Traveling with guns checked baggage tsa approved
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I have been traveling  and living out a gear bag — around the world and within the United States — for more than half my life. No matter how glorious or glamorous that may it sound, it gets old really fast.

I’m traveling this weekend for our first class of 2019 down in Florida. I get asked this all the time…how do you do it? Well, it is really not that hard. What I have learned from experience over the years continues to guide me.

The most often-asked question I get is how do I travel with my firearms and ammunition. Simple: know and follow the rules. That goes for both TSA rules and regs including the state laws and local regulations at your destination.

If you haven’t visited the Transportation Security Administration’s website and read up on their rules then don’t be surprised if you have an unpleasant experience. At the same time, be aware that you can do everything by the book and still get jammed up.

My first advice to traveling gun owners is to always be nice. A good attitude goes a surprisingly long way in getting you through problem situations. Do your homework, know the rules for checked baggage (no loaded firearms, ammo in a separate container) , and destination gun laws concerning possession of firearms (i.e., concealed carry no-go zones, magazine limits, etc.) pack well and leave early, check-in early and then…smile. I may know TSA’s rules and regs more than anyone at the airport, but I don’t flaunt it or shove it in their faces.

Everyone who travels with guns probably has a special travel horror story to share. I have my fair share, but I also have some absolutely hilarious episodes. When it comes to packing, my game is strong. I invest in quality, rugged luggage. It saves you time, hassle and money in the long run.

The days of dragging those big, super-sized things — what we in the military used to call “dead hooker bags” — are over me. All they do is attract unwanted attention and extra fees.

Remember, you’re restricted to 50 pounds per bag by just about every air carrier. But what I’ve found is, if your bag or box weighs much more than 25 pounds, you really have to re-think your plan.

I’m big on minimizing weight because I get really tired of paying the extra fees. My experience has told me to pack smart. Bring quality gear that’s both rugged and light. Think about items that can fulfill multiple roles and choose those over specialized items.

You may want to invest in a hanging scale to make sure your bag isn’t over 50 pounds. Sound crazy? American Airlines will charge you $100 if your bag weighs 51 pounds. If you travel much and pack a lot, a scale will pay for itself quickly.

I’m usually lighter coming home because I burn ammunition, but going out I am usually spot on to a pound. Remember, the bigger the bag…the more stuff you will pack.

As for packing stuff in my carry-on luggage, I bring only the bare essentials I need to teach. That really focuses on my schedules, rosters and supporting classroom material. Fortunately, most of that is digital so it makes it super easy.

Look for comfortable handles, big wheels and a sturdy frame. Also, you should expect no more than about a two-year useful life no matter the manufacturer. The airlines will not baby your luggage. That old American Tourister commercial wasn’t far off the mark.

On my very first trip with my current roller bag, with the tags still attached I lost a buckle, right off the bat. Expect it and don’t get too attached.

When it comes to your firearms you are limited to a hard-sided case. There are lots of them to consider, but keep in mind that 50 pound weight limit mentioned above.

Pelican 1745 Long Hared Case TSA approved Firearms
Pelican 1745 Long Air Case (Dan Z for TTAG)

I have two different load-out methods I’ve settled on over the years, one for handguns only and another for rifles and handguns.

When I’m only traveling with handguns I take a smaller hard-sided case and secure it in my checked luggage. The case is just large enough to secure both of my handguns. I also pack a spare set of locks and consider them to be consumable.

The worst case scenario is on your outbound flight, your locks get lost. I know that sounds strange, but it has happened to me enough times that I don’t even ask anymore. Bringing a spare set will save you time, aggravation and money when trying to find another set for your return flight.

When it comes to my supporting equipment my suggestion is to pack it in individual smaller bags. For this I have come to rely on the DAKA bags from Magpul. I have an assorted collection of them in a variety of sizes and colors. One for my holsters, one for my personal defense ammunition and magazines, one for my medical gear and my junk bag.

One reason is I try to be as discreet as possible when traveling. The other has to do with organization. Keeping things organized in separate bags makes it super easy to throw my gear into my larger roller bag. On the off-chance that I have a lot to pack more gear than normal, I will get technical and pack more carefully, but mostly I dump the individual bags in carry-on baggage and checked luggage.

Experience helps. After a few of trips, ask yourself if you really needed all the items you’ve been packing and eventually you will find your sweet spot.

I still mostly enjoy traveling. It’s become more my lifestyle than a vacation. Give some thought to some of these lessons I’ve learned. I learned it all the hard way when something has gone wrong. I hope my experience (again, know your destination’s firearm laws before you go) can save you some of the pain of that learning process.


Jeff Gonzales is a former US Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned unapologetically to the world at large. Currently he is the Director of Training at The Range at Austin. Learn more about his passion and what he does at

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  1. Oh don’t fret. Within 10 years air travel will be banned. Except for all the private jet owning billionaires and Al Gore of course.

  2. Can someone please edit the paragraph about the locks. And have you had problems with them being cut? They are not suppose to do that. In theory they can get the whole airport locked down doing that.

    • If you use TSA approved locks, they’ll unlock them to inspect luggage. And then usually forget to put them back on – I’ve lost a few that way.

      • TSA locks SHOULD NOT BE ON ANY CASE WITH FIREARMS. W.T.F. If the gun case is inside a bigger suitcase there should still NOT be a TSA lock on it.

        • Sorry, just read the TSA regs and TSA locks are approved. But why, just why. The TSA locks are an absolute joke. there is NO security with them at all. Why even bother with any kind of hard case anyways?

          “The TSA, for their part, doesn’t care, telling The Intercept that “The reported ability to create keys for TSA-approved suitcase locks from a digital image does not create a threat to aviation security. These consumer products are ‘peace of mind’ devices, not part of TSA’s aviation security regime.””

        • binder, I would have sworn your initial post was right… the federal regs say that nobody else can open your locked gun case, right? The whole purpose of the TSA locks is that TSA can unlock them.

        • “The TSA locks are an absolute joke. there is NO security with them at all. Why even bother with any kind of hard case anyways?”

          Is there any part of you that thinks TSA is actually about security?

          Carlin got this right back in the 90’s. It’s not about security it’s about creating the illusion of security.

        • “Can someone please edit the paragraph about the locks. And have you had problems with them being cut? They are not suppose to do that. In theory they can get the whole airport locked down doing that.”

          As a former information officer for TSA & DHS I can assure you that your locks can be cut at any time as long as there is “evidence” that something in your bag is not right. This “evidence” btw does not have to be bullet-proof it can be a “gut-feeling” by the X-Ray operator. TSA errs on the side of caution. Like 90% on the side of caution. In general if you follow the theatrics of TSA you’ll be fine.

        • Just a head up. A TSA agent who opens or cuts the locks without requesting the key is violating TSA policy:

          The TSA policy:
          “Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock unless TSA personnel request the key to open the firearm container to ensure compliance with TSA regulations. You may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks.”

          Violates federal code:

          “(iv) The container in which it is carried is locked, and only the passenger retains the key or combination.”

        • @Binder. You’re assuming that TSA follows WRITTEN policy. The supervisor or manager follows their INTERPRETATION of said policy.

        • Put good locks on the handgun case, that is inside the suitcase with TSA locks on it.

      • It is against FAA policy to use TSA approved locks on a firearm case. The TSA may not access to your firearms without you present.

        • The overarching problem with TSA is that TSA agents by and large don’t know what the rules are.

          My mom’s cousin retired and got bored so she picked up a job working for TSA. She quit after a few months because four different “trainers” all taught her completely different ways to do the same things. Mostly they were contradictory.

          Personally, I’ve been chewed out over rifle cases both ways. For having TSA locks and for not. Eventually I just got to the point that I carried two sets, one TSA, one mini-master locks, in my pocket and had them choose the locks and lock the case after the inspection.

        • That’s been my case too. Written policy is one thing and that’s great, but the reality on the ground is that Joe Blow TSA bro is gonna do what he’s been taught/interpreted as right. While you may be able to sit there an argue policy successfully MAYBE, that still won’t get you on the flight you missed. Have one standard lock and an be prepared to switch it to TSA if they raise a stink.

        • @drunkEODguy. “Written policy is one thing and that’s great, but the reality on the ground is that Joe Blow TSA bro is gonna do what he’s been taught/interpreted as right.”

          Correct. And this is what the traveling public needs to understand about TSA. Their WRITTEN policies/procedures are under the interpretation of the nearest Supervisor or Manager. If the Sup or Mgr has any doubt whatsoever about what’s in a bag he/she can order that bag be pulled and inspected on the spot. Yes, policy does require that they notify the passenger but I have seen many cases where the bag/container is opened BEFORE the passenger is present. Especially when drugs are involved.

          TSA’s purpose is to deter. What better way to deter than drama involving the passenger. It is security theater as someone once said.

  3. Good call on the separate bags to toss into the larger checked bag.

    Instead of buying a separate hanging scale, I just weigh myself, then pick up my suitcase, then do some simple math. I try to stay 5 pounds under max weight.

    • Word of advice, if you are ever diverted do NOT claim your baggage. And if you do, do NOT go back on the airplane, rent a car and drive out of state. Both are cheaper than the alternative.

      • “Word of advice, if you are ever diverted do NOT claim your baggage. ”

        Claiming your baggage shouldn’t be a problem, TSA only X-rays the luggage being loaded, right?

        It’s trying to check it in at JFK does getting jammed up with a felony become a real likely outcome…

        • If you don’t claim it, and contact the airline, in theory they can put it back on the airline. Issue is when you take possession. Also they can jam you up anytime after you take possession.

          I’m not a lawyer, so please consult one.

        • There are documented cases of people missing a connecting flight in NYC, picking up the firearm laden luggage from the airline, checking into a nearby hotel overnight, heading back to the airport, declaring a firearm at check in, and promptly getting arrested.

          If you’re ever in a situation like that, just tell the airline you have a firearm in the bag and cannot take possession of it. Also, avoid flights with NYC transfers.

        • “Also, avoid flights with NYC transfers.”

          Sometimes it cannot be avoided. The airliner diverts there because of bad weather somewhere else, like Buffalo.

          The question then becomes, what’s your safest course of action not involving abandoning the gun and luggage?

        • “The question then becomes, what’s your safest course of action not involving abandoning the gun and luggage?”

          your ONLY safe course of actions is to let the airline know AND abandon the gun and luggage.

        • The safest course of action is to rent an RV instead of buying an airline ticket. It’s a beautiful country. might as well see some of it! 😀

  4. “know the rules for checked baggage (no loaded firearms, ammo in a separate container) , and destination gun laws concerning possession of firearms (i.e., concealed carry no-go zones, magazine limits, etc.)”

    Lets hope SCOTUS throws us a scrap and makes travel with firearms a lot more easy.

    A serious question –

    Let’s say you are traveling to the northeast with firearms properly packed in your checked luggage. Your flight gets diverted because of weather and lands at JFK.

    Is it safest for you to exit airport property, find a cardboard box somewhere, and mail it to yourself?

    Is that safer than trying to check it into JFK and very likely being arrested? I know it’s not usually legal to mail a handgun unless it’s to a firearm manufacturer or similar, but wouldn’t that be safer than a practically guaranteed felony arrest at JFK airport?

    • If someone walks in off the street to New York City gunshop, can they request the FFL do a transfer to your local FFL? Or will they not deal with you without a NYC firearm ID?

      I’m spit-balling ideas on how not to get busted at JFK when diverted there…

    • It amazes me that people still have to be told that the unloaded guns and the ammo must be in separate containers. How stupid can people possibly be? After all the occurrences, especially at high altitude and oxygen starved, of firearms loading themselves in the luggage compartment and then shooting the airplane down, you would think people would have learned!

      • They don’t, actually. The ammo has to be in its own container, but THAT container doesn’t have to be separately locked and can be inside the case with the unloaded gats.

    • Personally I’d leave it with the airline. That way you can’t be charged with a crime and if it goes missing there’s someone on the hook to pay you for it.

      As for shipping, if you were to rent a car and drive to, say, PA, you could then find an FFL to ship it to your local FFL or simply ship it to your local FFL yourself.

      • I should note that the concept of leaving the bag with the airline has a downside if you have a pistol in a hardsided case inside another suitcase because you’re going to have to live without the larger suitcase until this is resolved (or forever if it gets lost).

        That’s why my carry-on bag always contains enough stuff for three full changes of clothes. Because, knowing my luck, if I only have one set it’s going to get wet or covered in baby puke or something.

        • I am in a different situation on this, I am too chicken to carry while flying somewhere, if I have to fly I just give it up until I return home. OTOH, that is a major reason why, as a retiree, if my car can get me there I *NEVER* fly, and my gun is always with me, including the last time I drove through NYC, some years back but definitely the last time.

        • LarryinTX

          I have GUTS. I fly out of Chicago with a firearm. One of the reasons I know the LAW not just looking at the TSA policy. That’s why a freaked out over people using TSA locks.

        • I’m with Larry on this one. I’m retired and air travel, even without guns, has become too much hassle to bother with except in extremes.

          I’m even looking into cruise ships or cargo/passenger ships for that next european adventure.

  5. I’ve always had a very easy time travelling with firearms. In some cases easier than with our on-board dog. Usually going to/from Raleigh/Durham to San Antonio and Austin. The agents just go thru their list – never any reaction when opening the case and seeing an AR, couple pistols, magazines and accessories.

    I did learn it’s MUCH easier to use TSA approved locks. Otherwise you’ll have to wait around for them to (likely) have you come open the case for inspection. With TSA locks they can open and inspect themselves if necessary (typical).

    • Considering how TSA keys can be 3d printed and are readily available due to a few serious security leaks, I’d prefer to just go with a monster non-tsa padlock.

      • You can just buy TSA lock keys online.

        Or, if you have a few seconds to spare, a feeler pick will open any of them that I’ve come across in a couple seconds. Almost as fast as a key.

    • DO NOT USE TSA LOCKS. What is so difficult to understand about this? It is against FAA and TSA regs, not to mention Fed law. If they want to inspect it your firearm, YOU MUST BE PRESENT. Don’t bend over backwards for idiots and thieves because it is “easier”!

    • You thinking your secure gun box is secure is just as, well, stupid.

      The locks on your gun case are there to prevent the EASY theft of said items – by TSA and baggage handlers, etc. Also, with some gun cases, the hinge pins are easily accessible to knock out, rendering the locks useless. Don’t use TSA locks; the “master” key for TSA locks is widely available…

      I had one occasion where the keys were misplaced/lost somewhere between TSA and my destination (I had them before TSA…). It took less than a minute to cut through the master locks at my destination using common tools (cutoff wheel on an angle grinder).

      Also, flying with NFA items is no different. There is no special processing or handling or inspection (although the x-ray scanner will show more metal esp for suppressors. If they are attached to the firearm, it will increase the liklihood of physical inspection). TSA’s job is to ensure that the baggage is SAFE – not legal. They have never asked for any Form 1, Form 4 or Form 20. I have been asked how long I had to wait to obtain possession….

      • How far did you get past TSA scrutiny, trying to smuggle you’re firearm aboard the plane on your last trip!/? Or did you sit out your vacation in an Airport Security Facility waiting for the Local Police to arrive…

        • Nowhere did I say that I tried to smuggle a firearm on board an aircraft.

          You simply stated that “people think a Shoe Box with a Tight Lid is the same as a Secure Gun Box”. My comment is that if you think your secure gun box is secure, then you are just as stupid as you are delusional.

          Based on your reading comprehension, QED…

        • If you own a Firearm you should also know the Laws in Transporting of any Firearm. When the TSA requirement is a Lock Secure Gun Box, there not referring to a Shoe Box with Duct Tape around it or if it Takes Two Hands to wrestle of the Shoe Box Lid…

  6. There isn’t any destination in the US lower 48 too far to drive to in order to avoid TSA. The only way I fly any more is on private…..even without firearms. Spent 45+ years flying over this land at 30,000ft in a sealed metal tube with strangers I did not know and did not want to know. Now I drive and see this beautiful land…..road trip. I know some of you can’t due to business schedules. But, when you can, do the road trip thingy……even on a Harley.

    • First, you buy a car that’s fun to drive, preferably convertible for mountain drives. Then, a tiny bit of research will turn up really special stretches of highway just about anywhere you’re going. And pay a bit more for a nice motel rather than a fleabag, stop before sundown and have a nice meal, do this once or twice and you will shudder and shout if somebody suggests you should cram yourself into a sardine can after submitting to HOURS of abuse, rather than sitting in your car and driving off. Driving is WAY better, if you can afford the time.

      • Agreed. I prefer to drive, and that’s what we usually (not always) do. When my wife and i went to CA (from Texas) for our 20th anniversary, i spent 3 weeks trying to talk her into driving. We flew. I’m still married….

  7. IME the real problem with TSA is that it’s own employees have no idea what the rules actually are.

    On top of that, if you read their website, it tells you flat out that even if an item is 100% permissible it can still be taken away from you because the decision rests with the agent in front of you.

    Arguing with the agent will get you no where. They’re $14/hour monkeys that were poorly trained in the first place. If you want an argument that might go somewhere you have to request to talk, and then actually talk, to the Airport Security Manager. The ASM has final discretion on virtually everything.

    Be warned however that if you request the ASM you will often get another person in a TSA uniform, but possibly a fancier one. Like with a sport coat on or something. This is not the ASM. ASM’s always wear plain clothes and have a lanyard ID that identifies them as the ASM. At any given point in time there is only one ASM on duty so if you get multiple people in TSA outfits telling you they are the ASM they’re lying to you.

    Also be warned that as soon as you say you want to talk to the ASM the TSA folks are probably going to get pretty pissy about this. They will often try to deceive you and will try to stall for time and do whatever else they can to avoid having the actual ASM brought in to decide things.

    • “If you want an argument that might go somewhere you have to request to talk, and then actually talk, to the Airport Security Manager. The ASM has final discretion on virtually everything.”

      Uh, no. There is no such thing as an ASM (they maybe referred to as something else but they do not handle secruity). The person in charge of security at an airport is the FSD – Federal Security Director. They do not get directly involved in security matters. It is usually the Assistant Deputy Federal Security Director that handles matters in the checkpoint/baggage area. They are more reasonable IMHO but they still adhere to the SOP when it comes down to it. An airport is considered Federal grounds. Therefore the Federal government has sole jurisdiction from the checkpoint area onward. Every thing else at an airport is either state or local government run.

  8. The limit on ammo is 11 pounds, not 50 rounds. Ammo can also be in the same hardside case as the firearm except on American airlines. I use a plastic reload box instead of the original carton.

    Seldom a problem in the last 20 years and 1000 flights.

    • Only problem I had was one loose round. They don’t want the round to accidentally get struck against anything that could smack the primer. Even though the round was contained around foam, the dumb bi– airline lady made a big deal about it. I had fully loaded magazines and of course I carry one chambered. So I had one round she get her panties in a knot over. They had to call the airport police, because what am I supposed to do with an extra .40 hollow point round at an airport? Throw it in the garbage? So here comes this cool cop and I said, “I guess you want this” and handed him that extra round. He said “oh cool, this is what I shoot” and was like a kid with a candy bar. Other than that one time, I’ve had no problems flying commercial. Just plan on extra time and more scrutiny.

  9. I like the extra inspections at sone airports, like Denver or Austin, where your bags get hand inspected in your presence. I’ll pack a gun when traveling even if I’m not planning to go shooting at the destination. I’m sick of getting the TSA 1/3 sheets saying someone opened my bag, and I have to figure out if something is damaged or missing. Some airports, like San Jose, don’t do a special inspection with you present. Ammo being in a separate container just means in a box or magazine, which can be in the locked gun case. The amount of ammo allowed varies by airline. Even when they have a limit, they aren’t going to take it out and weigh it, so you’ll be fine as long as your bag is under 50 pounds.

  10. I have a cousin who does some secret squirrel shit a Logan International. He fancies himself a shotgunner on the skeet range. He came down last month for a family function. I said, “You think you’re all that and a loaf of bread too? Let’s see how you do on Mr. Bobwhite.” He acquitted himself well. Fell in love with quail hunting. Wants to come back for it annually. Even though he knows everything about flying with firearms, and had no problems, he left that particular shotgun with me to avoid the issue. Ammo I provide here.

  11. Personally, I don’t fly with firearms. Hunted seven different states. Drive every time. I’ve taken the FAA’s class Flying While Armed, but that only covered official business and it is a three ringed circus to board an aircraft with a weapon.

  12. I fly with a hand gun.
    Flying out of Seattle turned out to be one of the easiest airports when I thought it would be the opposite.
    Seriously I don’t think they see many people carrying
    Not ever a line

    Don’t leave the area where they have your gun case until they tell you their done and the case is going on the plane
    You must not use TSA locks on the hard sided gun case per Fed refs.
    The TSA website recently changed and is saying that you can use them
    They are idiots
    You are the only person who can have a key to access the case
    They will cut them off if they want to inspect the case if you are not there which is why you should not leave the area until they tell you it is going on the plane
    I have a label on my case with my phone number but I wouldn’t trust them to call me

    I keep my locked case inside, cabled to the metal frame of my suitcase and the only TSA locks are on my suitcase.
    None of this means my gun won’t get stolen
    Especially since some of the airlines like to put a big sticker on your case that doesn’t actually say firearm but still screams “Gun Inside “!
    And if you fly Delta they zip tie your gun case just so you can’t go on a shooting spree in the airport

  13. Times sure have changed. I’ve flown just once with a firearm in my luggage. It was from JFK to LAX. This was long before the TSA, the internet, cell phones, etc. I was 17 and going out west to visit an uncle.

    Called the airline and they told me how to transport it. Well I did one extra and disassembled my Ruger 10/22. Even took the trigger group and bolt out. Stuffed in the suitcase and took it to the ticket counter, told the icket lady I had a firearm to declare. She had me bring the suitcase around her station onto a table and open it. She saw the gun was taken apart, said “looks good”. Then she closed up the suitcase and attached a big red tag that said “FIREARM” to it.

    I thought it was a code word for “STEAL THIS SUITCASE”, but it came thru just fine.

    World’s gone to shit in some regards.


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