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Flying with your Firearms



For some of us it happens a couple times in a lifetime. For others it happens many times a year. We end up in a position that requires us to travel a distance that cannot reasonably be traveled over the road in the time required. Post 9/11 most of us would prefer to drive where we need to go. This has nothing to do with a fear of being airborne, terrorism or any other phobia. It's simply the irritation and lack of freedom that comes from being stripped of our possessions and stuffed into an aluminium can with a bunch of strangers.

Flying in itself has become a great hassle. A large number of the security precautions really do nothing to make us safer and serve only to allow the public to see that their government is "doing something" to keep them safe. Unfortunately we as law abiding citizens are required to capitulate to the regulations. Flying with just your carry on bag can be a pain. So what do you do if you are flying to a competition or other event that requires your rifle? What if you are legally justified in carrying a handgun in the jurisdiction you are heading to? How can you safely, efficiently and legally transport your firearm while you travel by air?

In the last two years the frequency in which I have had to fly with my weapons has increased. Most of us with Police Powers are not granted any special privileges. We must secure our weapons just as any other citizen. So how do we get from point A to point B without causing undue attention or possible arrest? The best starting point is with the Transportation Security Administration's own web page. The TSA has posted their guidelines for Traveling with Firearms and Ammunition. Your second source is 49 CFR 175.10 and 49 CFR 1540.111. This is the Federal Code governing transporting hazardous materials (ammunition) by aircraft and carriage of weapons, explosives and incendiaries. The rules may be somewhat confusing for some, so I am going to try to break them down step by step. I will also mention some "issues" that I have come across as a result of airport employees not knowing the rules.

Before you begin.

The first step in your journey is to select the appropriate case for your firearm. The TSA requires that your weapon be stored in a hard sided case. In addition the case must be capable of being locked in a manner that does not allow a side to be pried open. A poor example would be the cheap blow-molded cases you can get at your local big-box stores. If you close and lock them in the center you can still pop one of the latches open and remove the firearm without disturbing the case. This will not pass inspection, and will not be allowed onboard the aircraft.

They type of firearm and intended use will have a great impact on what case you decide to use. Cases can range in price from a couple bucks to a couple hundred. Many times the case that came with your firearm when you purchased it will suffice. If you are transporting a pistol for personal protection (when you arrive) then you will most likely want to keep your magazines and ammunition in the case as well. TSA regulations allow you to carry your ammunition loaded into magazines as long as the magazines are stored in magazine pouches. This is an extremely efficient method if you are carrying for personal protection since you are unlikely to be carrying a large amount of ammo. I have not been able to locate any regulation that states that ammunition must be locked. The rules simply state that it must be contained in a container specifically designed for transporting ammunition. I prefer to lock my personal protection ammo with the weapon to prevent tampering by unauthorized persons.

If you decide not to store your ammunition in the case with the firearm, then you may leave it in it's original store box or plastic reloading boxes, but I would suggest you reinforce them with packing tape or duck tape. You may not carry more than eleven pounds of ammunition. If you are going to a training course or competition that will require a large amount of ammunition I highly suggest you ship the ammo to yourself ahead of time. Talk to your match director or class coordinator. They have probably dealt with this before and should make arrangements to receive ammo prior to the event. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should a loaded magazine be placed in the weapon or allow a round to be chambered. The weapon should be completely clear and be made safe prior to being placed in it's case.

Lock selection may seem like a very important consideration, but in reality it isn't. You would think that it's vitally important to secure your firearm, but the great majority of gun cases are plastic. The locking tabs can be cut, broken or burned off quite easily. In addition the hinges are usually exposed and also a weak spot even on high end cases. We simply need locks to prevent casual tampering and to comply with Federal Regulations. I suggest simple key or combination Master Locks. I have always had good experience with the Master brand. DO NOT USE TSA "APPROVED" LOCKS. This may seem like a good idea at first, but the TSA locks are setup with a master key so that TSA can unlock them whenever they wish. This is a violation of the Federal Regulations. We will cover this in depth later. You will also want to avoid any locks that advertise "security codes" or that there are known master keys. I prefer resetable combination locks that do not have a master key, but even these have their downside that I will also mention later in the "Real World Reflections". When selecting locks, just make sure they are strong enough not to pop when struck and cannot be opened by anyone but you. You will most likely want to purchase three or four.

Tag your bags. Both your luggage and your firearms case itself should display your full name and cell phone number.

Take pictures of your firearms and record the serial numbers. Print these our and also load the images on a "thumb drive" and carry them with you.

Your capacity and needs will dictate how you pack your firearm in your luggage. If you are a law enforcement officer and you will need access to your weapon before and immediately after your flight, then make sure you pack the case last. It's rather hard to arm yourself in a clandestine manner when you have to rip half the contents of your bag out.

At the Airport.

Arrive an hour to hour and a half early. Two hours is better.


If you are still carrying your firearm when you arrive at the airport be EXTREMELY careful not to attract attention. The sheep believe that airports are safe places and if they catch a glimpse of you clearing your weapon and stashing it into your case they may panic and draw unwanted attention to you. However you need to also bear in mind that airports are hubs of criminal activity outside of the "sterile" zones. Use your best judgment. I like to find an out of the way corner with my back to the wall and open my case so that no one in front of me can see the contents or what I am doing. Most are so self-involved that they won't give you a second glance. Once you have CLEARED and secured your weapon and ammo, lock the case, then lock the bag the case is contained in.

When you approach the ticket counter advise her that you have an UNLOADED FIREARM TO CHECK. DO NOT say "I have a gun" or any other nonsense like that. We want to be completely clear. Make sure you tell them WHICH bag the case is in. (See #1 below) The ticket agent will have you sign a card that states that the weapon is unloaded and safe. This card will be placed inside the BAG the case is in if you are checking a pistol case. If you are checking a long gun case this card is to go inside the case itself. Some agents may request to inspect the weapon to insure it's unloaded, but most I have encountered don't care and don't know what to look for anyway. Be cautious of "that guy" who wants to play with your gun in front of the other passengers. Remember, these people WILL be on the other end of the flight when your bag comes off the conveyor. It can also make for an unwanted Q&A session on the flight. Once you are done, lock your case or bag. The agent will take possession of the bag and hand it off to TSA (usually by conveyor).

Make sure your luggage is tagged with your full name and cell phone number.

Once your bag has been sent to TSA they will commence their screening process. Remain near the ticket counter for 20 minutes or so. This will involve x-ray and sniffer screening. In the larger, modern airports your bag may not be touched by human hands again until the ground crew loads it on the aircraft.

If your bag gets flagged (and there is a good chance it will) then TSA will attempt to contact you. You did make sure your luggage was tagged with your name and cell phone number right? Once TSA or a ticket agent has advised you that your bag needs to be opened you will be directed on where to go. Under no circumstances are you to hand over your key or combination unless the bag is in your presence. (See #2 and #3 below) If you cannot be contacted your locks will most likely be broken and your bag will be searched. If the bag cannot be locked, it cannot be loaded on the aircraft. This is the reason I suggest carrying extra locks. If for some reason your are notified after the locks have been cut, you can still secure the case and make your flight.

Once your luggage is loaded, you will not see it or have to deal with it again until you arrive at your final destination.

At your destination.

When you arrive at your final destination, get to the baggage claim as quickly as possible. Locate the area your baggage will appear from and be at the head of the conveyor. Baggage claim can be a hectic place and it is out of the secured area of the airport. You don't want your bag and your firearm to walk out with someone else, even if by accident. To date I have not lost a firearm, but it does happen. If you realize your bag has not arrived, time is of the essence. Report it to the carrier immediately. If they cannot advise you of the location of your baggage then get TSA and local law enforcement involved. Make a police report. Turn over the serial number and photos you took before you left.


Flying with a firearm in your checked baggage is really not difficult. 99% of the time it goes smoothly without any incident.

I want to make a final comment on cases. I have heard endless discussion on disguising rifle cases. The reasons range from "blending in" when going to/from the airport to making the case a less tempting target for unscrupulous baggage handlers or thieves in the claim area. My rifle case is a Pelican 1750. It's scratched, dinged and beaten. It's covered with Marine Corps and firearms stickers. On the outside I have stenciled "Attn: TSA, FOR ACCESS CALL (XXX) XXX-XXXX" in spray paint. There is no mistaking that it contains a firearm. This is done on purpose. When my case makes it's way through the baggage system I want everyone to know there is a gun inside. Why? Because no plane has ever been hijacked with a golf putter, guitar or any other similar sized object. If you arrive at your destination and your guitar is missing, do you think anyone other than the carrier's insurance really cares? If you arrive and state to the Airport security supervisor that a tactical rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition is possibly loose in his you think he might take notice? Thieves are not stupid. They know guns are worth a lot of money. They also know that a missing gun in an airport will cause everyone to take notice, review camera footage and lock down some areas. I am not "inserting" into a tactical operation so I could care less if the general public seeing me go to/from the airport realizes I have a rifle in the case.

Real World Reflections

  1. While flying out of a major airport in Texas I placed my bag containing a cased 1911 on the baggage scale and advised the ticket agent that I had a firearm to declare. The ticket agent promptly grabbed my bag, slapped a sticker on it and threw it onto the conveyor. She then asked me where the firearm was. I indicated the sea bag that was now making it's was to TSA's "bat cave" on the conveyor. Since I am required to sign a tag that has to go IN the bag this caused a big of a problem. She had to go track down my bag and jam the card between the folds of the sea bag. ALWAYS LOCK YOUR BAG BEFORE THE TICKET COUNTER. You will most likely have to unlock it, but it's a small price to pay if you get an inattentive ticket agent.
  2. While flying out of my home airport my case was flagged. This was apparently due to the tactical vest, kevlar helmet and other items as well as some things the machine couldn't see through. The ticket agent advised me that TSA wanted my combination to open my bag. I told them that was not possible, and that if my bag was going to be inspected it had to be done in my presence. The ticket agent had to go find a TSA screener to come speak with me. This was apparently an issue because the inspection area is in a restricted area. They had to bring my sea bag back up to me so that I could unlock it. Due to our "circumstances" and the contents of my bag I didn't get a great argument from them. They weren't real sure who "we" were.
  3. While flying out of the same Texas airport in example #1 one of our bags tested positive for explosives residue. The team member in question was paged over the intercom and requested to report to the ticket counter. Again TSA requested the combination to his bag. Again we had to request they present the bag so we could be present for inspection. Since this happened several hundred miles from example #2 I can only assume that this is a failing in TSA's training.
  4. After a competition I was flying out of Portland (PDX) I arrived a little later than I like due to a delay turning in a rental car. The ticket counter was backed up and check in took longer than normal. Once I declared my firearm (a M700 and a 1911 in a Pelican 1750 case) the ticket agent directed me to hand carry my baggage to their screening area. My sea bag with my field gear made it through fine, but the rifle case didn't. At this point I am positive that a rifle case is incapable of making through the "sniffer" if it's ever had a rifle contained in it. My case was flagged, pulled to the side and taken to an inspection area where I could view it while it was opened. I gave the screener my combination and he opened the case. He then spent the next 30 minutes or so inspecting and swabbing every portion of my 1911 and bolt gun. I felt like I was in the midst of a Marine Corps weapons inspection. This irritated me for several reasons. First, he was handling FIRED WEAPONS. Metallic cased ammunition used in modern firearms are primed with a small amount of high explosive. The propellant used in metallic cased ammunition is a low explosive. If the sniffer has flagged a firearm for explosives and you see that it's an unloaded firearm what further purpose could be served in swabbing the weapon for explosives? If someone out there can correct me on this, please do. I am genuinely curious. Our screening friend went over every square inch of my case. He did a very thorough job of ensuring that a middle aged white male of scotch/irish/german decent didn't hide a block of PETN among the rifle and ammunition. He did SUCH a good job that after he was finished I had less than five minutes to make it through screening on the way to the terminal. I watched him relock my case and hand it to the teenager with dreds and gold teeth, so he could place it ALONE on his cart and disappear with it. I was quite certain that it was the last time I would see my rifle or pistol. I will give great thanks to the wonderful woman in charge of the VIP line for the terminal screening point. She saw me rush up, gave me a once over and asked me if I was military. I advised her of my former status and she hurried me though the VIP/First class line even though I had my coach/cheap ass tickets. This actually allowed me to power slide into my gate as final boarding was being called. The moral of the story is ARRIVE EARLY in case someone decides to white-glove your rifle.
  5. While flying out of my home airport I was advised that TSA required my combination to open my rifle case. I had gone through this numerous times before and asked that the case be opened in my presence. The ticket agent contacted the TSA Supervisor and had him explain what was required. I quoted the Federal Regs and requested that they bring the case up and open it in my presence as we have done before. For whatever reason the supervisor took the "I know the regs better than you" stance and decided to turn it into an ego match. The end result was the supervisor stated that if I didn't want to do it his way my weapon would not be allowed on the aircraft. Of course this would have had a serious adverse impact on my trip. I simply noted the supervisors name and information. Since they DO have the authority to break the locks on my case, I acquiesced and gave him my combination. At that point the Supervisor had taken personal control over my weapon so I was not as concerned as if I was giving un-supervised control to some 15 year old baggage handler. A short time later the Supervisor located me and advised me that he made sure my case was cleared and everything was OK. That may have had something to do with him checking the manifest and realizing that I was an officer and flying armed. The moral of the story is if you are speaking to the Supervisor and you are not getting anywhere, you may have to bend to their demands if you want to fly. Simply take down their information and contact THEIR supervisor with your complaint. DO NOT under any circumstances engage in a heated argument in an airport over weapons. This is a horrible idea and will most certainly result in you not flying and may end up with you in handcuffs.

TSA "Key Requirements"

These "Key Requirements" are copied "ver batim" from TSA's website.

  • You must declare all firearms to the airline during the ticket counter check-in process.
  • The firearm must be unloaded.
  • The firearm must be in a hard-sided container.
  • The container must be locked. A locked container is defined as one that completely secures the firearm from access by anyone other than you. Cases that can be pulled open with little effort do not meet this criterion. The pictures provided here illustrate the difference between a properly packaged and an improperly packaged firearm.
  • We recommend that you provide the key or combination to the security officer if he or she needs to open the container. You should remain present during screening to take the key back after the container is cleared. If you are not present and the security officer must open the container, we or the airline will make a reasonable attempt to contact you. If we can't contact you, the container will not be placed on the plane. Federal regulations prohibit unlocked gun cases (or cases with broken locks) on aircraft.
  • You must securely pack any ammunition in fiber (such as cardboard), wood or metal boxes or other packaging that is specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.
  • You can't use firearm magazines/clips for packing ammunition unless they completely and securely enclose the ammunition (e.g., by securely covering the exposed portions of the magazine or by securely placing the magazine in a pouch, holder, holster or lanyard).
  • You may carry the ammunition in the same hard-sided case as the firearm, as long as you pack it as described above.
  • You can't bring black powder or percussion caps used with black-powder type firearms in either your carry-on or checked baggage.

Excerpts from Title 49 CFR 175.10

(5) Small-arms ammunition for personal use carried by a crewmember or passenger in his baggage (excluding carry-on baggage) if securely packed in fiber, wood or metal boxes, or other packagings specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. This paragraph does not apply to persons traveling under the provisions of 14 CFR 108.11 (a) and (b).

Officers Flying Armed

If you are a Local, State or Federal Law Enforcement Officer it is very easy for you to be qualified to fly armed. I recently went through the training and it allows you to provide for the safety of the other passengers as well as yourself. Outlining those procedures are outside the scope of this article. However if you have a need (of wish) to fly armed, contact the Air Marshall's Service and inquire about the program.

General Tips for getting through the screening point.

Tips for smoothly passing through the terminal screening points can be found on just about any travelers website, but here are a few that have allowed me to breeze through.

  • Make sure your liquids are in the plastic bag. You will need to pull them out at most airports and having them loaded into the bag before you get to the airport will lessen your need to juggle.
  • Wear a non-metallic belt. I use a 5.11 belt with a plastic buckle. It's sturdy enough to act as a gunbelt, but will not set off the metal detectors.
  • Untie your shoes before the line. Just don't trip on your laces.
  • Use a laptop bag that allows you to quickly pull out the laptop. It will need to be out of the bag in most cases for x-ray.
  • Put your change or keys in your carry on bag.
  • Take your ID card out of your wallet and carry it in your pocket with your boarding pass. It's easier to hand it to the agent in one shot rather than digging it out. Keep it in your pocket until after you board the flight.
  • Don't forget to put your pocket knife in your checked baggage. I carry a knife all the time and have forgotten before. Luckily it was on the outbound leg and I could just hand it off to a family member.
  • If you carry a water bottle, make sure it's empty before the screening point. I detest paying for water, so I carry a Camelbak bottle in my carry on. This is fine as long as it's empty. You can fill it from a water fountain on the other side before you board. I haven't found an airport yet without a water fountain or sink in the sterile area.

Case Suggestions

I have always had good experiences with Pelican brand cases. I was issued one in the Marine Corps and watched them take a beating while holding anything from night vision to my M40A1. I never saw one fail, and I never saw the contents damaged. When I flew through Dallas (DFW) I watched a baggage monkey "hammer throw" my rifle case (Pelican 1750) across the pavement. When I arrived at the competition I was flying to, my zero was dead on. Now some of this has to do with the level of equipment I use, but the Pelican definitely did it's job. Pelican cases come with a lifetime warranty covering just about anything you can do to a case, EXCEPT shark bite, bear attack or damage caused by children under five.

Pelican has recently acquired another of the favorite case manufacturers, Hardigg, Ind. Hardigg produces the Storm Case line. They are excellent quality and are in use by the military as well as many in the private sector.

Starlight cases are another option for a Mil-Spec durable case. I have not owned one, but I know several who have. They have had nothing but good things to say about them.

Any of the three companies can supply you with a durable case that will pass TSA scrutiny as well as survive the worst the airlines can throw at them.


Copyright © 2011 8541 Tactical

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