A note about terminology
Handgun safes must meet four criteria in order to satisfy the needs of gun owners who keep handguns for defensive purposes. First, the device must be small enough to make placement easy. Second, the device must allow for quick access. Third, the controls intervening between the user and the locking mechanism must be minimally complex to operate. Fourth, the device must prevent unauthorized access.
Regardless of what a manufacturer calls a handgun safe—“gun vault,” “lock box,” “pistol box,” “pistol safe” or “portable case”—the above design criteria must apply if the device is to meet the needs of gun owners. Every device examined on this website, accept for gun locks, serves the same function and is therefore a handgun safe. Though California law refers to these devices as “lock boxes,” lock box is a synonym for handgun safe in the discussions on this site.
Lock boxes are designed to allow ready access to firearms kept for defensive purposes, while keeping firearms inaccessible to unauthorized individuals. These devices are not intended to provide fire protection, humidity control, or defense against brute-force attack with large hand tools like pry bars and power tools.
Lock boxes can be divided into two kinds:
Devices made with mechanical pushbutton locks, usually 5-button Simplex locks. For details, see The Simplex Lock page.
Devices made with electronic locking mechanisms
In addition, electronic lock boxes typically have five components:
1) A container, including the box, door, hinges, and related hardware
2) Mechanical components of the locking mechanism proper
3) Electronic components of the locking mechanism proper
4) A processor, or “chip”
5) A mechanical bypass lock actuated by a key.
Not every electronic lock box has all five of these components, but the majority of them do. Some electronic lock boxes have no keyed bypass locks. These devices will have an exposed pair of contact points for applying a 9V battery should the installed batteries fail. Lock boxes having a mechanical pushbutton lock typically do not have a bypass lock.
Mechanical pushbutton locks
Electronic locking mechanisms
Many lock boxes are part of related product lines. A line of related devices will share fundamental characteristics such as an identical locking mechanism, keypad fitting, and paint finish. Often the differences between lock boxes in a related line of products are minor, such as differences in storage capacity. Two devices in a line of related products may be identical in nearly all ways, and differ only in how the user interacts with the circuitry; one device may use a keypad to tell circuitry to power a motor which releases a latch, the other may use a fingerprint reader to tell circuitry to do the same thing.
Lock boxes with electronics can be divided into four groups based on the most commonly used mechanisms installed in them. These are 1) motorized boltwork, 2) motorized latches, 3) spring-release latches, and 4) solenoid-locked boltwork.
1) Motorized boltwork:
As the name implies, a motor is used in these mechanisms to draw the boltwork back and return the bolts to the locked position. This arrangement allows the boltwork to be locked in place by the motor’s gearing when the safe is closed. Though these mechanisms are relatively secure, motorized boltwork mechanisms are slow to actuate the bolts, and don’t offer the quick-release response people want in a handgun safe. Few handgun safes have this kind of mechanism installed in them.
This generic mechanism was installed in the Bulldog Vaults BD4010, no longer available.
This generic mechanism was installed in the Bulldog Vaults BD3000, no longer available.
This bolt mechanism is installed in the Viking Safe VS-51KS.
This bolt mechanism is installed in the Verifi Smart Safe line.
2) Motorized latches:
Motorized latch mechanisms are diverse. The distinguishing characteristic of these mechanisms is that a motor rotates a fitting designed to nudge or push the latch’s hardware into the open position, releasing the door. The latching assembly is not held in place by the motor’s gearing, and is designed to move independently of the motor. Motorized latch mechanisms can be made secure if a manufacturer eliminates extraneous holes in a device allowing access to the mechanical components of the mechanism.
Paragon Safe stopped importing this handgun safe into the U.S. some time in 2016.
Was previously the Stack-On PC-900.
This motorized latching device is used in many generic boxes imported into the U.S., including boxes sold under the Cabelas brand name.
3) Spring-release latches:
Spring-release latching mechanisms are extremely diverse, though any given design will rely on one of two methods of actuation, Release Wire or Contour Locking. (No official names exist for these actuation methods, and the two designations used here are used for convenience.)
The Release Wire assembly involves two pieces of hardware, a latch and a release, each mounted vertically on either side of a simple framework. Both pieces rotate in place. The latch piece has a spring attached to it to keep the latch under tension. The latch also has a pin passing through it that slips into a notch in the profile of the release. Another notch cut into the release allows a long sprung wire (the Release Wire) to pass through the assembly, where it rests against the release when the latch is locked.
To release the latch, a motor is used to draw back the Release Wire resting against the release. This rotates the release until is slips off of the pin attached to the latch, and the spring keeping tension on the latch throws the latch open.
This particular latching design is the weakest design on the market, and has been used by GunVault, Fortress, and countless generic handgun safes. Indeed, this latching mechanism is itself generic and shows up in “new” brands every year. The most important detail to understand about this mechanism is that it can be forced open repeatedly and still function. Below are examples of Release-Wire assemblies.
This is one the most widely used latching mechanisms, based on a mechanism developed for GunVault products.
This basic latching mechanism is used in almost all of GunVault's handgun safes.
The Contour-Locking latch assembly involves two pieces of hardware, a latch and a release, mounted side-by-side on a framework. Both pieces rotate. A spring stretches between them. The latch and release are designed with profiles that allow the pieces to meet edge-to-edge in a stable position when locked.
To release the latch, a motor is used to pull the release from its stable position, and the spring stretching between the two pieces throws the latch.
This basic mechanism may use one latch or two latches that release simultaneously. Roughly half of the top-opening handgun safes and portable cases often have duel contour-locking assemblies installed in them.
The contour-locking latch is highly resistant to prying. A duel contour-locking latch is even stronger. However, this type of locking mechanism may still be vulnerable to attack. The basis of a contour-locking assembly comes down to an edge-to-edge relationship between the latch and release. The stability of the mechanism results from these two profiles meeting firmly edge-to-edge. Ignoring that some profiles might be better designed than others, if the housing of the latching assembly is not resistant to flexing or bending, or if the box itself is not resistant to flexing or bending, the contour-locking latch can be thrown by hard impact; the edges of the two components will slip and the spring stretching between will throw the latch. Below are examples of Contour-Locking assemblies.
4) Solenoid-locked boltwork:
This is the most common locking mechanism found in small personal safes, though not necessarily in lock boxes. In these mechanisms, a solenoid pin is used as a device to prevent the safe’s boltwork from being retracted until someone enters a correct access code. Depending on the strength of the spring in a solenoid, its magnetic pin may be bounced by shaking or dropping a safe that isn’t bolted down. In an effort to design solenoid-locked safes resistant to being bounced or shaken open, designers have arranged internal components in different ways, with solenoids oriented horizontally or upside down.
Old-styled solenoid, used for many years on small personal safes
Solenoid with housing and integrated lever
This style of solenoid is becoming the preferred design in small personal safes.
The most important thing to understand about biometric technology is that a fingerprint reader is not a locking mechanism. The fingerprint reader is another part of a safe’s controls and serves the same function as a keypad. The reason for incorporating biometrics into the controls of a safe is that a fingerprint reader provides a uniquely user-specific form of access code.
However, if a fingerprint reader is going to add any level of security to a safe, the same design considerations pertaining to other handgun safes must be addressed. For example, extraneous holes in a safe that allow access to the mechanical components of a locking mechanism will undermine security regardless of the biometrics. If extraneous holes allow access to the controls for entering and deleting fingerprints, a safe might as well have no fingerprint reader at all.
So, which fingerprint reader is better? Probably none. To understand why that is the case you have to understand something about probability, and I have only the most basic understanding of probability from studying psychology.
If thousands of people are buying thousands of a given handgun safe with a particular fingerprint reader installed on it, we know that a certain random order will emerge from the use of the fingerprint reader. We also know that the probability that a fingerprint reader will scan a print correctly is a proportion of the times that outcome will occur over a long series of scans. In addition, we know that all those purchasers are, in a sense, running independent trials every time they use their safes, and these end up being long trials. But as far as I know, nobody is collecting the data.
I have personally tested the fingerprint readers on over 40 different models of biometric-handgun safe, and I’ve learned that these biometric systems are much better than 50% but not quite 100%. Therefore the user of one of these safes will experience long runs of accurate reads followed by streaks of inaccurate reads. Weeks and months of perfect fingerprint reader scans will pass. Then the biometrics will appear to mysteriously stumble. More often than not, however, probability is playing tricks with the imagination. The system is working fine.