How Are Gun Safes Fire-Rated?
Protecting your firearms and ammunition is important, which is why many gun owners rely on thick safes. While these safes can keep your guns out of the hands of thieves, some safes are also fire-rated.
But what exactly is fire rating for gun safes, and how to safes reach this qualification? We’ll answer this question and more below.
Methods of Fire Protection
Ultimately, no gun safe is 100% secure against fire if exposed to flames hot enough and for a long enough period of time. But fire-rated gun safes have several different ways in which they can protect your firearms and ammunition from a fire.
Many affordable and even premium gun safes on the market are layered with fireboard. This is really similar to drywall and ranges from between 1/4th to 5/8th of an inch thick. The fireboard is constructed with a certain amount of moisture deep in its interior layers. This causes the moisture to be released if it’s ever heated by a fire. By doing this, the fireboard helps keep the interior of the safe cooler for a longer time, potentially preventing metallic parts from melting and ammunition from going off.
Some of the most expensive gun safes have multiple layers of fireboard in order to let things stay even cooler.
Other fire-rated gun safes have composite materials placed between twin layers of steel. A composite material in this sense is somewhat similar to concrete although it’s usually lighter in weight; otherwise, such a gun safe would be difficult to move where needed. This composite material can act as an insulator, stopping heat from reaching the interior of the safe entirely.
Of course, this composite material can still be burned through over time, although the twin layers of steel help to slow this process down considerably.
Many fire-rated gun safe manufacturers use K-wool. This blanket insulator is installed in safes as a topmost layer between your guns and the safe wall or floor. Some K-wool blankets are reported to survive temperatures up to 2300° for a single hour, though this is somewhat debatable. Its strength lies in its flexibility, leading many manufacturers to use this material on pipes that they don’t want to become overheated.
It’s also helpful as it prevents your guns from scraping against the tough steel interior, which might be nice for gun owners concerned about their firearms’ aesthetics.
The efficacy of a fire-rated gun safe also depends on the coverage for whatever type of insulation is used. Many fire installation types are difficult to apply, especially when you combine them with how a safe is supposed to operate with its opening and closing.
Subpar fire-rated gun safes may have bare-metal or hinge pockets that can allow excess heat to enter the interior of the safe and compromise the whole device. However, other safes are much better constructed and have insulation that goes around all along the interior. You’ll obviously want one of these safes for maximum protection.
Overall Thickness Counts, Too
Additionally, whether a gun safe is properly fire-rated depends on how thick the safe is in question. Lighter and thinner gun safes are more susceptible to fire damage, even across a short amount of time, than their thicker competitors.
Larger, thicker safes have more metal for any heat to hypothetically eat through, and they warp much more slowly. All in all, thicker safes last longer and also allow you to protect your weapons from thieves even more capably. It’s no stretch to say that thicker safes are more fire-rated automatically than thinner ones, even without capable insulation.
Finally, different gun safes use different varieties of seals. These are primarily designed to stop your weapons from being stolen by thieves rather than withstand extreme temperatures. Some gun safes use intumescent or heat expanding seals, however.
Without getting too technical, these seals can expand up to 10 times their original size whenever they are exposed to 300°F or higher. This prevents hot air from entering the interior of the safe even as metal warps around the seal. It’s another great way to protect your firearms and ammunition.
The most expensive fire-rated gun safes will often have double or triple action intumescent seals, doubling down on this advantage in case of a particularly hot fire that warps the metal of your safe over time.
How Are Safes Tested for Fire-Rating?
Gun safes that are fire-rated can be tested or certified in several different ways. Some manufacturers prefer to test their safes themselves, usually by placing a gun safe in a furnace. Thermal couplings will be placed in strategic locations inside the safe in question, then connected to an external computer so the testers can control the operation.
Furnace temperatures reach up to 1200°F in about 10 minutes. Depending on the test, some manufacturers will keep this heat on for quite some time, raising the temperature of the furnace all the while. Most manufacturers test their safes until the interior temperature reaches over 350°F, at which point tests end. Any guns or ammunition inside such a safe will surely have been damaged by that point.
These independent tests are valuable because they rely on third-party witnesses to corroborate results. The likelihood of a manufacturer lying about the fire rating standards is, therefore, a lot lower.
Other manufacturers may “factory certify ” their gun safes. These tests are performed by the manufacturing factory which constructed the safe, and don’t utilize independent witnesses. This obviously opens the test up to potential mismanagement or falsifications.
For instance, some manufacturers may guess the fire rating for their gun safe based on the materials used without actually exposing the safety of the test. Alternatively, these gun safe tests may be poor for other reasons; the factory manager may try to light the safe on fire without controlled conditions or a way to measure the temperature of the flames. Ultimately, inaccurate test results are worse than useless; they’re a waste of time.
But it’s difficult to know whether a factory-certified fire-rated gun safe is worth your time and money because there’s no way to verify the quality of the test beforehand.
All in all, it’s down to the consumer of fire-rated gun safes to ask the manufacturer about their certification process if they are marked as “factory certified”. Inquiring deeply about the testing process should tell you more about the standards used by the factory question and give you an idea as to whether you can trust the results.
Any safe manufacturer worth their salt should be able to give you the details of their fire-rated testing. If the person on the phone or over email seems cagey and can provide you with any charts for specifics, the likelihood that the test is falsified is high. Look somewhere else.
Lastly, don’t forget the old adage: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Overly cheap “fire-rated” safes that seem too affordable despite their supposed ability to resist super hot fires aren’t worth your time and money when push comes to shove. Pay for quality when it counts.
What Does Fire-Rated Actually Mean?
Fire-Rated means that a gun safe can survive fire damage and protect your weapons and ammunition for longer than gun safes that are not designed for this purpose. It’s a way to save the thousands of dollars many have stored in a gun safe in the event of a house fire. This may be especially valuable since many gun owners can’t spend time retrieving all their firearms before they need to vacate the building.
Many fire ratings describe the exact specifications or circumstances under which you should be able to rely on the safe. For instance, some fire safes are rated for 1200°F for 90 minutes. This means exactly what it says on the sticker: so long as the fire doesn’t exceed 1200° over 90 minutes, your guns should be protected.
However, it can be a little more complicated if the fire lasts for longer even if the temperature isn’t quite as high. In these cases, it’s difficult to tell how effective the fire rating actually is. The benchmark values advertised by a gun safe manufacturer are best used as general data points to give you an idea as to its efficacy.
Regardless of the exact numbers on the fire-rated sticker or what’s said in the manual, all fire-rated gun safes will have a protected interior. The interior of your gun safe should be lower than 350° for the duration of the advertised temperature and time. It does not mean that your guns and ammunition won’t suffer any damage as a result of increased heat.
This can catch some gun safe owners off guard when they open up their gun safe and discover that some damage was still sustained despite the relatively low temperature of the fire or speed at which it was put out. For instance, certain fire-rated gun safe contents can be incredibly susceptible to heat compared to others.
Any books or training or instruction manuals you may have related to your firearms will be especially susceptible to fire damage, even below the 350° rating. Plastic and other pliable materials also have varying melting points, with thicker plastics lasting longer than thinner ones. This can be a big problem since many firearm accessories or other valuables stored in gun safes are wrapped in plastic containers.
The plastic melting can increase the temperature of any items touching up plastic, which can cause damage even if the safe interior technically doesn’t reach 350°.
So how hot is a typical house fire? Generally speaking, typical house fires can reach temperatures between 900° and 1200° relatively easily, with average house fire temperature being about 1100°F. This is why many fire-rated gun safes are marked with a 1200°F time limit, as it presumes that the house fire in question will be about average in temperature.
Additionally, many fires are being fought or put out within 20 minutes if you live in a standard suburban or metropolitan area. Thus, for “average” house fires under all these conditions, a gun safe that has been properly fire-rated and tested will protect your firearms and ammunition quite capably.
But fires can be far from average in many cases. For instance, firestorms that attack an entire neighborhood during a disaster can reach temperatures of over 2000°F. Not only do these burn through homes with startling speed but they also eat through many of the defensive measures of gun safes without stopping.
Obviously, in these instances a fire-rated gun safe isn’t going to do much to protect your weapons. There are additional factors that may make fires more dangerous and your safe less effective. If your home has a lot of fuel that can increase the temperature of a fire, your gun safe will be less effective. Many homes may have propane or gasoline in the basement, which might increase the speed and temperature of a house fire beyond what can be easily fought.
Homes that are constructed from wood rather than brick or other materials will also burn more quickly and hotter than otherwise. Even brick homes can be bad news if you want to keep a hypothetical fire temperature low; bricks can absorb heat and turn the remnants of your home into a kind of, cooking your guns and the safe inside out.
Is a Fire-Rated Gun Safe Worth It?
Fire-rated gun safes are often more expensive than the alternative, so many wonder whether it’s worth the extra cost. It depends on how susceptible your home is to a particularly hot fire and how close you are to the fire station. If any hypothetical house fire would fall under normal conditions (1200° or less and put out within 20 minutes), then a fire-rated gun safe might be a great investment.
Even in cases where fires rage hotter than average, being able to protect some of your firearms is better than all of them being lost in the blaze. We’d recommend finding a great fire-rated safe if you can afford it.