Camping & Survival

Traveling with Guns

Several rifles in hard cases

My responsibilities to Cheaper than Dirt, Gun Nuts Media, GunUp, and all my other sponsors keep me on the road quite frequently.  Because that usually involves shooting matches or other firearms-related events, that means I get the pleasure of flying with guns almost every time I do fly.  In fact, recently it’s gotten to the point where the guys at the SeaTac American Airlines counter just pull the firearms declaration form out and hand it to me when I walk up.  Good customer service! Flying with guns is actually pretty easy, but if it’s not something you’ve done before then it can actually be a very intimidating process.  Here are some guidelines that I’ve found that will make the process go smoothly for you when you try it.

  1. Know the rules!  I can’t stress how important it is to be intimately familiar with the TSA and your air carrier’s guidelines on traveling with firearms.  The TSA publishes their rules at this link, and when I travel I carry a printed copy of those rules in the pocket of my Woolrich Elite Tactical Pants.  However, just knowing the rules often isn’t enough, because I’ve had multiple occasions where the particular TSA agent didn’t know their own rules and regs as well as I do.  In those situations, the most important thing to do is stay calm.  Getting angry won’t help, and will likely increase your chances of missing your flight.  Speak to their supervisor, be polite and firm but do not allow the TSA to do anything that could compromise the security of your firearms.
  2. Keep your guns in a separate case than your other checked items.  This Pelican Gun Case is a perfect example of the best way to transport your guns.  Since I usually fly with multiple pistols, magazines, and the legal maximum of 11 pounds of ammo, I always use a long gun case for my pistols.  I also fly with cameras a lot, so any valuable cameras will go in the locked Pelican case as well.
  3. Speaking of locks, get good locks.  You can actually buy sets of Master locks that share a common key, which eliminates hassle both in packing and loading at the airport.
  4. Ammo is important as well!  Know what your ammo weighs.  My preferred carrier is American Airlines, and their rules state that ammo is limited to 11 lbs per passenger.  250 rounds of .45 ACP ammo weighs about 11.8 pounds in boxes, and the TSA will pull passengers off the plane for having too much.
  5. Be courteous to everyone.  I shouldn’t have to say this, but I firmly believe that part of why I’ve always avoided drama when flying with guns is because I’m just so dang happy.  Everyone gets smiled at, even the TSA guys, because it doesn’t do me any good to go through the airport glowering and scowling at folk.  Attitude helps a lot, and having a good attitude can be the difference between an easy trip or getting to know your airport’s holding center.

Now that we’ve looked at things to do, let’s look at a couple of possible crash landings that could cause problems.  Here is my list of “don’ts” for flying with guns.

  1. Don’t connect in Chicago.  Seriously, just don’t do it.  I will pay extra money to avoid Chicago.  I don’t want to risk my plane getting delayed overnight, and all of a sudden I’m stranded in the most anti-gun city on earth with a bunch of guns.  I have no desire to be a test case for the Firearms Owners Protection Act.
  2. Seriously, don’t connect in Chicago.
  3. Don’t talk about your guns!  Mostly for security purposes, but whenever I’m checking in at the airport, I don’t know what greedy baggage handler or sticky fingered TSA agent might be listening, so if anyone asks I’m carrying “my dad’s old junky .22 to give to my nephew for his birthday”.

There is a lot more to flying with guns, and I’d like to hear from the readers out there as well.  What are you experiences with flying with firearms, good reports and bad reports?  One thing that always cracks me up is whenever I get on the shuttle to go from the airport to the car rental center, I will almost invariably make a new friend who wants to know if I’m a hunter.  I take that time to preach the gospel of action pistol shooting.

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Comments (24)

  1. I live in Hawaii and have quite a few rifles & pistols. I plan on moving in the next year or so. I’m sure someone has moved from Hawaii with guns? If so, how did you move your firearms, ammo & reloading? Does anybody have any recomendations on the best way to move my guns safely & legally? I have called all three major carriers & of course was told I have to be have an FFL to ship firearms. Considering I live in Hawaii I’m sure it will be expensive to move my guns to the mainland. Any & all suggestions are welcome.

  2. Hey Everyone, I have a simple question regarding traveling with a single pistol.

    Next friday I’m flying from phoenix to denver and I want to bring my beretta with me because I am going camping with a bunch of friends to my best friends land in the mountains so we are all going shooting. Anyway, I was wondering if I can pack my beretta in the original beretta hard case and then inside my suitcase (which Im checking in of course). I was thinking on using the beretta lock to wrapp it around the handle and lock the case that way. Or maybe just buy a lock to put around the handle, would this be valid? ammo is going in another hard ammo case.

    Also, empty magazines can be with the firearm, right?

    I just want to have everything ready before friday, thanks for any help.

  3. Of course my pistol is unloaded and ammo is in approved containers in the outside pocket of my suit bag.

    And I second what Bruce Gary says, “When I approach the counter, I tell them I have a firearm to declare in my checked bag. It is unloaded and locked in a hard case. Could I please have a firearms-declaration tag?”

  4. When I fly with just a single pistol, I put it in a small, locked hardcase (only I have the key, not a TSA lock) with my name and cell number taped to the outside. This goes inside the outside pocket of my suit bag along with the firearms declaration card, which is NOT inside the hardcase, but rather sitting loose beside it in the pocket. The outside pocket is locked with a TSA approved luggage lock.

    I’ve had no hassles with Southwest airlines.

  5. Ther is a truly EXCELLENT thread on Glocktalk by MacG22 that covers everything imagineable regarding flying with guns.

    I found it to be invaluable for guidance and helpful tips (like cabling your Pelican to the frame of your luggage, and, being certain that the airline agent or the TSA agent does NOT put the declaration on the outside of your luggage where it can be seen, and having a copy of 1. The TSA regs, 2.The airline regs, and 3. the federal regs with you)

    one piece of advice to add to Caleb’s injunction about flying thru Chicago: AVOID FLYING THRU NYC!

  6. @laughingdog: You’re almost right, too.

    handguns can go US-mail, but only FFL-to-FFL (with a few narrowly-defined exceptions).

    And, yes, you’re right, a non-licensee can ship a gun from yourself to yourself in another state. Interestingly, you don’t have to be there to sign for it when it arrives – you can ship it to someone else “care of” yourself, and so even if your gun is shipped overnight (e.g. UPS) and gets there before you, it’s all good as long as you are the only one who opens the package.

  7. Oh, left off this part.

    “Yes. A person may ship a firearm to himself or herself in care of another person in the State where he or she intends to hunt or engage in any other lawful activity. The package should be addressed to the owner. Persons other than the owner should not open the package and take possession of the firearm.”

  8. @Bruce Gary

    You are almost right. You can’t use the USPS for handguns period. For long-guns, the recipient has to be an FFL. You don’t need to use a FFL to send it.

    “A nonlicensee may mail a shotgun or rifle to a resident of his or her own State or to a licensee in any State.”
    [18 U.S.C. 1715, 922(a)(3), 922(a)(5) and 922 (a)(2)(A)]

    “A nonlicensee may ship a firearm by a common or contract carrier to a resident of his or her own State or to a licensee in any State. A common or contract carrier must be used to ship a handgun.”
    [18 U.S.C. 922(a)(2)(A), 922(a) (3), 922(a)(5) and 922(e), 27 CFR 478.31 and 478.30]

  9. Good advice. I’ll amplify the comments about the airline staff: most of them do *not* know the rules, but think they do, which creates great opportunity for hassle. The best approach is to be calm and convey that *you* know what you’re doing. When I approach the counter, I tell them “I have a firearm to declare in my checked bag. It is unloaded and locked in a hard case. Could I please have a firearms-declaration tag?” This tells them everything they need to know, and “helps” them do their part.

    From that point, be prepared for the chance that they will ask you to do some stupid things. Some agents will ask you to show you that the gun is unloaded. Some agents will insist that the gun and ammo be in different containers. Whatever. For the most part, the path of least resistance is to let them think they know what they are doing. I have never yet won an “argument” with one of them. The only cases where I won’t compromise are where they are asking me to do something that is against the law – leave the case unlocked “in case TSA needs to open it”, or leave a key with them, or allow them to tape a firearm lable to the outside of my suitcase. In those cases, I’ll ask for a supervisor and “explain” what’s wrong.

    It pays to know the laws. It also pays to bring some patience, and stay calm.

  10. @Ashley – for big 3 gun matches I use one of those huge Pelican double layered cases, and end up paying out the ass for it. For ammo in those situations it just gets shipped ahead to my hotel.

  11. @Zemoid I believe you are allowed to mail yourself your own guns if you so desire. You can technically mail your gun to a hotel C/O yourself but try finding a shipping agency and hotel that knows this and willing to work with you over it is almost as much trouble as dealing with the TSA.

    Your best bet is to take the train or bus if you have the extra time available.

  12. I’m guessing wearing a “Kill them all, let God sort them out” shirt would be considered a bad move as well?

    Seriously though, this is exactly the reason I will never fly anywhere for any reason. I’ll drive, I’ll go by boat or train (depending on where I’m headed) before I’d fly. Hell, even shipping your guns and ammo ahead of you then flying gun free is a better option IMO. I’m kind of surprised FFL’s don’t actively advertise sending/receiving and holding guns for people traveling by air. Seems like a much safer option than possibly getting stranded in a gun owner’s hell town with your guns.

  13. [Not intended as a threadjack; I have no connection to the following] Tom Gresham’s Guntalk Radio had a very good discussion with advice on this topic on starting at 13min during the first hour (and continuing off and on throughout the rest of the show). Link to first hour: One of the recommendations was the use of high security padlocks by Abloy that are far more resistant to cutting. There were many other good suggestions and considerations for air travelers.

  14. I have flown with handguns several times. Between ticket agents and tsa it is different every time. Be flexible and cordial.

  15. Don’t connect through either La Guardia or JFK, either. An inadvertent overnight stay will result in your arrest and conviction. I believe that the 2nd Federal circuit upheld such a conviction last year.

  16. As a former TSA “agent” I can testify that all of the above is good advice, and can only add that frequently the airline agents do not know the rules either. Be polite but firm, and escalate to a supervisor immediately if your understanding is counter to theirs.

    The eleven pound “rule” is not evenly enforced.

    Don’t have ANY loose ammo in your bag.

    The tales I could tell.

  17. What case do you use for three gun competitions to carry your rifle, shotgun and pistol at the same time?
    What if you are going to a three gun match and have shotgun, rifle and pistol ammo you need to get there as well?

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