If you're like many of us, carrying a firearm doesn't cease when traveling away from home. The thought of air travel with a firearm and its associated support equipment may sound intimidating at first and not worth the hassle. The truth is, it's really not a hassle at all, especially if you understand your individual airline's policies (which can be found on their websites) and TSA regulations on the matter.
As far as airline policies are concerned, the primary difference between them is whether the passenger (you) can secure his or her firearm and ammunition together in one locked container or if they must be separated. That's really it.
Most airlines have a restriction on how much ammunition you can take with you, either 6 or 7 pounds. You need to know prior to checking in, or you might be throwing away an expensive box or two curbside. It should be noted that the actual weight of the ammunition, not the storage container weight plus the ammunition determines this number. I recommend keeping your ammo in the factory cardstock or plastic boxes in which they came from the factory. This simplifies storage and provides an explanation of what you have and whether it's in line with the airline's policy. It also prevents loose rounds from rattling around. In my experience, most airline attendants haven't been overly knowledgeable about firearms, so it's to your benefit that factory boxes are uncomplicated and don't tend to raise any eyebrows.
I choose to pack ammunition in a container separate from my firearm. This way, I can pack more ammo into a separate, smaller case and know by looking at it that it contains only ammunition. Packing two separate cases also gives you more freedom when organizing and packing your suitcase. One large case of ammunition takes up a lot of room and can only be placed at certain spots in your suitcase, front or back. I find that a larger case takes up to 50 percent of the internal space of a large checked suitcase. If I separate the cases, I have a plethora of packing options due to the separation of mass. Furthermore, a sticky-handed baggage handler rummaging through your luggage has a 50-percent chance of picking the case that doesn't contain a firearm, especially if he's in a hurry.
I use a Pelican Storm case that is just large enough to store my pistol, four magazines and a small knife. Why four magazines? I usually carry one in the gun and three spares. Magazines are typically the failure point of most semiautomatic pistols, so I pack accordingly.
Pelican offers a wide variety of different-size cases to fit any pistol on the market. I recommend finding the smallest case that will fit your pistol and its support equipment due to space and weight restrictions on luggage. Avoidance of the overweight charge (oftentimes $50 or more) is at the forefront of my mind when checking in. Generally, anything over 50 pounds nets you that hefty overweight fee.
If you will be checking a firearm, avoid curbside check-in, as airport employees there will point you in the direction of the counter attendant anyway. If applicable, check in using the kiosk, and select the option to check a bag. Print your boarding pass, and then make your way to the counter attendant.
Here is how the typical check-in process usually goes:
Passenger: Good morning sir/ma'am. I'd like to check my bag and declare a firearm. (Hand them your driver's license or other form of ID and your boarding pass for your first leg of travel.) Note: It pays to be polite.
Attendant: OK, I have a form that I need you to fill out. (This is a small card that states that, by signing it, you agree to the airline's policy and that your firearm is unloaded. You'll need to sign your name and date it. The attendant will fill out his or her portion. The reverse side of the card states in bold print that you've agreed that your firearm is unloaded.)
Passenger: (Read, sign and date the card, then hand it back to the attendant.)
Attendant: Where is your firearm, and is it unloaded?
Passenger: Yes, sir/ma'am. It is unloaded and secured in a locked case within my bag. Would you like to see it?
Attendant: Yes, please open the case and show me that your firearm is "clear."
Passenger: (Open box, safely and discreetly point the firearm in a safe direction, and lock action to the rear, showing it is unloaded. I take a knee when doing this and use my body to block other passengers' view of what I'm doing, for their comfort. I never bring the firearm above my waist, nor do I move side to side. A safe direction to point your firearm is downward.) Note: As of late, I have not been asked to physically show that my pistol is empty. Instead, the attendant has merely wanted to see the pistol lying in its case.
Attendant: Thank you, sir. You may close and lock your case.
Passenger: (Quietly close the action, then close and lock the case.)
Attendant: I'm going to tape/place this card on top of your case.
Passenger: OK. (Zip or close your suitcase, and leave it on the scale for the attendant to attach the baggage tags and return identification/boarding documents.)
Attendant: Please wait over here (points to about 15 feet away from the counter) for about 15 minutes, just in case the TSA has a question or needs to enter your luggage.
Passenger: Thank you, sir/ma'am. Have a nice day.
If members of the TSA come out (they rarely do, in my experience, although it has happened a few times) and request to look inside your case, it's not a big deal. They usually have you unlock the case and check it in front of you. You're on your way in five minutes or less. If you choose to disregard the counter attendant's guidance on waiting 15 minutes prior to heading to the security checkpoint, you're taking a gamble. It's not fun going through security twice or losing your place in line (ask me how I know).
What to Store Your Pistol In
The particular case pictured below lasted a couple years of air travel. After the first trip or two, the inside started to separate, and both lock buttons broke off. Finally, the left-side lock latch broke apart, preventing the case from locking.
Keep in mind, this case was stored within a padded suitcase, surrounded by clothing, and it still looks like this. Another drawback is the size of this case. It took up almost half of my luggage space and was heavy, too. After it broke, I committed myself to using Pelican or Pelican Storm cases exclusively, and I haven't looked back.
The main differences between Pelican Brand cases and Pelican Storm are the latches and the type of resin used in the construction of the cases. Many years ago, two competing brands made high-quality, military-grade cases that set the benchmark for hard-plastic storage containers, Pelican and Hardigg/Storm, also known as Storm Cases. Several years ago, Pelican purchased Hardigg/Storm and relabeled these cases Pelican Storm.
For checked cases, I stay with the Pelican Storm brand, as they are about 15 percent lighter than the same Pelican Brand cases. The HPX resin used in these cases helps with airline weight restrictions, and the cases are just as durable, maintaining the same benefits as their Pelican counterparts.
Most Pelican and Pelican Storm cases feature:
- At least two press-and-pull latches
- A double-layered, soft-grip handle
- Two padlockable hasps
- A vortex valve
- Powerful hinges
- Construction that meets all airline carry-on regulations
- Lightweight, strong HPX resin
- Watertight construction
- A lifetime guarantee