A booby-trapped gun safe isn’t as common as it may have been 100-plus years ago, but many of them still exist. When you encounter one, it’s best to know what you’re doing before trying to open the safe. You never know what toxic or deadly surprise is waiting for you.
The following covers some of the things you should know about booby-trapped gun safes and a recent account of opening a safe outfitted with tear gas.
Tear Gas Booby Trapped Gun Safe
In early 2023, our Master Safe Technician encountered a 1904 Mosler gun safe. The current owner had inherited the safe from his father and was aware that the safe was booby-trapped. At the time, he believed the booby trap contained nitroglycerine.
(Nitroglycerine is an explosive yellow liquid made by nitrating glycerol, used in explosives such as dynamite. There is speculation that nitroglycerine was never used by manufacturers, but there is no concrete evidence to prove this. And, an individual safe owner could rig a safe with it.)
The safe was constructed out of steel that had been riveted, forged, and screwed together. This was the traditional construction method at the time. The factory dial lock had been removed, and the safe was retrofitted with an electronic lock.
A Broken Electronic Lock Prevented the Owner from the Opening Safe
During an attempted robbery, the thieves smashed the electronic lock but were unable to breach the safe’s interior. The owner was also unable to access the safe’s contents following the incident.
The first attempt to regain access to the safe was to splice the electronic lock’s wires back together. Unfortunately, this proved ineffective.
Scoping the Safe to View the Booby Trap
Earlier in the safe’s history, a dial lock spindle hole had been cut into the door for the factory-installed dial lock. Our Master Safe Technician used this access point to insert an arthroscope (aka a borescope) that allowed him to view the exact location of the booby trap. He determined he could safely probe the electronic lock bolt open, as long as he didn’t drill or work on the area past the electronic lock body.
In addition to the spindle hole, the door had another pre-existing drill hole. This hole had been patched ineffectively with steel wool, giving our technician easily drill a hole and access the lock.
Once drilled, a probe was used to push in the latch and slide open the deadbolt. From there, the safe was easily opened.
Removing the Booby Trap
Behind the door panel, three glass vials had been installed. Our Master Safe Technician carefully removed them, duct-taping them to the metal container in which they were housed. The vials were then placed in a bucket and set outside away from the house.
The police were called, but the bomb-squad quickly determined that the vials contained tear gas, not nitroglycerine.
Repairing the Safe
Once the immediate danger had been averted, our Master Safe Technician installed a new, upgraded lock. This new lock offered security features that eliminated the vulnerabilities of the initial retrofitted electronic lock.
Our Master Safe Technician then repaired the safe’s door, restoring the safe to its original security level.
Quick History of Booby-Trapped Gun Safes
The use of booby traps — hidden traps used to thwart entry — is as old as man. It’s believed the saying we use today, ‘booby trap,’ was derived from the traps hungry sailors set for a seabird known as a booby in the late 17th Century.
The booby is a docile bird that is relatively dim-witted and unsuspecting. The unsuspecting nature of the traps carried over into warfare, as booby traps were incorporated into both defensive and offensive approaches to battle.
Booby traps have also been incorporated into safes, with reports of safes being outfitted with any number of dangerous and deadly substances. Times Union reported that a safecracker found, “liquid phosgene, a deadly World War I-era chemical weapon used to choke enemies.”
Booby traps have also been known to include:
- Tear Gas
- Loaded Firearms Primed to Fire
Individuals Are Legally Responsible for Any Damage Their Booby Traps Cause
One of the primary things to be aware of if you have a booby-trapped item or you set up a booby trap to protect your property is that you are legally liable for any injury or death. This is true even of an unwanted intruder, such as a burglar.
Not only are booby traps considered illegal by the United Nations, homeowners in the United States have been held legally responsible for booby traps on their property. On March 17, 2023, Oklahoma’s News 4 reported that “Two Colorado residents were arrested after an alleged “booby trap” they had set outside their front door injured another person.”
Creative Ways to Add Extra Security to Your Home Gun Safe
For those looking to add an even higher level of security to their home safe, without using a booby trap, these tips can help.