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Have Gun — Will Travel: How to Fly With Your Firearm

As it turned out, except for a small mishap, flying with a gun is surprisingly easy. Today I’ll share my experience and what I learned from it, in case any of you find yourself needing to travel with firearms and ammunition.

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Have Gun — Will Travel: How to Fly With Your Firearm


Last month I flew down to Austin to spend the weekend with the fine folks from Atomic Athlete for their Vanguard event. The Vanguard was basically 36 hours of man skills — we learned how to humanely slaughter rabbits and chickens, land navigation, and even some self-defense techniques from Tim Kennedy. It was awesome. I’ll be doing a full write-up on it soon, so stay tuned for that.

One segment of the event was a firearms class, and we needed to bring our own pistol and ammo to participate in it. Because I was flying, I would have to pack my gun for the trip. Having endured, along with my fellow Americans, thirteen years of taking off our shoes, putting our tiny toiletries in see-through baggies, and getting patted down by TSA agents, I figured flying with an actual, honest-to-goodness weapon would be a nightmare fraught with all sorts of bureaucratic, red tape rigmarole.

As it turned out, except for a small mishap, flying with a gun is surprisingly easy. Today I’ll share my experience and what I learned from it, in case any of you find yourself needing to travel with firearms and ammunition.

How to Pack Your Gun for Flying

TSA regulations require that your gun be packed in a hard-sided container that’s locked. You’ll then place that container in your checked luggage. If you can’t bring pocketknives on the plane, it’s a no-brainer that you can’t bring a gun in your carry-on bag either. That may not have always been the case though; I always thought it was funny that William Shatner had a pistol on him in that Twilight Zone episode where he sees a gremlin guy on the wing of the plane he was flying in. Any old-timers know if you could pack heat in your carry-on luggage back in the day?

That gremlin on the wing is the least of your problems, Bob. You’re about to be tackled by a federal air marshal

Anyway, for my hard-sided, locked gun case I used this Pelican handgun carrier and these two Master locks:

My Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm in my Pelican case.
Locked with my two Master locks.

When you put your gun in your hard-sided container, it needs to be unloaded. Unloaded means nothing in the chamber; even an unchambered gun with a loaded magazine inserted in the magazine well violates the rules. The regulations suggest that you could pack a loaded magazine in the same case as your unloaded gun — it just can’t be inserted in the magazine well. To be on the safe side, I made sure all my magazines were unloaded. I also didn’t insert any of my unloaded magazines in the magazine well. In other words, I packed a completely clear gun. Paranoid? Perhaps. I just didn’t want to have to deal with any snafus.

That’s it. Same rules apply for rifles and shotguns. Put them in a hard-sided container that’s locked and make sure they’re unloaded. You even need to pack like this if you’re carrying a starter pistol or just the frame or the lower receiver of a rifle. The only exceptions are not actually bullet-firing guns: airsoft guns, paintball guns, and BB/pellet guns must be packed in your checked baggage, but don’t need to be in a special case or declared. Compressed gas cartridges for these devices aren’t allowed on airplanes at all, even in checked baggage, unless the regulator is completely removed and you have an empty, open-ended canister, which often requires a technician. TSA recommends that you ship cartridges to your destination separately.

How to Declare a Firearm at the Airport

When I arrived at Tulsa International Airport, I’ll admit I was nervous. Since I’ve seen TSA agents declare the riot act to someone who’s attempting to bring a water bottle through security, I figured they’d be even more suspicious towards a guy trying to fly with a semi-automatic pistol.

When you’re flying with a gun, you’re supposed to “declare” to the ticketing agent of the airline you’re flying with that you’re packing a gun. When I checked in for my flight, I tried to be nonchalant about it, and simply said, “I need to declare a firearm.”

How NOT to declare a firearm.

I was expecting the ticket agent to take on a cautious and leery air, but she didn’t bat an eye – she just slapped a little card on the counter for me to fill out. On one side I was asked to put down my name, address, and phone number; on the other side I had to sign a statement affirming that the firearm in my checked bag was in a locked container and unloaded. The ticket agent put that card on top of my gun case in my checked bag. She verified that the case was indeed locked, but she didn’t ask me to open the case to show her that the gun was unloaded. She asked about my ammo, and I pointed it out to her in the bag. Then she asked if I had the keys for the locks, to which I replied in the affirmative (you’re supposed to have the keys on you and not in your checked bag). I got a friendly “Alrighty!” and she put my bag on the conveyor belt behind her and handed me my boarding passes.

As I was walking away, the ticket agent told me to wait around for 15 minutes or so in case TSA needed the keys to the locks on my gun case, in order to open and check it. She said they probably wouldn’t, but if I went through security and they decided to check my case, I’d have to come back out and go through security again. So I sat and read. Fifteen minutes later the ticketing agent said I could go.

And with that I made my first plane trip with a gun.

It was surprisingly easy and hassle free. At least on this leg of the trip…

The Tricky Part: Ammo

Like your gun, you’ll have to pack your ammo in your checked bag. Every airline has different limits on how much ammo you can pack, so you’ll need to check with the airline you’re flying with to determine how much you can bring. Southwest allows 11 pounds. I brought three boxes of fifty 9mm rounds, which was what I needed for the weekend.

According to TSA regulations, “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.” That’s pretty vague. Some folks take that to mean you need to pack your ammo in a special container that has individual cavities for each round you’re carrying, just the way your ammo comes in the cardboard box when you buy them. The thinking behind this is that airlines don’t want free rounds clattering around each other and possibly setting off a primer. The possibility of a primer being set off just by jostling next to another round is super remote, but when you’re flying 30,000 feet in the air, I guess it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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