October 22, 2023
The full list of regulations for air travel with a firearm can be found on the Transportation Security Administration’s website. The process can be intimidating at first, but as someone who has traveled with all types of firearms, I promise you, it’s a fairly straightforward process.
Packing at Home
When preparing to travel with a gun or ammo, plan to transport your firearm(s) in a hard-sided, lockable case. These cases can come in all sizes and weights. Look for a stout case with a solid latching mechanism. Try to avoid the flimsy cases, as they can fail when subjected to the rigors of air travel. Wheels are not required, but they make getting from your truck to the ticket counter a whole lot easier. Make sure your hard case of choice has at least two locking points. In many rifle length cases, there will be four or more. You are not required to use TSA approved locks on your case, but be sure to always keep a key handy throughout your travels.
Internals can vary from case to case, but it’s ideal to have some sort of foam liner inside. If foam is lacking, you can order some, often specifically sized for your case. In a pinch, you can store your firearm in a zippered, padded sleeve before packing it into the hard case. Next, you’ll want to plan how the firearm and other accessories will be arranged.
When placing your firearm in its hard case, be sure you have at least an inch or more of foam around all edges and surfaces, especially if optics are involved. When packing scoped rifles, take it a step further and orient the rifle so when the case is carried by hand, the rifle and scope are upright. This prevents the scope from receiving a direct downward hit, should the case be dropped in transport. If the case has foam in layers, trace your firearm onto the top layer and cut out the outline with a knife for a custom, secure fit. If your case comes with Pick & Pluck foam, simply pick out the pieces that match the outline of your firearm. Don’t be afraid to undersize the cuts. Snug is secure.
Ammunition can be transported in the hard case with the firearm, or in any of your checked bags. It must be transported in either the original box, or in some sort of case specifically designed for ammunition. TSA also states, “You cannot use firearm magazines or clips for packing ammunition unless they completely enclose the ammunition. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be boxed or included within a hard-sided, locked case.” One further note on ammunition: Your specific airline will have a maximum weight allowable for ammunition. Delta, for example, limits ammunition to 11lbs. Be sure to check your airline’s website before traveling to confirm. Lastly, it should go without saying, but DO NOT attempt to transport your firearm loaded.
At the Airport
Plan to arrive a few minutes earlier than you would for a typical flight. When you arrive at the airport, head on over to the ticketing counter for the airline you are flying with. DO NOT use the self-check for your bags. When you get to the counter, tell the agent that you need to declare a firearm. The agent will hand you a firearms declaration card. This simply states your firearms are unloaded per TSA guidelines. Once you sign and date this card, you will open the rifle case, place the card inside, and re-lock the case. The case will be weighed, and standard baggage fees apply. The case will then either be sent back on the conveyor or may be manually carried to the bag drop and TSA scanner.
In cases where the rifle case is taken to the oversize bag drop, you will often accompany the ticketing agent to deliver the bag. You can wait as it is sent through the scanner, and the TSA agents give you the green light that everything is good to go. If they see anything of concern and you do not use TSA locks, they will request your key to open the case. In some airports, TSA may ask you to open the case before it is scanned.
The most common method I’ve experienced involves waiting by the ticket counter for a few minutes after your bags go back for screening. An agent will come out and ask for your key. They take the key to the back and open your case, checking things over to ensure all is to their standard. Wait around where the agent picked up the key, and they will bring the key back to you when they are done. This is certainly not convenient, but I’ve always found the contents of my case to have been well taken care of and in order as they were when I dropped it off.
When you arrive at your destination, head on over to baggage claim and get the other bags you may have checked. Firearms are usually held until the end, and in most cases, you will need to go to a specific area to get them. Head over to either oversized baggage claim, or your airline’s baggage office. You will need to provide a photo ID to claim your gun case. The baggage agent will confirm your ID matches the tag on the case. Do not be surprised if there is a large plastic zip tie around your case. In recent years, it has become standard practice at many airports to add that before returning your case. I find it an inconvenience, but the fact that my checked firearm case made it all the way to my destination is a win in my book. I’ll deal with the zip tie as soon as I’m outside. With your rifle case in hand, you are now free to go. Keep in mind, these are the most common scenarios I’ve encountered over the last few years at multiple airports. Your airport may handle things differently, so if you’re not sure what to do, ask your ticketing agent after you’ve declared your firearm.
Before you leave for your initial flight, take pictures inside your case and make a note of the contents. If anything is damaged upon arrival, you have a record of it. Upon receiving your firearms case, DO NOT just open it in the airport to check that all your guns are exactly as you left them. Using my own locks ensures that no one else has had access at any point during the transportation process, beyond the initial TSA screening. That way, I can feel comfortable waiting until I’ve left the airport to open my case. Before your return flight, check all your carry-on items for ammunition and other items prohibited in carry-on cargo. The only firearm “part” permitted in carry-on luggage is your optic. Anything beyond that in your carry-on will lead to a lot of uncomfortable questions.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.