[Revised: I learned a few things (specifically about loaded mags and the orange firearms declaration) via the comments section below.]

Nick wrote about this subject a couple years ago, but it recently came up again and this was my response.  It’s long, and I make no apologies for that. I tried to cover all the bases:

I’ve flown with firearms quite a bit and I researched the hell out of it before I did, and then learned stuff along the way. My flights have been equally split between Delta and Allegiant, with one USAair thrown in for balance. Their procedures are similar enough that I don’t distinguish between them, but always check with your specific airline. Here’s what I know . . .

First, TSA approved locks. There is no such thing as a TSA approved lock for gun cases. If you’re thinking about those neat locks that have a special keyway so the TSA can open and inspect your luggage and then relock it when they’re done, ABSOLUTELY NOT. FAA regs say that you, only you, and nobody else can have access to the gun case. They are not allowed to open the case outside your presence. One key, in your pocket. One combination, in your head. Period. Full stop. When you check in (I’ll get to that in a minute), if they need to see inside your case and they ask for the key or the combination, politely refuse. They can bring you to the case, or the case to you, but they are not getting either the key or the combination. They’ve gotten better about this, but it sometimes still turns into an issue. Politely, but firmly stand your ground. (Note, this has never been an issue I’ve run into, but it does happen.)

Second, the case. Don’t buy cheap stuff. $15-20 plastic cases from Bass Pro ain’t gonna get the job done. The unwritten standard is that when the case is locked (not latched, but locked; think “someone trying to get in”) that you can’t fit your finger through the gap. I bought a cheap case back when I was learning about this, put my unloaded gun inside, locked it, then unlatched it and shook it over my bed. My gun fell right out of the still locked case. No bueno. I firmly believe Pelican (or something very, very similar) is the way to go. They are solid, and darn near bulletproof.

There are two schools of thought regarding security on traveling with (small) firearms: keep it on the down low (i.e. putting the gun case inside your luggage), or don’t but make it obviously secure (i.e. send it separately in a sturdy, well-locked case). The “down low” option has the advantage of being cheaper, but from my point of view, that’s the only upside. Back when Nick wrote about it, he chose to do it this way, and I’ll let him tell you why:

I placed the smaller locked pistol case in a larger duffel bag and secured it inside using one of the locks with a bendable cable that came with my Mossberg 100 ATR, then filled the rest of the bag with clothes. The outer duffel bag didn’t contain anything valuable so I wasn’t concerned about it being ransacked by baggage handlers and was content to leave it completely unlocked, and the smaller locked container being fastened to the larger bag securely enough that it couldn’t be removed unless power tools were used.

I was counting on the bag looking exactly like any other beat up piece of luggage and being ignored, which is exactly what happened. It’s a gamble, but for a direct flight on a regional jet it seemed like the superior solution and didn’t get me charged extra for oversize or overweight baggage.

For my part, I do not recommend putting whatever case you choose inside your luggage. If you send the gun case as a separate item, it has its own tracking and handling. If it is inside your luggage, it does not, and if it “disappears” from inside your luggage, who’s gonna know until you discover it? Especially if you have a multi-leg flight, it could have disappeared at any time prior to your discovery. A smaller individual case may be easier to “walk away with,” but at least you’ll have the tracking info to say, “We know it got this far, no further.” If you choose to put it in there anyway, you want to use a sturdy cable and lock the gun case to the frame inside of the luggage. Don’t have an exposed frame to lock to? Figure it out, or don’t do it. Do not under any circumstances simply place it loose in your luggage, even if your luggage is locked with one of those “super-special” (not really special) TSA locks.

A third option is to pack it in your luggage, and lock your entire bag with a real, non-TSA lock, but you need sturdy luggage for that. On most soft luggage, the zipper is a weak point, and you can bypass the lock and open the bag by sticking a pen or a knife through the zipper and then just pulling it apart. Not secure at all. I do not recommend this, unless you have real hard-sided luggage. The vast majority of people do not. Bite the bullet, pay the extra baggage fee, and send it separate.

A note on “oversize” luggage: The first time I was going to fly with my Pelican 1750, I was sweating oversize baggage fees really hard. At 53.5″ x 16″ x 7.5″, my rifle case is well outside the standard oversize limits for most airlines. For example, Delta’s oversize limit is 62″ total outside dimension (length PLUS width PLUS height). Some airlines (USAir) had rifle cases specifically listed as exceptions to their oversize policies, but Delta did not specifically say either way. Three separate phone calls confirmed that “no mention = no exception.”

Finally I literally took my rifle case to the Delta counter at Orlando International and explained my dilemma. I actually didn’t even finish my explanation (you’ve noticed I can be a little long-winded) before the guy interrupted me and said, “Oh, that? We’d just take that as it is.” I said (because it’s my money; it wouldn’t cost this guy anything to be wrong), “Are you sure? Because it is bigger than the oversize limits.” His response, “Do you want me to get out my tape measure? It’s a rifle case, we’ll take it just like it is.”

The policies have changed since then, and they’re a little more clear now: As of this writing, USAir says max 50 pounds and max length (not overall dimension) 62 inches; Delta says 50 pounds, but gives no dimensions. Also, as of this writing USAir has no limit on the number of firearms in a single case, within the size/weight limit above, while Delta limits you to four rifles/shotguns in any one case, or five handguns in any one case. As always, check before each flight for the rules for your specific airline, because they may have changed.

Third, ammunition. TSA regs allow ammunition in the same case with the firearm. Their rules can be interpreted to allow loaded magazines, but many airline rules do not, and whoever’s rules are more strict supersede, so as always, Check with your airline before flight. Original packaging is fine, aftermarket packaging is fine, the key phrase is “provides separation between the cartridges.” That’s the phrase that airlines use to preclude loaded magazines. I know this is true for Delta, USAir, and Allegiant.  Southwest does allow loaded magazines, but they have specific requirements for how they’re packed.  Check their site.

Some folks have successfully flown with bulk .22LR in plastic containers (like Gladware) sealed with tape, even though the cartridges aren’t separated, but that seems like a crapshoot to me. I’ve flown with .22LR, but it’s always been stuff like Velocitors or Stingers where the cartridges are separate. The standard limit is 11 pounds of ammunition. Some airlines have more or less, check with yours, but that’s the “standard.”

Fourth, check in. Common sense would tell you to keep your case locked as much as possible, such as when moving from the car to the terminal, and from one line to another. Sometimes I’m lazy about this. I’m usually flying with a Pelican 1750, which is a 4.5′ long rifle case with four padlock hasps. Sometimes I don’t lock it at all until I turn it over to the airline, and sometimes I’ll lock one padlock just for “walking around.” It just depends on my mood.

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When you walk up to the counter to check in, present your ID, and when you have the agent’s attention, tell them “I’m checking a firearm today.” Again, common sense, don’t say, “I’ve got a gun.”  They will give you a bright orange luggage tag type thing that certifies that your firearm is unloaded.

The first time I ever flew with a gun the counter agent actually looked at the handgun in the case, and lifted the butt of the grip out of the case to verify the magwell was empty, but did not completely remove the gun or rack the slide. She also verified the magazines were empty. This happened the first time I flew, but it did not happen on the return trip nor on any of the 14-16 flights I’ve taken since then. It may have been simply because I told the counter agent this was my first time. That doesn’t mean they don’t glance into the case. On one trip I was traveling heavy, with two rifles and three handguns, plus ammo and CR123 flashlight batteries, all packed inside my 1750. The quantity and variety caught the guy’s eye, and he expressed his surprise, in a good way, so we talked for a minute. But that’s it. Other than that first trip, I have never offered to let them check (or asked them if they wanted to).

You sign and date the luggage tag, they might tear off the top carbon if there is one, and the bright orange tag goes into the gun case. It has a string on it, but it does not go on the outside of the case. I’ve never had anyone from the airline try to do this wrong, but there’s always a first time. You can have GLOCK-brand GLOCK stickers all over the outside of your case if that’s your thing, but in the U.S. the airlines are not allowed to stick anything on the outside of the case to indicate it contains a firearm. International rules are different.  [Revised: Apparently if you’re traveling with your gun case inside your other luggage, the firearms declaration goes inside the luggage, but outside and near the gun case itself.  My rifle case doesn’t fit in my luggage, so I was unaware of this detail.]

At this point you are done inside the case, so lock it up with however many locks you feel appropriate and necessary. On my 1750, I use all four. What happens next depends on the airline and the airport layout, and sometimes on who is working that day. At some airports they will take your now-locked case through a door behind the counter for the TSA to inspect. If so, that is the last you will probably see of your case, but tell them you’re going to wait for the OK, and do not leave the counter until you get it. It usually takes a minute or two and the counter agent will come back out and say you’re good to go. In other airports they will direct you and your locked case to another line/area where the TSA has an inspection station set up, often adjacent to an X-ray machine.

Again, give them the case and do not leave until they give you the all clear. Do not be afraid to ask, if you’re not sure. Whether they take it in the back or inspect it right in front of you, all they’re likely to be doing is swabbing it with one of those explosive detector discs and sending it through X-ray. I have never had them ask me to open the case back up after I’ve left the ticket counter. They usually have given me the all clear after they’ve swabbed it, but before they X-ray it.

Fifth, at your destination. On one, and only one, occasion I have had an airline employee (a baggage handler) bring my gun case directly to me in the baggage carousel area. It was one of the first couple times I flew, and it was on the outbound flight at a tiny little regional airport. It was also not a rifle case, but the original case my XDm came in, so it said XDm on the outside, and he “didn’t want to just send it out on the belt.” On one other occasion, on my return trip (with my rifle case), I went to the baggage carousel at Orlando Airport and waited. And waited. And waited. And then they turned the baggage carousel off. I went to the Delta counter and expressed my concern. The agent directed me to the Delta baggage office (conveniently it was only about 20 feet from where I was standing). Once there I had to tell them what I was looking for, describe it, wait 5 minutes, and then show my ID and boarding pass for the man to give me my rifle case. On my most recent flight (August 2016), I was traveling with only my SIG P238 carry gun, in its own original hard case. It was tagged at check-in with an orange “Special Handling” tag. Knowing this, on arrival I immediately went directly to the baggage office, where it was already there waiting on me. On every single flight other than those three, my gun case (whether briefcase-sized XDm or 4.5′ long rifle) simply came out on the carousel with the rest of the baggage. As such, it would behoove you to be standing where you can see the luggage as soon as it comes through the flappy door.

91 Responses to Flying With Your Guns Revisited

  1. To add: Hopefully the DA’s in New York and New Jersey have pulled their heads out of their aft exhaust ports on this topic, but note that if your flight lands at an airport in either of those states for ANY reason-INCLUDING emergency landings or weather issues- you CANNOT legally take possession of handguns. FOPA be damned, you will likely be arrested and charged with illegal possession of a handgun -and no, those states do NOT issue permits to non-resident travelers.

    For reference, please see the case of Revell vs NJ Port Authority. The judge concluded that the arrest of Revell-who landed in NJ when his flight had an emergency landing en route to PA- was proper , and that he should have turned over his guns to NJ Law Enforcement or the airline for “safekeeping” once he landed. Note that neither party is legally obligated to do this for a passenger in his predicament.

    • During the Background Check Debate, the Cruz amendment would have had this emergency provision which would have allowed “safe passage” per the case you referenced. The democrats including Schumer objected to that amendment. New York and New Jersey does not believe that there are any law abiding citizens. For the one guy whom they could save some grief with this provision, they have 100 criminals just walking illegal guns into their borders but they cannot see that with their demented minds

    • Have fun feeling helpless; if your flight is “intervened” by hijackers, they want you to die. It’s convenient with all the weeping and all.

      Quick, somebody, name me one flight that was hijacked with a gun in the last 35 years.

        • That high jacking was in Norway with a bb gun, guy was drunk and drinking the whole time. He surrendered his weapon in exchange for more beer when he had exhausted the supply on the plane.

      • Does it have to be a domestic flight? Because Lufthansa Flight 592 was hijacked in ’93 with a pistol, and forced to land at JFK.

      • In the U.S, FedEx flight 205 in ’94.

        The hijacker intended to use the ‘plane (a DC-10) as a piloted cruise missile against FedEx headquarters. Sound familiar?

        The fiendish plot was foiled by the aircrew.

        It was a speargun.

        Outside the U.S, numerous.

    • in which case you should probably refuse to take possession of a firearm, explaining the predicament to the airline… have them put it on the flight out.

  2. I’ve flown once with a handgun. The process was pretty much as stated. They did not mark the outside of the luggage and the lady at the counter was polite and did not even raise an eyebrow when I said I was transporting a firearm. Of course this was Portland, Oregon that I flew out of. Not everyone in Portland pisses themselves at the sight of a gun. My XD came out on the carousel in Austin, Texas and I snatched it up quickly. I was right at the opening waiting and was nervous.

    If I fly home later this year I will be taking my Garand with me so this was a good refresher.

    • My premier experience was at Baltimore International, where I actually thought they were going to arrest me for following their own regulations. FUCK MARYLAND ITA.

      • When was this? We send lots of troops with firearms through Baltimore, so they should be quite used to the process at this point. None of my Airmen have ever had a problem. Well, not at the airport. But that’s a story I can’t tell on The Interwebz….. Heh.

  3. I have done a lot of flying with my firearms, and while the TSA rules are always equal, the agents who are interpreting them are not, and the TSA agent usually has the right of way.

    I have traveled multiple airlines, and initially (2001ish) had some who wanted to inspect the weapon, but recently most do not want to see it or touch it. Some TSA guys insist the orange ‘unloaded’ tag goes inside the gun case, otehrs insist it gets taped to the outside of the case. I have argued with them, but the TSA agent, no matter how wrong they are, has the right of way.

    I have had some TSA agents inspect and OK ammunition loaded into magazines (securely placed in their own hard sided case, separate from the weapons), while others insist to me this is not safe because (and this always makes me chuckle) “Gun clips are not designed to hold bullets.” Yeah, right. One TSA agent was going to confiscate all my ‘clips and bullets’ on a return flight home, but after I explained to him several times that I brought the equipment with me in the same fashion, without issue, and asked how can it be an issue one way and not the other? Eventually, that TSA agent folded, but I thought for sure I was going to loose a couple hundred bucks in ammo and magazines.

    I have had some airports take the bag directly at the ticket counter for TSA inspection, while I wait for the “OK”, while other airports require I take the bag to a special TSA inspection station where they swab for hazardous chemicals (does gunpowder residue count?), and then send me on my way.

    I always place my gun case inside my regular luggage with my clothes, etc, and I always try to get to the baggage carousel before the luggage arrives. People make honest mistakes, and I have had my baggage taken by mistake before (no guns that time), and yes, it was returned, but I prefer not to repeat that experience.

    My experience is that most of the people you encounter while checking in don’t know diddly about guns, and are generally afraid of them, and just want to move on to the next passenger ASAP. Be courteous, be polite, and be confident. I have had to explain the rules/laws to more than on ticket and TSA agent in the past, because I do my research ahead of time, and they are just doing their 9-5.

    • And this is why you should print out and hand-carry both the TSA regs and the airline rules for your trip. When they do anything against their own rules/policies, pull out the hard-copy. If that doesn’t work… elevate.

  4. Just a couple of comments:
    – The 50lb limit seems to be universal and “driven” by workers’ comp concerns. Therefore a Pelican case can be a costly choice. They weigh significantly more than AL Cabela’s/ICC gun cases. I know all the arguments about the superiority of a Pelican case, but my old AL case has 25 years and a couple of hundred flights/transfers on it. So, unless you like extra “overweight” fees or only carry a single rifle and limited ammo in your gun case, you’ll want to go AL.

    -Think wheels. As my “wheels” have worn out, I’ve finally broken down and bought a new AL case with wheels and a folding luggage rack. Way easier. Before I made the switch, I looked again at the Pelican and compared weights. Essentially, you give up taking a back-up rifle (or pay the overweight fees) if you use the Pelican.

    I’ve seen both AL and Pelican cases destroyed by baggage handlers/equipment, so don’t take false comfort from the Pelican’s mall ninja reputation. If weight weren’t an issue, I might go with a Pelican, but its only real advantage, the ability to float, will likely be negated when the float plane pilot tells you to put your guns in soft cases to save weight!

    • I can definitely appreciate what you’re saying about aluminum. My problem with aluminum over the heavier Pelican cases is the long term durability. The Pelican can take hits and it won’t crack or really deform much at all. On the other hand, a dent in aluminum is a dent forever, or at least until you can go at with a hammer. I don’t have to worry about the lid on my Pelican getting pranged in such a way that it semi-permanently won’t seal (or even close) properly ever again.

      My rifle case has wheels on one end, and I’d die if it didn’t.

  5. This is really good and very helpful. I agree that you really need to be at the baggage claim when the bags first come out. It is a bit amazing that even in the northeast it is pretty lax on the arriving end. My rifle case once wound up with the snowboards and skiis. Fortunately, my bride was claiming our boards and saw it. Thanks again.

  6. Some small comments:
    – There is a difference between the procedures of checking in a firearm that is in a case only and a firearm that is in a case which is contained in another piece of luggage. When traveling with a firearm that is only contained within a hard sided, locked case, then the flyer puts the firearm declaration inside of the case with the firearm. If the firearm (still inside a locked, hard sided case) is contained within another piece of luggage, then the firearm declaration simply has to be contained within the outer piece of luggage (though it’s a good idea to tape it to the firearm case so that it doesn’t get lost in your 3 day old undies).
    – The firearms are tracked regardless of if they are packaged within your other luggage or not.
    – The policies at airports (and airlines) differ, based on a number of factors – including the knowledge of the airline personnel and the type of security equipment they utilize. For example, at SFO, you will check in at the counter, then be escorted downstairs to a dark cubby hole to get checked by a TSA agent. (I’ve been told that this is because they lack the equipment to do checks on all the luggage). At other airports, you can simply check the firearm at the ticket counter.
    – On the whole, it’s not wise to develop a attitude with the gate agents and/or TSA agents.
    – Gun related parts may not be prohibited from flying with you in the plane, but should can likely be handled in a different manner. For example, expended brass is easy to just take to a FedEx location and ship home (via ground). A extra slide, or a 80% lower – both technically not a firearm – are other examples. If you can’t ship them home, then put them in the same case as your firearm.
    – Pack your stuff well. The airlines or TSA are not extra gentle with your luggage because you have a firearm in it. It sucks to get somewhere and find out that your finish is scratched because of something loose in your case.
    – Even a starter pistol is considered a ‘firearm’. Which some folks pack in their luggage just because they are concerned about something else (typically very expensive) in their luggage and want the airlines to keep a closer track of it.
    – If you use high quality hand lotion, play with expended ammo much and not wash your hands, or visit old mining quarries, you might ‘alarm out’ when being checked by the TSA. Most of the time this just results in a waste of additional time, but you can prevent it by not storing your luggage in your reloading room or letting your buddies smear hand lotion on your bags on the way to the airport. After a while, you’ll figure out what alarms are for what and how to avoid them.

    • Thanks for the info about “gun inside your luggage.” I have never traveled that way, so all my knowledge of that is anecdotal. I’ve updated the post to reflect the new info.

    • At the SFO Southwest counter the TSA inspects your luggage in a room by the counter. They don’t open the case but put card with your name in the luggage.

    • What can I say? I’m a pirate.

      Sidenote: I just came back from a Jimmy Buffett concert in Virginia. Although it was over too soon, that is the most unadulterated fun I’ve had in a long, long time. His concerts never disappoint me.

  7. Exxon gets direct subsidies. The Volt gets a tax break.

    It’s sufficiently popular that there’s a significant backlog.

    What’s the problem, and to what were you responding?

      • I think you mean MPG.

        The Federal rules for “ultra low emission” weren’t yet set when the Volt was designed, so they made logical decisions.

        Prius: 55 MPH maximum speed without engine; no A/C w/o engine; 30 mile maximum range when fully charged without engine.

        Volt: 70 MPH without engine; A/C works w/o engine; 70 mile range before it might need gas.

        The Volt is full of win.

    • That makes no sense.

      My demographic is white guy with some Lokota blood, struggling single proprietor, ’97 Dodge utility van, living in a shotgun shack in east Kansas and have hobbies such as woodwork, metalwork, electronics, Commie iron et cetera.

      Are you seriously complaining that something is taxed too little?

      The Volt even makes some ecological sense, as while most of our electricity comes from coal, economies of scale offer efficiencies which offset that disadvantage when compared to a very clean, smallish flex-fuel engine.

    • Note also that electricity generation varies from region to region region (and it’s not all just distributed evenly around the country). For example, in my state – Washington – 70% of electricity consumed within the state comes from hydro, 10% from nuclear, and the rest is natural gas. So in terms of environmental impact or dependency on foreign imports, a pure electric vehicle, or a hybrid that can be driven mostly in pure electric mode (for regular commutes etc), is far better.

    • Yep, the Volt is so awesome Gm is cutting 5 grand off the price to increase sales. That is on top of the what, 7 thousand dollar taxpayer subsidy received for buying it. Heading out the door now to get one.

  8. My experience has been with Frontier in and out of Denver. They allow you to place loaded magazines in the case. You just put tape over the top.

    I always present the agent the pistol with the slide locked back and chamber visible. Before I lock the case I tell them that I am going to release the slide.

  9. At Indianapolis, they insist on taking your key down to the TSA stealing inspection room and opening the bag, without you present. If you don’t want them to do that, they say you have to tell the check in agent that you want a TSA inspection, with you present.

    I’ve never had anyone complain about my magazines. I pack loaded magazines. The TSA regs say that there cannot be any exposed ammunition. I put my mags in pouches, so the ammo isn’t exposed.

    I have a Pelican 1620 (22″ x 17″ x 13″). I use it as my primary piece of luggage. For those of you who pack valuables in your checked luggage, even putting just a piece of a firearm (like a barrel) in the luggage requires you to check it…which means you can lock the whole case, to prevent valuables from walking away during the TSA unwarranted search and seizure inspection. I knew a photographer who would pack a starter pistol in his luggage for that purpose.

  10. Last time I flew with guns was in the 70’s. No TSA. We took our gun cases to the boarding agent and handed them over. At the destination we got them back from the boarding agent. Then we took them to baggage claim and picked up our bags.

    We weren’t strip searched and fondled, we just got on the plane. I’ve walked all thru San Francisco airport with a soft gun case slung over my shoulder. The only restriction I remember was at the bars. They didn’t want anybody carrying a gun into the bars. Which was fine by me. Airport bars are way to pricey.

    • When flying in New Zealand (Aukland to Cheech and verse vica) on my way to/from the Ice, I wore my Buck knife and noone noticed or cared. The last time was ’99.

      It was a different world.

  11. I made my rifle case out of birch — 1-1/4″ square and 3/8″ void-free marine ply. Stainless corners, piano hinge and cam locks with two heavy hasps and wrap-around straps riveted (with backing plates) to the case and the hinge.

    Hot resin glue, copper rivets, an internal 2″x4″ 3/16″ welded mesh cage and felt-lined fitted holders in grooves.

    It’s perhaps a bit much for an old Mosin, but I was a shipwright in a former incarnation.

    My total investment was about $85 and some of my time, and it’s just about impregnable and reasonably light.

    Further, I’ve no trouble picking it out of a crowd of bags and most people think it’s a telescope.

    Diff’rent strokes.

  12. What is the purpose of putting the tag INSIDE the locked case? Who will see it (to verify that it was properly checked and documented)??? That makes NO sense to me.

    Incidentally, I’ve traveled a fair bit with a gun. Most of the time they put the tag INSIDE the locked case. However, a few times, they’ve taped it to the outside (which makes far more sense to me).

    I use a Pelican case and then use a very thick cable lock to secure it to the suitcase frame.

    • The tag is basically an affidavit, not an external notification.

      That the case is in the system at all presupposes that it was checked.

      The tag goes inside so as to not draw attention, as firearms are considered special. That part is silly, but I accept it.

    • I think the generally accepted reasoning is that affixing it to the outside where its easily seen is effectively equivalent to writing “Steal Me” on it in bright neon lettering. Thank God I don’t fly.

  13. So, the TSA has an X-ray or better image of every gun carried by air, associated with the name, booking info, payment info & possibly photo ID serial # of the person who carried it?

    Why did they need legislation to create a federal gun registry again?

  14. From a trip I took back in ’05 for work. This is at the Fargo, ND airport.

    I proceeded to the security checkpoint. I get flagged for extra security. I take it in good humor since it is my 1st time. Just as I clear the checkpoint, I hear my name being announced to return to the ticket counter. At the counter is an unsmiling TSA agent.

    Him: “Do you have a handgun in your luggage?”

    Me(sheepishly): “Yes”

    Him: “Did you tell the ticket agent?

    Me: “Sorry I forgot.”

    It’s a hassle to have to announce to every ticket agent that you have one, when all they do is make you fill out a card containing your signature and the current date, which they then proceed to lock in the handgun case. So, usually I let them check it the 1st trip I make from home and then just leave that card in there. I got burned this time. They march me into the back where I have to unlock the case and show them that it’s unloaded. That’s when I realized that in smaller airports, TSA must search every piece of checked luggage. They’ve got nothing better to do.

    Anyway, I head back to the airport bar. Just as I sit down, I get paged again to return to the ticket counter. Once again, Mr. TSA is there.

    Him: Is your other suitcase locked?”

    Me(D’oh!): “I forgot to unlock it. Sorry.”

    The reality is my POS hardshell Samsonite pops open if it’s handled to roughly when it’s unlocked. I walk to the back and unlock the case. By this time they are looking at me like I’m Osama Bin Dumbass, which I guess I am.

    I proceed back through security. Surprise! I get the goddamned heightened security again.

    • Luckily, they’re getting better and better about handling firearms, pretty much everywhere. I’ve only been flying with my gun(s) for about three years, and I can already see a marked difference from the beginning until now.

  15. The last time I traveled with guns i drove. I avoided the DC beltway and didn’t stop for gas in MD on my way to Florida. I’m sure it’s all good and well traveling by air with guns but you know your name is on a special list somewhere because of it.

    • Here! Here! ROAD TRIP! I already dislike flying. I can’t imagine jumping through the hoops and taking the risk of getting diverted to a slave state.

      ps. I ride an ’80 GS850G. Got it a couple of years ago with ~2400 miles on the Odometer. Just turned over 9k, would have been more but for a busted achilles during prime riding season last year. Ride safe!

  16. I’m curious about those of you that have flown with loaded magazines within the last 2-3 years. What airlines were you flying? I ask because to my knowledge all the majors have the “cartridge separation” language in their policies, and if yours does/did, I’m curious how you got around that.

    • I took United from PDX to IAH and back earlier this summer with my pistol. I was told by ticket agents at both airports, and TSA in Houston, that the ammo had to be in the manufacturer’s packaging.

      • This is why many people advocate printing out a copy of the TSA regulations (here) and their specific airline’s regulations and taking the copies to the airport with them. What both your United agents and the TSA told you, if you’re quoting them correctly, is incorrect.

        From United’s policy page: Ammunition must be packed in the manufacturer’s original package or securely packed in fiber, wood or metal containers. (emphasis mine)

        From the TSA page: Travelers must securely pack any ammunition in fiber (such as cardboard), wood or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.

        What is a magazine but “a metal box specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.” Time and again the TSA has passed loaded magazines just fine. They are almost never the problem, it’s the airlines, and in this case, United still doesn’t allow loaded magazines. (Well, maybe they do, because they also just say “securely packed in … metal containers,” which could be argued to include magazines, since they didn’t include the “cartridge separation” language.) But regardless of your ability to argue that point, the fact that they told you that only manufacturer’s original packaging was allowed is completely incorrect, and could easily be demonstrated by showing them the big “or” in their own policy, if you had a printout.

        The potential for having to argue out these issues is why you get to the airport a little earlier if you’re flying with guns.

  17. Good stuff Matt.
    As with many of these columns, if we share knowledge on these many times stupid regulations, our lives go just a bit easier.

  18. Flying out of Cali to Texas for some hog hunting shortly. Do you guys ever pack in mags as rebuild kits? Not legal to assemble in Cali but legal where your going.

  19. If you’re traveling within the lower 48, drive. Take the extra time off, plan your route, make sure you’re only going through friendly states, and drive. The TSA exists to make sure you understand that air travel isn’t worth it.

    • +1. Funny how my tolerance for long drives has gotten greater and greater since increased security and the incredible hassle. My dad was a captain for one of the now-dead legacy airlines in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I can remember flying with him, and being brought up into the cockpit while we were in the air. A different time…

      I haven’t flown with a gun since 1992. I either FedEx it now to my destination, assuming I am staying with a family member, or next-day it to myself c/o of the hotel, and check beforehand to make sure they will hold it for me. This is for handguns, not long arms.

    • If we don’t fly because TSA exists to make sure you understand that air travel isn’t worth it, then they terrorists, er, TSA, has already won.

      What I want to know is that if TSA Pre screening is sufficient, why do they make the other 98% of travelers jump through so many hoops? It’s all security theater as far as I’m concerned.

  20. Pelican cases are the recognized standard of airlines all over the
    world for secure transport of high priced equipment, from firearms
    to expensive cameras for professional photographers. Pelican says
    you’re a serious individual and take your secure traveling seriously.
    This is one instance where police, or in this case, security profiling,
    can work to your advantage. For the security agents, you project
    an image that says, “I’ve got this shit down, and I’m not a threat.”
    For the muggles you meet at the airport, it says, “Don’t even think
    about it. I will seriously f**k you up if you even touch this case.”

    I have the Pelican 1550. As of right now it’s $144. It’s 2 levels,
    which is 4-5 guns including ample accessory space for mags and
    ammo. Airtight, watertight, floats with 45lbs, and is unbreakable.
    Who will you trust your $4,000 worth of firearms to, if not Pelican?
    I can’t even think of whose case comes second to a Pelican case.

    A word of caution: There are cheap Pelican knock-offs out there.
    Caveat emptor. Don’t be penny wise, and pound foolish.

  21. Great info Matt. I learned stuff. I’ve never traveled commercially with a weapon and was recently looking into what it would take to get up to NH next year for turkey season. When my dad and I go out of state to GA, TX or TN on hunts we usually just rent a 172 and fly ourselves. Small Airports like Linder and Peter O in Tampa don’t have screening as far as I know. New Hamshire is a long flight that way though and a bit rich for my blood. I think you just saved me a couple thousand dollars.

    • If I saved you a couple thousand dollars, I’d happily accept a small percentage as a “fixer fee.”

      I’ve always thought about getting pilots license, but it just always seemed so expensive. It’d be neat to be able to fly, though.

  22. Good info, but regarding TSA inspecting the weapon at the airport when you check in, I’ve had a different experience. Every time I check in TSA demands that I give them the key (or combo) to my gun cases, and they refuse to allow me to be present when they open the gun cases. It really frustrates/worries me (I travel for training and 3 gun events), yet I can’t seem to get them to budge on this “rule” . Anyone have a link to a TSA rule or law that states I have the right to be present when my weapons are inspected ? I cannot find it anywhere, so all help is greatly appreciated .

    • I think it is the regulation in 49 CFR 1540.111(c)(2)(iv) that says “The container in which it is carried is locked, and only the passenger retains the key or combination.” The only way for you to retain the key/combination is if you are present. You have violated this regulation if you don’t retain the key.

      Make sure to carry a copy of the regs. Ask politely, but firmly, to speak to a supervisor and their supervisor if necessary. If they can’t take you to the bag, ask them to bring the bag to you. It is entirely possible that their ignorance will prevail. Record the names of everyone you spoke with and file a complaint when you get home.

    • The regulation Mike cited is the one I have a copy of in my bag with my printout of TSA regulations. I’ve never had to use it, but I’ve heard stories (just like yours) of people who’ve had this issue, so clearly it’s still happening. Polite, but firm, is all I can tell you.

  23. That’s odd. I literally JUST traveled with a firearm, and both times the orange tag was placed on the outside of the gun case but inside the suitcase the case was packed in. It that still ok?

    • Yeah, Will, it appears that is correct when the locked gun case is inside another piece of luggage. I have never traveled that way, so my knowledge was anecdotal, but several others have reported that to be the case.

  24. You can use this to your advantage even if you are not transporting traditional firearms. Pack an unloaded flare gun ($40 Walmart) in your checked bag. (Never ever pack flares!) As a boating signaling device, it’s legal everywhere in the US, but must be declared and locked in your luggage like any other firearm. Now you can lock your entire bag with real locks and keep the baggage handlers out. This is especially useful when you must check something of value, like tools that cannot be carried on.

  25. I’ve traveled with firearms using cheap cases in the past — never again. I spent $75 for a cheap plastic clamshell/foam rifle case instead of $150 for a good one, and while it remained secure (3 padlocks!) I think every single item touched every other item in the case at some point during the trip. Not a huge deal since each of the firearms was in a protective cloth wrap, but potentially serious damage if I hadn’t taken that precaution.

    While any lockable case is better than no case, I 100% endorse Matt’s point about cheap cases being false economy. Even if they don’t fail during the trip, you’re going to hate owning one and regret not spending more for a better case.

    To put this in perspective, the cost difference between a crappy case and a good one is equal to 150 rounds of 45ACP or 5.56. And a good case will last you a hell of a lot longer than 150 rounds of practice ammo…

  26. I read where it states you can have four rifles/shotguns per case or 5 handguns per case but could you combine rifles/shotguns and handguns as long as it didnt exceed 5 in the same gun case?

    • Yeah, I’ve done it multiple times on Delta and Allegiant. Keep in mind that those numbers listed were for Delta when I wrote this. Airlines vary, and even Delta may have changed since then.

  27. I have some first hand knowledge of airport security though I will refrain from specifics. You should always have the option of being present when your luggage is opened. If you are refused ask for a supervisor or manager. I would caution against relying on non-TSA locks since bags often require a search without knowledge of the contents of the bag. Especially in the case of an in- line screening system. In these cases TSA is authorized to cut locks. If a firearm is then discovered a new lock must be placed on the bag usually provided by the airline and probably charged to the passenger. A non- TSA lock directly on a firearm case is fine however, as there are very few circumstances where a lock can be cut on a known or suspected firearm case. There are also few reasons for TSA to go into a firearm case and require a key or combo under new regulations. As to ammunition per federal regulations no TSA Inspector would bother with rounds in a magazine or clip but if simply placed in a Tupperware they will be removed and you will likely be fined.

  28. I had an issue travelling from LAX while transporting a CZ75 in a small pelican case (go figure). Since I’d travelled with firearms before, I kind of knew the deal. All went smoothly at the ticket counter, but they send you to a secondary TSA screening point at LAX (or at least they did in 2012). Upon arriving at the screening point, I turned my luggage over and informed the agent that there was a firearm inside. He set my bag aside and I ended up waiting there for a bit. When they finally got to my bag, the guy pulled the little pelican case and apparently wasn’t thrilled that it was locked. He called me over and started giving me a hard time, telling me that it was a federal crime to lock a gun case before the TSA agent inspected it yadda yadda yadda. I just nodded and gave him the “yes sir, I’m sorry sir” line. Honestly, I just didn’t have the time to get into a pissing match with a glorified security guard. In retrospect, I wish I would have taken the few extra minutes to grab a supervisor and let him know that his guy was clueless. All it takes is one misinformed jackass to wreck your day.

  29. Just as an update flying through RDU today was told that it is impossible to bring the bag to me or bring me to the bag, I would have to surrender the key. I spoke with the supervisor and informed them of the statute, he told me the same thing. I then contacted the customer service manager for the TSA at RDU and they confirmed the same thing. More alarmingly, they told me not only do they not know what the law is, but that it doesn’t matter, they only know the procedure for that airport and if I didn’t like it to file a complaint. I was told either I surrender it or I don’t fly…end of story. I filed a complaint with the national TSA line who told me it would be going directly to that same manager who told me they didn’t care. I’m not sure what else to do, I called the NRA who’s rep said they would inform their boss and they would may do something…but I’m not so sure this will happen. I wish there was some recourse.

    • Thanks for the story. It just goes to show that even when you’re right, you can be wrong. All you can do is stick to your guns (no pun intended), but when forced into a hard choice, everyone has to decide for themselves how tightly to stick to their principles.

  30. I know this article is a few years old, but still good information. And it helps me to plan my next trip. I find it especially comforting that you use Orlando airport in your descriptions, as that’s exactly the airport to which I’ll be flying next.

  31. So, am I reading this right? Matt, you have used that oversized Pelican case several times on airlines such as Delta and never had to pay oversized fees? I am struggling to find a case that is worthy of flight that my Tikka T3 will fit into. I have a case nearly identical to the Pelican you describe here but made by Plano. Are you suggesting that I have a good chance of getting through without having to pay the oversize fee? Thanks in advance for a response and thanks for the write-up, it was very helpful!

    • …and just to clarify, I am struggling to find a case that is worthy of flight that my Tikka T3 will fit into… that meets Delta’s 62″ L+W+H. Also, I too am flying out of MCO.

      • Yeah, it happened, exactly as I told it above. Since this was written, the pace of my travel has slowed and I’ve only flown with it a handful of times, but I’ve never had a word said about the 1750’s “oversized-ness.”

        I’m sure you’ll be fine with your Plano, provided it’s one of the sturdy ones like a Pelican. The lightweight ones you can get for around $20 are garbage, and are not suited for anything more than keeping your guns from banging into each other on the way to the range.

        • Perfect! Thanks for the quick response… especially being this is an old post! And yes, I have the sturdy case. I’m amazed that some even try using those thinner cases for flight.

  32. How does the big orange “SPECIAL HANDLING” tag not break the rule of marking a bag externally to indicate a firearm? Recently flew with a handgun and had a big red BSO tag placed on it. I am not worried about other passengers grabbing my bag. I am worried about airline employees.

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