What to look for when buying a safe

Alright, so you know you want to buy a safe. Whether it’s for your gun or some home valuables, good on you. You’re taking a first step to protect yourself, and we want to help.

Buying a safe is a valuable investment, and we want to give you all the information you need in order to make the best decision possible. To that end, we’ve put together this guide of what factors to look for when buying a safe to help you make that choice. Learn how to choose the best safe for your needs. Let’s get started.

Questions to ask before choosing a safe

As we’ll talk about later on, there are many factors you should consider when selecting the best safe possible for your needs. However, before you even get to thinking about those factors, you should think about what your needs are to begin with.

Different people will have different reasons for getting a safe. Therefore, it’s important you know your reasons. In order to do that, ask yourself the questions below to help decide what kind of safe you need.

1. What items do you want to put inside your safe?

The kind of safe you’ll end up choosing is going to depend heavily on what you want to put inside that safe.

Firearms? Other Valuables? Both?

If you need to store guns, then you’ll need a gun safe: simple as that. Gun safes have special characteristics that regular home safes may not have (or may not be as good at), so you don’t want to choose wrong here.

Don’t forget about gun accessories. Are you going to put your speed loaders, holsters, earmuffs, shooting glasses, scopes, flashlights, grips, and bipods in the same place as your guns? If so, then you’ll need a gun safe that can fit them too.

If you need to protect items besides firearms, it’s worth thinking deeply about what those items are.

For example, if you’re going to put a lot of metal items inside, you might need to think about rust prevention (more on that later). If you’re going to put cash inside for long periods of time, humidity might be a concern (don’t want rotten bills). Items like digital media (e.x. hard drives) also have special requirements when it comes to fires.

2. How many items do you want to put inside your safe, and how big are they?

Do you need to store one gun, or fifteen? Ten gold bars, or one hundred? The number, and size, of items you want to protect is going to determine how big of a safe you’ll need.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: you should buy a gun safe that’s bigger than you think you’ll need.

Imagine ordering a big, hunking safe, only to realize after installation that your AR-15 is just one inch too long for it. What a bummer that would be! Or maybe that new safe is big enough for your five shotguns…. but what happens when you get shotgun #6?

In a way, picking out safe sizes is a lot like picking out clothes for kids: you want to get something that you can grow into. Getting a safe that you can grow into will probably save you money and effort in the long term!

Tip: Make a checklist, and actually measure everything!

Here’s another tried and true tip I want to offer: make a list of what you want to put in your safe, find that stuff, and then actually measure it! Write those measurements down, and then see if the safe you want satisfies or exceeds that size. Once you actually do buy your safe, you can then use that list to verify that you’re putting everything you want inside.

For example, something I’ve done is put a bunch of guns on a rack, and then used measuring tape to measure the depth, width, and height of that entire rack together. I’ll then add add a good amount of padding (at least a couple inches to each) to account for future growth and the fact that some safes have really thick steel walls.

If you have important documents, one easy trick is to find an empty cardboard box that those documents can fit in. You can then just measure the depth, width, and height of that box. You’ll then have some approximate sizings. High accuracy, low effort!

3. What’s the monetary value of those items you want to put inside your safe?

One question you probably have is: “how much money should I spend on my safe?” Well, this is going to depend on how valuable the things you want to put inside your safe are!

As another rule of thumb: the more valuable the items you want to protect are, the higher your safe budget should be.

Think of a safe as an insurance policy, one that you can manage yourself without the interference of some big company or government bureaucrat. For both gun safes and home safes, it’s reasonable to set a budget equivalent to between 10-30% of the stored items’ replacement value.

I’ll be frank with you — safes are going to cost a little something. But the reason why safes will cost you is because getting whatever’s inside them stolen is going to cost you a lot, lot, lot more.

4. How often do you want to open your safe?

Do you want to open your safe once every week? Every month? Every ten years?

As we explore later on, there are different locking mechanisms for safes. Some of these might not work so well for infrequent openings — for example, if you get a key safe that you’re planning to open once every ten years, you better not lose the key!

This also has to do with the hinges on your safe door. Internal hinges only open 90 degrees, whereas external hinges can open 180 degrees. If you are trying to open the safe frequently, you might want external hinges because you’ll be able to pull things in and out faster.

Where do you want to put your safe?
OK, you’ve figured out what you want to put in your safe, and perhaps measured all of it like I suggested above. But do you actually have room in your house to put that safe?

How much room you have is another constraint for the size of safe you want to buy. If you buy something that can’t fit, then that’s sure going to be a bummer!

Another tip on this topic that involves cardboard boxes: get a cardboard box (or multiple) that’s about the size of the safe you want to get, and then put it in the area of your home you’d put the actual safe. Leave it there for a while, and see how it feels. If it fits just fine and doesn’t make getting around your house difficult, then you’re a go on buying the safe.

[Link to article about best places to put safe… in a corner where sides are blocked, so thief can’t just attack the wall]

5. What are you trying to protect against?

Different safes will be better or worse at protecting against different disasters.

If you’re in a region that has lots of forest fires, you may want to look for a safe with a high fire rating (more on that later).

If you’re in Hurricane country, or live close to a river that’s prone to flooding, you might want to look for a safe that’s waterproof.

If you’re in a high-crime neighborhood, you might want to look for a safe that might withstand assault with a sledgehammer.

Later on, we’ll discuss how to determine whether a safe is going to protect you well against all three of those things.

9 factors to consider

1. Wall thickness (gauge)

Most safes are made with steel walls. This applies to both gun safes and home safes. The thicker the steel wall, the more likely your safe is going to stand up to attack from someone who wants to break in.

The thickness of steel in safes is frequently measured by gauge. It may seem a bit weird, but the LOWER the gauge number, the THICKER the steel. So if you really want to maximize protection, you will want to look for something with a low gauge  number. Of course, low gauge safes will end up costing you more. You’ll need to use your good judgment to see how much you’re willing to pay for the protection you need. At the very least, you’ll probably want to get 14 gague

So wait, what do gauges actually mean in inches?

Here’s a gauge to inches (and millimeters) conversion chart

GaugeThickness in inchesThickness in millimeters

We’ve only listed 16 gauges here even though you can go up to 30+. That’s because, if you’re looking for a steel-lined safe, you probably want to get one with at least  14 gauge steel to enjoy a minimum standard of protection. Lower than 10 is best, but you don’t want to go above 14 gauge.

In addition to steel, the walls of your safe might also have other materials. Oftentimes there is ceramic insulation, or even concrete that’s poured to put the steel plates in place. Steel remains the core ingredient of strong walls, but these other materials help make reinforce even lower gauge (and less thick) steels to be effective against assault by crowbar or sledgehammer.

2. Door seal/construction

Doors can sometimes be the weak points of gun safes and home safes. That’s why you should double-check how a safe’s door is made.

Good doors should also have steel plating like the walls. After all, they are another side of the safe!

Getting doors that are pry-resistant are good too. You don’t want someone with a crowbar to apply force and open that door! A lack of gaps, and features like external hinges or side deadbolts are good signs of a gun safe or home safe that has a well-made door.

3. Locking mechanism

Of course, no safe is complete with a lock!

Gun safes and home safes can use one of these four types of locks: biometric, electronic, mechanical, and key. Let’s learn about each kind.

Biometric (fingerprint) lock

“Biometric” means that the lock uses some unique characteristic of your body to grant you access. For gun safes and home safes, biometric locks are basically fingerprint locks (we haven’t seen any that use your retina…. yet).

To open a biometric lock, you usually need to scan your fingerprint on the locking pad. This takes seconds, so some of the best quick access safes use biometric locks. However, there is one thing to be aware of: sometimes, lower quality biometric safes can have a hard time reading your fingerprint if your hands are dirty or sweaty.

Most biometric locks these days can be programmed to accept multiple fingerprints. That means if you also want other family members or people to access the lock, you can do that.

Note that fingerprint scanning requires electrical power! As such, biometric locks are usually battery powered. Although those batteries should last a long time, good safes will have some sort of backup power supply capability.

Electronic (keypad) lock

Electronic locks are basically keypad locks. You type in a passcode, and the lock opens. Simple as that. This also takes seconds, so some of the best quick access safes will use these kinds of locks.

As the name would suggest, electronic locks also require electrical power. Here, they are similar to biometric locks. They are usually battery powered with some long-lasting battery, and may also have some backup power feature.

Mechanical (combination) lock

These locks are often like the ones you had to use in your high school gym locker room. There’s a circular dial with numbers, and you need to spin to the correct combination of numbers in order to open the number. There are other mechanical locks — like simplex locks — where there is actually a mechanical keypad instead of a dial.

While doing all that spinning does take longer than using a fingerprint or keypad, combination locks don’t require a battery. Therefore, if there’s a situation like an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) from an atmospheric nuclear strike that disables electronics, these mechanical/combination locks will still work. You also don’t need to worry about backup power supply.

One annoying thing about combination lock: oftentimes you need to spin the dial back to zero after closing your safe door. This is necessary to reset and re-lock the door. If you don’t, then your safe will be wide open! Believe it or not, this is something that many people end up forgetting to do.

Key lock

I hope this is pretty self explanatory. A key lock uses a key to unlock the lock. Enough said.

Such locks aren’t as common for safes, but they still exist. Like combination locks, these locks don’t require electricity. They will stand the test of time and disasters… as long as you remember where the key is!

OK, so we know what each kind of lock does. How would you choose between those different kinds? Let’s look at the table below.

TypeGreat for…Not so great for…
Biometric (fingerprint)Quick access, when it worksNot having to remember a passcode or combinationNo need to rest the lock when closing.SHTF, EMPsVery long term use. Must replace battery once every decade.Sweaty fingers, situations when your fingerprints might be less readable
Electronic (keypad)Quick accessNo need to reset the lock when closing.SHTF, EMPsVery long term use. Must replace battery once every decade.
Mechanical (combination)Long term use.SHTF, EMPsQuick accessSometimes it’s easy to forget you’ve reset the lock!
KeyLong term use.SHTF, EMPsQuick accessFolks who might lose the key!

4. Size

You’ll want to get the measurements of each safe you consider and see if they fit your needs. As we talk about earlier in this page, know your needs in advance by making a list of what you want to put in your safe and actually measuring it!

You’ll want to look at the depth, width, and height of the safe’s exterior. This will help make sure your safe can actually fit in the location you will install it.

More importantly, you’ll want to look at the safe’s interior capacity as well. This is because the walls of a safe can get somewhat thick, so the interior numbers and exterior numbers will be slightly different!

6. Fire resistance

The average house fire burns at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. In many cases, house fires may even get to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Talk about hot!

If you want to protect against fires, you’ll want to look at how fire resistant your safe is. (Side note: burglaries are more common than fires, so that might help you decide if you’re truly on a budget).

To see in detail how fire resistant your safe is, you’ll want to look at fire ratings. Fire ratings are basically a description of how long a safe can survive under a certain temperature. For example, a safe rated for 60 minutes at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit will stay below 350 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 60 minutes in a 1,400 degree fire.

Many safes talk about providing a 30 minute guarantee at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. While this might offer protection for small fires, it may not be enough for the biggest house fires, which can go for 30-45 minutes. The lesson here is that if you’re super worried about fires, you’ll want to get something above a 30 minute/1200 degree Fahrenheit rating.

You’ll also want to consider WHAT you put in your safe when judging fire resistance. As mentioned above, ratings guarantee that a safe interior will be below 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Paper begins to discolor above 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and (if you remember Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451) will start to burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, if you are protecting important documents, you’ll want to get a higher fire rating than you first think.

7. Waterproofing

There’s fires, and then there’s floods. (Side note: floods are actually the #1 natural disaster in the US) There are many waterproof safes out there to protect against flooding and other water-based disasters. Heck, a water pipe could even burst in your basement and put your valuables at risk.

Waterproofing also has its own ratings. These may depend on manufacturer. Rather than temperature, the ratings usually go by depth of flooding (due to water pressure). A safe that’s rated for 12 inches of water for 72 hours will keep its contents dry for that period of time and specified depth.

8. Weight

Weight is a quick and dirty way to look at how good a safe is. Depending on the size, safes will be in the hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. A good rule of thumb is that everything else is equal between two safes, you should get the heavier safe. Heavier usually means better quality of materials, which means better protection.

Of course, heavier safes are harder to move. Therefore, if you are looking for a portable safe, be aware that there is some tradeoff with how much protection they can give.

9. Ratings and Standards

If you want to get really detailed about judging safes, you can look at more generalized safe ratings and other standards.

One common set of standards for how well a safe stands up to burglars is Underwriter Laboratories’ UL-687 Standards for Burglary-Resistant Safes.

We won’t get into too much detail about this because these standards are somewhat long and dense, but if you’re really gung-ho about safe buying then you can definitely take a look. The UL-687 ratings mostly describe how well a safe will stand up to attacks on the door face. The guys at Underwriter Laboratories will go at safes with sledgehammers, torches, and explosives and see how they do.

Another well-known burglary rating is Underwriter Laboratories’ Residential Security Container (RSC) rating.

These ratings have to do with the value of contents that you’d put inside a safe. Underwriter Laboratories’ makes these ratings in collaboration with insurance companies that have to deal with burglary claims. The RSC ratings are less hard to read than UL-687, and you can see them here:

UL RSC Burglar RatingIf your house has a burglar alarm   If your house doesn’t have a burglar alarm    
B-RateUp to $10,000  Up to $5,000
B/C RateUp to $20,000  Up to $10,000
UL RSCUp to $30,000  Up to $15,000
C-RateUp to $50,000  Up to $25,000
UL TL-15Up to $200,000  Up to $100,000
UL TL-30Up to $375,000  Up to $195,000
UL TL-30X6Up to $500,000  Up to $275,000
UL TRTL-30X6Up to $1,000,000+  Up to $500,000+

Extra tips for choosing a gun safe

Don’t use the same safe for documents and guns!

The biggest reasons: Fire resistant properties of document safes oftentimes work by retaining moisture within the safe. That’s the exact OPPOSITE of what you want for a gun! Guns don’t do well in humidity. They’ll rust!

State Standards (California)

If you live in California, you will need to get a safe that is certified by the California Department of Justice (CDOJ). In order to be certified by the CDOJ, safes have to follow a certain set of standards.

Note that these standards are not fire ratings or burglary ratings. Instead, they are more like standards of construction. Yes, California might have a lot of annoying regulations… but the law is the law, and as responsible gun owners we’ve got to follow them as long as they’re on the books.

Interior Configuration

Guns aren’t like paper or gold… you can’t just easily stack them on top of each other and call it a day. Therefore, you want to look and see if your gun safe has some existing interior configuration. For example, some gun safes will come with an interior gun rack, or have pouches on the door for pistols. If they do, you first want to make sure your firearms will fit. If they don’t, you will need to consider how you want to rack your guns inside!

Interior Electric Connection

You should think about humidity and other environmental factors when using a gun safe. Combating humidity requires things like dehumidifiers, which use electricity! If those dehumidifiers need a plug and don’t run on batteries, you want to make sure your safe has an electric plug inside of it. Some gun safes do have this feature, some don’t.