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Flying With a Gun: 8 Tips for Airborne Hunters

Airborne hunters can fly with firearms without much hassle if they know what to expect and how to deal with the most commonly encountered hiccups.


1. How To Pack
Airline regulations as well as TSA rules require that firearms must be unloaded and packed in an “airline approved” gun case. Any hard-sided gun case with either a built-in lock or a provision for a padlock is “approved.” Prices for gun cases vary from low-end Doskocil to high-end StormCase to my personal favorite, a TuffPak (the cylindrical gun case that looks like a golf club case).

Render your firearm inoperable by removing the bolt from a bolt-action rifle, removing the barrel(s) from a shotgun, taking the slide off a pistol or removing the cylinder from a revolver. Make it easy for the TSA or ticket agent to see your firearms are unloaded.

2. Ammunition “Rules”
Airlines differ in their policies for the way ammunition must be packed in checked luggage. Some require that the ammunition be in the same case as the firearms, others specify the ammunition cannot be in the same case as the firearms. However, all airlines agree that ammunition must be “packed in original factory containers,” or a hard, plastic container and cannot exceed 5 kilograms (11 pounds) in total weight.

When you check in and declare your firearms, also declare that you’re carrying, “less than five kilos of ammunition in the original factory boxes.” By using this terminology, you’re speaking the same language as the ticket agent, and he or she will know that you know the rules, simply by your using the correct phrasing.

Some international airlines require that ammunition be packed in a totally separate locked case. Accordingly, I always pack my ammo in a small Pelican case with separate padlocks and then place this case inside my “suitcase” which is a large StormCase with its own padlocks. If I’m asked to check my ammo separately, it’s all ready to go in its own case.

3. First Impression
As your mother always told you, first impressions are everything. The most important person you will encounter on your trip is the ticket agent when you check in. Dress nicely. Wear a collared shirt or, my favorite, a well-kept polo with a law enforcement affiliation, such as an embroidered NYPD logo. You’re not being deceitful, you actually like the NYPD. If the ticket agent assumes you’re a cop, hey, that’s not your doing.

When I wear a polo with the logo of the U.S. Embassy, Kabul, Afghanistan that a buddy sent me from the sandbox—a favorite for when I have to clear U.S. Customs—I invariably get asked if I’m in the military. I reply truthfully, “No, a friend who is serving his country sent this to me.” I’ve still made a positive impression without being dishonest.

4. Declare “Unloaded Firearms”
Be polite. Smile. Let the agent check you in normally. The agent will ask how many bags you wish to check, and at that point you matter-of-factly state, “two bags, one of which contains unloaded firearms.” The key phrase is “unloaded firearms.” This is the term the agent is accustomed to using. Don’t say, “huntin’ rifles” or any other descriptor— they are “unloaded firearms.”

The agent should then give you a tag that says—surprise—“Unloaded Firearms” which you sign, declaring the firearms are indeed unloaded. Place the tag inside your gun case as instructed.
5. Inspection Request
Lately, I’ve noticed that fewer and fewer ticket agents ask to personally inspect your “unloaded firearms” but this can arise. Back to what mom said—be polite.

I open my case and show the agent my “unloaded firearms,” and point to the open action (I mostly travel with bolt-action rifles with the bolts removed). Make it obvious that the firearms are unloaded by rendering them easy to inspect (as noted earlier).

6. TSA Inspection
Sometimes the ticket agent places your bag on the conveyor belt and away it goes into the airport’s lower intestine where it will be X-rayed. Sometimes the agent asks you to wait 10 or 15 minutes, and if you’re not paged by TSA to provide the key to your gun case, you’re good to go. Other times you’re asked to physically carry your gun case to a nearby TSA screening area.

When a TSA agent takes your case, inform him or her that it contains—what does it contain, class?—“unloaded firearms.” Sometimes they wave you on without opening the case and sometimes they open it and swipe a patch to check for explosives. I can’t remember a time when a TSA agent has actually removed a firearm from the case to inspect it, but it could happen. Watch the proceedings, and make sure an agent relocks your case and gives you back your keys.

7. Plan On Losing A Bag
The one good thing about pessimists is they’re never disappointed. I’ve had bags delayed so many times that whenever I fly to reach a hunting destination, I always pack my carry-on as if it’s the only bag that will make it. I wear my hunting boots. I pack a set of hunting clothes and three changes of socks and underwear, carry all medications and vitamins in my carry-on as well as my binoculars. I have the bare essentials to be able to hunt.

8. Coming Home
If your destination is outside the U.S., when you come home you must declare to U.S. Customs that you’re carrying “unloaded firearms.” You will be ushered into the “red line” and asked to show your firearms and proof of ownership. By far the best and most universally accepted form of proof is a Form 4457, a “declaration of personal effects” that U.S. Customs issues for free. Simply go to an airport with a Customs office with your personal effects—your firearms—and ask for a Form 4457.

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10 Responses to Flying With a Gun: 8 Tips for Airborne Hunters

louis paffel wrote:
February 19, 2013

Took my rifle to alaska. TSA took it to inspect inside a room. Arrived in Alaska and found that they had turned all my scope knobs. Toom most my ammo to sight it back in to hunt

A. Andreson III wrote:
February 25, 2011

I just got back from a trip to Namibia and the Tuffpak performed incredibly. Not only was it easy to get through TSA, I was looked at completely different than when I carry my old metal gun case. People thought I had golf clubs and asked where I was playing. Thanks Cameron!

steve thiele wrote:
January 22, 2011

I traveled to s. africa last year and learned that a copy of your 4457 in your gun case is a good idea. Also have your origanal 4457 laminated and in your carry on bag. Our ph took us to the police station in joburg airport and they still tried to scam us about the serial numbers on our guns. If your ph will not accompany you through this process hunt with someone who will.

Fred Atkins wrote:
January 20, 2011

I believe #1 is incorrect. No airline I could find requires use of an "airline approved gun case." I fly Delta, American, and Continental with guns frequently. All require simply "lockable hard-sided cases." You can go to any airline website and search "firearms" and see that that's all they require. For at least 5 years, I have used a SKB hard-sided golf bag travel case with wheels. I put my gun in a regular soft case and then pack it in the golf travel case with a bunch of clothes and gear. The gun is very well protected and you can get a LOT of clothes and stuff in there. Last year, I went on a 5 day hunt in North Dakota with 3 guns and lots of cold-weather clothing. I was able to travel with just the golf/gun case and a carry-on; thus no extra baggage fees, and less hassle schlepping multiple pieces of luggage through airports! The most guns I have ever put in one case is 4. No airline or TSA rep. have ever questioned this. Added benefit is you can also use it for your golf clubs in the summer!

Steve Shimp wrote:
January 20, 2011

The tips are right but you missed the most important one. Check the airline when you book to make sure they will take your gun! USA3000 will not check fire arms and really short-suited our duck hunting trip in 2009 when we had to leave our guns in the truck, parked at the airport, and hunt with borrowed guns. NEEDLESS TO SAY, I NEVER FLY USA 3000--I REFUSE TO GIVE MY HARD EARNED MONEY TO AN AIRLINE THAT HAS THIS POLICY, NO MATTER HOW CHEAP THEIR TICKET MAY BE!!

James McClellan wrote:
December 09, 2010

Be aware that TSA considers a scope a "firearm part" and it can NOT go in carry on baggage with other optics like binoculars.

Sal Capitano wrote:
November 23, 2010

Went to Africa last year to hunt. Go to TSA office, with unloaded weapon, in case, a week or so before. They will issue you form, check serial# of weapon and stamp document. Bring proof of ownership just in case they ask. You will need this document in every country you stop in if your luggage is picked up by you and transfered to another airline etc. Yu will also need this on the way back; same story. Make lots of copies just in case! My outfitter also supplied me with a rather lengthly questionnaire required by So Africa to fill out before I left. Also make copies. When you pick up weapon in So Africa you will directed to Police office at airport. Go directly there and don't look like you need help. There are always scam artists looking for a mark. The police were very efficient and polite and I was on my way in no time. Since I was staying overnight in Johannesburg SA I was issued a three day pass usable for my return trip also. If you stay at hotel have weapon locked in their safe overnight.

Eric Oklar wrote:
November 23, 2010

Last summer I traveled from Los Angeles, CA to Charlotte, NC. I brought back a .22 pump rifle that I found in my Father's attic. I bought a cheap plastic gun case and was lucky that it had three places on it to attach padlocks, something that US Airways required. I checked with US Air's web site about firearms travel. Their web site said that I needed to pack any ammuniation with my rifle. When I got to the airport, the US Air Staff told me just the opposite-no ammo could be with the gun. Moral: Call the airline directly, the day of the flight, and do not trust their web site!

John McShane wrote:
November 23, 2010

To get the 4457 form online, go to the Customs web-site:

Pete VanderArk wrote:
November 23, 2010

Item #8 above is correct, also both easy and free, but you need to get the 4457 in advance of your trip, not upon your return.