Gun Safe vs Gun Cabinet: What’s the Difference?

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Within a year of buying my first gun cabinet, I found myself wanting to upgrade to a gun safe. I wasn’t sure of the difference between the two then, but I soon learned why I should have just invested in a gun safe in the first place.

Both gun safes and gun cabinets provide a place to store your guns. The major difference between the two is found in purpose. A gun cabinet, with it’s largely glass construction, is ideal for displaying your guns, but only furnishes minimal protection of your firearms. In contrast, a gun safe is designed to provide maximum security against fire and theft. There is also a substantial difference in cost, gun safes being the more expensive of the two.

Your decision to purchase either a gun safe or gun cabinet should take into account your situation as a gun owner. Topics that should be considered include:

  • The size of your gun collection
  • The presence of minors in the household
  • The relative safety of your neighborhood
  • Your budget

Let’s take a moment to explore the similarities and differences between safes and cabinets to help you decide which is right for you.

Differences and Similarities

Think of a gun cabinet like a china cabinet for displaying your rifles; they’re made from decorative wood, with glass windows and doors, and a latch key lock system for keeping “honest people” out. Gun cabinets can be small or large, and custom built if you have the money.

A gun safe provides protection against fire and theft with steel plate doors and walls, layers of drywall or poured concrete for added insulation, and a combination lock which can vary in style.

Gun safes vary in quality and price depending on the construction material and the thickness of the steel plates.

A gun locker is synonymous with a gun cabinet as far as the level of protection goes, however, a gun locker is made of 10-20 gauge steel, no windows, and a combination lock. Both a gun safe and a gun cabinet can be beneficial to have.

Insulation: Concrete Amalgamate or Drywall

When comparing gun safes, the gauge of steel and amount of insulation used is a great way to determine the quality and price. Drywall offers very little support or fire protection and is much lighter which can break down over time. Compare two safes of similar size, if the prices are close to the same, but there’s a big difference in weight, delve deeper. Instead of protection, you’re probably paying for enamel paint, chrome plating, a fancy interior, and other cosmetic features in the lighter safe. If the prices differ for similar size and rating, check the weight.

Drywall is an inferior and much cheaper product which many safe companies substitute for poured concrete. Drywall is nothing more than layers of thick paper pressed together and treated with chemicals, and will fall apart in a fire. If you’re going to go with drywall based fireproofing, high-temperature fiberglass, or any other reinforcement which helps hold the drywall together will offer more protection.

Another common issue with drywall insulation/reinforcement is that it will fall apart due to aging over time. Many gun safes use vague terms to mask the low-quality construction like “composite door or wall,” which is still drywall. A true safe with a UL C-rate or higher will be insulated with steel plates, and layers of poured concrete amalgamate. The combination of the two will provide real protection against drilling/cutting tools and blowtorches. Gun cabinets made of wood will not have either type of insulation.

How the Weight Can Affect the Cost

The amount of steel and the type of insulation used for a gun safe or gun cabinet/locker will make a significant impact on the final cost, which can range from 20-80%.

For the sake of argument, I will be referring to gun lockers in this section. Gun lockers are much lighter and can come ready-to-assemble, which means they can be easily transported and installed by yourself or with help from a friend. Shipping is considerably less than having a traditional safe delivered. Installing a conventional safe weighing more than 100-200 pounds may require professionals. The weight and location of a gun safe should also be considered if you move often or plan on moving in the foreseeable future.

The lock for a gun safe can be an electronic keypad or a mechanical dial lock. Some safe manufacturers offer models with both types of locks that can be configured to use either lock or both simultaneously, which creates an extra step for potential thieves. Layers of protection are imperative in combination with owning a gun safe or gun cabinet. Layers create time barriers and delays, which may thwart most common thieves.

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Gun SafeGun Cabinet
7 gauge steel or thicker10-20 gauge steel
Different levels of protection against fire/theftZero fire protection, minimal theft protection
Construction consists of layers of steel and amalgamateConstruction consists of Finished wood, or thin gauge steel and drywall
Lock can be combination, keypad, or biometricLock is either key and latch or combination
Holds UL safety ratingsNo UL safety ratings

Storage Capacity and Options

Many people choose a gun safe or gun cabinet based on the advertised storage capacity. This can be misleading because not all gun safes are the same size, and accessories like scopes and rails will significantly reduce the number of guns you can fit in your safe or cabinet compared to what the specifications say.

A gun cabinet is mainly for display, so the interior is traditionally set up as a rack to show long guns with a windowed door and sometimes side windows. Some may have shelves for pistols, and many have drawers or cabinets below the window doors to store ammunition and gear.

Gun lockers and gun safes have similar interior options. They both are usually modular, allowing shelves and racks to be moved and adjusted to fit your collection. Gun safes and some higher-end gun lockers have lined interiors to prevent scratches and knicks to your firearms. Some may have small drawers for other valuables.

Gun safe manufacturers are notorious for boasting how many guns they can pack into their safes. The advertised interior capacity vs. the actual storage capacity will vary from different manufacturers. For example, A “ten gun” safe may hold half or less than that in reality. Any attachments on your firearms will take up interior space as well.

If you have ten guns you plan to store in a ten gun safe, your safe will be full. Every time you need a gun that isn’t in the front, you will have to unload your entire collection and then put it all back: every single time.

Storing firearms tightly together almost guarantees cosmetic damage to barrels, wood stocks, scopes, etc. As a good rule of thumb, mentally double your gun collection when buying a safe. Doing so not only reduces the chance of cosmetic damage to your guns, but it also allows your collection to grow without having to upgrade your storage options.

Where to Store Ammunition

Depending on what state you live in, you may be required to store your ammunition in a separate room or location in your home. Regardless of local laws, storing live ammunition with your guns is a poor decision, especially inside a safe, which in the event of a fire, could essentially create a bomb.

Owning both a gun safe and gun cabinet can be beneficial for storing all of your gear safely away from curious hands, without sacrificing space. Responsible gun owners can agree that storing ammunition in a gun cabinet and keeping your firearms in a gun safe is safe and smart.

What About Alternative Options for Firearm Storage?

A toolbox can make a great gun storage container without breaking the wallet. Hidden safes have endless possibilities; they can be made by converting furniture or home decor into disguised firearm storage providing hidden, but convenient access.

Another option is to reinforce a closet or cabinet in your home with pinless hinges, a stronger door, and locked entry with a keypad or combination. The closet safe can double as a safe room as well. Keeping your gun safe in a reinforced room adds another layer of security. You can take it a step further by also placing a “decoy” gun cabinet in a conspicuous location of your home to fool burglars. More layers mean potential thieves have more obstacles to get through, giving your preventative measures more of a fighting chance.