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For the Love of Competition

How to Make Life Easier when Flying with Firearms

by Iain Harrison   |  November 16th, 2011 18

Pelican 1720, Brownells 3-gun case and range bag

As part of my job, I fly with guns and ammo about twice a month. Taking a single handgun to an industry expo is a piece of cake compared to the logistics involved in getting all your gear to a major 3-gun match, so the approach differs according to the event. As with most things in life, there’s a right way, a wrong way and the army way of doing things, so I figured I’d take this opportunity to share what works for me and how to make the experience as hassle-free as possible. I can’t claim to be an expert on air travel and I’d love to hear your stories, good, bad or nightmarish.

My guns are usually transported in a Pelican hard case. I use the 1720 model, which you can order with no foam insert for around $160. Into this goes a Brownells 3-gun soft case, which provides adequate cushioning while still fitting inside the Pelican. This also solves the problem of how to schlep your gear around the stages when you reach the match, and still leaves a little room for ammo or accessories. A couple of keyed-alike, short shackle padlocks secure the contents from sticky fingers, though there’s nothing to prevent someone walking off with the whole shebang. I’d like to see someone come out with a version in screaming yellow or Kawasaki green, so it would be noticeable from across an airport concourse, but you could always employ a couple of rattle cans to achieve the same effect.

Pistol and rifle ammo goes in the bottom of my (second) checked bag, along with a few shotgun slugs or buckshot rounds due to the ammunition weight limit of 5kg or 11lb. Cheap birdshot is usually readily available without restriction at just about any Wally World — 9mm major, not so much. Magazines, holster, pouches, cleaning kit, etc., also go in with the ammo.

My range bag is employed as a carry-on. There’s an obvious danger in employing it thusly, so I take extra care to search every pouch and pocket for live ammo or empty cases. Having attracted the attention of the TSA before, and having the fine to prove it, I can’t stress enough how important this is. If you have kids, get them to go through it as well — with Christmas coming up, they’ll be highly attuned to searching for presents, so you might as well make use of the little buggers.

There are a ton of articles out there on the web and in print as to the procedures involved when you actually get to the airport, so I won’t labor the subject here, especially as each facility seems to have its own riff on the same tune. Suffice to say, declare your guns and ammo at the check-in counter and be prepared to hang around while the cases are swabbed for explosives. When you arrive at your final destination, grab an airport employee at the baggage carousel — should one be available — and find out where your guns will appear. In some airports, they’ll be spat out on the same conveyor belt as your checked bag. In others, you’ll have to go track them down at the baggage office.

So there you have it: A quick and dirty guide to a subject that is often shrouded in mystery. But once you get used to the procedures, they shouldn’t inhibit you from traveling to participate in events across the country. Any of you guys have any tips you’d like to share?

  • bart

    Great tips Iain ! Especially about using the Brownell's 3 gun case instead of foam inserts. More room to pack around firearms. Great meeting you at Dallas,Tx, Diva-WOW AR Event too.

  • mike

    I've only traveled with my handguns twice.. called the airline first. at the time all they required a lockable case with two keys i bought a cheap aluminum one (about 22 bucks at wally world)ammo had to be in a separate luggage and in the factory box. checked the gun box first.. had to wait for TSA to clear that.. then i was on my way..i did learn to pack my guns better next time… i wrapped each one separately in cloth.. they got beat around pretty good the first trip. i guess the best tip is to call the airline first and see what their rules are.

  • Mike B.

    The only time I ever traveled on an airplane with a gun was when I took a Military "Space A" flight to Germany. The process was very similar to the one described above but one piece of advice I'll give is to know the laws of both the U.S. and the country you're traveling to. I did all the research and had all the necessary paperwork and still ran into some hassle because the security personnel and U.S. Customs agents didn't know the rules/regulations. Everyone kept telling me that I couldn't take a gun to Germany which wasn't true. After explaining the German gun laws to them, and after approval from the German customs agents who gave me no hassle at all, I was allowed to enter the country. On the way back I was told by at least two U.S. Customs agents that I needed certain paperwork in order to get my gun back into the U.S., and that this paperwork takes up to one month to be processed. Luckily I did my research on this as well and I was able to inform them of the U.S. laws regarding the importation of firearms to the U.S… At least those that applied to me and my situation.

  • James T.

    There is one airline (can't remember specifically which one, maybe Spirit Airlines) which will only allow you to check one firearm–that's their policy, TSA has no such restriction. Also, ammo has to be in manufacturer packaging or in ammo boxes which separate the rounds–loose or bulk ammo is not allowed to avoid sympathetic detonation due to bouncing/vibration. Always check your airline's rules online before buying a ticket–also their checked baggage fees, which are getting ridiculous. Some airlines are now charging for carry-ons as well.

    • Jim in Houston

      Per the TSA rules, properly packaged ammo may be shipped in the same case as the firearm. From Dominic V's link, "Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 caliber for a rifle or pistol and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm, as long as it follows the packing guidelines described above. "

  • Matt g

    I've traveled (flown) several times with multiple handguns and ammo. I try to make sure they never travel in a case or bag that screams "GUN!" which is equal to "STEAL ME FIRST". I use locking cases that fit in a suitcase and once checked (follow their rules!) I shove it to the middle or bottom of the bag. I am also as discreet as possible when declaring the gun(s), being sure to use my body to block the contents from any bystanders as best I can. I travel with musicians and they have to check their guitars sometimes. Nothing else looks like a guitar case, so they are prime targets for jerks who hang out in baggage claim waiting for easy pickins. A band I traveled with had one stolen. The worst part is knowing we were only 30 seconds away, but thats all it took. Told the band "Starbucks can wait next time"–same thing applies when checking my guns.

  • Dominic V.

    I am a frequent traveler for work (usually flying at least 1 city a week) and travel frequently with firearms as well.
    1. Always check your airline's website for their requirements. Most adhere to the TSA regulations, but some may be stricter. Not every ticket counter agent is familiar with the requirements or policies, so print out the airline regs from their website and bring them with you – you will save yourself a lot of hassle should you need it.
    2. You can pack pistols in a standard checked suitcase as long as they are in a locked hard-sided case. Be aware that the airline limits their liabilities when you do this vs. checking them in a hardsided case of their own.
    3. You must use either keyed or combination locks which are NOT "TSA" locks (the ones that use a universal/master key that the TSA has copies of) which you would otherwise normally use for luggage.

    Here is the TSA regulations on travelling with firearms:

  • Lakeside Rick

    When I traveled to Texas from California to go hunting, I had no issues.. However, the one thing that I had to do, was to re-identify myself and fill out a special card the airline agent gave me to fill out in front of her and place it inside with the shotgun I was putting in baggage. Yes! the outside had an idtenfication tag as well. I used an SKB case, (very heavy duty case and TSA approved). No issues what so ever either way.

    • Jim in Houston

      I am pretty sure that there is no requirement to place a tag on the outside of a suitcase that identifies it as containing a firearm. If the airline were to try and do this, I would request that they point out that requirement in their rules. Having such a tag is an open invitation to a thief.

      • Steve

        Delta requires a bright orange "Firearms Unloaded" delcaration card be inside the case, some airline agents will tape that to the outside of my pistol case, which goes into my luggage. Another was put inside my rifle case, and not affixed to the outside. I suspect that the x-ray machines are sophisticated enough to actually read that tag, stating that the firearm has been inspected and unloaded.

  • Cornodacaccia

    Most airlines publish regulations regarding the checking in of fire-arms.A few minutes of research will pay dividends at the airport,in case of a dispute. I print out a copy of the regulations to show any over-zealous airline employees. Also, some airports are more used to firearms passing through, such as those in Western states. I pack my ammo in a small metal pistol case, always in the original manufacturer's boxes. I also triple check to make sure there are no loose cartitriges in any bags. When I am flying with my hunting rifles, I remove the bolt and wrap it separately in a clear plastic bag, and place it underneath the rifle. If traveling with shotguns, I take them apart. I agree with the above article and comments that a friendly, courteous and relaxed demeanor will usually diffuse any anxiety on the part of ticket agents and TSA personnel. And, although there is a nominal fee, it is ALWAYS worth it to hire a service in Africa (especially S. Africa) to assist with customs and gun handling upon arrival.

  • Mike

    When I travel with a firearm I check the website of the airline, print their rules and regs regarding firearms . The only time I failed to do this I was hassled by the check-in agent.

  • Greg

    Took 3 pistols last month-Omaha to Phoenix and back. Flew Continental/United. Seemed to me that the regs said handguns had to be in locked case in hard-sided luggage. I had to go find a hard-sided suitcase at last minute, though the agents at airport didn't seem to know anything about need for hard side luggage. No problems, though had to wait 15 minutes for TSA person to check bag after it left counter. No one ever talked to us, just had to wait awhile. Finally asked ticket agent and they said we could go to gate.

    • Rodger Zeisler

      It has to be in a hard case. It is not required to be in hard luggage. You can use a hard pistol case and then place the pistol case in soft luggage. This is how I always do it. This hides the pistol case…makes it less noticeable.

  • Tom

    I, too, use a Pelican but I can get more pistols in it using the "pick apart" foam system. This is what I use:

    And it was really simple flying on Southwest. Fill out a little form and that's it.

    • james

      Hi Tom, nice case and setup.

      you may want to crop the photo,
      your info is visible below the handle of the case.


  • will

    When traveling with hand guns, use a rifle case, as small packages are easier to stash and steal.

  • mike

    I'm a hunting outfitter in South America ( ) I fly with my shotguns back and forth every 3 or 4 months. I never fly any other airline that is not American or Continental because they are great when flying international with firearms they allow up to 5 firearms and 11lbs of ammo.

    Make sure you arrive at least 3 hours ahead of time because you never know who will be working the counter that day. I have had people who get me and my guns checked in no time at all and then I’ve had people who have never had to check a gun and just freak out and don’t know what to do they act like it’s some big mystery … so be prepared mentally to deal with this class of people know your stuff follow the rule and regulations of the airline and TSA to the dot so that your travel is less of a hassle.

    If you have everything done correctly in the US you won’t have problems going out the fun really begins when you get to your international destination.

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