Owning a gun under the United States Constitution is a right, a privilege, and ultimately, a responsibility. Gun Tests® believes a gun’s owner must see to it that a firearm is used without negligence or carelessness, and whenever possible, that it not be used illegally either. However, in addition to this moral position—like it or not—recent events will surely drive the debate about legal gun use toward some sort of mandated locking or storage system, to be provided by gun manufacturers or as an aftermarket dictate. Responsible gun owners have long stored guns and ammunition separately to prevent misuse by children. Also, shooters have employed lockable cases or safes that denied access to children and thieves alike, but they are expensive, and they complicate accessibility for home defense. More and more, it seems like gun locks are one inexpensive way to prevent children from hurting themselves with guns and to make them less attractive to criminals, yet keep them accessible enough for personal defense. But is this perception actually accurate? We decided to find out.
The Basic Problem
The problem with any gunlock is that security usually compromises availability. The question for the gun owner is, how much access will he give up to deny wrongful use of his guns? Some locks try to afford authorized persons not only security but quick access to the firearm. In some cases, the locks we tested even allow the gun to remain loaded. Taurus issues its revolvers with an Allen wrench-like key that captures the hammer and loaded or not, the gun is effectively out of action. The oldest and least expensive trick is to put a pad lock through the trigger guard so that the trigger cannot be pulled back. Having to locate a key at an anxious moment can be circumvented by using a combination lock. But lock companies such as Master have now made trigger-guard locks such as the one issued by Smith & Wesson widely available. Just visit your local hardware store and you’ll see them on the shelf. In our testing, we found some of the locks reviewed so thoroughly disable the gun that it is no longer worth stealing. The thief will soon realize returning it to a functional condition is either impossible or simply not worth the trouble. In this case, even if the gun is not saved, at least it will not be usable in the wrong hands. At the same time, these products also rendered the guns unusable in any timely manner.
Thus, there are several different segments of gun locks available: minimum security, which make a gun largely child proof, but which can be removed fairly quickly; medium security, which child-proof a gun and make it harder, though not impossible, for a thief to steal and use; and maximum security, which make the gun inaccessible to children, thieves, and to some extent, the owner.
Here’s how several such lock systems fared in a head-to-head matchup of their security effectiveness, as well as our judgments on how easily the owner could still get them into action.
Taurus Hammer Lock System
Our recommendation: We rate this built-in system as a good answer to the problem of making guns at home safe from curious children. It also offered fairly quick access to the owner, provided the keys were handy. It offered less resistance to thieves, in our view.
Taurus revolvers come with two keys plus two key rings that operate a locking device that blocks the hammer from being pulled back. A key-operated locking system integrated into the mechanism of the company’s semi-autos also appears on newer models. Since these features come built into the guns, we couldn’t break out their costs, but if Taurus is passing along the cost of this device to the consumer, it is hardly noticeable.
The key itself resembles a hollow Allen wrench. Is it easy to duplicate? No, but keys from our in-house 608 fit other Taurus revolvers we had in stock. Will thieves start carrying a Taurus Security System key with them on their burglary runs? Unlikely, besides, the pop-up lock could be machined off if the thief has the time and inclination to bother. By the key’s spindly appearance we surmised it would be damaged at the end of a key ring or broken off in the lock. Actually it is made from very strong steel, and stood up to a lot of abuse without breaking.
Master Lock 1500D
Our recommendation: This inexpensive answer to handgun security has a lot going for it: cheap cost, decent accessibility, positive security. Downsides: Who keeps the keys or combinations?
The Master Lock product cost only $4.29 at an Ace Hardware store; it was the same type of lock you might already have in your garage, and comes in keyed or combination variations. It had a 7mm case-hardened steel shackle (9/32 inch) and an overall width of 48mm (1 7/8 inch). For storage, opening the cylinder and padlocking the gun frame to a fixed stationary object will prevent curious hands and theft. Even when left unsecured to a fixed solid object, removing a lock placed through the frame would likely damage the gun beyond repair or render it inoperable. Placing the lock behind the trigger should defeat the curious, but the trigger guard can be cut and the gun made usable by a thief. The advantage to blocking the trigger is that the gun may be stored fully loaded. Response time is a matter of choice. Which is faster for you, manipulating a dial or finding your keys? Another security consideration is who has access to your keys or who will remember the combination?
Master Cable Locks
Our recommendation: We rate this $8.95 system as adequate for stopping the curious but insecure in case of burglary. It suffers from the same speed issues as other action or trigger blocks.
Cable locks offer more than one way to lock a gun and can be used on both semi-autos and revolvers. To use the item on a revolver, the shooter only has to push the cylinder out of the frame and slide the cable through the frame. On a semi-auto, like the Walther P99 shown, the gun’s slide must be locked back and the cable slid through the barrel and out the ejection port or, if the bore is smaller, threaded from the bottom through an empty grip frame and out the port. This also precludes storing the pistol with the mag inserted. The cable can also be used to connect the gun to a fixed solid object to prevent its transport, but a small cable cutter would easily defeat it, in our view.
Noble Guard NG900
Our recommendation: This system is more than adequate for curiosity-proof storage around the house, and it would deter some thieves. Noble Guard does not recommend applying the lock to a loaded gun, which makes it less suitable for home defense, in our view.
The $19.95 Noble Guard NG900 lock is a combination trigger guard lock and cable lock. The locking device is a steel-bodied key-operated cover that captures the trigger, encloses the trigger-guard area, and secures one end of the cable. The gun is protected from the metal case by a rubber insert. It also captures the sealed end of a cable that can be looped around a fixed, stationary object. Use of the Noble Guard lock turns the gun into an inactive lump of steel, but if your friendly neighborhood burglar carries a healthy sized bolt cutter, the cable would not likely prevent transport to another location where machine work could defeat it.
Master 90 Gun Lock
Our recommendation: Many manufacturers are shipping guns with these locks, which make them cost-effective. While they do deter children from using a gun, these locks shouldn’t be used on loaded firearms, which makes guns equipped with them poorly suited for defense work.
If you have bought a gun recently, chances are your gun was delivered with a Master brand lock that covers the trigger guard with a solid-steel bar interlacing with a steel tube that together block trigger function. If you go to the hardware store, this very same lock can be purchased for less than $10. It should serve to defeat any casual attempt to fire the gun. If a thief is not in a hurry, seeking only cash, they will likely bypass it. The more inventive criminal will take the gun and have the lock machined off. The lock is steel, but a rubber insert protects the gun’s finish. Two keys are supplied and will be easily distinguishable from the others on your key chain. Again, one drawback is who has access to these keys? Master, just as the maker of similar locks, does not recommend applying this lock to a loaded gun. Reason: It would be possible in the course of removing or applying this system to experience an accidental discharge. This system does not offer the fastest response time nor does it prevent removal from the premises. It is designed to be used in conjunction with other preventive measures such as storing the gun and the ammo separately.
Speed Release Gun Lock
Our recommendation: This lock is solely designed to keep a gun safe from children. In our view, a more effective strategy to accomplish the same goal is to separate a gun from its ammunition.
The Speed Release gunlock, $29.95, is an all-plastic and rubber affair that includes an illuminated dial. It is not a high-security unit in terms of preventing removal from the premises or being removed by force. It would seem to us that someone could enter your house, grab a hammer from the tool draw and smash it off the trigger guard with little harm to the gun. The bottom line is to be found in the bold letters of the one-year limited warranty. “This product is designed to prevent a child from activating the trigger device of a firearm. No warranty or guarantee is made or may be implied regarding the ability of the product to withstand forces in excess of those typically applied by a child under the age of 12 years old.” The Speed Release is designed specifically to allow the gun owner to unlock the gun quickly in the dark. To store a gun, say in the headboard of a bed, unloaded even with the ammo right next to it and the Speed Release in place, could be said to be defeating the purpose of the lock. This lock is controlled by an illuminated (9-volt battery not included) five-button keypad that is easy to program with a personal code. Unfortunately, children might find this device to be a challenge, the light being extra encouragement. Once the keypad is lit, you have five seconds to enter the right combination before having to reboot the keypad. Punch in the correct combination sequence and it reports with a friendly click and opens easily.
Saf T Lok
Our recommendations: With all the problems we have seen with semi-auto malfunctions, we wouldn’t dream of betting our lives on the Saf T Lok semi-auto magazine system. Also, we weren’t able to make the revolver mechanism work at all.
Saf T Lok makes two different mechanisms for disabling handguns, one for revolvers and one for semi-automatic pistols. Actually, it makes many different ones and tooling up for different frame-size revolvers and different design grip-frames adds to their cost, making them the most expensive of the locks in our test at $69.95 for the wheelgun lock and $89.95 for the magazine lock.
For semi-autos, Saf T Lok offers a working magazine, $89.95, that is locked in place and will not feed rounds unless deactivated with a code. Concern: From working with every kind of pistol and ammunition, we can tell you that magazine malfunction is a major cause of jams. If you are willing to take a tremendous leap of faith here with Saf T Lok, read on. For each gun that takes a different magazine, a separate lock is needed that matches its release mechanism. We had two, one for the popular Beretta 96 series and one for the Glock 23 frame. The mechanism for locking and unlocking is on the bottom of the basepad. This includes manual safety, a lock reset button, and sliding buttons that enter the four-digit combination (supplied) by being moved forward (toward the muzzle) a prescribed number of times for the first and third number and backward (toward the butt of the pistol) for the second and fourth numbers. The Glock 23 mag seemed to lock and unlock easily, but the manual safety on the Beretta mag wouldn’t budge. While the polymer body of the Glock-intended mag (this is not a Glock product) and the steel body of the Beretta-intended mag (this is not a product of Beretta) seem sturdy, the tabs and rods of the Saf T Lok mechanism appeared to be flimsy.
Regarding the revolver mechanism, we tried to install it on a Smith & Wesson 686. The Saf T Lok system forces you to use the supplied grip, which employs levers to lock and unlock the gun’s mechanism. The Saf T Lok system collapsed during installation, treating us to a view of a product more complicated than the gun itself—tiny springs, little tumblers, a total mess. We were unable to get the product to function correctly.
Our recommendation: If you wish to store guns in a typical closet or cabinet while away on a trip, the Bi Lock would be an adequate way to secure them from unauthorized use or theft.
The $59.95 Bi Lock mechanism hails from Australia. It is not meant for speedy acquisition. But, if you can’t afford a gun safe, this may very well be the next best thing. Here how it works. A dummy round (supplied, suitable to your gun) is chambered and connected by a rod that threads into the nose of the dummy round on one end and runs through the barrel and out the muzzle to a high security lock on the other. By necessity gun barrels and slides are hefty, and this design makes use of this. The gun can be stored loaded safely, but the gun is out of action. The quality of the key, the locking mechanism, and the casing to protect it is absolutely first rate. Any gun wearing the Bi Lock could be removed from the premises but we doubt anyone would go to the trouble of doing so because first of all, it looks impenetrable. Second, the only easy way to defeat the BiLock will be to destroy the gun, and anyone who could accurately estimate what it would take to defeat the Bi Lock would know it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
Our recommendation: Forget it. We couldn’t get it to work.
Recently, the head of Saf-T-Hammer went before a government review board to demonstrate the product’s operation. He couldn’t operate it. The $49.95 mechanism, which allows for removal of the hammer nose pin, is akin to jigsaw puzzle. A member of our staff visited the Saf-T-Hammer booth at the 1999 Shot Show and could not get the hammer back in place either. We might add that most revolver manufacturers have dropped the nose-pin design for an internal, floating firing pin, which also defeats this design. Forget it.
Gun Tests® Recommends
The two greatest dangers addressed by gunlocks are theft of guns for use in future crimes and the accidental discharge of a firearm in the hands of a careless person or curious child. If you have small children in the house, it would be smart to use more than one security measure to protect them from accidents due to their own ignorance or curiosity.
For minimal protection, the Taurus hammer locks are good way to make guns safe from children, assuming the keys are secured. Thus, if you’re considering buying a new gun, we think the Taurus products have an edge in safety that’s worth looking at.
But regular old Master Hasp Locks, $4.29, also offer inexpensive handgun security. By choosing the right lock-arm length, you can secure a gun to a solid object (like a bicycle to a tree) and render the gun safe and largely theft proof. Ditto that for Master Cable Locks, $8.95.
The Noble Guard NG900, $19.95, does the same job as simple hasps or cable locks, but somewhat more expensively, in our view.
Master Trigger Guard Locks, when supplied with guns, are also the right price—nothing. If their keys can be hidden, they effectively render the gun unshootable, but not unstealable.
The plastic, lighted Speed Release Gun Lock, $29.95, is less effective than metal Master Trigger Guard Locks, in our view. Both work at deterring children from using your guns, but we were able to hammer the Speed Release off the gun fairly easily, which made it less resistant to theft, in our evaluation.
We think the SafTLoc magazine locks for semi-autos, $89.95, are misfeeds waiting to happen. We couldn’t get the $69.95 revolver lock installed. Pass on both devices.
The $59.95 Bi-Lock mechanism was easy to install and secure. In our view, it rendered guns impervious to wrongful use and would deter someone from stealing a firearm. However, the lock doesn’t offer easy access for home defense.
The $49.95 Saf-T-Hammer didn’t work in our tests. If it were our money, we would pass on it.
In retrospect, perhaps it is best to be in control and possession of your firearm at all times; thus, the best gunlock may be the one between your ears.