Sports A Field

The Only Way to Fly: Airplane travel with firearms and ammunition

– by
An overview of the TSA rules for flying with your hunting firearms, ammunition, and other hunting equipment

They took my Swiss Army knife. They took my mini screwdriver repair kit. They even took my tweezers once. But they haven’t taken my guns yet, and if I pay attention and follow the rules, they hopefully never will.

The Transportation Security Administration is the federal government agency created to ensure traveler safety and prevent terrorism within the public transportation system. TSA agents are best known and most visible as the screeners at airports, scanning your carry-on luggage, asking you to remove your shoes and belt, confiscating your Leatherman tool, and passing their magic wands over your spread-eagled body. Less visibly, they X-ray and hand-search your checked baggage at the airport, probing not only the contents but also the container itself for hidden pockets, false walls, and dangerous goods. This is a good thing. Most of us are willing to trade a little hassle and invasion of privacy for increased safety. Those of us who fly with firearms face a bit more hassle than the average Minnesota grandma, yet TSA regulations for hunters remain surprisingly reasonable.

According to the latest rules, legal firearms, ammunition, and firearms parts may be transported on all North American commercial airlines as checked baggage. No firearms parts may be taken aboard any flight in carry-on luggage. This includes magazines, empty brass, and bullets, but it may also include, at the discretion of individual TSA agents, scopes, a loose rear tang sight, a single trigger shoe, even the mushroomed bullet you found while skinning your elk. To be safe and avoid losing your small gun parts, pack it all carefully in your checked luggage.

The following is a summary of key regulatory requirements from the TSA Web site ( for transporting firearms, parts and ammunition. My comments are in parentheses.

All firearms must be declared to the carrier during the ticket counter check-in process. The firearm must be unloaded. (I like to remove the bolt or barrel, too. It reassures ticket agents, earns a modicum of their respect, and expedites the entire process.)

The firearm must be carried in a hard-sided container. (Plastic, metal, or wood. No specifics are given, but most commercially sold, lockable gun cases qualify. Of course, you’ll want a sturdy one that resists crushing, bending, twisting, and easily sprung hinges.)

The container must be locked. (It doesn’t have to be locked prior to check-in, but it’s a good idea just in case it falls into the wrong hands before you check in. You will have to unlock it for the ticketing agent, sign and date a firearms declaration card, and place said card inside the case. The ticket agent may or may not ask to see the firearm–probably not, now that TSA agents visually check them all, but that is up to each airline.)

The passenger must provide the key or combination to the screener if it is necessary to open the container, and then remain present during screening to take back possession of the key after the container is cleared. (The TSA screeners may be near the ticketing counters or downstairs in the baggage area. Your ticketing agent should direct you to them.)

Any ammunition transported must be securely packed in fiber (such as cardboard), wood, or metal boxes or other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. (This requirement used to state “original factory packaging,” and some screeners or ticketing agents might still insist on this, but they should accept plastic ammo boxes. The main idea is to prevent free rounds from clattering together, potentially setting off a primer, remote though that possibility may be. So stick with factory packaging or any of the plastic boxes with individual sleeves or cavities for each cartridge. Shotgun shells may be stored together in classic factory boxes. I find it best to tape all boxes closed–even fresh, unopened factory shotshell boxes which easily pop open and spill their contents. Clear packing tape works well to seal all flaps and seams.)

Firearm magazines/clips and ammo pouches such as those you wear on your belt do not s