Transporting Firearms and Ammunition, a Frequent Flyer’s Perspective

Pelican 1510 “Carry-On Case” open to show storage.

U.S.A.-(Ammoland.com)- Recently I was talking with a few fellow gun owners about air travel and the transporting of firearms. I was surprised at how some of them thought that flying with firearms was more of a hassle than it is in reality. These were not casual shooters, either. Industry professionals would be a better term.

For decades flying with guns has been part of my way of life when traveling from point A to point B, whether to attend a trade show, go on a hunting trip, take a class or simply visit family and friends and want the security of my carry guns.

Airport Security Gun Ammo Ban istock
Airport Security Gun Ammo Ban istock

Air travel with firearms can be as difficult or complex as you want to make it or it can be very simple.

The most important thing to ensure is that your firearms and ammunition are legal in both your point of origin and destination.

The Rules

According to the TSA (Transportation Security Administration):

“When traveling, comply with the laws concerning possession of firearms as they vary by local, state and international governments. If you are traveling internationally with a firearm in checked baggage, please check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for information and requirements prior to travel. 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. Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. 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.”

“Unloaded firearms may be transported in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only. 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. Ammunition is prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be transported in checked baggage. 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. 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).”

The Container

You have basically two routes you can go here as far as a container.

  • Use a dedicated hard-sided container for firearms
  • If flying with a pistol or two, place your locked pistol case inside another piece of checked luggage.

When I fly, I always go with the first option. You may think that this only makes sense when traveling with a long gun and using a $300 wheeled and lockable rifle case and that certainly is an option. However, I found a case that fits not only my needs for flying with a few handguns but other valuables I do not trust to the good graces of an airport’s baggage crew.

Pelican 1510

It is the Pelican 1510 “Carry-On Case”, but do not let the name fool you, Pelican calls it that as it meets the maximum dimensions for carry-on baggage with most commercial airlines: 22.00″ x 13.81″ x 9.00″ (55.9 x 35.1 x 22.9 cm). Although, to be honest, it is a lot smaller than what I see most air travelers fly with as carry-on items.

Pelican 1510 “Carry-On Case”

Seriously, when did one bag and one personal item become two steamer trunks made in the 1920s with wheels and collapsible handles?

The interior gives you 19.75″ x 11.00″ x 7.60″ (50.2 x 27.9 x 19.3 cm) of secure storage space and the case can be ordered in a variety of colors (black, orange, yellow, red, green and tan). Additionally, you can configure the interior to how you want it.

Most shooters opt for the foam configuration and pluck out the shape of their firearm(s). I find this wasteful and recommend either the Trek Pak Divider system or the padded dividers. This allows me to use a second internal pistol case with my firearms and gives me plenty of room for other items I like to keep under lock and key such as cameras, night vision, thermal imagers, rifle parts, suppressors, ammunition and custom knives.

That is the second benefit of flying with a firearm; since it is transported in a locked case you can place other valuables with it for their protection.

Pelican's 1510 case is small enough that it is easy to get around with due to its strong polyurethane wheels with stainless steel bearings and retractable extension handle, yet big enough that it cannot be secreted out of a secure area within an airport by a baggage thief. The padlock inserts are reinforced with stainless steel hardware and if you use quality padlocks, your guns and gear will usually arrive safe and sound.

If you think this is too much luggage to haul around with your other bags and are just transporting a handgun or two for concealed carry, you can place a small locked pistol case inside another piece of luggage. The pistol case must be locked, but the outer case cannot be. In my opinion this still leaves your pistol case open to theft as someone can reach in, remove the locked case and get it to a location where it can be pilfered or (if the case is small enough) stolen outright.

You can simply lock your unloaded handgun and ammo in a pistol case and put it inside your unlocked suitcase. The author recommends against this, however.

Firearms

“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.”

On one occasion while flying through Phoenix International Airport with firearms, a fellow passenger took note of us putting padlocks on my Pelican case and asked me how I was able to do that. He routinely transported high end electronics and did not trust the security of “TSA Approved Locks”.

I told him that I was transporting firearms and suggested he could do the same, by placing a firearm in his secured case with proper locks. He seemed hesitant but then relieved when I told him that TSA considers a pellet gun or starter pistol a fully-fledged firearm and a $20 non-gun would protect his case’s other more valuable contents.

Ammunition

When flying with handguns for CCW, I take along about 150 rounds in the original factory boxes. If I am attending a class that requires more (say 500 to 2000 rounds) I either buy it locally or have it shipped to the final destination.

Various ways to store ammo when flying: factory box, aftermarket plastic box or in a magazine.

As noted previous, ammunition may be stored in magazines, plastic reloading cases or the original cardboard containers.

If you are flying with a substantial amount, this is where the rules of the airlines come into play as many have specific weight allowances for ammunition. The limit seems to be 11 pounds on average.

Documentation

Oftentimes, ticket counter agents or even TSA Agents may not completely know the rules. I advise printing out copies of the regulations governing firearms from the TSA Website as well as the airline’s requirements for the same in advance of your trip to present it when difficulties in communication occur.

When you declare your firearm, you will be given a declaration form to place in the case containing the firearm after you complete it.  You may be asked to wait nearby for up to 30 minutes as the bag is checked in case TSA feels the need to inspect it. If TSA does not arrive, proceed to passenger screening and on to the gate.

Firearm Declaration Form

When you reach your destination and retrieve your baggage it may come out on the carousel. Some airports will take secured baggage to an office near the baggage claim or a roped off area in the vicinity. Claim your bags and be on your way, it is that easy.


About Mike Searson

Mike Searson

Mike Searson's career as a shooter began as a Marine Rifleman at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire adult life as a Gunsmith, Ballistician, Consultant, Salesman, Author and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1989.

Mike has written over 2000 articles for several magazines, websites and newsletters including Blade, RECOIL, OFF-GRID, Tactical Officer, SWAT, Tactical World, Gun Digest, Examiner.com and the US Concealed Carry Association as well as AmmoLand Shooting Sports News.

  • Home page: www.mikesearson.com
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  • 36 thoughts on “Transporting Firearms and Ammunition, a Frequent Flyer’s Perspective

    1. American (at least in Phoenix of all places) now tags the exterior of your luggage with a big red tag indicating it must be picked up in person at the far end. Of course as a very frequent flier I have _never_ seen a bag with a red tag that wasn’t a firearm. Can be interesting finding a gate agent at smaller airports so you pick up your bag. My experience with many AA folks (especially more experienced or remote locations) is that you might be able to talk them out of the exterior tag being installed.
      Another funny at Phoenix – saw a not-very-undercover – dressed like a ramp worker – follow four guys dragging two big pelicans on the train back to parking. They were obviously coming from a hunting trip based on the talk and dress, but junior g-man decided to follow them until they left the shuttle train. Pretty obvious what he was up to, and the guys said something to him with a grin as they exited the car.

    2. Have traveled four times with a declared handgun. Only minor problem was here in Tennessee of all places. Oddly an officer at the TSA security checkpoint wanted to do a THOROUGH search of my carry on bag. Mind you, my firearm and ammo were properly stored and declared in checked luggage so couldn’t understand the concern. The problem was that my carry on bag had a SIG emblem on it which I guess triggered his suspicions. Thank god I did a thorough prep of that bag and didn’t have any ammo in it. As long as you get a good check in clerk there should be no problem.

    3. If using a firearms case inside your main bag, the firearms declaration must not be locked inside the firearms case, but taped on the outside. When your bag is inspected and the declaration is locked inside, there is no available evidence you declared your firearm. If there isn’t communication between the airline check agent and the baggage inspector, you may get a call snd met by law enforcement ready to arrest you. If the checking agent insists on putting the declaration inside, ask for two declarations so that one can be placed on the outside.

      1. I firmly believe that there is detectable indications on the firearm dec cards that can be seen from the TSA scanning machines. Every ticket agent is different on where to put the card.

    4. It both must be legal at both the departure and arrival air.ports. If the airline delays you at an airport in an antigun state suck as NY or NJ they will arrest you when you try to fly out the next day. Do not except your luggage in a location where it is not legal.

    5. Rule #1 for hassle-free gun transport while flying:

      STAY OUT OF NEW YORK CITY. The TSA rules, Federal law and the Constitut ion of the United States do not apply there.

      1. A friend of mine was arrested for following TSA procedures in NY City. His lesson, beat the arrest, lost his gun, will never travel to the state of NY again. NY does this on purpose.

    6. I fly multiple times a year with my firearms.
      Always follow the rules. Never had an Issue.
      Upon checkin , I declare that I am traveling with a firearm.
      The airline representative then directs me to TSA.
      At that point, TSA will ask me to open the locked case to inspect the contents.
      For TSA this is an everyday occurrence , it’s just luggage to them.
      Once the visual inspection is completed. The TSA agent fills out a card with my personal information and tapes it to my lock box.
      For a little extra security , I use a handgun lock box with both a digital and key lock. It also comes with a small steel cable that I secure to the inside of the luggage frame.
      Larger firearms are usually held at my destination”s luggage pickup, where an airline representative is waiting to hand it over after checking my luggage tag.
      Remember, to Always keep possession of your key.
      Happy Flying.

    7. 2 corrections required. 1st, You may lock all luggage, not just that which has a firearm. 2nd, ammunition may not be transported in magazines. An exception to this is if the magazine has a suitable cover that enclosed the feeding end of the magazine and the loaded ammunition.

      1. That might be one airline’s extra rule, but the actual US code seems okay with loaded magazines. As per the reference from the TSA’s own webpage:

        49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8)
        (8) Small arms ammunition for personal use carried by a crewmember or passenger in checked baggage only, if securely packed in boxes or other packagings specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Ammunition clips and magazines must also be securely boxed. This paragraph does not apply to persons traveling under the provisions of 49 CFR 1544.219.

        Magazines certainly are “other packagings specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition.”

        1. When I read the paragraph below your “magazines must be securely boxed.” And what is “carry small amounts of ammunition”? One persons small amount is another persons…..

          49 CFR 175.10 (a)(8)
          (8) Small arms ammunition for personal use carried by a crewmember or passenger in checked baggage only, if securely packed in boxes or other packagings specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Ammunition clips and magazines must also be securely boxed. This paragraph does not apply to persons traveling under the provisions of 49 CFR 1544.219.

      2. TSA can cut off your lock if they choose, so what’s the advantage in locking your bag?

        Also, the regs refer to loaded magazines. That suggests that they’re accepted. Still, I got hassled once even though I had a copy of the regs with me. Now I transport them in a box.

      3. Correct on #1. I fly with guns all the time in my checked bags and always lock the luggage. That is why they make you stay nearby, so you can unlock it if needed.
        Wrong on #2. Mags can be loaded. I’m usually just taking a gun or two for CCW. And I load all of my mags every time. The TSA website even says your magazines can be loaded. They just cannot be inside the gun if they’re loaded.

      4. He didn’t say that you can’t lock all luggage. If you lock luggage that does not contain a firearm or locked firearm case, then it has to be a TSA compliant lock that TSA can open at will. The firearm case has to be locked with a lock that only you can open, and it can only be unlocked and opened by TSA in your presence.

        I believe that loaded magazines can be carried in the locked firearms case with the firearm. If carried loose in regular checked luggage, your statement most likely applies.

        1. While in Iraq and Afghanistan as a contractor, I remember seeing most everyone carrying a firearm in the Post Office including the soldiers working there. That is understandable. I couldn’t since I was a contractor. What I thought was ridiculous was the fact that they were still required to post the same signs you will see here, stating that having a firearm in a Post Office is against U.S. federal law.

      5. If you are putting the pistol case (locked with a non TSA lock) in a larger checked bag, that bag certainly should have a lock, but it should be a TSA lock.
        And Loaded magazines certainly can be carried and they do not need to have the feeding lips enclosed with covers. They can’t be in the firearm and ammo can’t be loose but there is no regulation about covers. Many pistol cases have slots or pockets in the foam for mags built in.

        1. I’m pretty sure it is legal to mail it to yourself. As long as there is no “transfer” taking place. Same thing as if you were mailing to someone for repairs or other smithing.
          At least that is what USPS has told me on the phone and in person. Also what my local FFL has told me.

          1. “I’m pretty sure it is legal to mail it to yourself. As long as no “transfer” taking place. Same thing as if you were mailing to someone for repairs or other smithing. At least that is what USPS has told me on the phone and in person. Also what my local FFL has told me.”

            It’s always good to ask someone who SHOULD know what they are talking about. I, however, have long had a policy of asking that person “where that is supported in the law”… at least in instances with legal implications. Had you stated “ship it to yourself” instead of “mail it to yourself”, that would be a different issue. The problem with the old “somebody (USPS employee, FFL, friend, someone who wrote a comment on a webpage , guy I met at a bar, whoever) told me it was legal” is that it holds no weight if you are arrested. Too many times that person got the information second hand, there was a misunderstanding on what they read or heard, they conflated similar items (concealable and non concealable firearms) or whatever. Don’t take my word for what is or is not legal with the USPS concerning firearms, read it for yourself.
            https://pe.usps.com/text/pub52/pub52c4_009.

            As far as ammunition is concerned.
            https://www.usps.com/ship/shipping-restrictions.htm

    8. I fly only when absolutely necessary. 99% of my life is spent within a 500 mile radius of my home, anyhow, so no planes thanks…I’d rather drive and require anyone to present a warrant to rustle around inside my vehicle.

      I’ve never once gone through those wave-millimeter body scanners, and always yell “male opt out!”, knowing full well that all the agents within earshot will make me wait up to half an hour just to prove the point that I’m somehow inconveniencing them by not going through their radiation booth and giving them the chance to ogle at my naked body. If I want to go streaking (and I have), I’ll do it on my own terms.

      The biggest joke was coming back from a vacation in Maui. Their little one-strip airport funnels everyone through a single body scanner. When I called for the patdown instead, I was wearing only shorts and a tank top (and bare feet because sandals might be an IED, so they say). So most of my body is uncovered, and the dude still gives me a thorough inspection, as if I’m going to have something really dangerous somewhere in my shorts. I mean, I already had to go through the metal detector…

      He finished, then told me to wait while he placed the gloves into a box. I asked him why, and he said “to check for bomb component residue”. I looked at him with one of those “are you kidding me?” as I commented that it would be a real feat for anyone to somehow make an IED with the limited resources on the island of Maui.

      Kabuki theater, nothing more.

      1. Oops. Looks like my accidental use of the fully-typed word “b*mb” when describing TSA procedures brought down Ammoland’s moderation squad on my tail. Even Ammoland has to play their part in monitoring free speech, I guess.

      2. 90% of the time, my air travel is to one of the many states I have lived or worked in throughout my life and I am licensed to carry in many others. I send the weapon I choose to carry in those entities I ned to fly to ahead of time by UPS to friends and or relatives. I then send it back to myself. I would just rather not hassle with the airlines and the Government .

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