As a follow-up to Det. Spencer Blue’s recent article about how to avoid having your gun stolen, I wanted to offer some concrete hardware solutions to go along with your home security plan.
When I first looked into the available options for quick access pistol safes, I was surprised to find very few safes with mechanical locks, but dozens that use biometrics, RFID, and electronic push-button locks. Generally speaking, gun owners are extremely resistant to the idea of adopting technology like “smart guns,” or any other electronics that could potentially malfunction in an emergency. Yet, cheap electronic gun safes are sold to these same folks by the thousands. I’m not sure what to make of that, but suffice it to say, I much prefer mechanical locks on bedroom safes for reasons I explain in detail below.
I evaluated seven different pistol safes for this review: three mechanical and four electronic. Watch the video for the full review, or scroll on down for the transcript.
A home defense gun doesn’t really do you any good if you can’t get to it quickly. At the same time, you also have to keep it away from kids and protect it from theft. The most secure type of storage is a large, heavy gun safe like the one we have back here but most people don’t want to keep one of these big things in their bedroom. Smaller storage cabinets or cable locks that require a key or a dial combination are also less than ideal. You really don’t want to have to fiddle with something like that if you’re trying to get to your gun quickly in the dark. We need something that can be opened faster and with minimal thought and manual dexterity. That’s where the quick access gun safes come in. Today, I’m reviewing seven small quick access safes for handguns and in a future video, I’ll cover quick access safes for storing a rifle or a shotgun.
The majority of safe reviews out there seem to focus almost completely on the security aspect of the safe. They will evaluate how difficult it is to break into, either by picking the lock or by using brute force, crowbars, and power tools to crack it open.
This is valuable information and I’m glad someone is doing that testing, but I had some serious doubts about whether that’s the kind of threat we should be most concerned about. How likely is your gun to be stolen by someone using lockpicks and specialized tools?
So, to get some expert advice, I recruited the help of Detective Spencer Blue. He’s a regular contributor to our blog and a robbery detective with a major metropolitan police department. According to him, thieves breaking into safes is actually pretty uncommon. If the safe is bolted down to a hard surface or secured to something with a steel cable, that by itself, is usually sufficient to deter most thieves. Spencer did say that in some cases, the thief will slam the safe on the ground which will cause some cheaper electronic safes to pop right open, so we did test that. But someone using tools to break into a gun safe is rare, and generally happens only in a targeted burglary where the thief knows in advance you have something in that safe worth stealing.
If you want to know more about how to avoid the most common types of firearm theft, Spencer has written a very detailed article for our blog that just went live. I don’t think any safe is as useful as having a good understanding of how criminals typically behave and that’s what Spencer has shared with us, so take a look at that article.
So instead of just looking at the security side of things, I wanted to evaluate how easy these safes are to use. Can you actually get to the gun quickly in an emergency? Is the lock reliable? What happens if you accidentally enter the wrong code?
With those things in mind, I’ve been evaluating seven different models: The Fort Knox Original Pistol Box, the V-Line Hide-Away, the ShotLock Handgun 200M Solo-Vault, the Vaultek VT20i, the Hornady RAPiD Safe 2600KP, the Stack-On PDS-1500 Drawer Safe, and the GunVault MicroVault XL.
I know there are dozens of other options out there, but I tried to choose as many different types as possible so you could see a good sampling of the different features that are available. I also decided to stick with relatively affordable models. These are all under $300, most of them are considerably less than that.
We purchased six of these seven products through regular retail channels. Vaultek sent us their safe to evaluate with the understanding that we could not promise to give them a positive review. Otherwise, we have received no compensation nor have we discussed this review with any of these manufacturers.
First is the Fort Knox Original Pistol Box. And we’re starting with this one because it’s my favorite. If you want to know what I think you should get, you can stop the video here. This is the one. Forget all the others. The rest of the video is just about why these other safes aren’t as good as the Fort Knox. I’m only kidding a little bit.
This is basically just a big, ugly, 20-pound steel box with a Simplex mechanical push-button lock. You put in your code and turn the knob clockwise, and it opens right up. If you enter the wrong combination, you just turn the knob counter-clockwise, and it resets. With a little bit of practice, I was able to consistently unlock the safe and remove the gun in well under three seconds.
Inside, there’s easily enough room for two full-size handguns. It’s got two layers of foam that you can remove if you want even more room. There’s a hydraulic piston to hold the heavy door open. It’s got four holes in the bottom for mounting. There is not a cable included and, really, there’s not any hole that’s big enough to run a cable through, so if you don’t have a hard surface you can mount it to, you might need to look at a different safe. It has a pry-resistant lid and unlike most of the other safes we will look at, there is no key bypass. That’s a definite plus from a security standpoint, but if you’re worried about forgetting the combination, it’s maybe not so great.
Even so, I should probably explain at this point why I much prefer mechanical locks to electronic locks on quick access safes. If I need to get to my firearm in a life or death emergency, I do not want to have to rely on cheap electronics. It’s as simple as that.
I know mechanical locks can break, too, but the Simplex lock has been around since the 1960s and it is known to be a reliable design and they tend to last forever. With an electronic lock — and especially the inexpensive kind that go into these little gun safes — there are just too many things that can go wrong. The batteries can die unexpectedly. They are more prone to user error when you’re trying to enter the code. They’re susceptible to moisture. I had an electronic gun safe in my bedroom for a long time and I thought it was a pretty good one… until one of my kids spilled a glass of water on it, didn’t tell me about it, and the next time I tried to open the safe, it didn’t work. That’s not the kind of thing you have to worry about with a mechanical safe.
Now, it’s not perfect. There is a downside to the Simplex lock: it only gives you about 1000 possible combinations. So if somebody really wants to get into it and they have a lot of time, they might be able to figure out the combination within a couple of hours. But like I said earlier, that kind of theft is incredibly rare. If you’re most concerned about small children and random burglaries, I don’t think you can do much better than a quick access safe like the Fort Knox Original Pistol Box.
MSRP is $235, but right now you can get it on sale directly from the manufacturer for $199. Fort Knox also has a couple of front-opening pistol boxes that are not quite as large.
And there are a few other companies that make very similar safes that also have the Simplex lock. American Security makes some. Titan Vault has a couple of compact models. And V-Line has a few as well. I would pick any of those over any commercial electronic handgun safe.
Here is one of the V-line products. This one mounts underneath a desk or table. You open the simplex lock and a drawer slides out. It’s not as roomy as the Fort Knox, but it’s still got enough space for two full-size pistols and it’s a good alternative if you don’t have a convenient place to floor mount the safe.
This was the most expensive handgun safe we evaluated. The MSRP is $299, but we were able to find it online for just $214. Just be careful what you mount it to, because if it’s a small nightstand or something, it might be easy enough for a thief to just pick up the whole thing and throw it in the back of their car.
Next is the ShotLock Handgun 200M Solo-Vault. This safe also has a mechanical lock, but it’s not a Simplex lock. It is similar in a lot of ways. You put in your four digit code and turn clockwise to unlock it. If you enter the wrong code, just keep turning the knob a full 180 degrees to reset it. Also like the Simplex, it’s got a limited number of combinations — only about 1200 in this case. But the security geeks will probably tell you that the bigger liability here is the bypass key. This kind of lock is not very difficult to pick, but once again, that does require some special knowledge and tools, and most thieves are not prepared for that kind of thing. So despite the potential vulnerabilities, I think this is pretty secure for most purposes.
It’s not very thick metal, but it does have a pry-resistant lid. There are a couple of holes in the side where you can run a cable, which is not included, and it has mounting holes on the bottom. This is definitely not as sturdy as the Fort Knox or the V-Line products, but it’s fairly light and it’s got a carry handle on the side, so I think it makes a good travel unit you can throw in your suitcase. It’s also more affordable than the other mechanical safes we reviewed. The MSRP is $159 and we found it being sold for as low as $130.
For something in the same price range that’s even a little bit smaller, you might also want to take a look at the V-Line Compact Pistol Safe which typically sells for around $150.
Okay, so now we’re down to the four electronic safes. I’ve already explained why I don’t really like these in general, but let me point out a couple of positives of these particular models. They all passed the slam test, I dropped them and slammed them against a concrete floor and they didn’t pop open like some of the older cheap electronic safes. With the exception of the Stack-On desk safe, they all come with a cable.
They all have a bypass lock, which theoretically, does make them vulnerable. But after looking through some of the security enthusiast websites, I couldn’t find any obvious ways to break into these particular safes that did not require special knowledge about lock picking. So if you bolt these things down or use the cables, they should keep your guns reasonably protected from small children and smash and grab burglaries.
My main concern is that you won’t be able to get into them when you really need to. On top of the disposable nature of budget electronics, each one of these has some quirks that make them more difficult to use.
The Vaultek has sensitive buttons that are too easy to double-press if you’re in a hurry. The lid doesn’t always latch closed even when it looks like it’s closed. And it’s got the silly biometric fingerprint reader that kind of works okay most of the time… unless your hands happen to be slightly wet or dirty.
The Gunvault has squishy buttons that aren’t sensitive enough, and it will lock you out for two minutes if you put in the wrong code three or four times.
The Stack-On safe has the exact same problem.
The compact Hornady safe has the least offensive button interface, but it also has this idiotic RFID feature that’s not any faster than pushing the buttons, but now instead of only keeping the gun out of your child’s reach, you also have to be sure you don’t leave these fun-looking RFID trinkets laying around. Or the bypass key.
To be fair, there are some good small electronic safes out there. They use the UL-rated locks found in some large gun safes. They are typically marketed as jewelry safes, and several companies make inside-the-wall units or small safes about the size of a mini-fridge. Prices start at about $500, but it might be worth looking at if you need the added security of a high-end digital lock. For the smaller pistol boxes, I suggest sticking with mechanical locks.