Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly legal to fly with your firearm. Obviously, firearms and planes are a dangerous combination, so there are laws that heavily regulate this practice. That said, it’s not particularly onerous to do so.
What I’m going to do in this article is tell you how I fly with my firearms. This is not, in any way to be construed as legal advice. At the bottom of this column, I will provide the TSA regulations. Always check with your carrier before attempting to check a bag with a firearm.
First things first, before I pack my pistol(s) away for flight, I always field strip, wipe and apply fresh oil to them. There’s no particular reasoning for this, I just always want to make sure I’m starting with a clean slate. After doing so, I leave my pistol field stripped for packing.
I unload any magazines I plan on taking with me. Before traveling to a different state, I ensure that the ammunition I plan on taking is legal to carry in the state I am visiting. When in doubt, I pack ball ammo.
It should be noted that I always prepare and pack my pistol one day before leaving. This gives me time to ensure there is no left over explosives residue on my hands in case I am randomly swabbed at the gate.
The cases I use to travel with my pistol are the Pelican 1120’s. I have a black version for my pistol and an FDE version for my ammo. The foam inside can be cut to the size of it’s contents. Please note, the 1120 may be too small for some full frame pistols. Generally, I am traveling with a Glock 19, which fits snugly in the case.
I place the field stripped pistol into the Pelican case in this order from top to bottom, slide, frame, barrel, recoil spring.
Why do I field strip the pistol? The TSA has asked my to leave the slide locked back or to place a barrel flag in my pistol. To simplify the process, I opt to field strip. It’s not required, but its made my traveling much smoother.
In the FDE Pelican case, I place a full box (50 rounds) of ammunition on the left hand side. The ammo is always in it’s original cardboard container. To the right of the ammunition, I place the two or three magazines that I am taking with me. NOTE: TSA restricts the weight of ammo to less than 11 lbs.
For lock selection, I go with a small keyed Master Lock. I used two locks per Pelican case and the two sets of locks are not keyed alike. One key opens both pistol case locks and a different key opens both ammunition case locks.
I DO NOT use TSA keyed locks for my pistol(s) or ammo.
Once I have all my my equipment packed into the pelican cases, I choose which bag I will be checking at the airport. I pack the suitcase with my clothing, necessities, etc., leaving room at the top of the case nearest the handle. After I am finished packing, I place the two pelican cases in the top of the suitcase, with the pistol case placed at the easiest access point. I place a TSA lock on the suitcase. The keys to the Master Locks are kept on my key ring with my car and house keys. I also bring a spare set of Master Lock keys with my in my carry on.
5. The Airport
Before heading off to the airport, I act like a surgeon going into the operating room, in that I scrub my hands to ensure all of the residual gun power is removed.
Once, I arrive at the airport, I park as close to the departure area as possible and go to the self service machines to check in. Once I’ve printed my boarding pass and bag tags, I walk to the baggage desk. If you are flying an airline with a “special services” desk, you’ll want to go there. When you approach the desk, you’ll want to say, “I’d like to declare a firearm.” I use this language specifically because I don’t want to find out what happens at an airport when someone says, “I have a gun.”
The airline representative is going to have you sign a document swearing that your firearm is unloaded and safe. He/she may ask you to place it INSIDE the pelican case. If they ask, I do. If they don’t specify, I place in in my suitcase, on top of the pelican case.
Most airlines will ask you to wait for a representative to bring you to TSA. Some will send your bag through and ask you to wait 15 minutes and pay attention to the public address system in case they need you.
If they do walk you and your bag over to a TSA back area, they may ask you for the keys to your pelican cases. I ALWAYS give them my keys if they ask. Some gun guys will tell you that the law prohibits you from turning over the keys. Stop. Do what they ask and move on.
You may or may not be asked a few questions by a TSA agent while your bag is being scanned. Simply answer their questions; they probably just want to know the weapon is secure. If you described how you packed it, per this article, they’ll be happy as a clam.
This process typically adds 15-20 minutes onto your time at the airport, so consider that when planning your day. All in all, it’s very simple and every airline employee I’ve every dealt with knows the drill. What I mean is, no one is going to be surprised that you’re declaring a firearm.
Last but not least, before you take your pistol anywhere, you will need to confirm the firearm laws in your final destination allow for you to possess a weapon in that state/country.
I’ve listed the TSA regulations below. You’ll note that they way I pack my firearms is more stringent than the actual regulations. I happen to travel frequently with firearms, this article is what works for me.
Transporting Firearms and Ammunition
You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted. Be aware that the container the firearm was in when purchased may not adequately secure the firearm when it is transported in checked baggage.
Contact the TSA Contact Center with questions you have regarding TSA firearm regulations and for clarification on what you may or may not transport in your carry-on or checked baggage.
- When traveling, comply with the laws concerning posession of firearms as they vary by local, state and international governments.
- Declare each firearm each time you present it for transport as checked baggage. Ask your airline about limitations or fees that may apply.
- Firearms must be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container and transported as checked baggage only. Only the passenger should retain the key or combination to the lock.
- Firearm parts, including magazines, clips, bolts and firing pins, are prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
- Replica firearms, including firearm replicas that are toys, may be transported in checked baggage only.
- Rifle scopes are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage.
United States Code, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 44, firearm definitions includes: any weapon (including a starter gun) which will, or is designed to, or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; the frame or receiver of any such weapon; any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; and any destructive device. As defined by 49 CFR 1540.5 a loaded firearm has a live round of ammunition, or any component thereof, in the chamber or cylinder or in a magazine inserted in the firearm.
- Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage.
- Firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm. Read the requirements governing the transport of ammunition in checked baggage as defined by 49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8).
- Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 caliber and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm.