Ever wondered how to fly with a gun? Well, here’s a detailed guide on the finer points of legally flying with firearms on an airline.
While the hassle involved with airline travel seems to be getting worse and worse each day, flying with a gun actually isn’t as complicated as you would think. This is great news if you want to take a firearm on an airline with you for a hunting trip, shooting competition, or just for self-defense. There is a right and a wrong way to do it though. Read on to learn all about how to fly with a gun without breaking the law.
Before I get started I’ve got two disclaimers.
First, while I am intimately familiar with the process of transporting firearms on airlines through my personal experiences, the rules and regulations for doing so change from time to time, so there is no guarantee that the advice offered in this article will always be 100% accurate. For this reason, you should always check out the TSA regulations pertaining to flying with firearms as well as the policies of the specific airline you’ll be flying on prior to your trip.
Second, some of the links below are affiliate links or links to partner web sites. This means I will earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue to create free content that’s useful to hunters like yourself. Thanks for your support.
How To Fly With A Gun: Locked Gun Case
The first thing you need to know about flying with firearms is that federal law mandates that all firearms must be transported in a locked, hard-sided container as checked baggage.
So what sort of gun case should you use? No matter what anybody may try to tell you, where is no formal certification process to become a TSA approved gun case. Basically, any lockable, hard sided container that prevents unauthorized people from accessing its contents will pass muster as a TSA approved gun case.
Don’t try to get cheap here though.
After all, you will be relying upon your gun case to protect your firearms from damage and theft during your trip. One or two scoped rifles can easily cost more than $2,000, so spending the money necessary to get a good quality lockable gun case for airline travel is a pretty wise investment. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost that much money for a really nice gun case that will do a great job of protecting your firearms (and other gear like binoculars and hearing protection) for many years.
If you’re looking for a good place to start, Pelican makes some very high quality airline approved gun cases. Those are the standard cases used by the military to transport delicate equipment safely and securely, so you can’t go wrong there.
I personally use an injection molded double rifle case from Cabela’s every time I fly with a gun. I’ve literally flown hundreds of thousands of miles with it on hunting trips all over the world and it’s still going strong. In fact, I often get compliments from TSA agents on how sturdy that rifle case is.
Once you pick out your lockable gun case for airline travel, the next thing you need to do is actually lock it. This is an area where there can be a large amount of variability on how the rules are interpreted from airport to airport and even agent to agent.
TSA regulations don’t specifically state that you need to put a lock in every single hole in your gun case (it just needs to be “securely” locked), but doing so will probably make life simpler once you get to the airport. So, if there are 4 spots to put a lock on your gun case, make sure you put 4 locks on it. Don’t leave any empty holes!
It does not matter if you use combination or key locks to secure your gun case. However, use locks that fit snugly in the holes on the case. If there is enough play for someone to open the case even a small amount, you run the risk of having a TSA agent refuse to accept your gun case because it isn’t “secure” enough.
Do not use TSA approved locks on your gun case.
According to federal law and TSA regulations, the passenger must retain the key or combination to the locks securing his or her case when flying with a gun. This is to prevent anyone from accessing your firearms without you present. Since TSA agents have a master key that will open TSA approved locks, that means they could theoretically access your firearms without you being there. Instead, use a conventional but sturdy padlock, like a Master lock, to secure your gun case when flying with firearms.
How To Fly With A Gun: Transporting Ammunition
Next, make sure your gun is unloaded before putting it in the case.
This means both the chamber and the magazine of the firearm must both be completely empty of ammunition. Though the regulations of individual airlines do vary on the subject, the TSA does permit you to transport ammunition in the same case as your firearm as long as it is securely packed. On some airlines, you may pack a loaded magazine or clip in the gun case (but not inserted into the gun).
That being said, it’s probably not a good idea to pack a loaded magazine in your gun case when flying with a gun, even if it may be technically permitted.
Instead, you should transport ammunition in a container specifically designed to store it. Whenever possible, I recommend using the original packaging used by the manufacturer. There are a number of other suitable containers that will work, to include the plastic boxes commonly used by hand loaders. Basically, as long as the container will securely hold your ammunition, it will probably be acceptable.
Some airlines (like Air New Zealand) require that you transport your ammunition and/or rifle bolt separately from your firearm. In this case, just place it in a different checked bag (your suitcase or duffel bag is normally fine). Depending on the airline, you might also need to store your ammunition in a locked container inside one of your other bags.
The TSA says “small amounts” of ammunition may be carried, but they don’t specify how much that is. Regulations vary between airlines, but 11 pounds (5 kilograms) is a pretty standard ammunition weight allowance when you fly with a gun. Notice that the limit is not for a specific number of rounds, but for an overall weight of the ammunition.
For this reason, you should weigh your ammunition prior to your flight so that you don’t inadvertently exceed the limit.
Hand loaded ammunition is permitted and so are empty cartridges. However, loose powder and primers are not allowed under any circumstances. This is of particular concern to those who hunt with muzzleloaders. There is absolutely nothing wrong with flying with a muzzleloader (TSA treats it just like a rifle or shotgun) or muzzleloader bullets, but you’ll need to arrange to get muzzleloader primers and powder at your final destination.
Several years ago, some people started to load shotgun shells with black powder and muzzleloader primers in an effort to get around this obstacle by saying they were carrying “loaded ammunition.”
Do not do this.
This is a violation of several different laws and you could end up paying a hefty fine or even going to prison if you get caught. Just because other people have gotten away with doing it in the past does not mean you won’t get in trouble for doing it.
How To Fly With A Gun: Declare Your Firearm
Once you arrive at the airport, you must declare your firearm to the airline. Don’t walk up to the agent and say “I’ve got a gun.” Instead, say something along the lines of “I need to declare a firearm.”
The airline may require that a supervisor actually process your bags, but it is usually not a big deal at all. The agent will then have you sign a declaration card where you state that your firearms are unloaded and place it in your gun case. Most agents will take care of you without blinking an eye.
That being said, you’ll occasionally run into someone who either legitimately doesn’t know the rules or is actively trying to make life difficult for you as a gun owner.
For this reason, you should carry a printed out copy of the TSA regulations for how to fly with a gun along with the policies of the airline you’ll be flying with, as this can sometimes make the process go a little more smoothly.
No matter what happens, remain calm and be polite to everyone you’re dealing with.
Once you get checked in with your airline, you’ll need to take your gun case to the TSA screening station.
The exact process for this varies at each airport and with each airline. Some airlines will send someone to escort you to the station, others will not. Sometimes the TSA agents will just test the outside of the case for explosive residue. Other times they will want you to open your gun case so they can inspect the contents.
For this reason, make sure you have the keys to your gun case easily accessible. Do your put the keys to your gun case in your checked bag!
Either way, hang out for a couple of minutes until they are done. Then you can go through security and proceed to your gate as usual. If everything goes smoothly, these extra steps necessary when you fly with a gun normally add 20-30 minutes to the typical process of catching a flight.
Keep this in mind and make sure you get to the airport at least two hours before departure to avoid missing your flight. It’s better to have extra time on your hands than to be in a rush because you got to the airport too late.
Each airline and airport handles baggage claim of firearms a little differently. So, a couple of things can happen when you need to retrieve your gun case once you arrive at your final destination.
I’ve seen my gun case come out on the regular baggage carousel, but don’t panic if you don’t see it there. Sometimes it’s just dropped off with oversized items (like skis). I’ve also had to pick up my gun case in the airline baggage office.
How To Fly With A Gun: Final Thoughts
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: before your trip, make 100% certain that the firearm you are trying to take with you is legal to possess at your final destination.
Every place has different rules about what guns are legal and what are not and ignorance of the law will not prevent you from getting into trouble if you run afoul of local gun control regulations.
You should also exercise caution when booking a flight with connections. Though the Firearm Owners Protection Act does protect gun owners who are just transiting through a jurisdiction where their firearm is illegal, that has not stopped some law enforcement agencies from harassing and even arresting law abiding gun owners. La Guardia, JFK, and Newark are all notorious for this, so avoid those airports on your trip if at all possible.
Additionally, flying with a gun gets a little more complicated if you’re going overseas.
Exact requirements vary from country to country. For instance, you’ll need to submit a SAPS 520 form and some other documentation to the police if you’ll be hunting in South Africa. There is a similar process to apply for a visitor’s firearm license if you’re going on a New Zealand hunting trip.
Regardless of where you’re going, you should get a US Customs form 4457 certified at the closest CBP office before you depart. When you return home, that form serves as proof that you owned the firearm before you left the country and did not purchase it abroad. Even though it is not actually a gun permit or license, officials in other countries will also accept it as a “U.S. Gun Permit.”
As you can see, flying with a gun isn’t that complicated. Just make sure you’re familiar with and follow the TSA regulations and the rules for the specific airline you’ll be flying on. If you do this, you’ll be fine.
I’ve included links to the information about the policies several major airlines have regarding how to fly with a gun below.