Airlines and Guns: The Dos and The Definitely Don’ts

Back in August, I helped a friend clear up after a media event. He was packing all of his guns and gear in a private jet for his return flight home. Several of us drove straight onto the tarmac, loaded up the small cargo hold with gun cases and leftover ammo, and then sat and watched as he climbed on board, taxied out, and took off. It all felt very American.

I was flying back with guns, too—but I was on American Airlines. I had to go back to the hotel, Uber to the airport, navigate security at the American desk, and then again at the TSA bag scan, and then again at the main security checkpoint. Despite having American Airlines responsible for my travels, it all felt oddly draconian.

Still, rules are rules and there’s no way around them. If you are going to fly with guns, you will need to know the rules—the dos and don’ts, rituals, laws, and regulations, etc. Otherwise, it will get sticky.

The airline will put one of these cards in each case. You will sign the back.
The airline will put one of these cards in each case. You will sign the back. The Vaultek cases are ideal for one-gun flying.

Flying with guns: the basics

Firearms must be in a locked case. This can be a dedicated case, like a hard plastic, rolling long gun case. It can also be a small pistol case. The emphasis here is on one thing that is defined as a case—it doesn’t matter if that stands alone or gets added to a larger suitcase.

This case must be lockable. This could be a TSA-friendly lock, so they can open it behind closed doors at their discretion. It doesn’t have to be, but you should plan on waiting until they give you the all-clear nod before you proceed to security.

Inside the case, the guns must be unloaded. Don’t put ammo in the gun case. In fact, I tend to keep guns, and only guns, in the case. Keep it simple and uncluttered.

top view of guns in a case
Fly with a clean case—this isn’t a rule, just makes it easier to inspect.

At the Check-In Desk

You must declare that you’re flying with firearms. The clerk at the counter may or may not know as much about the regulations as you, sadly, so expect some consternation. They will ask to see the firearm(s) and may get thrown by how many you have.

I’m often flying with multiples, and this has caused issues in the past. Check the airline’s regulations to know if they place a cap on the number you can fly with and be prepared to show those regs to the attendant if needed. I don’t know of any airlines that cap the number of guns, but be prepared.

If you can disassemble the gun, do. At least rack the slide on pistols. Anything that will visually show the crew there that these are not loaded will speed up the process. For long guns, I pull the bolts. Revolvers and OUs are more complicated.

Weight matters, as does size. If the case is too heavy or too long, they will slap an extra fee on it.

After visual inspection, you’ll sign a TSA inspection waiver card, set it in the case, close it up, lock it, and the clerk will likely add a tag to the bag that will have it held at the other end of its journey so it doesn’t roll out on the belt with the rest of the bags.

Depending on the size of the airport, you may carry this bag to the TSA bag check station. Either way, you will need to hang around for TSA to give it the all-clear before proceeding through to security yourself. They may need your keys, or the combination, to look inside the case.

You may feel some recoil at this second level of inspection—especially if it occurs behind closed doors. I get it. I don’t like it either. The best insurance you have against any monkey business at this stage is to snap a pic of the inside of the case, with the card in place, just before you lock that lock for the last time.

guns and loaded magazines in a gun case
As tempting as it seems, you won’t be allowed to fly with loaded mags in with the guns themselves.

Flying with Ammo: The Basics

Ammo is different. Here, airlines will get picky. Most will allow you to fly with 11 pounds of ammo, but check before you load up. That’s typically enough to get you through a hunting trip (unless you are flying out to hunt hogs or snow geese).

The ammo needs to be boxed. Some will allow ammo in magazines, but I’ve personally had this prove challenging when non-gun people expect to find neatly boxed ammo and run into a stack of mags. Push it, if you want, but I fly all the time and have found it easier to capitulate with the expectations of the lowest common denominator.

Ammo can be in a locked case, but it doesn’t have to be. Just protect it well in a suitcase. And all the extras—anything that could be considered part of a gun—goes in there, too. Mags, slings, bipods…. You can carry accessories on the plane—even holsters—but I find it easier to win friends and influence people by keeping it all in a checked bag.

Why? Why not push the regulations? All of my gun paraphernalia is covered in powder residue. I am, too, sometimes. The last thing I want is the extra attention that comes from an aggressive TSA pat down. This is my opinion.

The Extra Advice

Before you check that suitcase, make sure your carry-on and pockets are empty. I have dedicated carry-on bags that I don’t allow near my gun gear. They don’t go to the range.

More than once, I’ve had that wayward round end up in the bottom of a bag. And in my pocket. And in my camera bag. It is a pain in the ass, but check everything.

Some gun cases have tabs for locking them closed, so don't toss them. This Arex case could fly with a lock.
Some gun cases have tabs for locking them closed, so don’t toss them. This Arex case could fly with a lock.

And look out for pocket knives, too. I gave a TSA agent a nice new Spyderco last week—the first time I’ve made that mistake, because the black-bladed, black-handled knife escaped notice against the black body of my camera. “This don’t fly, boss,” he said as he pulled the knife from my bag.

Yeah. Ya don’t say.

Because it was a knife, I had the option to take it back to my car (not possible, as I was on the return leg of the journey). I could have mailed it from some airports—there are kiosks for doing exactly this in many big airports, but they’re hard to find and take time and cost money.

If it had been a bullet, a mag, or a gun, the story would have ended much differently.

Listen for Your Name

After clearing security, keep your ears on. If TSA can’t get a lock open or if they have a question, they’ll call you back to the front. It happens.

Picking Up Bags on the Other End

Most times, these bags will come to the special baggage office for the airline. If you are flying into a small regional airport, they will go to the desk and it will take forever. I fly into a small airport when I return home, and it takes about 45 minutes for my case to appear at the desk.

But they may come out on the baggage claim line. Watch for it. If you have a small case in a suitcase, the handlers may miss the special tags and send it on out.

Bags wth extra tags. These will vary depending on the airline.
Bags will have extra tags. These will vary depending on the airline.

I’ve had obvious gun cases come out on the belt in massive airports, where people fly with guns every day. I’ve also had my cameras held up at the special claims offices because they look like they’re in a gun case.

Special Safety Concerns?

I tend to tool up ASAP when obviously flying with guns. I keep my EDC gun and mag relatively accessible, and will lock and load as soon as it can be done in a safe and non-threatening manner. At the very least, I will be wearing an effectively pugilistic blade that I can retrieve subtly from my suitcase.

It isn’t always easy to maintain a low profile, though, in Ubers or in hotels. Be cognizant of who may be watching you both in and out of airports.

David Higginbotham is a writer and editor who specializes in everyday carry. David is a former backcountry guide in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Boundary Waters Canoe Area who was a college professor for 20 years. He ultimately left behind the academy for a more practical profession in the firearms industry and was (among other editorial positions) the Managing Editor for a nascent Mag Life blog. In that Higginbotham helped establish The Maglife's tone and secure its early success. Though he went on to an even more practical firearms industry profession still, he continues to contribute articles and op-eds as time and life allow.

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