Gun Safe Semi-Fail: The Recovery

A mere four days since my catastrophic gun safe failure, and I’m back in action. The riveting tale ensues.

When we last left our hero, he was impotently poking at the wonky keypad of his relatively new Cannon safe. A little bit of Googling around revealed that this is a known issue with the SecuRam brand keypad and lock used to secure the safe, and that the fix would be as simple as getting a new keypad. A phone call to SecuRam on Monday morning, a very nice conversation with a young lady named Kristine, and $135 dollars and three days later, I was in possession of the replacement parts.

A word of warning at this point: as nice as it was to deal with Kristine, I could have saved myself almost $60 if I had just done a little searching around; turns out you can buy the keypad and swing bolt for a mere $80 on Amazon. Lesson learned.

The Outside Job

IMG_1940Parts in hand, I got busy with my safe cracking. The new keypad is a slightly different design, and in my opinion somewhat better. The trim ring on the outside seems like actual metal rather than the plastic on the old one, and the construction seems more robust. The battery fits into a recess on the back of the keypad, and the keypad surface seems less flimsy than the old one. The downside: no keypad light. Oh well.

The parts came with good instructions, and the replacement was as simple as it could be. It was a little tricky getting the ribbon cable off the old keypad without damaging the wires, but it can be done with the help of a small screwdriver and a little patience. When I hooked up the new keypad, it immediately started squawking its “penalty mode” tones. That’s because all the logic is in the bolt inside the door, and it remembered my failed attempts at getting in three days prior, even though the battery hadn’t been connected all that time. If it didn’t do that, getting past the five minute wrong-code penalty would be as easy as removing the battery after every four wrong guesses. Since there are only a million permutations (10 digits, 6 positions, repeats allowed) it’s feasible to brute-force the keypad without that five minute penalty. Pretty well thought out system.

After the penalty timeout, keypad stopped beeping and I punched in my old code. Again, the logic is all stored in the bolt inside the safe, and the keypad is just a dumb terminal. Six beeps and a whir of the bolt, and I was able to open my safe for the first time in six days.

The Inside Job

IMG_1932Once I got the safe open, I needed to replace the bolt. The door panel needed to come out, and although it was a tight fit, I eventually wrestled it free to expose the guts of the door.

Not much to write home about. There’s bar along the outside edge of the door that holds the bolts, and a cam to throw them into the sidewall of the safe when you rotate the handle. The swing bolt is behind that gray plate in the center. The white ribbon cable leads out to the keypad. Very simple stuff.

IMG_1935Or is it? In the process of stripping out the old swing bolt, I noticed a few features. First, that steel plate covering the swing bolt actually has a function. If you look closely, you’ll see a hole in the upper left corner of that plate. There’s a roll pin sticking through that hole, and the pin is connected to a spring-loaded dead bolt. That thin steel plate keeps the dead bolt retracted, but if it is bent out of the way or pushed too far, the dead bolt drops down onto a hole in the cam and prevents the safe from opening. My guess is this prevents any exploits based on probing around inside the door through the hole that the keypad cable passes through. Pretty clever design, but credit goes to Cannon this time.

The new swing bolt was a simple replacement with a couple of screws. Once everything was back in place, I programmed the bolt with my old code, and tested the lock a couple of dozen times before closing the safe. Back in action.

The Implications

I’ve learned a lot about gun safes as a result of this little adventure. When I bought this safe in 2012, I was uncharacteristically ahead of the curve. It was on sale at Tractor Supply, I paid cash for it, and I brought it home in my truck and set it up. A few weeks later, there wasn’t a gun safe to be had in the state. I’ve lost track of the reason for the sudden demand, but I’d bet it was political. The point is that gun safes were and to some extent still are a really profitable item, and you can see why. There’s really not much to them – welded steel box, a little drywall for fireproofing, a sturdy door and bolts, a cheap and easy to install electronic lock, and some functional furnishings on the inside. Paint it up, bolt it to a pallet and send it out the door.

Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. After seeing the guts of this safe, I’m not at all convinced it would do much to stop a determined thief. If a bad guy had access to the safe and could work unobserved for about twenty minutes with a drill and Sawzall, say goodbye to your guns. If he had a little less time but brought a buddy and a van, they’d just toss it inside and work on it somewhere else. Locks only keep honest people out, and if a bad guy wants your stuff and you give him a chance, he’g going to win.

But I didn’t buy this safe to keep my guys away from the bad guys. I got it for two reasons:

  • To keep my kids away from the guns until they’re responsible enough;
  • And to have quick access to the guns in an emergency.

On the first point, the safe has performed admirably. And up until last week, it never failed to open with just a few key presses. But now that I see what can go wrong, I have to rethink my strategy. It might make sense to keep a spare keypad in stock in case this happens again. At $42 or less, it’s cheap insurance. But, it’s not really ready access – “Excuse me Mr. Home Invader, I just need to hook up this new keypad. Be right with you.” In my case, I might get the full $80 keypad and bolt kit from Amazon and retrofit my backup gun cabinet, which just has a key lock. Doing so would provide faster access to that cabinet while keeping a spare keypad in the house. Two is one, right?

A mechanical key override on the Cannon safe is a possibility, and my close inspection of the door guts gave me a couple of ideas for that. But that redundancy would come at a price in terms of security, since a lock can be picked or bumped. And for it to be ready access, the key would need to be located close to the safe. That might have negative implications if you’re trying to keep guns away from your kids.

Next Steps

I’m not quite sure where to go from here. Chances are I’ll go for years before another failure like this, and hopefully I’ll never have to use the ready access feature in an emergency situation. But hope ain’t a plan, so I need to do some thinking here. Luckily I have the old bolt and keypad to play with and see if I can hack something together to provide an emergency override. If I come up with anything I’ll share it in another post.

For now, it’s just nice to have access to my stuff again.

1 Comment

  1. I bought my 24 gun Cannon safe from Costco safe in January 2013 and just had the identical problem. It took 2 days after I installed the keypad before it finally opened. I had just changed the combo as I was giving the safe to my son-in-law as I had just purchased a 64 gun model from Tractor Supply. I also have a SecuRam lock as well. Seems these electronic locks have about a 3 year life cycle. I nocticed somewhere on YouTube that the electronic lock can be replaced with a mechanical one. I know its not as fast as an electronic model, bit a little cleaning and lubrication once a year is all that’s need to maintain it. I have a small bio-metric gun safe near my bed in case I need a weapon quickly. My new Cannon safe also has an electronic lock but it looks almost identical to the one on my old safe. Change the combo is a slightly different process though.


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