July 12, 2022
Many of us don’t travel outside our home state to hunt, but when it comes time for that hunt of a lifetime, we may have to check our guns with an airline that’s not always firearm-friendly. Honestly, traveling with a gun is not a big deal, but if you haven’t done it, it is a bit daunting. Also, it’s easier if you know the rules because a lot of ticket agents don’t.
First, always check with the airline or airlines before you book a ticket. Most carriers accept sporting firearms as checked baggage, but a few domestic and some international carriers do not. The only time I’ve had serious problems was in transferring from one carrier to another. You need to make sure all the carriers on your itinerary accept firearms as checked baggage and have baggage transfer agreements with each other. Many carriers require advance notice, especially when your travel is international.
Next, it all starts with a good, solid hard case. We used to argue polymer versus metal, but I don’t think it really matters. They all get beat up, so I’ve gone through many over the years. These days, I use mostly polymer cases from Pelican and Plano, with lots of foam padding to cushion the firearms. Make sure all the hasps and hinges work and the case closes securely. Both the airlines and TSA can—and will—reject a case that doesn’t close tightly. New rule: All lock holes must be filled with locks. My cases use four, so I use four identical locks with like key or combination. “TSA approved” locks are recommended.
Within the United States, and most commonly everywhere, firearms are checked separately inside the case, unloaded, with no ammunition in the gun case (more on ammo later). Ideally, the firearm is disassembled. Bolt actions are the easiest; just remove the bolt and put it to the side in the case. I wrap my bolt in a bandanna or put it in a sock. With ARs, the bolt assembly can be similarly removed. Break-open firearms are also easy; with doubles (shotguns and rifles) I pack barrels and actions separately in the case, wrapping and padding as needed.
Disassembled inside the case is not exactly a rule within the United States. However, it’s a good idea and is comforting to the ticket agent, who will make a visual inspection but may not know what he or she is looking at.
Other action types—such as many single shots, lever actions, and some semiautos—are more difficult. On lever actions, I thread cable gun locks down through the action, with the lever open. Recently, I’ve added cable locks on bolt actions. I want my firearms to be visually safe, and I want the ticket agent and the TSA folks to be happy. Some actions, such as falling-block single shots, are hard to visually secure. Here, a trigger lock is probably the best answer, but I always keep a few zip ties under the foam padding in my gun case. Petersen’s Hunting Editor David Draper related using a zip tie on a Browning BLR to clear Canadian security, and I use zip ties on Ruger No. 1s, secured so that the lever cannot be closed. Remember, when it comes to airline security, it’s not always about logic; it’s about the appearance of safety.
The rules and limits are simple, and pretty much worldwide: up to five kilograms (11 pounds) in the original factory containers. This may not be enough ammo for competitive events (the option there is to ship ahead), but it’s plenty for any hunt. Three boxes of .375 ammo and three boxes of .300 magnum ammo weigh just over 10 pounds. In the United States, ammo goes in a checked bag that is separate from the firearm.
Elsewhere in the world, ammo is more commonly checked separately in its own locked hard case. For years I used a small plastic tackle box, but recently I’ve used a Plano “marine box” shaped like a military ammo can with a lockable hasp. Mine is blaze orange because I think it’s less likely to go unnoticed and be left behind. In the United States, I start with my ammo inside the box, inside my duffel unlocked, but with locks in the box. This way, if somebody insists ammo be checked separately, I can whisk it out of the duffel and lock it.
Baggage allowances have shrunk and are now zero with some airlines. Within the United States your gun case is regular checked baggage, although you may need to check it through the “oversize” counter. If you’re allowed two bags, your gun case can be one of them, but if you’re allowed zero or one bag, you will pay extra for the gun case, cost varying with the airline. Common in Europe and now instituted by South African Airlines, you will pay extra for a gun case. I don’t like it, but special handling is required, so I don’t think the charge is unfair.
Assuming your firearms are legal at points of origin and destination, there isn’t much else within the United States except that local laws must be adhered to. For instance, it’s unwise to transit any New York City airport with handguns or even with long guns, and the Port Authority will inspect firearms in checked baggage. Hawaii also has special rules.
International travel is a different deal. When you check in with firearms, the airline ticket agent is obligated to ensure that you can legally complete your route and enter your country of destination. Popular destinations such as Argentina, Canada, and South Africa are simple. Their own customs websites clearly state that temporary permits can be issued upon arrival (or you can secure them in advance).
Most countries, however, require some type of temporary permit or police clearance in advance. Typically, it starts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Form 4457, a small piece of paper used to record valuable items you are taking abroad—jewelry, cameras, firearms—and is obtainable free at any CBP office. The agency keeps no record of this document, but it serves two important purposes. First, it allows you to bring these items back into the United States without paying duty. Second, since we do not have firearms “registration,” the 4457 serves as a “U.S. gun permit” literally throughout the world for obtaining temporary permits.
Historically, Form 4457 was valid as long as you owned the firearm. More recently, unfortunately, most have an expiration date, so you must be sure yours is current. South Africa requires the 4457 to be dated within the year, so you may need a new one. In some countries the process is simple; in others it’s more complex. For foreign travel with firearms, especially if you’re new to the game, I strongly recommend using a travel agent that is “gun savvy.” In any case, your outfitter should assist you. If a temporary permit is required in advance, have it with you when you check in.
Be nice, smile a lot, and pretend you know what you’re doing. You are required to declare firearms. When I walk up to the counter, I say, “I have two unloaded sporting firearms in this hard case. I also have ammunition in this checked bag, less than five kilograms, in the original factory containers.”
Sign the airline-provided form certifying the guns are unloaded and pop it in the case. In many situations that’s it! In some airports a ticket agent will accompany you to TSA. In other airports they will put the bags on the belt, and you wait nearby for 15 minutes or so. They will call you if TSA needs your help in opening the case for inspection.
Two last thoughts. Allow extra time for check-in and do not schedule close connections: at least one hour domestic; no less than two hours international. Murphy’s Law applies even more so when traveling with guns.
At your final destination, delivery of gun cases is schizophrenically inconsistent. Most common: They come through “oversize baggage.” Sometimes they are delivered to the baggage office or direct to the airport police. And sometimes they come banging down the carousel. Keep your paperwork handy and put copies of your ID, itinerary, and any needed permits inside your gun case. Honest, it’s not such a big deal—especially after you’ve done it a few dozen times!