safe, itself, needs to be a major deterrent against casual smash'n'grab theft in which only a light bag of hand tools can be brought along.  Start banging with a sledgehammer on a safe in my living conditions and neighbors will notice.  Thus prybars and such become the main threat as well as your basic 'bust the lock out' sorts of dimwitted felon-to-be.

As I went through the literature, presentations and other useful material, the idea dawned that the people making safes had already addressed this with 'relockers' and other fun fail-safe methods which are meant to foil the drill and screwdriver attacks on a lock opening the safe.  This became another item to put on the list of must haves: a relocker or two.

Next up is what it takes to actually deter prybar attacks, and that is generally an internal means to secure the door (bolts or internal fitting passive hinge-side material) which starts with the actual front of the door and its fit into the frame.  A good place to start is with 1/4" of steel plate for the door and if there is hardened plate behind crucial parts to slow more intensive drilling attacks, then that is very good.  But 1/4" thickness is really a pretty decent deterrent against most short prybars and even gives wrecking bars a run for their money.  A good, solid frame for the bolts to keep the door in place also slows the prybar attack, which is all to the good.  With just these items and my budget, I've eliminated the true monster safes, and a fair number of the low end safes as well.  In fact that 1/4" is something you want on for a closet safe, and more is better as the door is the only easy thing a would-be thief can easily get to.

Now I'm not counting thieves as incredibly stupid and one might actually carry a decent fireman's axe around to break into stuff.  A bit out of the 'easy to carry and be inconspicuous' concept, but a hefty axe is something to consider when looking at side body thickness.  Growing up in a Rust Belt region with the remains of industry dotting the landscape also meant that I got familiar with all sorts of industrial storage containers.  This is important as many had to hold engines for automobiles, or other clunky stuff like compressors for ocean-going vessels.  Metal cabinetry had to be pretty decent stuff and you learn that the lower the number for sheet metal thickness (that is its gauge) the thicker it is for actual measurements.  It is one of those inverse relationships like the gauge rating for a shotgun where higher gauge means lighter and smaller shells.  Here is what I call a 12 gauge side wall for a safe: inadequate for industrial use. There is an 18 gauge cabinet I have that is just fine for lightweight materials and offers zero theft impedance.  Yes 12 gauge is thicker... but not thick enough in my book.  At 10 gauge (just a bit thicker than 1/8") you start to get to decent, low level industrial shelving and cabinets.  If a good half-ton of metal crunching against the side of a cabinet is fine for industrial abuse, then abuse with a fireman's axe will take someone who is either a weightlifter or just incredibly skilled with an axe to do any real damage to metal at that thickness.

Next is the other major threat to guns and valuables: fire.  Way back in the day to get fire resistance for a safe you poured concrete into pre-made forms, let it 'dry' and then put that in between the interior and exterior sheet metal of the safe.  If you made the safe with water concerns in mind, you could just directly pour the concrete between the walls for a form-fitting, fire resistant media.  This method is still used by a couple of manufacturers, safe with better and somewhat more space age materials.  The majority of manufacturers use fireboard, which is basically sheetrock like you get installed in your home, but made with a bit more fire resistant materials.  One thickness of that stuff at 5/8" gets you through about a half hour of a fire with little heat transmitted to the interior of the safe.  Another method is ceramic fiber compressed and then put between the walls.  While the stuff would normally burn if it was solid, by breaking it down to fibers you get an outer charring effect to slow the spread of heat and without fresh air there is no real way for it to suddenly burst into flames. 

People need to be able to judge just how long it would take for their abode to burn to the ground and think about that if fire rating is a concern.  I figured a minimum of a half-hour and a maximum of one hour for my residence: if a real fire gets going, there isn't much to stop it and it would be fast and hot.  Also for safes is a liner that will expand under heat to stop said fresh air flow and also stop water and smoke.  Expansive liner for door seal is a must. Thus I'm now getting a decent list of the 'must have' items:

1) Space, maximize utilization thereof,

2) EMP/CME proof lock,

3) Bolt holes to bolt safe to floor,

4) 1/4" minimum thick door,

5) Bolts on four sides of door or passive system that does the equivalent when mixed with bolts,

6) A decent frame thickness, generally a minimum of 3x the thickness of the door, more is better,

7) 10 gauge minimum body construction,

8) Fire resistant material, and while there is no particular order my preference is for the ceramic, but the others would do just as well,

9) Fire expansive door sealing material.

After that comes the interior and almost every safe offers a relatively standard set of firearms with mixed storage options.  As strange as it may seem to say it, this is in the 'nice to have' category as I have enough gun socks and soft sided cases to allow for loose storage until I could either make or buy the proper internal components.

In the 'should have' category there is exterior finish which really should NOT be glossy but either matte or textured.  Black works well as does a dark gray or any other dark toned color.  Heck if a company put it through a major bluing and then did a matte clear over that, I would be fine with it.  Also a stepped or jigsaw door for added fire and theft resistance go into the 'should have' zone.

For triage of desires, I'm coming up short on the 'should have' and 'be nice to have' and heavy on the 'must have' items.  Luckily there are a lot of options at my price range for this sort of thing, but the prestige firms all get knocked out due to price.  So no Halls or Graffunder, or Pendleton make the cut due to cost.

There is a final set of 'must have' items and they are not for material items but those things that I see as important that are not just steel thickness or fire resistance.  These items are: must be American Made and must be from a Small Business.  The latter is pretty easy to do, since almost all safe companies are small businesses.  The former, however, starts to knock out the low and mid-range of many of the Big Box and Big Name You See Everywhere safes.  Getting something that is not Chinese made is starting to look like a mid- to high-end requirement for pricing.  That sucks, but there it is, and requires research on each and every safe line from the Big Names out there as they are starting to farm out the low end of their lines or alternative names that sound almost as good to China.

I've narrowed my decision point to five companies and tomorrow I will finally place the order.  It is not the lowest cost, but the best value in my opinion.

More on that for a future article.

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