5 Lessons On Flying With Handguns

The skies aren’t always so friendly around the ticketing and security areas at an airport, but you do have the right and choice to take a gun along with you. Make sure you’re prepared! READ MORE


SOURCE: Springfield-Armory Armory Life, article by James Tarr

Yes, you can bring firearms on your flight. How much of a hassle it is depends on your pre-flight preparedness. I hate flying, for a number of reasons (I hate crowds, I hate lines, I hate having to take off my pistol and trust my safety to people less skilled, etc.), but that still doesn’t stop me from getting on planes at least half a dozen times a year. Most of the time I do fly with firearms in my checked baggage, and over the years I have learned a few tricks that may ease your travels.

Check the Rules
While the TSA does not limit the number of firearms you can have in your checked baggage, I know of at least one airline that does. Every airline has a website with their specific rules on transportation of firearms and ammunition – check it. Basically, the firearm must be unloaded and in a locked case and declared during the ticket counter check-in process. I recommend acting professional, polite (as if you’ve checked guns dozens of times before), and like it’s no big deal, because it shouldn’t be. A smile will get you checked in quicker and with less problems than an attitude.

Locked Case
Simply having a padlock on your case isn’t good enough for the TSA. They want to make sure that the lock prevents access to the gun inside, and I have had agents undo the latches on my gun case and attempt to pry it open wide enough to pull the gun out. This is surprisingly easy with some rifle cases (I recommend a padlock at each end), and even some handgun cases. Don’t be gentle when you test your cases, because the TSA agents won’t be. I know one gun writer whose rifle cases were destroyed by TSA agents using pipes as crowbars, and then told he couldn’t fly with them because his rifle cases would no longer securely lock. What this has to do with combating terrorism I’m a little fuzzy on.

Although regulations don’t require it, I always put my locked pistol case inside a locked piece of luggage, and I’ve had TSA cut the padlock off the luggage just to get a look at the pistol case. Why? I have no idea.

Currently, when I am just travelling with a pistol or two, I put them in a Pelican 1495 case. In addition to the combo lock built into the case itself I secure it with a combination padlock. To get to the guns inside, someone would need boltcutters AND a bandsaw. I check it as a separate piece of luggage.

Passengers are limited to 11 pounds of ammunition in their checked luggage, and none at all in their carry-ons. That won’t be a problem if you’re heading somewhere to hunt, but if you’re flying to some sort of training event or shooting competition, 11 pounds isn’t much at all. Some venues will let you mail your ammo to yourself.

The ammunition also has to be either in factory boxes or boxes specifically designed to hold ammunition. This means no loose, bulk-packed ammo. Also, many gate agents interpret this as “must be in factory boxes,” so if you have unmarked boxes for your handloads, you might have to educate the counter agent (see #5).

I often am checking my carry gun, and my carry ammunition is Winchester Ranger +P+ 9mm, which unfortunately is not offered for sale to civilians, so the boxes are marked “For Law Enforcement Use Only.” That is Winchester’s preference and the dictum has no legal bearing, but instead of trying to explain this to the counter agent I usually just put the ammo in another box.

Combination Locks
Once the counter agent has had you fill out the orange “Unloaded Firearm” form and put it in the case next to the gun, the TSA may want to examine the case or run it through a scanner right then. Sometimes the counter agent just has me lock the case up and they put it on the conveyor belt, with the warning to stick around for a few minutes in case the TSA “needs to get in the case.” If they do, a TSA agent may approach you and ask for the keys to the padlock so they can open the case, which may be at a nearby station or somewhere not even in view. This is why I don’t use key locks but only combination locks so that I have to open the case myself, which means I will be present anytime the case is open. Don’t ever let anyone open your gun case when you’re not present–which means NEVER use “TSA-approved” luggage locks for your gun cases, because they have master keys for those. I won’t use them on any of my luggage, because I want to know when people are going through my stuff.

You could use key locks and simply refuse to let anyone else open the case unless you’re present. This happened to a friend of mine. The TSA agent wouldn’t bring the case to him as it was in a “secure area” he wasn’t cleared for, and my friend refused to turn over the keys because he didn’t want them opening his gun case when he wasn’t present. The increasingly angry TSA agent threatened to break into the case. My friend threatened to call the ATF and report his guns stolen, which would have shut down the whole airport (he wasn’t bluffing). Who won the argument? Let’s just say the TSA (whose employees are not sworn law enforcement agents) is more afraid of the ATF than the other way around.

If the TSA sees you’re using combination padlocks, they know getting your case open won’t be as simple as asking for your keys.

Bring the Rules
If you fly enough, you will run into an airline or TSA employee who either is a jerk, idiot, or just hates guns (or some combination of the three). It’s happened to me and just about everybody I know who flies with guns frequently. Why you’re checking a gun is none of their business (Why do you own a gun? Are you a cop? Are you going to be doing some shooting? Why do you need two guns? Why do you have all that ammunition? – I’ve heard all of these questions at one time or another. You don’t have to answer them.)

Go to the TSA website and print out their rules, and also print out the rules from the website of whichever airline you’re using. If the counter agent who’s checking you in starts claiming you’re only allowed one box of ammo or that the gun has wear a trigger lock, or something else you know to be incorrect, you’ll have their own rules printed out and ready. Doing this has solved all sorts of problems for several people I know.

TSA website

Originally appeared in Handguns Magazine.


10 thoughts on “5 Lessons On Flying With Handguns”

  1. My son and I got screwed over by some pompous twit working for air canafa. We were headed to newfoundland for a Moose hunt. Rifles are in an approved double Gun case locked with approved logs. Bolts were in our checked baggage along with the ammo, all dutifully declared. We had all paperwork for the Guns and ammo. Did not impresshim, he pulled out bags off the plain ” for inspection”. I talked a with a senior canadian customs guy; he told the bozo that we were good to go. Nope we were not going anywhere. Upshot was that we missed our flight, arrived with the close on our backs and rifles with no bolts. Had to spend the night, on our dime. Cause we missed the flight to Camp we had to buy another one. Got our bags in late afternoon. Coming back our bags were pulled again because the bolts were not with the rifles. Both US and Canadian Customs told another dope that everything was good, to no avail. Missed another flight! I wrote to Canadian tourism about our plight, never got an answer. Air Canada offered us 20 bucks (canadian) off on another flight. As if we will EVER fly with them again! We cancelled a trip to the Yukon that we were going to take, are the deposit but it was worth it!

  2. I was going to a veterans reunion, flying from Phoenix, AZ to San Antonio, TX.
    I went to the desk and told them I had a firearm I wanted checked. (it was my 1911 SA gov’t model….what I call a truck gun, not a LOT of money in it)
    I had the pistol in a steel box that locks with NO magazine and no ammo. I had an identical steel box that locks with the package of 50 remington golden sabers in the factory box, and two empty magazines in that same box.
    They called over a TSA agent, he had me open both boxes (key)
    and looked and said okay, lock em. I did, they had me fill out a form with my name and flight number and taped it to the box with the pistol and wrapped it in shipping plastic tape. The tSA agent put both boxes on ONE piece of luggage ( I thought they would have put one in one luggage and the other in the other one….the gun is no good with no ammo or magazine)
    He said Ok sir, we will check your bags and they escorted me to the FRONT of the line. My wife was in a wheelchair as she has bad knees.
    Return trip was almost identical.
    no hassles, nothing. This was with Southwest Airlines.

    1. I fly with handguns on Southwest all the time. Not only do my magazines and ammo go in the same piece of luggage, they are in the same locked gun case. Never had an issue.

    1. So why don’t YOU start an airline that not only is gun friendly but violates TSA rules? Good luck!

  3. Where were you told you cannot buy +P+ Law Enforcement Ammo? I’ve seen Law Enforcement ammo in many stores, and on the internet, that anyone can buy.

  4. Not only is it a bad idea to use a TSA padlock on your firearms case , it’s not legal. NO ONE can have access to your firearms once you check them, but YOU. If TSA wants to inspect them, they have to ask you to open the case. Sometimes they do, want to look inside, sometimes they don’t, apparently at the whim of the agent.

    Also, I agree that you should NEVER be absent when your case is unlocked. Some TSA agents have been known to steal from checked baggage – I know, hard to believe. But aside from that, your TSA agent is not going to repack things like you had them, and that may lead to damage during the rest of the trip.

    Where TSA locks are helpful is with ammo that has to be in a locked case in checked baggage – check with your airline. TSA will likely break your lock – and thoughtfully leave the pieces in the case – in order to satisfy their curiosity. Then, if you get to a country that also requires a locked ammo case (South Africa, in my instance), you’ll have to find another lock and pony-up for it. And TSA may then cut IT off when your baggage gets to the States if you change planes.

  5. What is NOT mentioned here is the laws of the place you are flying to and from. One trip I packed a bunch of weapons (most of my handguns at the time!) to go blasting with my old friend in Indiana; thankfully I flew in and out of Weir Cook in Indianapolis in a state where firearms are not a big deal. I had nearly flown to/from O’Hare. I’m sure I would not have violated any laws transiting Chicago from Indiana to return home, but having them on my person in Chicago (where O’Hare is located) might have been a serious issue upon check in at the airline. I would like to hear from the author on this subject?

    1. While I can not attest to other states, the only issue you might have faced in Illinois, would be if any of your firearms were NFA items. I have flown in and out of both Midway and O’Hare numerous time with firearms without any issue. Since you were flying, the firearms were cased and unloaded and not “on your person”, so there is no issue traveling with firearms here.

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