Electronic vs. Dial Locks on Gunsafes

gunsafe gun safeGunsafes can be fitted with either an electronic keypad-style lock, or a conventional dial lock. In our Gunsafe Buyer’s Guide, we explain the important features of both dial and electronic lock systems. Many safe-makers will tell you that consumers prefer electronic locks for convenience. On the other hand, most of the locksmiths we’ve polled believe that the “old-fashioned” dial locks, such as the Sargent & Greenleaf model 6730, will be more reliable in the long run.

Here is the opinion of RFB from Michigan. He is a professional locksmith with over two decades of experience servicing locks and safes of all varieties:

“For the convenience of quick opening, the electronic locks can’t be beat.

However, for endurance and years of trouble free use, the electronics can’t compare with the dial lock.”

I’ve earned my living, the past 22 years, servicing locks of all types. This includes opening safes that can’t otherwise be opened. I do warranty work for several safe manufacturers (including Liberty). What I’ve learned in all those years is that manual dial locks have very few problems. The most common is a loose dial ring which can shift either left or right, which will result in the index point being in the wrong place for proper tumbler alignment. This is simple to fix.


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Electronic locks, however, can have all kinds of issues, and none (except bad key-pad) are easy to fix, and when one goes bad, it must be drilled into to open it. IMO, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ an electronic lock will ultimately fail, but a matter of ‘when’ it will fail. Over the past 10 years or so, since electronics have become more and more prevalent, I’ve had to drill open bad electronic locks vs. bad manual dial locks on a ratio of about 20-1.

My professional opinion is to get the manual dial lock, unless you’ve got a good friend who is a locksmith/safecracker.”

How Secure is Your Lock?
RFB tells us that both dial and electronic locks offer good security, provided it’s a good quality lock made by LaGard, Sargent & Greenleaf, Amsec, or Kaba/Ilco. However, RFB warns that “Some of the ‘cheaper’ locks (both manual and electronic) however, are very simple to bypass. An electronic lock that’s glued or ‘stuck’ to the door with double-sided tape, and has its ‘brain’ on the outside of the lock in the same housing as the keypad, and merely sends power to an inner solenoid via a pair of wires through the door, is a thief’s best friend. The good ones have the brain inside the safe, inaccessible from the outside.

No amateur can ‘manipulate’ either a good manual or electronic lock. Both give you a theoretical 1 million possible combinations. I say ‘theoretical’ because there are many combinations that cannot, or should not, be used. You wouldn’t set your combo on a dial lock to 01-01-01 etc., nor would you set an electronic to 1-1-1-1-1-1, or 1-2-3-4-5-6.”

Tips for Dial Locks
RFB notes that “The speed, and ease of use, of a manual dial lock can be improved upon, simply by having your combo reset using certain guidelines. Avoid high numbers above 50. Having a 1st number in the 40s, 2nd number anywhere from 0-25, and 3rd number between 25 and 35 will cut dialing time in half, without compromising security. (For mechanical reasons I won’t get into here, the 3rd number of a good manual dial lock cannot — or should not — be set to any number between 95 & 20).”

Tips for Electronic Locks
Electronic locks can have the combination changed by the user much more easily than dial locks. But, RFB explains: “That can be a double-edged sword. More than a few times I’ve had to drill open a safe with an electronic lock that has had the combo changed incorrectly by the user, resulting in an unknown number that nobody can determine. Also, don’t forget that electronic locks have a ‘wrong-number lock-out’. I would NOT rely on the normal quickness of an electronic 6-number combo in an emergency situation. If for any reason (panic etc.) you punch in the wrong number several times, the lock will shut down for a 5-minute ‘penalty’.

LaGard electronic locks all come from the assembly line set to 1-2-3-4-5-6. Most safe companies (Granite-Winchester is one) leave it at that, and either the retailer or the end user must reset it. My local Walmart store had those same Winchester safes on display, and one day I was in the sporting goods section near the safe display, and another customer asked the Walmart employee if she could open the safe so he could look inside. She said “no, sorry, I don’t have the combination handy”. I walked over, never said a word… just punched in 1-2-3-4-5-6, turned the handle opening the door, and walked away… again not saying a word. They both just looked at me… dumbfounded that I could open it like that.

To get the most life out of that LaGard [or other electronic lock], you should change the battery at least once a year, whether it needs it or not. Low voltage won’t necessarily shut down the lock, but using it in a low voltage situation is bad for the electronics, and eventually will cause lock failure. C’mon, how much does a 9-volt Duracell cost? A few bucks is a good investment.”

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Safe Warranties — What is NOT Covered
RFB cautions that “With most gunsafes the ‘free repair/replacement’ warranty covers the lock only… not the door of the safe, which will have some holes drilled through it to remove that bad lock. The only proper way to repair those holes is to weld them. I don’t know about you, but most of my customers don’t like welding done inside their home, and the safe must be moved outside. Warranties typically won’t cover that moving cost if your safe is in a difficult to move outside location. Trust me, I’ve been there, done that.”

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