Besides safeguarding your weapon collection against unauthorized access by burglars and children, a quality gun safe is also meant to ensure its safety against environmental hazards. One such major threat is fire: even the toughest weapons will melt at high temperatures, so a gun safe must have adequate fire resistance to keep them from harm while you wait for the firefighters to arrive.
All but the least expensive weapons safes will incorporate some form of fire resistance, however, judging if it is enough for you is a whole different story: a great many manufacturers will use a few panels of cheap fireboard in their safes and tout it as ‘fire resistance’ after conducting in-house tests whose effectiveness and fairness cannot be ascertained. The surest guarantee of gun safe fire ratings is third party testing but this isn’t a practice observed by all safe makers.
As an avid gun collector myself, I’m well aware of the dilemma we’re faced with when it comes to investing a chunk of cash on an expensive gun safe. You’ll want to be sure that you’re purchasing the best product for the money, so here’s a detailed discussion on gun safe fire ratings to help you determine if your chosen safe is actually as good at protecting your guns in an inferno as its made out to be!
Commonly, gypsum boards (fireboards) are incorporated into the structure of the safe. As the temperature of the body rises in a fire and reaches 262F, the gypsum releases water vapor that cools the safe’s interior. The more gypsum used in its body, the longer the safe will withstand the extreme temperature of a blaze.
Safes of the highest quality will use poured concrete amalgamate fireproofing instead of gypsum. Besides offering superior fire insulation, this type of fire protection also actively supports the structure of the safe thereby eliminating the need for steel frames that will actually conduct heat in a fire.
The thickness of the steel used in a safe’s door may not actively contribute to the fire insulation, but it is significant in that it is the last bastion between the fire and your weapons! If the temperature goes beyond 1000F, the body of a safe made from thin metal can become distorted and damaged so that its door seal fails.
Furthermore, the thin metal sheets will rapidly conduct heat to the interior, which will cause the internal temperature to rise up faster and thus put your weapons at a greater risk.
High quality weapons safes will sport an intumescent door seal that expands to several times its original size as the temperature goes up. This keeps heat from breaching the safe’s interior via the door. Furthermore, it prevents the ingress of smoke (smoke combines with the gypsum-water inside the safe to produce acid mist that can corrode your weapons).
Double and triple intumescent door seals present in premium quality safes offer the best protection in this regard.
As mentioned before, lots of manufacturers will ‘test’ the validity of their fire safety rating inside their own factory. They may even base it loosely on the quoted fire rating of the gypsum panels, without even testing the finished product themselves!
Some manufacturers will cheat a predefined third party testing procedure by only placing thermal sensors in the parts of their safe that will heat the least during the test. They may even refrain from raising the temperature of the oven until the last few minutes of the testing duration to maximize the lifetime of their product. Some might even quench the safe as soon as the oven is turned off, without allowing the safe to cool naturally.
Certain safe makers will vaguely advertise their safe as bearing a UL rating (e.g. for their locking mechanism) and place this conveniently close to the part where they mention the product’s fire safety features, so that an unsuspecting gun owner will think that it is the fire safety that is UL rated!
In reality, the UL rating may not even be related to the fire safety of the safe itself (Under Writers laboratory offers standardized testing for thousands of different parameters for a multitude of products).
These misleading marketing ploys mean that two gun safes from different manufactures with equivalent fire ratings may well perform very differently in a real fire scenario.
With the kinds of malpractice prevailing in the weapons safe industry, quality manufacturers have sought a means to standardize their fire ratings – this has been made possible through third party independent verification of their products’ fire safety features.
Third party testing uses rigid, purposely developed testing procedures to ensure a degree of uniformity in the fire ratings between various brands, and provides an established threshold which you can rely on when you’re looking for a product that is genuinely fire resistant.
Recognized as one of the best gun safe fire ratings, the UL 72 certifies that a container is suitable for holding sensitive data. There are three protection classes:
Indicates that the temperature of the safe will not exceed 350F, suitable for storing paper.
Indicates that the temperature of the safe will not exceed 150F and relative humidity will stay below 85%, suitable for storing paper as well as other types of data e.g. photos and computer disks.
Indicates that the temperature of the safe will not exceed 125F and relative humidity will stay below 85%, suitable for all of the aforementioned data as well as flexible computer disks.
Each class is further differentiated based on the time for which the rating is achievable (ranging from 30 minutes to 4 hours). The testing procedures implemented to establish these ratings can take as many as 80 hours, and consist of fire endurance testing, fire and impact testing, explosion testing, and combined explosion impact test.
Intertek ETL is another trustworthy name when it comes to fire resistance certification, the testing procedure utilized is consistent with that of the UL 72 protocol, and requires the temperature of the safe to remain below 350F throughout the testing period.
The temperature of the oven is raised to 1200F within 8 minutes of the start, and is maintained at this value throughout the testing period (45 minutes, 90 minutes or 120 minutes, depending on the rating sought).
This European standard is found on fewer products in the US market. Nonetheless, it is equivalent to the other standards, in that it requires the product to undergo an endurance test in which the interior temperature is measured with the passage of time.
Besides the fire endurance test, additional fire shock and impact tests will simulate the safe falling down from a high elevation after having been exposed to flame. This determines how much of the original build strength is retained after the product has survived in an inferno.
To achieve the least stringent rating, the container’s interior temperature must not exceed 170 degrees Celsius (around 338 degrees Fahrenheit), which is low enough for even paper to survive unscathed. Therefore, your weapons will be well protected from a fire if a manufacturer properly adheres to this standard.
Ultimately, the entire point of carrying out such a detailed investigation on gun safe fire ratings was to inform my fellow gun hobbyists of an unexpected potential hazard to their weapon collection – the very safe they purchased to protect it! Granted that this will also help you spend your money on the right product, it is even more vital that your weapons aren’t exposed to a fire hazard because of a manufacturer’s shady advertising tactics.
Now that you’re aware of the major third party fire rating recommendations, you’ll easily be able to ascertain the truth about a safe’s fire resistance – all you need to do is look for the right independent certification logo.
There will certainly be other independent safety standards in the market, however, you should use the protocols defined by the ones I’ve mentioned above to gauge their reliability and effectiveness.
If you’ve got a query or want to add something to the above discussion, leave a comment below and I’ll get to it as soon as possible.
Guns and Security provides reviews, guides, news and entertainment for gun and survival enthusiasts.
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