I remember the first time I walked into the airport with a firearm. I was pretty sure that someone was going to yell “GUN!” as soon as I stepped foot inside the airport with a weapon case and then I would be immediately tackled and chewed-on by a bomb-sniffing K9. Thankfully, none of that happened.
What I found out on that flight, and on countless flights since then, is that flying with a firearm isn’t that big of a deal. Sure, there are definitely ways to screw it up and face serious consequences, but with a little bit of planning and rule-following, there’s not much to worry about.
In this article I want to discuss how I travel with firearms when I fly for hunts or shooting events. What this article will NOT cover is any regulations dealing with international travel outside of the United States. This article is not meant to be legal advice, nor a perfect representation of TSA regulations. I strongly suggest that you review TSA’s regulations for Transporting Firearms and Ammunition before every trip.
RIFLE CASE SELECTION & SETUP
Since you are checking a firearm, I highly suggest using a case that not only meets the minimum requirements to be TSA-compliant, but also offers some additional storage for more than your weapon and ammunition.
Simply put, a small single-rifle case is a waste! If you use one, you are missing out on an opportunity to transport additional hunting gear and the opportunity to have fewer pieces of luggage, and thus, less baggage fees.
I use the Seahorse SE1530 Rifle Case, and have also used a Pelican Vault case as well. (Be sure that the interior dimensions of whatever case you choose is long enough to accommodate the total length of your rifle.)
FORGET THE FOAM
Many cases come with foam layers inside, allowing you to customize the layout of the case and protect your gear. That sounds like a great idea, but my experience has proven otherwise. If you use pick-and-pluck foam or a custom-cut foam, you are limiting the amount of usable space inside the case and also losing all versatility for different gear setups.
I spent a good amount of time laying out my gear when I got my first rifle case and then cutting the foam to perfectly hold my rifle, bipod, ammo, sling, and cleaning kit. But then I changed my rifle scope and my custom foam no longer fit. Then I wanted to pack a tripod on my next trip, but there was no room. Then I switched the ammo I was shooting and the new ammo boxes weren’t the same size as the foam cutout for the ammo I used to use. Then I traveled with a buddy and we had an opportunity to put two rifles in one case (without the foam, of course).
As you can see, custom foam sounds like a good idea, but the practical long-term use of it is questionable at best.
CASE WITHIN A CASE
Instead of using foam to protect my rifle and accessories, I use a soft rifle case that fits within my TSA-compliant hard case. Not only does this approach create more room inside the hard case for other gear, but the soft-side case can also be used for transportation at my destination. In fact, if your hunting travels have you transitioning from a commercial flight to a chartered flight on a smaller bush or float plane, you’ll often be required to leave your hard case behind at the hanger and transport your rifle in a small soft case.
Loading gear onto a float plane for a Caribou hunt in the Brooks Range of Alaska. No hard-sided weapon cases were allowed to be transported on this flight.
The soft case I use also folds-out to pull double-duty as a shooting mat, which has proven to be valuable on countless occasions. (For those wondering, the soft case I use is from Slumberjack, but is unfortunately no longer available.)
WHAT ELSE GOES IN THE CASE?
If you are flying for a hunt, you probably have other items that are required to be in checked baggage and cannot be in carry-on items with you on the plane. Specifically, I put my trekking poles, hunting knife, and yes — my ammunition in my weapons case.
The gear that Mark plans to pack in his case for an upcoming Mountain Goat hunt in Alaska. The full list of these items are posted at the bottom of this article.
I have seen guys mention that ammunition must be a separate locked container from your firearm. That may be true for some international destinations, but you can fly with your ammunition and firearm in the same locked case for domestic flights.
There are regulations for how that ammunition must be stored and secured within the case. Again, the full details are laid out at the TSA link in the beginning of this article. In short, just be sure that the ammunition is not “loose packed” in a soft container (such as a bag), and do not have any ammunition stored within a firearm magazine, even if that magazine is not inserted into the firearm. Pack your ammunition in factory boxes or use something like an MTM Box.
I have flown to Alaska for numerous hunts and when doing so I bring both my hunting rifle and a sidearm. Yes, it is perfectly fine to pack both firearms in the same case. The same rules apply to both rifles and handguns — they must be declared, must be empty, ammunition must be stored as described above, etc. There are no issues flying with multiple firearms in a single case.
Beyond “restricted” items that must be checked (firearms, ammunition, knives, trekking poles, etc), I make full use of the space and weight that my firearm case provides. With extra room left over, I make every effort to pack the case right up to the 50-pound limit that most airline carriers allow for checked baggage. Additional items that I pack in my weapon case vary on each trip, but often include my tripod, spotting scope, binoculars, extra clothes, extra boots, food, etc.
BEFORE YOU FLY
Alright. So you have your unloaded firearm(s) in your case, your ammunition is properly stored, and you’ve added additional gear as space and weight-capacity allows. Before you head towards the airport, be sure that you are ready to fly.
THE RIGHT WAY TO LOCK IT
TSA will require that you lock your case. And generally they will want a lock to be secured at every possible location on the case. If your case has six latches where a lock could secure the latch to prevent entry, don’t show up at the airport with anything less than six locks.
Mark's case features four latches and he uses four identically keyed Master Locks to secure his case.
When it comes to what locks to use, keep in mind that you DO NOT have to use TSA-style locks. The current TSA regulations state that…
“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.”
Personally, I don’t not want the TSA to have access to my firearm case without me knowing. I never use TSA-style locks on my case. Instead, I use these keyed MasterLocks and there has only been one instance that TSA has requested my key to access my locked case. While TSA may cut a non-TSA lock off of regular luggage, I have not heard of a single verified instance where they cut a non-TSA lock off of a firearm. To do so would violate their own rules, since the cut locks would not be functional to lock the case for the rest of the travel duration.
I also recommend adding your full name and phone number to the exterior of your case. I did this in a couple of places on my case, ensuring that anyone who handles the case can reach me directly at any time.
AT THE AIRPORT
When you arrive at the airport, proceed to your airline’s standard baggage counter. When it is your turn at the counter, simply tell the agent, “I would like to declare a firearm.”
Most airlines will require that you sign a card stating that you have followed TSA’s regulations for checking the firearm, and you will then insert that signed card into the weapon case.
On that note, since I must access the contents of the weapons case before it is checked, I usually do NOT have the case locked before reaching the baggage counter. There’s never been an issue or question about that.
Depending on the airport, there are two ways that you’ll proceed from here…
At some airports you will simply lock the case, the baggage counter agent will take the case and put it on the standard belt with all other luggage. They will likely instruct you to wait 15-20 minutes before proceeding through security and onto your gate. That wait is to ensure that TSA does not request access to your case during the baggage screening process. Once that wait is up, you can check back in with the baggage agent to ensure that you are OK to proceed to security and onto your gate.
In other airports you may be required to take the weapons case directly to a TSA agent at a special security screening station. (This is often where oversize baggage is dropped-off as well.) My experience at these security screenings is that the TSA agent will remove the case from you, while you remain there as the case is checked and screened. Once the TSA agent has completed their inspection, they will ask you to lock the case. Once locked, the case is off to the baggage belt to get routed to your plane, and you are off to TSA for your standard personal screening before proceeding to your gate.
AND NOW, YOU WAIT AND HOPE
You are through security. You’ve boarded. Wheels are up on the plane. You have a microscopic snack as a baby screams. You try to sleep, but can’t. Eventually, the plane touches down at your destination. You make your way to the baggage carousel.
Hopefully, your bags arrive. And, finally, they do. But your weapons case doesn’t.
Don’t worry. Your case won’t come out on the baggage carousel. Instead, you need to locate the baggage office of the airline you’ve flown with. An agent there will check our ID and hand-off your case. Hopefully.
If it doesn’t show up — and, yes, I’ve had this happen — you’ll work with the baggage agent to determine where your bag is, and when it will arrive. Ideally, you won’t ever have to worry about that.
Instead, you’ll transition from the airport to the wilderness.
Weapon in hand. The animal you’re after in sight. You take a deep breath. Slowly squeeze.
And BOOM! It was all worth it.
Getting your meat and antlers back? That’s a different topic for a different day…
Mark was relieved to get home after a successful elk hunt and find that the skull and antlers he checked were in good condition.
The list of gear shown in this article's photo...
- 7SAUM Rifle built by Sterling Precision
- Defiance aniTi-X Action
- Proof Research Barrel
- XLR Element 4.0 Chassis
- Timney Elite Hunter Trigger
- Hawkins Precision Scope Rings
- Nightforce NXS Compact 2.5-10x42 Scope
- Short Action Precision 2-Round Holder
- Thunderbeast Ultra Suppressor
- Mtn Gear Bipod
- Otis Ripcord Bore Cleaner
- Swarovski EL 8.5x42 Binoculars
- Swarovski ATS-65 25-50W Spotting Scope
- SIG KILO 8K Rangefinder
- Chris Reeve Inyoni Knife
- SIG Sauer P320-XTEN 10mm Pistol
- Buffalo Bore Heavy Outdoorsman Ammunition
- Petzl Leopard FL Crampons
- First Aid & Kill Kit in K3 Stash Pockets
- Really Right Stuff Ascend Tripod
- S&S Archery Backcountry CL Trekking Poles
Mark Huelsing is the host of the Hunt Backcountry Podcast and works at Exo Mtn Gear — though he's never been able to figure out his job title. Connect with Mark by sending him an email (mark at exomtngear.com) or DM @MarkTheFark on Instagram.