Electronic Vs Mechanical Locks for Gun Safes

electrical vs mechanical lock

Being a pro-firearms family, me and my brothers grew up around guns. An integral part of owning firearms, I understood from the beginning, was preserving and protecting them. My dad used a lock and key installation, sort of a handmade gun safe, which lasted a good 20 years before finally crumbling from the inside. I can’t say if today’s gun safes can stick around this long but at least the locking mechanism has improved tremendously. We now have electronic, biometric and mechanical locks.

I have tackled the question of biometric locks in a different post, here we will look at a comparison between electronic and mechanical locks, stating the mechanism, their pros and cons, and a few tips on using each type of lock. Hopefully, after reading this post you will be better able to understand the differences and make a proper valuation of your requirements.

Mechanical Locks

How A Mechanical Lock Works

A mechanical lock has a dial that is rotated in opposite directions to reach three different numbers before opening the lock and has typically three discs inside. The last disc is connected to the combination dial and a notch present on this disc usually rotates the second disc. Likewise, a notch on the second disc turns the first disc. Depending on the sequence of each number, the lock is dialed and turned clockwise or anti-clockwise. A default combination is usually set at production, which needs to be change later on for safety reasons.

Advantages Of Mechanical Locks

  • Increased life span, hardly any breakdown.
  • Greater durability as the focus is on mechanical parts rather than digital components.
  • 24/7 access thanks to non-electronic components. No need to worry about batteries, power outage etc.
  • Relatively child safe.

Disadvantages Of Mechanical Locks

  • Unlocked combination dials left unchanged leaves safe open. Needs manual re-locking every time.
  • Tumblers tend to get misaligned over time. Needs regular maintenance.
  • Needs a little bit of practice as it is a slow mechanism to operate, not really great in crux situations.
  • Burglars with experience can eventually break into combination locks with practice, although it takes time and effort.
  • To change the combination or code, you need to call in a technician or a safe lock smith.

Tips For Mechanical Locks

A manual dial lock is inherently slow and harder to operate. However, its ease of use and speed can be greatly improved upon if you use a particular pattern or combo. Remember never to use high numbers over 50, keep the first number in the 40s with the second number between 0 to 25 and third number between 25 to 40. This will help slash dialing time by half and provide a good level of security. Also remember never to set the third number between 90 and 25.

Electronic Locks

How An Electronic Lock Works

A keypad and an internal circuit handle the locking mechanism in an electronic lock. The keypad takes in numeric entries in sequence, while the circuit decides if the sequence is correct. It also stores the correct sequence in memory recalling it after you enter the code on the keypad. If comparison reveals a perfect match, the circuit fires up the unlocking mechanism turning the deadbolts and other locks in place. However, upon successive wrong entries, it can either temporarily shut down, completely lock down or sound an alarm based on manufacturer settings.

Advantages Of Electronic Locks

  • Easier and quicker to open because you only have to punch in numbers.
  • Backlit technology makes it easier to open these safes even in complete darkness.
  • Font size is larger in most electronic locks making it an excellent choice for visually impaired folks.
  • Changing the code is a simple task, no need for a technician or lock smith.
  • No one can ever come to know of your code.

Disadvantages Of Electronic Locks

  • Battery powered and therefore prone to power outage and automatic lock-outs.
  • If an electrical failure happens, you can never again access the safe’s content.
  • If an alternative key unlocking mechanism isn’t provided for, the only way to open a permanently sealed electronic safe is to drill into it.
  • Limited lifespan due to the use of electronic circuits that eventually die over time.

Tips For Electronic Locks

Changing combinations on an electronic lock is much easier than with a combination dial but this is a double-edged sword. At times when you forget the code, or someone tinkers with it too many times, it tends to permanently lock up. The only way to get into the safe is to then drill into it. This ‘wrong-number lock-out’ is one major reason why you should be very careful when setting the combination code. Thankfully, penalties are imposed for 5 minutes at most but some safes can permanently shut down if codes are punched in one after the other for a prolonged period. Hence, get an electronic safe that provides you an alternative key access.


As you can see, both electronic and mechanical locks suffer from their own problems and are great in specific situations. Naturally, it is a matter of choice but keep an eye on the warranty of the gun safe. Replacement or repair warranty covers usually applies only to the locks themselves. So, if you have locked yourself out and can’t get it, drilling into the safe isn’t covered under warranty. Besides, you have to move the safe outside the house to prevent peripheral damage to the furniture and wood flooring, this moving cost isn’t covered under warranty. Basically, choose wisely and regardless of the type of lock you get, make sure that the warranty covers lock-outs and repairs to the door along with the lock.

2 Responses to “Electronic Vs Mechanical Locks for Gun Safes”

  1. Owen McCullen says:

    I am retired Navy and was Top Secret Control Officer for a number of years. As such, I had custody of a number of safes. All had the 3 dial brass plate mechanical locks. Some were opened and closed several times a day and some were rarely opened. Over the years, we never had a mechanical lock fail but some were more finicky about operation than others. I changed the combinations periodically myself.
    The government safes we used could have the combination set easily, either using the key on the inside when the door was opened to unlock the disks, or by disassembling the lock and pressing out the inner brass disk on each of the 3 plates and moving it so it registered a different number. Mechanically speaking, the locks were a pretty simple device. Either way was relatively easy to change and not overly difficult. I could do it and I was self taught. I also taught several other people to change the combinations and they picked it up easily. Anyone with a basic understanding of simpler mechanical devices who read the basic pamphlet supplied with most safes in those days could handle the task.
    Some of the safes were subjected to heavy use for years and did not fail. Many of them were periodically moved on and off aircraft carriers, using stake trucks, fork lifts, conveyors and rough handling. Some were dropped, tipped over and a couple even fell off the conveyor and went into the mud in the harbor. Most acquired dents, dings and scars. But, none failed.
    Some survived the USS Oriskany fire off Vietnam and functioned normally after the fire, although some of the documents suffered charring. I do not know how hot the fire was, but it was very, very hot, cooking officers caught in their at sea cabins just like a turkey in an oven and causing steel to soften and become plastic for a period of time. The locks did not melt or cease to function.
    I have no experience with electronic locks and do not think most gun safes are likely to be subjected to such rough conditions and handling as we saw in the Navy. However, I know and can testify to the functionality and durability of mechanical locks. Further, I did not think that the combinations were that difficult to change. The Navy required us to change the combinations regularly and it just was not the tough to do.

  2. ken says:

    Thanks for sharing your well-written additional experience with mechanical lock dials. In the process of choosing a lock, mechanical or electronic. Your valuable experience validates my existing preference for the mechanical dial lock. I watched one friend quickly decode a pushbutton lock simply by getting the light reflections “just so”, thereby detecting which buttons were pushed more than the others. A slightly different sheen on the lock buttons allowed him to unlock the electronic lock in perhaps two minutes. And won his bet. That lock is now residing in a box on the top shelf of my shop. 🙂

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