One of the most commonly asked questions about my job is how I manage to fly to different hunts with a firearm in different states or countries. There’s a perception, even among hunters and shooters, that flying with a firearm is expensive, a hassle or both. In truth, travelling with a firearm is generally a fairly hassle-free process—as long as you abide by the regulations and understand the basics.
I’ve travelled to several states and different continents with firearms and have yet to run into a major problem. Even the minor ones could likely have been avoided if I had taken a few preemptory steps.
First, TSA regulations state that all firearms should be unloaded and locked in a hard-sided case as checked baggage. You must take the unloaded firearm in the case directly to the ticket counter and explain that you are carrying a firearm. You will have to sign and date a declaration verifying that the firearm is unloaded.
Ammo must also be checked, and I have never had any issues carrying ammunition in the original manufacturer’s box (although some prefer reload boxes). Ammo can be stored in the same hard-sided container as the firearm, but mags should remain unloaded. Most airlines limit your ammunition to 5 kilograms, which equates to 11 pounds; that’s plenty for even a lengthy safari. However, if you’re going to a shooting school at which you’ll burn a lot of ammo, you probably won’t be able to fl y with as much as you’d like. Likewise, if you’re a muzzleloader, you won’t be able to fly with powder and powder pellets.
But for most hunters and shooters, flying with a firearm isn’t an issue. I hear horror stories, but I generally fly out of Cincinnati, where the airport staff is courteous and familiar with the procedures for firearms handling. Of course, you can get yourself into trouble. Take the time to empty magazines, and get the loose ammo out of coat pockets before you fl y. I know it’s easy to accidentally forget a single .223 round that you dumped in your pocket on a coyote hunt, but it’s worth taking the time to check your stuff before you head to the airport.
Forgetting to throw away a bottle of water in your carry-on is a minor hassle; forgetting you have a loaded mag in your pocket as you head through security is a very different story.
CASES AND LOCKS
The TSA’s website (www.TSA.gov) has a great deal of information regarding travel regulations with firearms, and the rules are pretty easy to understand. However, there are some things that aren’t listed that will simplify your air travel. For starters, you need a good case. There are a lot of options out there, and they vary in quality. Baggage services vary in the care they show bags, and sometimes, they’re really hard on your gear. Cheap cases, although they cost less, often don’t last. Saving a hundred bucks by buying a cheap case ends up costing you more.
As an example, I went through three rifle cases before I finally decided it was time to buy something that would last longer than a flight or two.
The stress points seem to be handles (baggage services usually won’t pay for damaged handles) and exposed locking points. It’s been my experience that heavy-duty, molded plastic seems to work quite well. I currently use a Pelican 1750 long case, which has very heavy-duty locks and excellent hardware on the handle.
Even after multiple flights, it has held up well, although it bears a few scuffs from excessively rough handling. Aside from your investment in the case, you also have a valuable firearm (and perhaps other items, too) in there that shouldn’t get into the wrong hands. A secure, heavy case is a worthwhile investment to keep your guns safe.
Locks are another important consideration. The TSA website is clear about this: Only you, the passenger, should have the key (or combination) to the lock. This means no TSA locks. It also means you must be present if the gun case is to be opened by an agent.
It’s important to note that most airlines require you to have a lock at every lock point on your case. In other words, if there are four locking points, you can’t fl y with three locks. How you organize the internal portion of your case is largely a matter of personal preference. Some cases have foam that can be removed in chunks to fit a particular firearm, but because I often fly with different guns, I stick with a traditional, flat foam insert.
My case came with three full-length, heavy-duty foam inserts. I removed two of them.
Why? Because I place my rifle in a soft gun case with plenty of padding and then place it in the hard case. This adds another level of protection, and I am always in need of a soft case to protect the gun when I’m in camp. In addition, for some remote hunts, you’ll have to charter a flight into the hunting area and leave your hard case behind. Other essential items, such as knives and binos, travel in my gun case, as well, and I place my shooting sticks in there, because it’s far easier than trying to make them fit elsewhere.
Rules change when travelling abroad, and the exact details depend upon the country in which you are planning to hunt. This is sometimes a fairly simple process. Sometimes, it isn’t. To bring a firearm into Canada, for instance, you have two options. The first and most common method is to fill out a Non-Resident Firearms Declaration (form RCMP 5589). This can be done prior to arriving in Canada, but you must sign the form in the presence of a customs officer.
If you are bringing more than three guns, you’ll need to fill out a continuation sheet (RCMP 5590). The paperwork acts as your permit to carry a firearm in Canada for 60 days, and it can be renewed by contacting a CBSA customs officer before the expiration date. You can also apply for a five-year Possession and Acquisition License, which requires a written and practical test be completed, and certification from other countries does not apply.
There is also a form that can be filled out if borrowing a firearm from a licensed gun owner in Canada. Hunters under 18 can bring a firearm into the country, but it must remain under the supervision and control of an adult. It should also be noted that provincial rules apply, and you cannot bring a firearm that is restricted. The best advice is to contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or your outfitter for additional details. Travel to places such as South Africa requires a bit more information. You’ll need your passport, your return ticket or itinerary (making copies is a good idea), and a letter of invitation from your host outfitter with their outfitter number. In addition, you’ll need proof of ownership of the firearm, which is a customs 4457 form for U.S. citizens; and you must fill out an SAP 520 form in black ink and should not sign it until you reach the customs office in South Africa.
“In truth, travelling with a firearm is generally a fairly hassle-free process — as long as you abide by the regulations and understand the basics.”
International hunts can be expensive, and most people don’t want to deal with additional costs.
I understand that. However, one valuable investment is booking your airline travel with companies that specialize in international hunting. In many cases, they will help you avoid pitfalls, get you great deals on airline flights, book hotel rooms for overnight stays before and after the hunt and arrange in-country travel, as well.
Another benefit is that they can help you sort out problems with airlines, and having someone on the ground in the United States to help is a great benefit and offers peace of mind. These services can help things move very smoothly and help you focus on the most important aspect of the hunt: making memories that will last a lifetime.
HUNTING TRAVEL AGENTS
When traveling to foreign countries, you should be in contact with your outfitter and perhaps a travel agent who is familiar with hunting in that country (see the sidebar above). This can make the process much simpler and helps prevent hassles.
Additionally, I like to keep my checked bags secured. This can mean locks or shrink-wrapping when leaving the United States, but make certain you follow all airline rules and regulations. Bag-pilfering is an unwelcome problem in some areas, particularly outside the United States, and steps should be taken to avoid losing your gear. One poor soul I met on an African hunt several years ago had his boots stolen from his bag. He had to hunt in his loafers for 14 days.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.