Tips on flying with your shotgun

Pelican 1700

The first time you fly with your shotgun can be a nerve wracking experience.  Mostly it’s the wading through information on the subject before you even pack up for your trip.  This page will hopefully clear things up for you and  once you go through security a few times, you will soon get the hang of it.  These tips are primarily directed at U.S. travelers who are traveling in the U.S. and you should CHECK THE POLICY ON FLYING WITH FIREARMS WITH EACH SPECIFIC CARRIER BEFORE EVEN BUYING A TICKET and read the TSA policy on TRAVELING WITH FIREARMS AND AMMUNITION.

Procedure:

Lets start at the beginning.  It is perfectly legal for a United States citizen to fly with a legal, unloaded, cased and locked firearm that is inspected and checked as baggage.  As eluded to above each airline has its own policies on traveling with firearms.  You need to read up on these policies before booking your flight.  Most major U.S. based airlines have similar rules and you shouldn’t have much trouble.  All firearms parts, frames, receivers or spares also must be in a locked case and checked.

Checking in:

When you arrive at the airport for your flight, proceed straight to the airline baggage counter with your cased firearm.  Do not use curbside baggage check in, you must take it to the counter.  You must declare that you are traveling with a firearm so tell the counter agent your case contains a firearm.   At this point things can start to vary a bit.  Here is a list of steps you can expect to happen but the order might be different.  The thing to watch out for most is that you are supposed to remain in possession of the key to your case and no one else.  The exception being the TSA if they need to inspect your firearm.

  • You will be asked by the agent to fill out a declaration that your firearm is unloaded.  They will give you a card that states this is so which you sign and date.
  • The agent will ask you to open the case and place the card inside then close and lock the case.
  • The agent might now take the case and put it on the luggage belt.  It will then be inspected, x-rayed, by the TSA and you can proceed to your plane. Or more commonly,
  • The agent will tell you to walk over to the TSA luggage screening room.  The TSA agent will ask you to open your case.  The TSA agent will do a visual inspection.  In some larger airports the TSA agent will run a cotton swab around the case and stick it into some kind of analyzer.  Presumably they are looking for bomb materials.  Everyday gun powder from the shells you shoot through your gun should not trigger this device. The TSA agent will ask you to lock your case and will take it to the luggage handlers.  Or,
  • A TSA agent will come to the counter and take your case to be inspected somewhere you do not have access too.  The TSA agent may ask you for your key and tell you to wait.  In this case remain in the area to get your key back.  They may also take just the case (without the key) and tell you to wait about 10 minutes before proceeding to your plane in case there are any ‘questions.’

Most of the time this is not a problem at all.  Just keep an eye on what’s going on and the name of the people you are talking too.  This process is usually fairly expedient and you sometimes run into some nice TSA people who are shooters themselves.

Ammunition:

You can check small amounts of ammunition on some airlines.  Around 11 pounds is the limit and it must be securely packed in fiber (such as cardboard), wood or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.  The manufacturers box usually suffices but you must also pack this in another secure hard sided outer container.  On some arilines ammunition may also be packed in the same case as the firearm.  Again check with the airline your are traveling on.

Picking up your gun at your destination:

Nine times out of ten your firearm will simply come out on the baggage carousel with the other luggage.  Be sure you’re there to get it when it pops out, not something you want to leave spinning around out there.  Occasionally you may have to pick it up from the oversize luggage area or from the attendant.  Some airlines will put multiple bulky cases and gun cases in a temporary roped off area.  It makes for a nice display but also draws unwanted attention.

Firearm flight case basics:

You can really put your gun in just about any lockable hard sided case for airline travel as long as it completely encloses the firearm and cannot be opened easily.  The airlines don’t seem to care if the cases are ATA rated or similar.  Just because you can travel with your shotgun in any old hard case doesn’t mean it’s a good idea though.  You should invest in something strong and theft resistant.  If you haven’t heard, airline baggage handlers can break anything including a steel ball bearing.

There are two theories on the best way to pack your gun and belongings for travel.  Each has it’s advantages and each one appeals to a different crowd depending on how they like to travel.

Theory #1:

Theory number one goes; pack the gun (and ammo if any) in it’s own case and everything else, all your belongings, in your carry on or another checked bag.

This is the basic mode of travel.  A locked hard sided case with protective foam for the ultimate protection of your firearm.  All your other stuff like clothes and toiletries go in your carry on.  This is where your single/double gun cases such as PelicanAmericase, SKB, Cabela’s Bullet Proof etc. shine.  A custom fit case for a custom fit job.  This usually suffices for going to weekend competitions or easy hunts.  If you’re staying longer or just a heavy packer then Theory number two might be the way to go.

Theory #2:

Theory number two goes; pack the gun and your belongings into the same case in order to save money on checking multiple bags.

This works easily with a special kind of case made for this but you can do it with a single case too.  What you do is put your shotgun in a soft sided take down case and put that and your belongings into a hard sided case.  This can be done with a Pelican type case by removing the foam to make room for everything.  Of course with this procedure your gun is only protected by the padding of the soft side case it’s in and any clothes you may have packed around it.  You can see an advantage in that you are now packing a soft case with your gun, which would not fit in a fitted foam case.  This can be convenient on long trips.  When using this method be sure to keep an eye on weight limits.  Most airlines allow up to 50 pounds before tacking on extra fees.

This way of traveling is a trade off between protection and convenience.  Some cases that are made just for this mode of travel are the Nalpak Tuffpak Sport and  combination soft cases with a zip compartment in the bottom to accept a hard sided case.

Recommended flight cases:

There are lots of choices for single/double shotgun flight cases in a few price ranges.  In take down size shotgun cases the best price to performance ratio can be found in the Pelican 1700.  It’s capable of holding all popular sporting clays guns out there including 30" barrel semi autos.  You can find good deals on the Pelican 1700 at Amazon.com.  For theory #2 travelers the Nalpak Tuffpak 1136 Take Down Long case is great.  It has a 36" inside length for those long barreled sporters.

Firearm flight case locks:

DO NOT USE TSA LOCKS ON GUN CASES!  TSA rules state something to the effect of ‘No one should have access to your firearm but you.’  Using ‘TSA locks’ could potentially violate the TSA’s own rules.  You can use a TSA lock but it’s not required so why even leave the slightest chance that someone could open your locks?

Use a good Masterlock or similar with a strong key.  These Master Lock 140T models are excellent for use on cases.  They are strong solid brass locks with a good size metal key.  They have the right shackle dimensions to fit well with most cases.

For more security you can use "anti-bump" locks.  These locks are premium, almost bespoke, locks that have uncommon keys and resist tampering.  They also come at a premium price.  The Abloy Protec is an example of this kind of lock.

If you are prone to loosing things like keys, consider using a combination lock.

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