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How to safely and efficiently fly with your rifle or bow

Flying with firearm or bow

All photo credits: Brady Miller

It’s that time of year. Hunts are happening across the West and that means traveling with our weapons. A lot of people prefer to drive to their out-of-state hunting trip, but that isn’t always possible, so, for those situations, you need to transport your firearm or bow on an airplane.

Traveling with a weapon isn’t very complicated, but there are certain precautions you need to take and resources you should check out well before you fly out to your next hunt.

Every year, I fly to at least one of my hunting destinations. Most years it’s my annual trip to Montana and flying with a firearm is a breeze in my opinion. Below are some direct blocks of information from TSA on transporting a firearm and also some general tips I’ve learned over the years when flying across the US.

Keep in mind that it’s always best to check with your airline before you fly to see if they have changed any of the firearm regulations or security requirements. Also, if you’re flying internationally, you need to check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for information and requirements prior to travel.

A full set of rules from TSA on flying with firearms can be found here.

Note: With muzzleloaders growing in popularity, you need to know that you cannot fly with loose blackpowder or loose primers caps on any airline. You can fly with a muzzleloader, but you cannot fly with the powder and primers. You must ship those to your destination ahead of time. See the TSA ruling on blackpowder here.

Special case needed to fly with a firearm

To transport a firearm in an airplane, you must have the weapon unloaded and in a locked hard-sided container. I prefer hard gun cases like the ones made from SKB or various metal cases and I always fly with a double firearm case. I will spend a little extra money on a quality gun case knowing it will protect my gun on all the airlines to my final destination. The current case I’ve been using for almost 10 years and it’s still going strong. Be aware that the small lightweight plastic case you might have gotten when you purchased your rifle is not going to cut it! I also like cases that have some airtight qualities because, once I land, the case will most likely ride around in the back of the truck for a while.

Different types of firearm cases

Even if the lower rifle case was more reinforced, I prefer to not use a case like this when flying.

When flying, I also prefer cases that don’t look like rifle cases. A single rifle case looks too much like a weapon. You never know if someone loading your gun case into the place will toss it harder if they know it’s a weapon based upon its shape. On the flip side, it’s a lot easier to toss a hard-sided single rifle case that doesn’t weigh anything compared to my double rifle case filled with extra gear that I make sure weighs exactly 50 pounds.

Locks for flying with firearm

Another thing you need to do when flying with a weapon is to supply your own locks. Any spot on the case that can fit a lock should have a lock.

Various locks for firearm case

Various locks I've used while flying. Note: if you use a combination lock, I will mark each lock and then keep a paper copy of the combination in my bag, and take a photo of the combination and place in an album on my phone.

I personally don’t use TSA-approved locks as then any TSA agent could access my gun. According to TSA, you may use any brand or type of lock to secure your firearm case, including TSA-recognized locks. I used to use key locks, but I’ve started to prefer the twist combination locks.

Steps to take when arriving at an airport

When I get to the airport and find my airline area, I will search out an agent or find the “Special Items” line, which is normally near the main ticketing area. This is where I will declare to an agent that I am transporting a firearm. That part is important; you need to declare to an airline representative that you are checking a firearm.

Signed airplane firearm declaration form

Once you are with the airline representative, you will weigh your luggage like normal and then you will need to sign some paperwork (typically a firearms declaration form that says your firearm is unloaded). When you get the receipts back, make sure you keep them on you at all times.

Next, the majority of the time, an airline representative will then walk you over to a special room where a different agent will open up your rifle case to make sure it’s unloaded and also, sometimes, they will take a few swab samples. Note: once you take your weapon back to the special room and set it down, do not touch the rifle case. Most of the special agents will tell you this, but it’s for their safety and yours.

If everything is okay, you will then be able to lock up your case and then you will be asked to take your rifle case back to the Special Item area to drop it off (this can vary based on the airline you use). This is when I’ll also place a few luggage straps around my rifle case as some extra insurance.

What makes things even easier during that process is to remove the bolt from your rifle and place a lock through the action. That way a TSA agent will easily see your rifle is fully unloaded and 100% safe.

I will stress this again: you must have your own lock. Do not assume that just because your hard case has TSA-approved locks that they will work. You physically need to be the one to open and close the locks.

Once, when flying back from a mule deer hunt in Montana, I lost my locks. I got to the airport and, after talking to the very nice agents, they told me they keep a few locks on hand in case things like this happens. The TSA-approved locks were not enough. The agent mentioned that I would have to pay for the locks, which I totally said I’d gladly pay. When she returned, I was given the locks and their code. The TSA agent then told me the locks were free. It pays to be extra nice when transporting a firearm! Never allow your weapon case to leave with everything locked up.

Once you land at your final destination, you will need to pick up your firearms at the “Baggage Service Office.” Your firearm will not arrive with your other luggage 90% of the time. However, there have been times when I’ve flown and my firearm case somehow makes it down the chute with everyone else’s luggage. It should go without saying since you’re at an airport, but you will once again need to present an ID to pick up your weapon.

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From TSA:

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.

Ammunition and firearm parts, including firearm frames, receivers, clips and magazines are also prohibited in carry-on baggage and must be checked. Firearm magazines and ammunition clips—whether loaded or empty—must be securely boxed in a hard-sided case containing the unloaded firearm. Small arms ammunition that does not exceed .75 caliber for a rifle or pistol and shotgun shells of any gauge may be transported in the same case as the firearm.

How to save money when flying with a firearm

Packing firearm case for flying

Packing firearm case with extra gear to maximize weight.

Let’s face it: flying with hunting gear can be expensive! You have to pay for your checked firearm and, then, most likely one or two other checked bags and coolers as well. Those fees quickly add up!

To avoid giving the airports more of my money, one trick I’ve used throughout the years is to utilize a large hard-sided double firearm case (the type that is built for multiple firearms). A double rifle case also works when flying with a bow. I prefer to use a double firearm case because since a firearm has to be checked, it’s already going to cost you money to check that firearm as a “bag” on most airlines. So, you might as well utilize all of the space and weight that you can. This is why I never use a single rifle case because it only can hold a rifle and none of your gear. Remember the example above when I described airlines could beat up on cases that look like a rifle? This is, again, why a double rifle case is a huge deal!

Packing hard sided gun case with gear

So, for example, if your airline allows a checked bag to weigh 50 pounds, I will place a bunch of my gear next to my rifle in that double rifle case. I’ll also place my spotting scope, rangefinder and binoculars in this case. The hard-sided rifle case adds so much protection! Next, I will take several layers of clothes and place them on my rifle for added protection.

Note: If you do have room in your carry-on bag, I highly suggest placing your binoculars or spotting scope in your carry-on bag. This way you can be sure those expensive items are with you at all times. This usually doesn’t work for me since my carry on bag is packed with all of my camera gear.

Tip for flying with a bow

Zip tie on bow string and cables

In my mind, flying with a bow is a breeze. The same firearm special checks also apply to bows, but they are normally not as strict with the checks. One trick for flying with a bow is to place a zip tie around the string and cables. That way, no one can somehow dry fire your bow. Dry firing could happen if they somehow don’t allow you to be in the room when they take it back to inspect it. Better to be safe than sorry. Also, I’ll use a bow sling to protect the cams and strings. I always use a sight cover when in the mountains, but if you don’t have one, get a little small protective sleeve to put over your bow sight to protect your pins. In a pinch, a Crown Royal bag could work great.

Tip when flying with a rifle

Lock through rifle action

To make things even smoother when going through a security checkpoint with a firearm, I'll remove the bolt from the rifle, and place a lock where the bolt was. This makes it even easier for a TSA agent to see that my firearm is unloaded.

Pack a cleaning rod with you. You never know what might happen (something in the barrel, case stuck, etc.) and not having a cleaning rod in a truck will mean you don’t have to hike out of the mountains and drive two-plus hours to a town to get one. You never know what could happen— and packing one doesn’t take up a lot of space.

Even though you can have your ammo in the same case as the rifle, I prefer placing the ammo in a hard plastic case that then goes in my duffel bag that is also checked. According to TSA, you must place your ammo “in a fiber (such as cardboard), wood, plastic or metal box specifically designed to carry ammunition and declared to your airline.” If your ammo is in a ziplock bag or some other soft-sided holder, it might get confiscated. Do yourself a favor and get some of the plastic ammo holders before you fly.

However, you also must have all “gun parts” in the main hard-sided case. You cannot take your magazine off your rifle and place it in a different checked bag.

In conclusion

Airport flight departure list

Keep in mind that you should always check TSA regulations and the specific airline you are flying before you get to the airport as rules do change on how to transport a firearm from time to time.

Flying with a rifle or a bow should not be a stressful endeavor. Just remember to double and triple check the regulations and arrive at the airport with plenty of time before your flight. I cannot stress this enough! Then, above all else, smile, be extra kind and thank each airport agent for helping you out.

After all of the above-required steps, you’ll be on your way to your next hunt of a lifetime stress free!

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