I have flown hundreds of thousands miles with hunting guns in the last 30 years, on all the major carriers and in tiny bush planes, to cities and small towns across the U.S and Canada. While I have had minor hassles (you can’t fly anywhere with or without guns without some grief) I have not, knock on a walnut stock, had a major incident with any airline or Transportation Security Authority (TSA) employee or officer.
I have had 3 gun cases not make it to my final destination (knock wood harder) and those were only delayed a day. Three incidents in some 600 trips spread over 3 decades isn’t bad.
The reason I’ve had good fortune: I know the rules of packing and traveling with guns and ammo, and I follow those rules.
The goal here is to lay out a plan that will help you check your guns safely and legally at the airport so that they arrive at your hunting destination secure and on time. DISCLAIMER: It is up to you to read and know the rules and follow them to the letter of the law.
To do that, I’ve posted the official TSA guidelines for transporting firearms and ammunition. In the HANBACK NOTES that follow read my personal observations and tips that will make your travels easier, and keep you from messing up.
And you can’t mess up. Break a rule and at the least you’ll get hassled and miss your flight. Worst case, you risk a $10,000 fine and jail time.
Print a copy of this blog guide and carry it with you when you fly with guns.
TSA: Transporting Firearms and Ammunition
You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.
–When traveling, comply with the laws concerning possession of firearms as they vary by local, state and international governments.
–Declare each firearm each time you present it for transport as checked baggage. Ask your airline about limitations or fees that may apply.
–Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock.
–Firearm parts, including magazines, clips, bolts and firing pins, are prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
–Rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage.
–Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
–Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm. Read the requirements governing the transport of ammunition in checked baggage as defined by 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8).
–Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 caliber and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm.
–First, about hard-sided gun cases. Buy a good metal or hard-plastic one ($200 or more) with quality locks and ample foam padding on the inside. A cheap, flimsy plastic Wal-Mart special won’t cut it.
–You can buy and use a case with TSA-approved locks, which means the TSA master key at any airport will open the case. It expedites the process, but if you’re paranoid somebody will open your case without your approval use your own locks.
–I used to use a case with TSA locks until a TSA officer at a Texas airport recognized me as he checked my rifle and said, “Surprised you use TSA locks, I sure wouldn’t if you now what I mean…” I bought a new case and now use my own heavy locks.
–If one of the locks or lock hinges on your gun case is loose or gets broken in transit, you must replace it or the case immediately. Do not show up at the airport with a damaged case or faulty locks, TSA will not allow you to travel.
–You can never check a gun case curbside; you must go inside to an airline counter. Somebody there will probably tell you, “Use the kiosk.” You tell him or her right off, “I’m checking an unloaded firearm and need assistance.” A ticket agent must help you. You’ll fill out an orange tag declaring the firearm unloaded; open your case and put the tag inside, and lock it back up. All the while be polite and follow the agent’s instructions to the letter.
–The firearm must be unloaded. Sounds like a no-brainer, but there are horror stories of experienced hunters and travelers trying to check loaded rifles they knew were empty. Triple and quadruple check that your rifle is unloaded before you case it. I travel with bolt-actions, and so I remove the bolt, visually look and see that the chamber is empty and then often pack the bolt separately in the case.
–TSA inspects all gun cases somewhere near the ticket counters. You and an agent will roll your case down to a baggage security area. Stay with your case until it is screened and accepted by TSA. Do not wander off. Have your keys handy, most of the time an officer will open up the case, check inside and re-lock it. Be there to get your keys back.
–As for ammo, carry 2 boxes securely packed in their original cardboard boxes. In the U.S. these boxes may be carried in your locked gun case, and that is how I like to do it, but I have encountered a gray area here from airline to airline. Once in a while an agent who does not know the rules asks me to transfer the ammo to the separate duffel bag I’m checking. If asked, do it to avoid any confrontation, just be sure not to put any ammo boxes in your carry-on by mistake!
–Traveling anywhere in Canada, make sure to pack your ammo in your checked duffel, they don’t let you pack it in your gun case up there.
–I reiterate two things: Pack all cartridges securely in their boxes; you cannot have any loose rounds rolling around in your duffel or in a pants pocket you packed. You’ll get busted and hassled for that. And triple check your carry-on (maybe a camo backpack you used while hunting) and make sure there are no loose rounds of ammo or even empty casings in there–failure to do so can land you in big trouble at the security line.
–TSA prohibits black powder or percussion caps to be transported on airplanes, not even in checked bags. On a muzzleloader hunt, you’ll carry your .50-caliber rifle and bullets in a locked case, and you’ll have to buy percussion caps and powder pellets at your final destination. Arrange that before your trip. Make sure to locate a big-box store or gun shop where you can stop and purchase caps and pellets before you head to camp.
–The TSA notes that individual airlines may have additional requirements for traveling with firearms and ammunition, and advises you to contact your airline regarding their carriage policies. Sounds like a good idea, but I can tell you from experience that you probably won’t get a straight answer from anybody on the phone. Just follow all the rules/notes above to the letter and you’ll be fine.
–This information is for the U.S. and Canada only. You must study up and follow a more complicated set of rules if flying with firearms to Mexico, Africa, etc.